D. Michael Collins holds the ‘F— You Card’ (for now)Written by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
After a particularly grueling afternoon of cleaning horse stables, young Mick Collins was greeted by his father, Michael. The older man, an Irish immigrant who braved the Atlantic Ocean to bring his family to America, praised the boy’s work and handed him a pop. Father and son sat down, the elder Irishman nursing a beer. Following a brief silence, the man turned to his son and offered him some blunt advice.
“Life is like a card game,” Michael told his son. “And you have one consistent card to play your whole life — the F— You Card. Your successes in life are defined by when you don’t play that card.”
Fifty years later, Toledo City Councilman and mayoral candidate D. Michael Collins laughed after telling the story.
Those who oppose Collins might point to a number of confrontational moments on City Council when he played that F— You Card like a zealous adolescent slamming the winning Uno card on the table, but for now, it waits behind many other cards he would rather display.
At 69, Collins (named Dennis Michael after family twins who died during the voyage from Ireland to America), is challenging Mayor Mike Bell in what will likely be his last shot at the mayor’s office. Collins finished fourth in 2009 but bested Democrats Anita Lopez and Joe McNamara in the September primary.
Invited to take a two-mile, one-hour walk through Downtown Toledo on Oct. 15, Collins wore black-and-white Nike sneakers, khaki Dockers and a well-worn blue sweater over a white collared shirt. Walking east along Adams Street to International Park, south along the river, west on Jefferson Avenue and north on Huron Street back to One Government Center, Collins was relaxed as he deftly navigated the uneven sidewalks along the journey. On every block, someone called out to him to wish him good luck — a police officer patrolling the riverfront; a cab driver leaning across the seat to yell out the passenger window; TARTA employees walking to a bus stop. Collins smiled at the greetings.
“Working people know I am not lofty,” Collins said. “They know I am one of them.”
From his time in the U.S. Marine Corps to his nearly 30 years as a Toledo policeman and subsequent career as a politician, Collins has devoted his life to public service.
He said he is holding up well under the pressures of the campaign, but admits to feeling like “the sole and singular tennis ball at Wimbledon. And I am not letting my constituency work slide. It’s normally a 16, 17 hour day.”
Collins said this run shares an element with his 2009 campaign for mayor.
“2009 was a great learning experience,” he said. “One of the things I learned is the same thing that is going on now. In debates or forums, some candidates want to go by scripts or spin. I have a problem with that; I won’t spin. I just say it the way it is.”
Collins said he has not worked with any political strategist to polish his message or delivery.
“No. 1, we don’t have the money for that, and No. 2, I would not be comfortable doing that,” he said. “I’m not looking to use the campaign as a finishing school.”
Collins said his public service, which in addition to military and political efforts now extends to teaching at the University of Toledo and Lourdes University, germinated from lessons learned in his Toledo youth.
“My first home was 711 Fernwood Ave. I was the only white kid at Roosevelt,” he said. “I learned at an early age that a ‘cracker’ wasn’t made by saltine. We moved to the South Side, where I attended St. James and eventually Libbey. I wanted to be a veterinarian. But my father was killed in an accident training horses my senior year.
“It was instilled by my family that I was going to get an education, so I joined the Marines, then after being discharged went to school to learn to be a vet. But then I was reactivated in the Marines, and had to drop out of school. When that was over, I took the test to be a police officer. As soon as I got involved, I knew I found my calling. I learned from some great mentors and I absolutely had a blast. I made some good arrests and helped a lot of people.
“The ability to know people, help people and work with people, to gain the respect of people, that’s what it was about. We’ve lost some of that law enforcement mission when we took on things like community policing and data-driven controls; nothing replaces human interaction.”
River of dreams
Near International Park, between the battered docks and long-useless Steam Plant, I asked Collins to stop and survey the surroundings.
“What incentive is there for a casual boater to dock here and come ashore?” I asked. “Why can’t Toledo capitalize on its amazing riverfront?”
“We haven’t marketed it,” he said, “and the river itself is overly policed. The Coast Guard, the sheriff’s office, the Department of Natural Resources, they consistently stop boats here, all because they want the numbers; it’s a game to see who has the most inspections. That is the greatest impediment but the city has no control over it.”
“If that obstacle were magically removed, how could the city make the riverfront a destination?” I asked.
“We put ourselves in this situation,” Collins said. “When Jack Ford was mayor, he sold, really gave away, that Steam Plant to Dave Ball and Jim Jackson. We have $70 million in taxpayer money in that building. When Carty Finkbeiner came into office, he sued them to recover that property. Bell comes in office and drops the suit. That was the cycle that killed Portside and took away the riverfront’s destination status. We isolated this area and chased away all the events so Ball and Jackson could build, and they never have. And probably never will.
“And because the city dropped the lawsuit with prejudice, we only had one year to refile and we did not, so now we have no legal position.”
Collins said if elected mayor, he would not put any taxpayer money into the Steam Plant, but would meet with Ball and Jackson and discuss getting the property back so he could find a developer. He said there are other examples of Bell not handling local businesses well.
Collins said developer John Carney had plans to renovate the Berdan Building but became so frustrated with the Bell administration that “he won’t have anything to do with the city, and I don’t blame him.”
No global plans
Collins has criticized Bell for his emphasis on courting foreign investment; Collins has not asked to meet with members of Dashing Pacific, the private company that purchased the Marina District.
“I want to meet with them, discuss their plans and take away their veil of secrecy,” he said. “Mayor Bell says they are a private business and they have their own time frame. But it’s an inescapable fact that we have $43 million in taxpayer money invested there and we have expectations. That’s why I demanded the agreement include a reverter clause. I wanted that to be three years but it ended up being five. When that time expires, I want to meet with them and see how the city fits in with their plans. We don’t just sit idly by and wait for them to be ready. We have a responsibility and a legitimate right to say to them, ‘You bought the property and you promised it would move forward. It has not. What are your time frames, and how can we help you with that plan?’”
Collins said he is not going to emphasize a foreign agenda.
“We have to work with our existing businesses to help them grow,” he said. “We have to emphasize what we have here. If we do that, we will become a magnet for others.”
“How would you make sure the global marketplace would know about Toledo’s progress?” I asked.
“They’ll know it,” he said. “This is too small of a world. They’ll know it.”
It is a defiance veering precariously close to playing the F— You Card, an attitude one senses will require no translation from English to Mandarin.
Cracks in the façade
As the walk progresses, the scenery includes a number of shuttered, locked, abandoned buildings. From the upper floors of One Government Center, Downtown Toledo looks fresh with its surrounding waters and patches of early fall green. At street level, the eye often falls on less ideal sights. Closed buildings rise from the street like tilted tombstones, casting shadows on canyons of modest activity. Chains lock the doors of closed businesses. Façades crumble and landslide toward cracked sidewalks.
Viewing the city from on high can create a false sense of complacency; viewing it from down low can exaggerate the feelings of lost opportunity and despair. Can Toledo lead the renovation of Northwest Ohio if it can’t rev the engines of its Downtown hub?
“The city has codes for these buildings,” Collins said, examining a closed building in disrepair. “These codes aren’t suggestions, they are requirements. The city needs to enforce the codes on these property holders and get these buildings fixed or get them torn down. We have the authority.
“But the challenges are not just in the Downtown area. We have the same issues with the Southwyck property. You can’t build a city just Downtown. You have to build uniquely defined neighborhoods.”
Passing under a police camera perched on a light pole, Collins shrugs.
“The cameras serve a purpose. They’re here and we have to live with it,” he said. “I will not advocate taking them down.”
Collins said he is also concerned about the closing Spitzer Building.
“That’s a huge problem,” he said. “What happens to the practices in that building? Are they going to stay Downtown? The next mayor has some real challenges. We can’t lose our Downtown and we can’t lose the surrounding neighborhoods.”
How would Collins organize the area’s legion of development agencies?
“I look at the City of Toledo kind of like a symphony,” he said. “You have strings, woodwinds, percussions, all the elements. When they are all playing together well, you have a beautiful sound. When they are not, you just have noise. We cannot live with noise. We will have a city where ‘it’s not my job’ doesn’t exist in their lexicon; it is all our jobs.”
On a whim, I took Collins into the Shop Shop, a convenience store in the Spitzer Building. I spoke to a woman behind the counter, who told us the market has been open for four years but now must relocate; she is not sure where. She said no one from the city or county has stopped in to offer any information or guidance. Collins stood silent throughout the interview, but as we walked toward the door, he looked at the woman and exchanged greetings in Arabic. He then resumed our conversation as if it were the most natural thing under the sky for a nearly septuagenarian Irish Toledoan to speak Arabic.
“That is not an unusual story,” Collins said as the Spitzer Building faded behind us. “This is how we cosmetically apply economic development in Toledo. The LCIC should be in there; they should notice this building was closing and they should be helping these businesses. They should be helping people with incentives to keep them Downtown. They should say, ‘How can we help you?‚ but that’s not being done.”
Collins said Toledo government has not properly dealt with its downsized population.
“The square mileage hasn’t changed, but everything else has,” he said, promising his administration would oversee major cuts to departments and personnel, particularly managers and commissioners in the Department of Neighborhoods.
“We will do it civilly, offering people early retirement incentives,” he said. “And we’re not going to be able to replace them.”
Collins intends to take some of those savings and use them to bolster Toledo Public Schools. He said he has met with TPS Interim Superintendent Romules Durant about a program to recognize academic leaders.
“I want him to go to five schools and identify through the teachers in K, first and second grades, students who are likely to be challenged. Students who are likely to drop out. Students who don’t have a passion for education,” he said. “Then I want him to go to 6, 7 and 8 grades and find the reverse; find the highest-performing academic stars. Not athletic stars, academic stars. Get them to engage in a mentoring program five hours a week, to take those younger kids and move those students so that the next semester, they will see a dramatic improvement.
“What they will receive is $15 an hour — $75 a week. That says to the older student that we recognize their hard work and can inspire them to in turn inspire the younger students, who will see them making money that doesn’t come from selling dope. The money will come from the Neighborhoods Department and our HUD grant.”
‘This is our city’
As the walk ended back at One Government Center, Collins noted the litter on the steps and stopped to pick it up and throw it in the trash can, then walked to the statue of former Ohio Gov. James Rhodes to remove a stack of wet newspapers jammed between the figure’s feet.
“In Ireland, you wouldn’t see that. People who litter, that’s not socially tolerated,” he said. “We need to reinforce that this is our city, this is where we live. Keeping our city litter-free is a responsibility.”
Collins pointed to the crumbling stone barricades that stand sentinel on the stolid building’s steps.
“We set the poorest example by allowing this to exist,” he said. “This is blight, right here at One Government Center. You don’t see that from the 22nd floor. The mayor — and I intend to do this — needs to get out and move among the people. If elected, I will go door to door and talk to people. I will ask them, ‘What am I doing wrong and what am I doing right? How can we help you?’”
Collins said he only seeks four years in office, after which he intends to “turn the city over to the youth.” Youth and progress are constant themes in his conversation, yet he has been tied to veteran politicians and former mayors Ford and Finkbeiner, two men as identified with the past as the stone columns at the Toledo Museum of Art or the near-century-old aroma of hot dog sauce embedded in the East Side Tony Packo’s. Finkbeiner, played the F— You Card as reflexively as he drew breath. Ford, if he possessed the F— You Card, drew it so slowly it never hit the table. When that link is questioned, Collins acts slightly defensive.
“Everybody in the public sphere has positives and negatives,” he said, avoiding a direct question about his relationship with the two men. “The last perfect person on this planet was crucified. You need to build from the strengths. It would be ignorant to not communicate with them and try to capture what worked. Jack Ford built CareNet. That has provided a safety net for those in our community who can’t afford health care. This city was cleaner when Carty was mayor. Those are the positives.”
Collins stood defiant, invigorated by the walk. He shook hands and opened the door to One Government Center, confident in his steps. The F— You Card was secure in his hand, unplayed but ever ready.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.