Spivak source for WSJ recall story

JUNE 25, 2009
Fierce battles take root in several cities where unemployment
is high and problems abound — but ousters are still rare

    High unemployment in a handful of economically battered cities is stoking voter anger and prompting efforts to recall some mayors.
    The Akron, Ohio, mayor survived a recall Tuesday by a large margin. A potential recall looms in the fall across the state, in auto-battered Toledo. Recall efforts also are under way in West New York, N.J., led by residents fuming over potholes and tax increases.
    In Toledo, a group of business owners, both Republican and Democrat, launched a campaign called “Take Back Toledo” to recall longtime Democratic Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, arguing that he has hurt the local economy by spoiling a number of economic development plans.
    “He micromanages everything and ultimately screws up deals,” said Ed Nagle, president of Nagle Cos., a trucking company based just outside Toledo. Mr. Nagle, a Republican, said he and other recall supporters backed Mr. Finkbeiner in the latest election, but the city’s inability to attract or retain some companies has hurt the local economy, where unemployment is 12%.
    Mr. Finkbeiner, in his 12th year as mayor, defended his record during a tough economic period and said his detractors are “absolutely illiterate” or “outright liars.” He said the loss of assembly-line shifts at Jeep and General Motors plants have hurt the city, but that it is successfully diversifying into alternative-energy manufacturing, including a new photovoltaic cell maker that will employ between 50 and 100 workers, announced Tuesday.
    “How can you expect any mayor to wave a magic wand and make things happen when the banks are not loaning any money?” Mr. Finkbeiner said. He has challenged the signature-gathering process and plans to ask the Ohio Supreme Court to rule on the matter.
    Attempts to oust incumbent mayors are rare, due mainly to insufficient signatures to force a recall election, and successful ones even more so. In recent years, recalls removed the mayor in Spokane, Wash., in 2005 and the one in Flint, Mich., in 2002.
    The earliest known big-city recall effort occurred in 1909 in Los Angeles, when the mayor, who eventually resigned, was accused of visiting “houses of ill repute.” Cleveland’s then “Boy Mayor” Dennis Kucinich — a Democrat who was 31 years old when he took office in 1977 — avoided a recall in 1978, surviving it by fewer than 300 votes.
    Recall efforts generally follow allegations of scandal or financial misconduct, and this year is no exception. Mayors in three Louisiana towns have been targeted for recall after questionable payments to themselves or town employees.
    But this year, the economy is playing a greater role.
    “It’s a tool of voter anger and voters are going to be pretty angry, especially when the budgets come due,” said Joshua Spivak, a research fellow and expert on recall elections at Wagner College in New York. He expects more recall efforts in the 36 states that allow voter recalls of local officials.
    In Akron, a manufacturing city of 220,000 with a 9.8% unemployment rate, critics of Don Plusquellic, a Democrat in his 23rd year as mayor, said he focused resources on the city’s downtown business district at the expense of neighborhoods struggling with subprime mortgages and foreclosures.
    “We feel that Akron could have been much better positioned to address those crises if this mayor had been more attentive to neighborhood needs,” said Warner Mendenhall, an Akron attorney and a Democrat, who organized the recall.
    Mr. Plusquellic said the emphasis on creating jobs in Akron’s commercial areas has generated revenue to provide services to neighborhoods. “This is an example of what people turn to sometimes when they’re afraid, upset, anxious, mad,” Mr. Plusquellic said. “I think it helps their cause that the economy has not done well here and that people look for someone to blame.”
    Gerald Shuster, a political communication professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said several recent recall campaigns reflect a “total dissatisfaction with incumbents,” fueled by the recession.
    In the New Jersey town of West New York, recall organizers, who say the streets are filthy and filled with potholes, are still collecting signatures to qualify for a vote on Democratic Mayor Silverio Vega. Paul Swibinski, a spokesman for the town of 45,000, said recall organizers are making “wild and reckless” claims, and that town finances suffered from “many years of overspending and underfunded budgets” before Mr. Vega was elected.
    In February, the mayor of Flint, Mich., where unemployment is currently 14.2%, avoided a recall fight by resigning, citing health reasons.
    Peter Bade, an attorney who participated in the “Committee for a Better Flint” recall campaign that began last year, said residents blamed the mayor for the city’s budget deficit and cuts in the police department.
    “I think that’s why it provoked folks from across all lines to get involved,” Mr. Bade said.