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Ohio Politics

Akron battle for mayor heats up

By admin Published: May 22, 2011

Stephanie Warsmith
Beacon Journal staff writer

Both sides in the political showdown between longtime adversaries Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic and Akron Councilman Mike Williams are ready to rumble.

The Akron mayoral candidates have launched websites, opened campaign headquarters and assembled their teams.

It's fitting that both have a political heavyweight in their corner.

Williams hired Jerry Austin as his political consultant, while Plusquellic tapped Jeff Rusnak. Each consultant has a storied history of political bouts at the local, state and national levels that includes both of them working on Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in 1988. The friends and colleagues, who harbor a mutual respect, have often joined forces — and rarely been on opposing sides.

''It had to happen sometime,'' Austin said in a recent interview.

Rusnak said he's not worried about challenging Austin, who jokingly refers to him as his student.

''Fortunately, I have the stronger and better candidate,'' he said, laughing.

The fact that both candidates have well-known consultants working for them ensures the campaigns leading up to the Sept. 13 Democratic primary will be competitive — and likely full of jabs.

''One of the ways you can tell how serious a campaign is is the kind of leadership or personnel that a candidate associates themselves with,'' said Steve Brooks, associate director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.

Brooks called Austin, who has taught on and off at UA since 2004 and will serve as a Bliss fellow next year, one of the most experienced and best political consultants in Ohio.

''That's a real statement that this is a serious campaign,'' he said.

The winner of the primary will compete against at least one Republican candidate in the Nov. 8 election. Jennifer Hensal, a Medina attorney and first-time candidate, recently announced her candidacy, but other GOP candidates may step forward by next month's filing date.

Besides picking consultants, Plusquellic and Williams both have chosen campaign managers to handle day-to-day issues.

Gert Wilms, an assistant city prosecutor who worked on the campaigns for Summit County Councilwoman Ilene Shapiro and Akron Municipal Court Judge Jerry Larson, will head up Plusquellic's campaign. She plans to take an unpaid leave from the city beginning June 9.

''When you sit back and think about the awesome responsibility, it brings it all into a different perspective than the other campaigns,'' said Wilms, whose job could be on the line if Plusquellic loses.

New ways to reach voters|

Wilms, who originally jotted down ideas for Plusquellic's re-election bid on a paper tablecloth, said the mayor and his campaign staff aren't taking anything for granted. She said they are even trying new ways to reach out to voters, like using Facebook and Twitter.

''There is no given in this,'' she said.

Williams has co-campaign managers — Tara Samples, an Akron Municipal Court bailiff, and Bill Wise, a local business owner. Wise will handle the campaign during the day when Samples is working.

''I love politics,'' said Samples, who has worked on numerous Akron and Summit County judicial campaigns. ''Some people go to school to learn it. It's just in me. This is what I love to do.''

Samples is excited to work with Austin.

''I aspire to be like him,'' she said.

Austin, who is living in Tallmadge, describes himself as semi-retired and said he no longer pursues clients, but still accepts them when they call. That's how Williams got him on board.

''Don Plusquellic hasn't called me,'' Austin said over coffee at Angel Falls. ''He would never. He doesn't like people with stronger personalities.''

Austin, who served as chief of staff for former Gov. Richard Celeste and locally worked on Wayne Jones' state representative campaign and Russ Pry's county executive bid, also is handling Barberton Mayor Bob Genet's re-election campaign this year.

''With these races, I feel like the principal who gets back in the classroom,'' said Austin, who was involved in a judicial campaign ploy in 2002 that got Jones temporarily kicked off the Summit County elections board.

Focusing on campaign details|

Austin came up with Williams' slogan, ''It's time,'' borrowing from a recent quote by a Wisconsin senator who is retiring after 24 years and said, ''It's time for somebody else to have a chance.''

Austin thinks 35 percent of Akron backs Plusquellic, 35 percent is behind Williams and the other 30 percent is up for grabs. He thinks Williams has an advantage because he has experience, but also has new ideas.

''He has a vision that — after 24 years — Don doesn't have anymore,'' he said. ''Don's vision is basically staying in office.''

Plusquellic called Austin a ''paid hand.''

''He talks about Democrats coming together,'' the mayor said, referring to Bring Ohio Back (BOB), an independent expenditure group Austin and Rusnak run that's mainly active in presidential years. ''But he's participating in something that's going to split the community apart.''

Plusquellic said voters must ask themselves who can best run Akron and thinks he'll come out on top when voters weigh accomplishments.

''I'm willing to stand on my record,'' he said. ''His record needs to be examined by the voters. Really, there's nothing there.''

Rusnak, who formerly worked for Burges & Burges and owns his own political consulting company, agrees that Plusquellic's strength is his experience.

''There is nobody who is a better champion of that city,'' he said. ''You will not see him run from his record. He will run on his record. I think you can draw a clear contrast with his opponent.''

Williams said the campaign will focus on being inclusive and responsive to citizens and addressing what is most important to them — the 50 feet of property in front of their houses, neighborhoods and public safety.

''We feel we can win this race,'' Williams said. ''My judgment by some of the reaction I've gotten from some of his supporters and others is: They're worried. Our job is to keep them worried.''

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or



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