Thirteen Akron council seats. All Democrats.
This sobering statistic alone has earned Republican Akron council candidate Karl William Johnson the go-ahead to place his sign in front of several businesses and homes, including a handful in the highly visible Wallhaven area of West Akron.
“They can’t believe it when they hear it,” said Johnson, one of three at-large GOP council candidates in the Nov. 5 election. “They say, ‘Bring me a sign.’ ”
Will Johnson’s sign success translate into victory on Election Day? He’s the first to admit he’s fighting an uphill battle and a mighty long losing streak for his party.
A Republican hasn’t held a ward seat on the Akron council for 15 years nor an at-large seat for 46 years. That doesn’t stop the party from trying. Republican candidates are competing for the three at-large council seats and in six of the 10 ward races in the November election. (Additionally, in Ward 4, an independent candidate is preventing a Democrat from running unopposed.)
John Frank, the last Republican to serve on the Akron council, isn’t optimistic about his party’s chances in the upcoming election.
“I feel the demographics of Akron are such that Akron will never have another Republican councilman. Period,” said Frank, a Ward 8 councilman who retired in 1998 after serving for 20 years.
The last Republican council-at-large member, Robert Herberich, served from 1966 to 1967.
Frank and others point to two main factors as the reasons for the GOP shutout on the council: demographics and campaign finance limits.
Akron has more than triple the affiliated Democrats, 25,000, as it does Republicans, 7,500. The city also has about 89,000 nonaffiliated voters, according to the Summit County Board of Elections.
When Frank was on the council, Akron’s Ward 8 was still Republican-dominated. That changed when many of the city’s more affluent residents started moving farther west, making their homes in the suburbs in Bath, Richfield and Copley.
“As suburbanization increases, Republicans leave the cities and move to the burbs,” said Steve Brooks, associate director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. “That certainly happened here. You can see that today, with the suburban communities having more Republican candidates.”
In certain areas of Akron, the county GOP doesn’t even try. The party isn’t fielding candidates in the November election in Ward 3, 4, or 5, which are the predominantly African-American wards.
“Demographics will play a bigger and bigger role,” said Alex Arshinkoff, chairman of the county Republican party. “It is very difficult for us to even compete in the African-American sections of the city.”
Arshinkoff also pointed to Akron’s campaign finance limits serving as a detractor for challengers of any political persuasion. Contribution limits stand at $650 for at-large council and mayoral candidates and $400 for wards.
Frank, who chaired the last Charter Review Commission that recommended upping the limits, which has since been done twice, thinks the caps are still too low.
“It should be done away with,” he said. “It makes it very, very difficult for anyone to really mount a good campaign at-large in the city.”
Asked what it would take for a Republican to win in the city, Frank and Arshinkoff gave the same answer: scandal.
“The Republicans do not have a chance in hell of winning — not unless a Democratic candidate did horrendously at the last minute,” Frank said.
“You never know when scandal is going to break,” agreed Arshinkoff. If “they arrest everyone at City Hall, you’ve got to have the infrastructure ready to react.”
Diversity of thought
Councilman-at-large Mike Williams, the longest-serving member on the Akron council, doesn’t think the council is suffering because of its lack of partisan diversity. The key is a diversity of thought, he said, and he thinks there are council members, including him, who provide this.
“John Frank was and still is supportive of the administration,” Williams said, referring to Mayor Don Plusquellic, also a Democrat, whom Williams unsuccessfully challenged in 2011. “Any elected body needs some tension — a forum for exchanges of ideas. You can still have that without different parties.”
Johnson disagrees and contends a Republican presence on the council would be beneficial.
“Some of them don’t get along and you get a lot of antagonism,” said Johnson, 53, an airline pilot and party-business owner. “But there’s a certain perspective that’s missing. Take all sides and debate it out. You probably come up with the best solution by doing that.”
Johnson wishes politics could become less about party affiliation and more about ideas.
“That’s how we got where we are nationally — blaming each other,” he said. “Here we are now.”
Arshinkoff says the GOP isn’t giving up on Akron.
“You keep the infrastructure alive and salute the candidates willing to take on the uphill battles,” he said. “They’re real heroes. Chances are they are in an uphill battle. On election night, they won’t be singing.
“It’s as tough as it is for a Democrat in Delaware County,” Arshinkoff continued, referring to the heavily Republican area north of Columbus.
Johnson, who has been reaching out to Democratic voters, trying to sway them to vote for him, is hoping to inspire other Republicans to try for a council seat. He predicts that someday his party will regain a foothold on the council.
“I’m of the mind it’s not a matter of if council turns, it’s a matter of when,” he said. “The only way that won’t happen is if everybody stops running. I don’t think you can do that. You have to keep trying — keep giving it your best shot.”