Someone on the Akron City Council will lose as the mayor makes early endorsements in a shortened primary season.
Councilwoman Marilyn Keith of Northwest Akron is running for an at-large seat, meaning there will be four incumbents vying for three spots. Keith, who was president of the council in 2016 and 2017, said it’s time to represent more of Akron.
A former schoolteacher first elected in 2011, Keith wants Shammas Malik to succeed her in representing Ward 8. Malik, who turns 28 a month before the new May primary date, is a Harvard-educated attorney with a Pakistani immigrant father and an Irish-Catholic engineer for a mother. He resigned from the city law department to avoid any appearance of conflict as he makes a first run for public office.
Malik said he made Keith aware of his ambitions in the spring. She called him in September with news that she would support him and not run against him as she shifts to an at-large race.
A second first-time candidate for the city council, Akron School Board member Ginger Baylor, told the Beacon Journal on Wednesday she was "considering" a run. On Thursday, Keith and Mayor Dan Horrigan attended Malik's campaign launch party. On Friday, the mayor made another endorsement, announcing that he would back Keith, Baylor and incumbent Jeff Fusco for the three at-large seats on the council.
That means the mayor is openly backing opponents of two sitting at-large councilwomen — Linda Omobien and Veronica Sims, who each opposed the mayor's plan to shorten this primary season in a move some argued would favor candidates with big names behind them.
The week's political posturing is like a flare shot at the start of a six-month race to determine whether Horrigan, if re-elected, has enough support on the council in 2020 to implement his agenda, which may require at least one more friendly face to do things like try to change the city charter.
The at-large race is getting crowded. There are the sitting council members: Fusco, Keith, Omobien and Sims. Plus Ward 2 residents Baylor and Michael Valle, who said he's campaigned for but may not have the support of the mayor or his brother John, who works for the mayor. The Democrat with the fourth-most votes in the last election, Jeff Wilhite, is happy on the Summit County Council. He won’t run again. Astute observers are waiting to see what Mike Williams will do. He challenged Horrigan in 2015 and Mayor Don Plusquellic in 2011, and beat every Democrat he ran against in every at-large race from 2001 to 2013.
Williams had to give up his council seat in 2015 to run for mayor after Plusquellic backed a charter change that put all 13 council races in the same year as the mayoral election. Now, with some on the council saying politics again is behind a more recent charter change, Akron will hold city primaries in May for the first time in 67 years.
Voters approved the change Nov. 6. The mayor had asked the council to put the change on the ballot, but five members — including Omobien and Sims — blocked the request, which requires a supermajority. Fusco helped the mayor collect signatures to put the issue on the ballot without needing the council's help.
A bitter, cold campaign begins this winter as candidates must file their petitions for office by Feb. 6. A handful already have pulled the paperwork.
The May primary date should save the city money and make it possible for county election staff to properly serve military and overseas voters. But it shortens the campaign season, eliminating the electioneering that used to last all summer.
“The long span between the primary and the [general] election is expensive and exhausting,” the Akron Beacon Journal reported in 1951 when the city’s charter review commission first recommended a September primary, shortening what used to be competitive general elections between Akron Republicans and Democrats. The commission, chaired by Councilman Leo Berg, “want[ed] to bring the two elections closer together to create more interest, reduce lame-duck terms and cut down electioneering."
Now, the elections are further apart again. Because general elections are mostly foregone conclusions in Democratic strongholds like Akron, incumbents ousted in May will be lame ducks for eight months instead of four. But the year-round electioneering, something Akronites wanted less of in 1951, will shrink again.
“In cities like Akron, the primary is the general election. Incumbents like Dan Horrigan are benefited by an earlier primary,” said Bryan Williams, a 2003 mayoral candidate and chair of the Summit County Republican Party, which picked up a county council seat this year but has little chance of toppling a Democrat at City Hall in November. Republican candidates typically get less than half the votes of Democrats in Akron. The last Republican served the city council nearly 20 years.
Williams said the GOP began the search for a conservative to challenge Horrigan on Nov. 7, the day after the last general election. Williams supports the new primary date for saving money and giving time to prepare overseas ballots but thinks the city should adopt nonpartisan primaries to give community-minded activists — even if not aligned with Republicans — a chance.
Michael Valle is one of those unknown, community-minded candidates stirred to action. Fed up with vacant homes, deteriorating infrastructure and rising opioid deaths in Ward 2, he's already collecting signatures to qualify as a Democratic candidate for an at-large and ward seat, giving himself the option of choosing between the races by the Feb. 6 deadline to file one candidacy. The 64-year-old county worker, who hears property valuation disputes, has campaigned since the 1970s for judges, for his brother, a former councilman who runs the city’s neighborhood assistance department, and for Horrigan, who also served on the city council.
But never for himself.
“With my first run at office, if I had all summer to work on it, it would have been much better for me,” said Valle, whose name is not well known outside his neighborhood. “But I voted for the May primary and I do support that. It’s just going to make it a little tougher on me and some of the newer candidates.”
Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 and email@example.com.