Local residents and politicians are responding with surprise that former Mayor Don Plusquellic is considering a return to politics.
Akron’s longest-serving mayor told the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com in a series of text messages Monday night that he is thinking about challenging Mayor Dan Horrigan in the May primary. Plusquellic cited encouragement and possible support from unnamed business and community leaders.
After weeks of speculation and rumors, Plusquellic's nod to a possible entry in the race threatens unity in the local Democratic Party and poses a challenge for community and business leaders who have backed both mayors in the past two elections.
In his Monday night text messages, Plusquellic did not directly address his sudden resignation in 2015, a decision that sent the local Democratic Party and community leaders on a hurried search for a successor. Ilene Shapiro, now Summit County executive, stepped aside when Horrigan stepped forward. Tom Bevan, chair of the Summit County Democratic Party, did not immediately return phone calls Tuesday seeking comment.
Plusquellic did name old rivals and said time has proven him right, from his prediction that local hospitals would seek mergers to spats with Judge John Adams, who was temporarily ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation in 2018, and Councilman Bob Hoch, who was sentenced to probation in 2017 for an ethics violation stemming from a vote impacting a firefighter in his family. Hoch came under fire last year after telling two colleagues to sit down and shut up, riling the black community.
Plusquellic had claimed Hoch threatened to shoot him, but never proved it.
“I’m sure he feels that he’s right. He always did and probably always will,” said Hoch, who lives in Ellet and is running for re-election. “As far as Don Plusquellic running for mayor again, I guess I’m surprised — but not. If he comes back and I’m there, I guess we’ll do whatever we have to do for the city of Akron and the residents if I continue to represent Ward 6.”
Plusquellic also took a shot at how Horrigan has run the city. Horrigan represented North Akron on City Council while Plusquellic was mayor. The two didn't always get along, according to elected officials like Hoch who served at the time.
Councilwoman Tara Samples seemed surprised that Horrigan would fire back at Plusquellic, provoking a man with a reputation for not backing down from a fight.
In response to the news that Plusquellic might challenge him, Horrigan issued a prepared statement Tuesday morning saying, "It was clear then, and now, that bitterness and stale, personal feuds with council members, the local paper, and even federal decision-makers had unfortunately poisoned his ability to lead the city into its a new chapter of growth and prosperity.”
“We know Don. You can’t give Don motivation,” Samples said of Horrigan's response. “Don’t give him extra motivation.”
Samples has endorsed Horrigan, who's returned the favor. But she backed former council member Mike Williams over Horrigan in the last Democratic primary for Akron mayor in 2015. She still talks regularly to Williams, who did not respond to text messages or calls seeking comment as the only Akron Democrat to run against Plusquellic and Horrigan.
“From what I know so far, Mike [Williams] is not running. But things are changing in the 11th hour here. I’ve already made my endorsement, unless God descends from the heavens and says he’s got a different plan, I’m going to stick to my [mutual endorsement of Horrigan].
Residents calling the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com this week and last have repeatedly said the city’s unsuccessful attempt to clear snow from streets will factor into their vote in the May 7 primary.
“I hope we have a different mayor come election time, and I am not alone,” said resident Patricia Wagner, who missed two doctor’s appointments last week because off unplowed residential streets.
Former Akron Beacon Journal reporter Steve Love, who wrote a book about Plusquellic, said the news about a possible run "comes as both a surprise and no surprise at all, if that is possible.
"Though I wrote the book on Don Plusquellic, I would never close the book on him when it comes to love for and devotion to Akron," Love said. "I know he has been less than pleased with the course of events.
"My opinion was, and remains, that Don Plusquellic was the best mayor Akron ever had. I have no doubt he could be again. In the book's Afterword I wrote that it was the end of an era. Maybe I was wrong.
"In the process of sharing the opinion of Joel Bailey, a former Plusquellic chief of staff, that the city never understood or fully appreciated just how great a leader Plusquellic was, I concluded: 'It will now find out.'
"Maybe it has."
That’s not to say everyone welcomes the return of Plusquellic. “I hope people don’t forget that he walked off the job,” said Susie Bolden, 77, a Goodyear Heights resident who’s lived in Akron since she was 7. There hasn’t been a good mayor since the late John Ballard left office in the 1970s, in her opinion.
It’s unclear which side business and community leaders would take. Most didn’t respond to calls seeking comment or avoided a potentially bruising race between two mayors.
“Given my relationship with both, I think it best I not offer comment,” said Tony O'Leary, who spent 10 years in Plusquellic's administration in planning and as deputy mayor and who recently retired after 25 years heading the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority.
Many questions still remain about who will make a run for mayor as the Feb. 6 primary deadline approaches.
The Republican Party will not field a candidate in the primary, unless one comes forward on his or her own and submits 50 valid signatures to the board of elections by Feb. 6.
“I personally think the era of partisan elections in Akron no longer serves the community and Akron would be better served with nonpartisan races for mayor and council like most other major cities in America and Summit County,” said Summit County Republican Party Chair Bryan Williams. “That’s probably where our focus will be, on fielding an independent candidate.”
Moments before news broke of Plusquellic considering a run, Akron pastor and retired police officer Greg Harrison pulled petitions to run for mayor in the May 7 Democratic primary, launching a candidacy that could benefit from early and ugly squabbling between two big names on the ballot.
Harrison has never held elected office. He dropped out of the crowded 2015 race for an at-large council seat at the last minute after seeing that he would be vying for votes with Veronica Sims, who later won, two high school classmates and a fellow pastor — all from the black community. “What I did not want to do is split the African-American vote," Harrison said Tuesday morning. "That’s why I did not run. We deserve some sort of representation. I didn’t want to be that obstacle."
Harrison stressed that he’s “not running as a minority candidate. I’m running as a candidate to give a voice to the people who in this political process over the years have been left out on.” Not wanting to sound like a shrewd politician, which he admits he isn’t, Harrison declined to discuss Plusquellic's possible run or Horrigan’s scathing response.
Williams, who ran against both mayors, has not yet announced his intentions for the citywide elections this year.
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792, or Betty Lin-Fisher at email@example.com or 330-996-3688.