Deep-pocketed donors and political elites could soon face a choice between backing Akron's longest-serving mayor or the city's current leader.
Don Plusquellic, who served as Akron's mayor for 28 years before abruptly resigning in 2015, declined a phone interview Sunday but again confirmed through text messages he still is considering challenging Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan. Plusquellic said he hasn't started collecting signatures yet to appear as a Democrat on the May 7 primary ballot.
The filing deadline for the May primary is 4 p.m. Wednesday.
At this point in the 2015 election, when city primaries were still held in September, Plusquellic had just resigned, abruptly and partly for critical coverage and commentary in the Akron Beacon Journal. Later that year, he dodged a head-on collision and rolled his car, walking away with only a scratch. The next year, he said he walked into the same hospital as then-Summit County Executive Russ Pry, on the same day. After emergency surgery on his intestine at another hospital, he survived. Pry did not.
The scrapes with death, like the heart surgery while still mayor, "made me wonder what my purpose in life is really supposed to be and why I am alive," Plusquellic, 69, said Sunday.
By this point in the 2015 mayoral election, business interests began to collect what would amount to nearly a half million dollars to help elect Horrigan, now 56. They conjured the support twice more when Horrigan's first-term mandate was put to the test.
Politicians and friends close to Plusquellic question not his love of Akron but whether a beef with Horrigan is behind his thoughts of running again. The men have not spoken since 2015. Colleagues have watched as they snub or criticize each other, first when Plusquellic spoke to newly elected mayors at Harvard University and again when attendees of Pry's funeral saw Horrigan decline to shake Plusquellic's hand.
It’s been ugly. Community leaders don't want to upset either mayor. They'd rather the men get along instead of potentially dividing local business leaders and the Democratic Party along lines of loyalty to two strong personalities.
“He always brings up the same things. ‘People tell me I should run,' ” said Plusquellic's mentor, Ray Kapper. Now 82, Kapper said he’s been visited twice this winter by the old mayor at his home in Florida, where Plusquellic has grandchildren.
“Well, who are these businessmen telling you ‘you should run?’ ” Kapper asked. Plusquellic gave him no answer then got angry, Kapper said. “I still love him, but I don’t think he should run.”
Elizabeth Bartz, who owns State and Federal Communications, heard about a month ago from Jeff Heintz, a partner at Brouse McDowell, that Plusquellic might run. “I was like, 'You gotta be kidding me,' ” she said.
Bartz and Heintz oversee Partners Advancing Our Future, a coalition of private executives, bank CEOs, lawyers and construction bosses who back candidates or ballot issues that promote Akron. Not counting administrative or filing fees, the group has dropped $1,271,725 since 2012 to pass five ballot issues, mostly for children's services and Akron Public Schools, and elect one candidate, Dan Horrigan. The group spent $484,142 in 2015, mostly to help Horrigan defeat Mike Williams in the Democratic primary.
The group later called on Horrigan to assemble a Blue Ribbon Task Force. In the fall, it backed a charter amendment to move up the primary date this year. In 2017, it supported an income tax increase for police, fire and roads. Horrigan championed both efforts, staking his legacy and first-term mandate on his ability to muster public votes when needed.
Horrigan's campaign has $85,000 cash on hand. Partners Advancing Our Future has $60,000, some of which is dedicated to helping the Summit County Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board with a renewal and possible request for more money later this year.
“I’d be surprised that former Mayor Plusquellic considering a run would change any of [the group's support for Horrigan],” said Heintz. “But I don’t speak for the group. And the group hasn’t met yet.”
“He has got Akron in his heart, as does Don Plusquellic,” said Bartz.
Major business leaders have to get them to bury the hatchet, Bartz said. “I’ve been talking to people. Can’t you get them at a table?”
The Rev. Greg Harrison, a retired police officer who actively advocates for community issues, is the only other Democrat in the mayor's race, so far. There's no known Republican in the primary. But if it’s just the two mayors and Harrison, the coalition of businesses, which includes several companies that receive city contracts, might lose clout.
“I’m afraid that somebody else will jump in and win who doesn’t have any experience in that position. And we’ll lose two good people,” said Bartz, who saw both Akron mayors in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago at the United States Conference of Mayors.
Life out of office
After 28 years as mayor, Plusquellic started a firm to consult private businesses on how to work with local governments. He said he made 2½ times more his first year than he earned as mayor, plus he gets to spend more time with grandchildren in Florida and Ohio.
Told how the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com could find no businesses willing to say they back him and that many of his former campaign staffers now donate to and work for Horrigan, Plusquellic said he wouldn't out the people pushing him to run. Instead, he talked about why he still believes his sudden resignation in 2015, which he says was actually planned for months, was the "right thing for the city."
Plusquellic said he told then Council President Garry Moneypenny "for a whole year" that if he was not going to seek re-election in 2015 he would leave office early to allow an incumbent to seek the office.
Moneypenny was appointed mayor then resigned days later after admitting inappropriate contact with a subordinate employee. Plusquellic said he "was wrong" about his choice for a successor, "though I vetted Moneypenny more than anyone else could."
The back-to-back resignations created a leadership vacuum. Local leaders, including some involved in Partners Advancing Our Future, interviewed candidates. Horrigan came out on top.
Kapper, a public service director under Plusquellic, said he met weekly with Horrigan in the years before the 2015 election. Horrigan, he said, often asked about the right time to run for county executive or mayor.
“Not while [Pry and Plusquellic] are in there,” Kapper counseled. “Because you can’t win.”
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.