Critics say civility lost in the Akron election this month.

Only three Democratic incumbents ran unopposed in Tuesday's Democratic primaries for mayor and council. The partisan nominating contests haven't been that competitive since 2009 when Democrats fought each other for all 13 council seats.

But competition alone can't explain all the negative robocalls, personal attacks, F-bombs, accusations of racism, threats or intimidation, or police reports and a cease-and-desist letter from City Council leadership to quell the bad behavior. The acrimony involving candidates, campaign staff, union officials and everyday citizens unfolded on public property, in campaign messaging, on social media and outside polling locations.

For nearly a decade, Akron's civic and religious leaders have come together to restore civility in the face of tribal politics, anonymous online attacks and a coarsening public discourse. But as one local political observer noted, "it's been kind of normal" to see Democrats tear each other apart in Akron since the early 1990s.

The observer, with 30 years in Akron politics, asked not to be named as he openly discussed intraparty politics and whether the primary races decided last week were any nastier than the norm.

He ranked them between the "rather tame" race for an open mayor's seat in 2015 and the bruising, failed attempt to recall former Mayor Don Plusquellic in 2009.

Some people are pushing back against the overall trend toward negative campaigning, at the local and national levels. Though he's been told such strategies are effective, the Rev. Mark Ford wonders if winning-at-all-costs comes at the cost of a functioning democracy.

"Incivility is like the bubonic plague," said Ford, executive director of The Love Akron Network, a coalition of religious leaders working with the Civility Center at the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. "It is a cancer, a virus that is destroying from within. If we do not see it that way — that it's making us the Divided States of America — we’re going to wake up one day beyond a tipping point that is very, very damaging."

The Civility Center is an offshoot of the 2010 Ohio Civility Project, which involved UA, Cleveland State University, University of Mount Union, the Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com, community members and The Civic Commons. Ford said the center will be asking Ohio candidates up and down the 2020 presidential ballot to sign a pledge agreeing to treat their rivals and the public with dignity and respect.

No pledge was ready for Akron candidates to sign this past winter and spring.

 

The good

The local races ended with the purging of candidates who've attacked current and former city mayors for nearly 30 years. The primary began with early signs of hope for civil-minded observers like Ford.

“I’d like to bring back a little bit of civility to council,” Michael Madonio, who lost to Brad McKitrick in Ward 6, told Cleveland.com last month. “I would like council to work together as a cohesive body, showing respect for one another and listening to the opinions of each other. Respectfully listening, digesting what they had to say, and then making decisions that are best for the city and best for Ward 6.”

"I would champion — first and foremost — civility," the Rev. Curtis Walker, a longtime Akron School Board member, told the Beacon Journal in February. "Our focus ought to be what's best for the city of Akron and our individual wards. But we need to do that as a team."

Like the Ward 6 contest in Ellet, Walker's race in Northwest Akron, which was won by Shammas Malik, drew no media attention for bad behavior.

While lamenting the ills of incivility, Ford focused on two shining examples.

Ward 8 Councilwoman Marilyn Keith, one of six candidates for three at-large seats, told Ford early on that she would put the results in the hands of God. Keith finished fourth. Behind her in the vote count was incumbent Veronica Sims, who put forward her usual gracious attitude on Facebook after the election loss.

"Grace in the face of disappointment, that's the way," a friend commented.

"That’s quality. That’s class. That’s mature," said Ford. "And I wish the national narrative would model that."

 

The bad

The Beacon Journal/Ohio.com dedicated the months before the primary to engaging residents on community solutions but also kept tabs on the political unrest.

Ward 2 Councilman Bruce Kilby, who had the police called on him twice by residents before losing to Phil Lombardo, forgot to hang up the phone after leaving a message with a constituent. Kilby inadvertently recorded himself calling the woman a "[expletive] b----." He normalized it as "how construction workers might talk."

"Working-class people [in North Akron] would understand that kind of language," he told a reporter.

At the southern end of Akron, Tammy Cummings told a resident that incumbent Ward 7 Councilman Donnie Kammer was a "racist pig."

“I sure did,” Cummings said last week, accusing Kammer of ginning up his base by “flying off at the mouth,” putting up patriotic flags and circulating her criminal record. “I just finally snapped, this is who he is.

"Was it wrong? Yeah. Do I feel bad about it? No. It’s been back and forth between us the whole time,” Cummings said.

Kammer, who won the race, called the comments "unprofessional, inexcusable and unjustified." He did not address the personal attacks he or his supporters made against Cummings.

After weeks of accusatory robocalls, Cummings said she abandoned the negative attacks. On Election Day, she said that she and Kammer could better serve the community as friends.

But they never met. They never spoke.

"I think that’s the issue," said Ford. "In most of these encounters, there is a back story often built on he-said-she-said. But there’s never been an attempt to build a gracious relationship. And I think that’s the tension around incivility."

 

The ugly

In Ward 10, winner Sharon Connor drew no negative attention.

But DJ Luciano went after candidates on Facebook for not supporting labor leader Jack Hefner. Russ Brode, president of the Tri County Regional Labor Council, called Luciano a "tough" guy who lies and only "pretend[s] to care about labor."

"Come say it to my [expletive] face," Luciano, a former mixed martial arts fighter, told Brode.

Dave Prentice, an officer in the labor council, confronted the mayor's chief of staff, James Hardy, for passing out sample Democratic ballots outside a voting location at East Community Learning Center. Hardy and 15 other nonunion Cabinet or law department staff took a vacation day to campaign for their boss, Mayor Dan Horrigan.

In front of a child, Hardy said Prentice cussed him out because city union workers are banned from such politicking, even on their own time. "It’s bad enough the [Horrigan] administration has a disdain for union candidates, let alone sending his staff out there to campaign against them," said Prentice.

Then there were the sample Democratic ballots Hardy and the mayor's candidates circulated. They carried only the names of Horrigan and his endorsed team. And they came from the Ohio Democratic Party (ODP).

"As we have done in past cycles, the Ohio Democratic Party sends mail if a county party requests it on behalf of candidates, which is done at the county party's discretion," said ODP spokeswoman Kirstin Alvanitakis.

Eddie Omobien, who ran wife Linda Omobien's successful primary as an incumbent at-large councilwoman, called the mailers "deceitful" for giving voters the impression that the state party preferred some local candidates.

He raised that issue and concerns about the placement of yard signs with city employees, including the administrative assistant to the mayor. But engaging public workers about politics is a violation of election law, said council President Margo Sommerville.

Sommerville issued the Omobien campaign an official letter to stop the "unwelcome interaction" described by city staff as "intimidating, angry and insistent."

"Political campaigns can be contentious and challenging, and political disagreements inevitably occur," wrote Sommerville. "However, as elected officials, it is essential that we keep politics and public business separate at all times. Public servants should never be forced to engage in or manage political matters."

 

Reach Doug Livingston at thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.