The former all-city quarterback looks at an image of himself and sees a grandfather.
Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic is at Creative Technology, a production company in Copley Township, watching a rough cut of a commercial he taped the day before. Plusquellic can be seen imploring voters to support Issue 10, an income-tax hike for school construction across the city. The mayor delivered the message from the basement of Lincoln Elementary School, which was built in 1910. The school was chosen for its decrepitude. The camera lingers on a leaking pipe and exposed wires.
Plusquellic likes the ad, if not the way its 53-year-old star is aging. He asks the video editors if there's a way to lift his jowls and lower his hairline. The tape is stopped at an unflattering frame where his mouth is agape. "It looks like I'm saying, 'Hey, one of you assholes bring me a glass of water,'" he says.
The campaign is a sequel to a school-construction sales-tax referendum last fall. Its defeat left the mayor, who says he never worked harder for votes, in tears.
He hasn't had much practice at losing. No mayor in Akron's history has served longer than Plusquellic, who will seek a fifth term this fall. Judging by past elections, he could hold the job for as long as he wishes. His closest race was his first Democratic primary. In the years since, he has never failed to win by less than 74 percent of the vote. He was unopposed in 1999.
Successful mayors reflect their cities, and, French surname notwithstanding, Plusquellic is quintessentially Akron. The son of a tire builder, he starred on the high school gridiron, tossing 20 touchdown passes for the Kenmore Cardinals in 1966. Before entering law school, he labored at Goodrich for six years. He married a grade school sweetheart, and they live next door to her mother.
He had no intention of running for mayor, he says. Of course, when he ran for city council, at age 24, he didn't think he would hold that title for 13 years either. The mayor's job opened up in 1987, when Tom Sawyer won a seat in Congress. "He was very direct," Sawyer says. "He said it was his goal to be the best mayor in the United States. It has been a focused intent of his, and I think, by some measures, he is well on his way."
Plusquellic objects to qualified praise. A few years ago, he and Sawyer were attending a fund-raiser, where Sawyer told the crowd that Plusquellic may be the best mayor of modern-era Akron. "Don leaned over to the microphone, looked at me, and said, 'That's any era'," Sawyer says.
Sawyer and Plusquellic are a contrast in styles. Sawyer is hair and teeth and measured responses. Plusquellic is a bruiser who speaks under his breath, like a ward boss in the back of a restaurant. He curses freely, safe in the knowledge that "shit" and "prick" will be deleted in family newspapers. And he values no opinion as he does his own. If he were to take a listening tour, à la Jane Campbell, he would struggle to stifle insults when a dumb question was posed. "I'm a little bit like Don Rickles," he concedes. "My sense of humor is a little biting."
What he calls a sense of humor, others say is a Vesuvian temper. His Republican challenger in the coming election says Plusquellic has become more obnoxious with each passing year. His power has swollen, critics say, as has his head. "I think the mayor is one of the most arrogant, egotistical sons of bitches I've ever met in my life," says Larry Parker, the retired owner of a fabricating company long at odds with City Hall.
It is, however, hard to argue with results. Akron's last full-scale tire plant closed more than 20 years ago, but the city didn't go the way of Flint and other industrial relics. The downtown is clean and animated, with orange barrels and sawhorses signaling coming improvements. The huge Goodrich Building 41, once vacant and streaked with graffiti, now houses a thermoplastics company. Despite a recession, tax collections were actually up last year. Students graduate from Akron high schools at almost twice the rate they do in Cleveland.
"I think he's done a good job," says Summit County Councilman Mike Callahan, who hopelessly opposed Plusquellic in 1991. Then he adds: "God, I hate being quoted saying that."
The mayor and his chief deputy, David Lieberth, are meeting with two representatives from E.J. Thomas Hall, the performing arts center. Dan Dahl and Nancy Logan Barton are booking events at Lock 3 Park, a new, open-air amphitheater downtown. The meeting takes place in a windowless conference room on the second floor of City Hall. Plusquellic is seated at the head of the table. He sits low in the chair and peers above half-glasses. His face is tan and unlined, save for the hint of crow's feet around slate-blue eyes and a small scar on his upper lip. He looks a little like actor Brian Dennehy's younger, more athletic brother.
Dahl touts the something-for-everyoneness of the entertainment scheduled. Plusquellic is preoccupied with logistics. He's worried that people will regard a trip downtown for a Lock 3 farmers' market as too much of a hassle. "Having to make them pay a dollar for parking is like taking food from their table," he says.
Options are discussed. Plusquellic suggests allowing cars to park on Main Street.
"Angle parking?" Lieberth asks.
"I don't give a shit," the mayor answers, simultaneously showing a grasp for mass psychology and a disdain for pesky detail.
Throughout the meeting, Plusquellic drops names. Not of people but of cities he's visited: Madison, Wisconsin; Florence, Italy; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Chemnitz, Germany. He is a well-traveled son of Akron. Three years ago, The Wall Street Journal featured Plusquellic in a story about strong mayors. The piece opened with Plusquellic dining on filet of duck at a transatlantic mayors' summit in Lyons, France. He fraternizes often with the leaders of other cities and is in line to become president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Frequent travel means frequent trips to Hopkins. En route to Cleveland's airport, Plusquellic stares at The Plain Dealer's printing plant in Brooklyn. He is aghast that the City of Cleveland allowed its daily newspaper to build such a mammoth facility outside city limits. But Cleveland helped it happen, he says, by selling its water, instead of using it as a means to exact revenue. Akron provides water and sewer services to four townships in exchange for the privilege of taxing corporate and personal income earned there. The arrangements, which last for 99 years, netted $13.5 million last year. "Selling water is nice, but it undercuts your reason for being," Plusquellic says.
Until recently, the cities of Akron and Cleveland didn't have much of a relationship. Plusquellic used to marvel at Mike White's political gifts; for sheer talent, he puts the former Cleveland mayor on a plane just below the master, Bill Clinton. Still, he chafes at comparisons to his fellow four-termer. "I'm not this overbearing control freak that Mike White apparently was."
He likes Mayor Campbell. He says she's a decent human being, and that counts for something. At the same time, without saying so directly, he questions her fortitude. "There's nobody nicer than my mom, but she couldn't coach the Cleveland Browns," he says. The Cleveland politician he holds in the highest regard is school Superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a "tough cookie."
Plusquellic's relationship with Akron schools has at times been strained. Two years ago, frustrated with the district's performance, he threatened to take control. He once berated officials for not seeking a levy at what he thought was the appropriate time. (It still passed.) A board member compared his attacks to Hitler's bullying of Neville Chamberlain.
Yet it was Plusquellic who proposed and pushed for last fall's construction sales-tax hike. The issue passed with 58 percent of the vote in Akron, but died in all but two suburbs. Plusquellic will forever hold a grudge against Stow and Cuyahoga Falls, whose mayors didn't support the measure.
When the initiative failed, Plusquellic asked staff attorneys to come up with another idea. If it did nothing, the district risked losing $400 million in state matching funds. The attorneys came up with the 0.25 percent income-tax hike, and Plusquellic agreed to let the schools tap into his revenue stream. Akron schools Superintendent Sylvester Small says that in most cities, the mayor either ignores the schools or feuds with its leaders. Plusquellic campaigned for Issue 10 as if it were his child. "There's not anyplace you don't see him," Sylvester says. "There's some little meeting somewhere, and there's the mayor."
Plusquellic attended such a meeting two weeks before the election, when he addressed a seniors group at a Firestone Park community center. A lunch crowd of about 30 elderly citizens sat around tables. Plusquellic, having already eaten, stood holding a cup of coffee. In a room splashed with afternoon sunlight and colorful polyester senior-wear, he looked out of place wearing a dark suit.
Plusquellic spoke without the patronizing tones some politicians adopt in the company of the young or old. (He did play the parochial card by mentioning that his daughter had married a Zupancic, of the Firestone Park Zupancics.) Issue 10, he said, was not about his grandchildren, who had caring parents to teach them the value of education. The mayor said he worried about the children who don't live in a neighborhood as nice as Firestone Park. "Those kids need to be educated, no matter what their parents do," he said.
He seemed to win a few votes. "Sounds like a good idea," one of the seniors volunteered.
"Tell your friends," Plusquellic said.
Of course, under the proposal, retirees won't pay additional tax, since they don't have incomes.
Plusquellic left the meeting with a loaf of raisin bread under his arm. The last time he spoke to the seniors, he was chastised for being late. The woman who chewed him out came to regret it and offered the bread as a peace offering.
"We were early today," the mayor said as he walked to the car.
By 1982, the once-strident United Rubber Workers meekly agreed to a wage concession proposed by General Tire. The plant -- the last of its kind in Akron -- closed anyway. Unemployment hit double digits. The city was a Springsteen song. Yet Plusquellic says Akron need only look east to feel fortunate. Steel died a sudden death, while rubber's was more gradual. "Being mayor of Youngstown had to be awful," he says.
Akron also had the advantage of science. Tire-making left a legacy: polymers, the molecular chains used to make synthetic rubber as well as spandex, yogurt cups, and airplane wings. The city is now home to some 400 polymer companies, such as the Plastic Lumber Company, which builds signs and picnic benches from recycled plastic.
Plusquellic spends much of his time -- almost half, he says -- touting Akron's business-friendliness. The mayor takes economic development so seriously that in his most recent State of the City address, he encouraged citizens to put ink to paper and thank Goodyear's chairman for not moving his headquarters elsewhere, as did all the other tire chieftains. In the past, Plusquellic says, the city sat idly by as thousands of rubber jobs disappeared. "Now, if someone comes to town with the promise of 50 jobs, it's like 'Holy shit!'"
Plusquellic once said that when it comes to tax abatements, "I'll do just anything any other community would -- and then some." He likes to joke that 40 years ago, he would have been indicted for what is now called "public and private partnering." It is a confident mayor who can jest about grand juries, for the smell of corruption has, on occasion, hovered above Plusquellic & Company.
Ray Kapper was Akron's service director from 1984 to 1992. Before that, he was president of city council. He was also a mentor to Plusquellic, going back to their days coaching CYO football. Kapper retired from the city, but he kept a hand in its business. He became a consultant, and some contractors complained that in order to get city work, they needed to pay Kapper's generous consulting fee. In 2000, the FBI raided his office .
He was either stupid or greedy. In addition to consulting, Kapper served on a number of boards. It was revealed that he had received almost $500,000 from companies that won contracts from the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and the Summit County Children Services Board. Kapper served on both agencies' boards, but had not disclosed his financial relationships with agency contractors. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud and was sentenced to five months in prison.
Plusquellic, who named Kapper to the housing authority board, dismissed it as a "technical violation."
Another Plusquellic service director was disgraced this spring. Akron detectives determined that in 1997, Joe Kidder received about $50,000 worth of free work on his house from a contractor who also happened to win a rushed, $1 million renovation project from the city. Kidder claimed he didn't realize the extent of Cioffi Construction's work on his home -- the builder of record was a man named Tony Polera, a Cioffi subcontractor -- until the police file was made public. The Akron Beacon Journal compelled the release of the investigation after Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh, a Democrat, chose not to bring charges.
Still, Kidder's supposed ignorance was difficult to accept. Pressure mounting, he resigned. But as he had with Kapper, the mayor faulted the circumstance, not the man. "It's not that I lost confidence in him," Plusquellic said at a news conference, "but the perception is impossible to overcome."
At first, the mayor tried to keep Kidder in his job, suspending him for a week without pay. Plusquellic's decisions carry such weight that when Councilman Joe Finley called for Kidder's resignation, other members of council reacted as if he had tossed a severed head over the castle wall. Mary Ellen McAvoy and John Otterman left the room before Finley read his statement. After the meeting, Council President Marco Sommerville said Finley had no class.
Council does what it is told, says Akron attorney Warner Mendenhall, who works on behalf of Democrats he calls "independent of the mayor's machine." Mendenhall served two terms in the mid-'90s. He says Plusquellic gerrymandered him into oblivion after he dared to question the costs of Canal Park, the minor-league baseball stadium that opened for play six years ago. "You gotta hand it to the guy," Mendenhall says of the mayor. "He's been effective at stomping the opposition."
Republican state Representative Bryan Williams is calling on Mendenhall and other aggrieved citizens, as he mounts the first real challenge to Plusquellic in 12 years. He's actively courting the crank vote. When Williams announced his candidacy, irate residents shared the stage, complaining of various atrocities (a garbage-transfer station, a concrete-crushing plant, etc.) that had been dumped in their neighborhoods. The administration's supposed brutality will be "the issue" of the mayor's race, Williams says. "After 17 years as mayor, Don Plusquellic has a suffocating chokehold on every branch of city government in Akron."
Facing term limits in Columbus, Williams was encouraged to run by Summit County GOP Chair Alex Arshinkoff. It is more than the fall of Saddam that has Republicans thinking regime change. The courts recently upheld a city charter amendment that caps campaign contributions at $300 ($100 for ward council candidates). But nothing restricts what parties do, and Arshinkoff is always flush.
The amendment was passed in 1998, the same year the Akron chapter of the American Friends Service Committee released a study that linked city contracts and campaign contributions. Plusquellic was shown to have received 60 percent of his donations from individuals with building ties.
The good-government types irritate Plusquellic. He says they make him out to be an "evil person," while the real scoundrels get a pass. He claims not to have made a fund-raising call since 1987, the year he first ran for mayor. He says he finds the whole process demeaning. His principal means of raising money are a golf outing and a ball, each held annually, and he can be a bore about the costs of hosting a decent gala. "I guarantee you that I raise less money per capita than any mayor in the state of Ohio," he says.
Of course, before this year, he really hasn't had to.
In 1999, Plusquellic held a news conference on the heels of an Akron Beacon Journal report on allegations of domestic violence by then-Chief of Police Edward Irvine. The chief's wife told hospital personnel that he had caused her injuries. She later recanted, and no charges were ever filed.
The Beacon, as any decent newspaper would have done, raised questions about the department's ability to investigate its own chief. Plusquellic fumed at what he read. An 11-page rebuttal was prepared; the mayor called the series "an updated version of an old Southern lynching." (Irvine is African American.)
The press conference lasted 90 minutes, with Plusquellic using chestnuts like "garbage" and "tabloid journalism" to describe the Beacon series.
For that and similar incidents, Plusquellic has burnished the reputation of a petulant podium-pounder. He often resorts to name-calling when he sees or hears something not to his liking. "Wackos," "rats," and "screwballs" count among his favorite pejoratives. (Speaking of city council, e.g.: "It's a heckuva lot better when you have good people to work with than when you have screwballs.") He's thrown a tantrum or two. Claiming the Aeros had not paid a bill from the city, Plusquellic boycotted the inaugural game at Canal Park. He was supposed to throw out the first pitch.
Yet those who know Plusquellic say the Mayor Hothead rep is not entirely accurate. "From my point of view, I don't know that he has a worse temper than anybody else," Sawyer says. "But when he's unhappy about something, he's open about it."
Summit County Councilman Jim McCarthy suggests that Plusquellic is more blunt than mean. "You don't have to dig something out of him. He'll tell what he feels."
Plusquellic admits that he can come across as gruff and hard-nosed. But he resents the suggestion that he's a mad dictator in the manner of a fourth-term Mike White. He frequently describes himself as agonizing over decisions. While a young councilman, for example, Plusquellic was eager to show his ward that he was worthy of its support. To that end, he backed a plan to renovate Kenmore's business district, which had become shabby. Additional parking was among the solutions, but to make room for cars, homes had to be demolished. One of the homes in the line of the wrecking ball was owned by an elderly woman. She had been born in the house, and she told Plusquellic she would be crushed to leave.
Plusquellic, pain in his gut, voted to take her house by eminent domain.
Some time after the renovation was complete, the elderly woman called Plusquellic. She stunned him when she said she thought that Kenmore Boulevard looked wonderful -- and she liked her new house better than the old one. "Shit, this was like my own grandmother telling me I did OK," he says.
The mayor tells the story to illustrate the point that voters want their officials -- that is, Don Plusquellic -- to make decisions, not to sit back and piss off the fewest number of people until the next election. He sees acceptance of the status quo as a form of cowardice. He pushed the construction of the minor-league stadium when critics said the proximity of the Indians would doom attendance. The opposite has proved true. The Aeros have benefited from the parent-club Tribe's popularity. "Every once in a while, during a press conference, I ask where the naysayers are," he sniffs.
For all the good he has done, Plusquellic believes at times that he is above criticism. Other politicians might salivate at the coverage he has received from the Beacon Journal -- especially its editorial page. (Columnist Steve Hoffman has already dismissed Williams as "basically an anti-tax, suburban-oriented legislator who has shown no substantial interest in solving the problems of any of Ohio's Democrat-dominated cities, let alone Akron.") But Gregory Korte, who covered City Hall for the Beacon before moving to The Cincinnati Enquirer, says Plusquellic always saw the paper as his nemesis. "There was never any kind of speech that he gave that he didn't bash the Beacon at some point," he says.
There is also the thought that Plusquellic strategically deploys his outrage, that he's his own best hit man. He seldom expresses regret for his tirades. "It serves him well," Sawyer says. "He makes his point loudly and clearly, and people say, 'Oh, that's just Don.'"
Polling numbers were favorable. Opposition did not organize. Barring calamity, Issue 10 looked like a win.
In fact, victory arrived by landslide. On May 6, the measure passed by a margin of almost two to one. After all these years, voters showed that they still listen to Plusquellic.
"This guy is the real deal," says campaign strategist Bill Burges, who advised the Issue 10 campaign. "I've worked with them all, and he's the best. He's completely real. There's no B.S. Everything's natural. If this guy was elected governor, they'd repeal term limits for governors."
Plusquellic says he considered running for governor a few years ago. He was on vacation, brooding about the direction the state was taking. Like most urban Democrats, he thinks state government is dominated by small minds and uncaring hearts. He wondered if he could make a difference. "I just agonized," he says.
Instead, he chose to remain the Akron colossus. "He enjoys being mayor," Sawyer says. "I think he's comfortable with the job, and it shows."
The middle-aged Plusquellic feels as though he's living on borrowed time. The men in his bloodline don't live long. His father died at age 49 from a bad heart. An uncle died at 33. In addition to family history, the mayor compounds the odds through injury. He's had two back surgeries and three on his knees. A run for higher office would seem to require more than his body will allow.
Riding in the passenger seat of a sedan driven by Lieberth, Plusquellic flips down the mirrored visor and finger-combs the remaining strands of silver hair. The car passes the Goodrich plant and headquarters that miraculously found new tenants. Sunlight washes the bricks of Canal Park. On the way to his next appointment, the mayor swallows a blast of mouth spray. "I still feel like I'm accomplishing things," he says.