Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic is in a testy, combative mood today — one familiar to Akron voters after his 24 years as mayor. He's standing on a press-conference podium, twirling a small stick.
"This is a magic wand," Plusquellic announces. "It is a magic wand that good people, even probably my own mother, wishes I had waved a long time ago, to bring 35,000 or 40,000 or 50,000 rubber jobs back to this city." But, he says, letting his sarcasm sink in, he deals with the real world, where jobs won't come back "by waving a magic wand or by talking about it."
For six terms as mayor, Plusquellic has tried to pull the Rubber City's economy back after tire manufacturing's flight. The strong-willed son of a rubber worker has stretched old thinking about what city hall can do for a local economy. But his hard-charging zeal attracts enemies as well as jobs. His challenger in the Sept. 13 mayoral primary, councilman Mike Williams, has taken an audacious shot at him. Like a Western outlaw taunting John Wayne as slow on the draw, Williams claims Plusquellic isn't doing enough to keep businesses in Akron.
The mayor's voice is deep and steady, as smooth as the gavel handle he's waving. He can't resist dramatic moments like this. "We have a great track record," he says.
When Plusquellic became mayor in 1987, Akron was reeling. Its Big Four rubber companies had moved most of their factories and headquarters away. "We watched them leave," he laments. So he became mayor with a mission: "Let's try to figure out how to make this place competitive and work with them."
He didn't just chase big smokestacks. The mayor partnered with the chamber of commerce, checking in on hundreds of local companies to learn their needs. "They didn't have anywhere to expand," he says. So the city bought and cleaned up industrial land to sell to expanding businesses.
Plusquellic forged regional partnerships Cleveland should envy: He ended Akron's annexation wars by starting economic development districts with neighboring townships. He invested heavily in downtown: the Akron Aeros' Canal Park, a convention center, a biomedical corridor. The number of downtown workers has doubled to 30,000 during his time in office.
When Goodyear, the last tire company headquartered in Akron, considered moving, he sprang into action. "History shows us that companies do leave," he says. He put together a deal for a new project that convinced them to stay. He helped convince Bridgestone-Firestone to locate a $100 million tech center in the city.
But the past four years have been Plusquellic's hardest. "It's been miserable," he says. He can turn thin-skinned, impatient and mean when challenged, which incites his tenacious, motley crew of enemies. He beat back a recall effort in 2009.
"The mayor does not forget or forgive," Williams complains. Plusquellic doesn't talk to Mayor Don Robart of Cuyahoga Falls. He's feuded with the judge who ordered Akron to combat sewage overflows.
"Politics is extremely fluid," Williams says. "You always have to leave the door open." Plusquellic "can't do that," he says.
Plusquellic says he gets along with opponents, except for two kinds: people who renege on a deal and liars.
"I despise 'em, I think they're despicable human beings, and I put Mike in that category, of people who lie to the public," he says. He thinks Williams misled voters about his proudest idea. In 2008, Plusquellic proposed funding college scholarships for Akron kids by leasing the city sewers. Voters shot down the plan. "I can't fathom anything that could've been more important for the city," Plusquellic says.
At a fundraiser at Dante's Gameday Grille, Plusquellic works the room quietly, until he takes the mic, and his fighting spirit leaps up. He tells the crowd Akron has one of the nation's best city governments. "[It] works efficiently and effectively," he says. "And by God, we're going to continue to do that, in spite of all the lies that the other side wants to tell and the abuse I've taken for 10 years."