September 30, 2014

Elyria
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Economy may have cost some incumbents their jobs

ELYRIA – Fallout from a fading Northeast Ohio economy and the perception of poor job performance were keys to why 11 incumbents lost their jobs in Lorain County last week, according to one political expert.

The political shakeup was felt all the way at the top, with Avon Lake Mayor Rob Berner, Sheffield Mayor Darlene Ondercin and Kipton Mayor Dennis Watson all being defeated.

Two Council members in Elyria and Oberlin, one each in Lorain and Amherst and school board members from Lorain and the Sheffield-Sheffield Lake district also lost.

But voters weren`t just unkind to incumbents in Lorain County. Familiar names were bypassed at the polls all over Northeast Ohio, and a startling 20 mayors lost their bids for re-election from here to Summit County.

Stephen Brooks, acting director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said that the results were hardly a coincidence.

“My guess is that, certainly in Northeast Ohio, there is an issue and concern about jobs, expenses and taxes,” Brooks said. “And there are always tradeoffs in terms of responding to that.”

Brooks said that in an attempt to fix large-scale problems that have been growing for decades, politicians are forced to make bold decisions that can sometimes be seen as too much change for voters.

“For example, everyone wants industry, but they have to decide if we should have it in this neighborhood or that one. Hard times force you to draw the lines much more clearly than if everything`s going fine,” he said.

“You can`t be in the middle, you`re either for or against, but that leads political leaders to take risks to get the problem solved, unlike when you`re in good times where you just keep on going along.”

Brooks cautioned that while there may have been a pattern, voters likely took issue with problems they had with the individual candidates, regardless of the broad social problems surrounding the election.

Avon Lake`s mayoral race appears to be a good example of that. Councilman Karl “KC” Zuber defeated Berner by nearly 1,000 votes, according to unofficial election results. The verdict shocked surrounding communities, considering the city`s strong financial shape, but few inside Avon Lake`s borders were surprised.

Zuber said nearly every resident he spoke to on the campaign trail commented that nothing new was happening in town and that Berner was a poor communicator. Zuber credited his political experience – he`s been in politics for more than a decade – as part of the reason he won.

“A lot of it comes down to the campaign you run,” he said. “There was a real call for change here, and it could do with how people feel about politics in general, but in Avon Lake it was a more homegrown type of change. There was a specific reason here and it was how he communicated with people.”

Berner also fell out of favor with the local United Auto Workers union because of some comments he made in The Chronicle earlier this year.

Tim Donovan, president of UAW 2000 in Avon Lake, said that while Berner had fought to keep Ford`s Ohio Assembly Plant in Avon Lake in business, the mayor also made several “irresponsible” comments during six years in office, especially in an article where Berner discussed Ford`s possible plan to create a supplier network around the plant which, Berner said, could generate about 1,800 jobs.

Berner also criticized employees at the Ohio Assembly Plant another time, saying they don`t show up for work. The comments were made when he was asked about Ford possibly closing the plant down.

“That`s why I supported KC Zuber and I encouraged the UAW to support Mr. Zuber as well,” Donovan said.

Berner said the city is much better off than when he stepped into office in 2001, and he had no idea that voters wanted a change. He said he did his best to communicate with residents, but he hoped doing his job well would send a better message.

“If it was a personality thing, I`m not a politician and I never claimed to be one,” he said. “I never said I would always try to make people happy and always fix their problems. Sometimes city government can`t fix all your problems.”

Voters in Sheffield said they were upset with what they saw as stagnant progress from 14-year Mayor Darlene Ondercin, who lost to longtime union man John Hunter 718 to 548, according to unofficial results.

Hunter said the problem with people who hold office too long is they begin to think they are infallible.

“They think they`re bigger than the people, and now the people have said, ‘Hey, that`s not right, we need a change to let them realize who they`re in office for.` ”

In Lorain, six-term Councilman David Wargo, D-1st Ward, lost to independent candidate Melanie Szabo by a vote of 670 to 581. Szabo said residents there found it difficult to contact Wargo, and were tired of him not returning their calls. Communication was another reason Elyria voters cited for getting rid of Councilwoman Bonnie Ivancic, D-4th Ward and Councilman Herman Larkins, D-5th Ward, saying they were both unresponsive to their needs.

Elyria mayor Bill Grace, who narrowly defeated challenger Tim Quinn, said the message voters sent was heard.

“The obvious message has been sent that people would like to see more improvements taking place in the city,” Grace said. “We`re working hard to make sure that will happen, and now we`ll be doubling our efforts.”

Contact Adam Wright at 653-6257 or awright@chroniclet.com.