Earlier this summer I had the chance to sit down and chat with Akron’s longest serving mayor, Don Plusquellic. At the time of our conversation, he had been out of office only a short time. The events of the spring that led up to his unexpected resignation were still fresh in the minds of many, including Plusquellic himself.
His last day in office was almost anti-climatic. He spoke about research data during his final press conference and then simply left the room. There were no extremely passionate speeches, no tears and no anger. Anyone seeking drama was disappointed to be sure. Our discussion wasn’t fraught with drama either, instead it was a time full of reflection. Reflection of what had led up to the end of his tenure as mayor, of what had happened since and what may be yet to come.
Throughout his extended term as mayor, Plusquellic made a major impact on the city. The Joint Economic Development Districts, keeping Goodyear in the city and the development of downtown Akron are only a few of his accomplishments. But for him, it is impossible to point to one project that was the most important. When speaking to other mayors, Plusquellic provided an example of setting priorities as mayor. “I say that when there’s a gun being pulled on your mom at her job, and your daughter is at home and there’s a fire, and then your father’s having a heart attack at work…which one of those three would you like me to only respond to?” He says that the simplest answer is that you can’t really pick one. Each of them are equally important. “The point is there aren’t any real priorities. They’re all a priority,” says Plusquellic. To him, the mayor must balance the priorities at once and be able to understand each of the working parts.
Just do it
Any observer of Mayor Plusquellic’s career might say he lives by the slogan of “just do it.” “I think you have to do things. You have to look, you have to go out, you have to get information and do your best job figuring things out,” he says. “You can’t wait for the naysayers.” In the nearly three decades that Plusquellic was mayor, he certainly got things done. Along the way he has ruffled feathers, but the mark he left on the city is a visible one.
Ruffling feathers is nothing new for him. As a young councilman, Plusquellic worked to develop the main drag of Kenmore. “Along with improving housing, I wanted to do this business district. So I started with a small group of business people and we built support and tried to see what their needs were.” One hurdle to bringing patrons to the businesses was a lack of parking spaces. To solve this problem, Plusquellic helped develop a plan to add parking. Clearing the space for the parking lots meant getting rid of homes and buildings.
“ But low and behold, the first house…was an 80-year-old woman who reminded me of my grandmother. And she was distraught.” This woman was in a rare situation according to Plusquellic. She had been born in that house, lived there during childhood and had even moved into a separated upstairs apartment when she married.
In the end, he took her house and did turn it into a parking lot. The experience stuck with him. “It’s important [to know] that you’re not ever going to please everyone. And if you wait, even to get the 90 percent, you’re never going to do anything. You’ll just sit back and watch life go by.”
Several years later, he says the elderly woman from Kenmore called him to apologize. “She called me and she said to me ‘I want to apologize. I need you to know that I live in a better house, and my city looks so beautiful.’”
Whenever a similar project arose, or Plusquellic had a difficult task in front of him, he says he did not hesitate because of emotions. “I’m sorry, there’s no compassion—or I lost it all on this 80-year-old woman—but I had to take her house, and she [eventually] understood.”
Five years ago, Plusquellic began to think about leaving office. “A good friend of mine and the former mayor of Trenton was just bugging the heck out of me to stop feeling guilty [and] listen to good friends and family who care — just retire and have a good life.” Plusquellic didn’t listen right away, but instead spent several more years in office.
It wasn’t until last Christmas, while the mayor spent some time in Florida, that he started really reflecting on what he wanted to do next. After spending his time reading and just thinking about his future, Plusquellic returned home still unsure.
“ Then things happened that had been building for nine months or so with one of the council members — and you know the way I was treated by The Akron Beacon Journal, I will never ever forgive them.” After reading unsavory comments in the press, he didn’t like the way the situation was developing. “People started reading, and all of a sudden, I’m some terrible monster. Why? Because I legitimately thought this guy was capable of going completely off, and I have seven cabinet members who were willing to go to the Beacon, along with a former police official, to explain [that the councilman] said ‘this mayor’s going to go down and I’m the one to take him down!’”
The fear of being attacked is not new for those in public office. Criticism of public officials can create instances of excessive force. In 1978, George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco was shot and killed along with the city Supervisor Harvey Milk. The two political leaders were killed in the City Hall by the former Supervisor, Dan White. Though not the norm, there is a precedent. When passions are ignited, fear ebbs its way into the minds of people like Plusquellic. “I met Moscone on the balcony of that city hall, a year and a half before he was killed. So for people to act like that doesn’t happen, that people don’t get mad and shoot people, is wrong.”
Plusquellic claims that the escalation of tensions in city council and the unsavory editorial comments from the Beacon collided, causing him to make an abrupt decision. “So they probably did me a favor because I was really struggling and they pushed me over the edge.”
Plusquellic put in his resignation, effective May 31.
But who would fill his shoes? Plusquellic hoped to prevent a complicated mayoral race by endorsing a solid candidate. “I honestly believed that I had done the right thing for the city,” says Plusquellic. “I had told Moneypenny for months that if I didn’t run, I was going to leave early. He knew it, people in my office knew it.”
In his preparations, Plusquellic says that he used all of his resources to make sure Moneypenny was qualified. “I vetted Gary completely and there was nothing there.” Yet, shortly after being sworn in, Moneypenny resigned because of inappropriate advances towards a coworker. The community was stunned. So was Plusquellic. “I obviously didn’t know about it or I would not have resigned. I would have withdrawn my resignation, but by the time I found out about it, the day after he was sworn in, it was too late.”
They say that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry and for the longest serving mayor of Akron, what he thought was a carefully constructed transition disintegrated before his eyes. “Needless to say it was an embarrassment for me. It was something that I had thought I planned out and did for the benefit of the community — not to benefit Gary at all —it was really just that I believed I was leaving the city in good hands,” he says. The situation left him frustrated and stressed by the plans that didn’t work out.
With a desire to leave behind the drama of the early summer, Plusquellic travelled to California. There he channeled his frustrations, pounding nails into shingles for Habitat for Humanity. Accompanied by his eldest grandchild, he climbed onto a roof each day in a large hangar in Tustin, Calif., where Habitat was constructing several shells of homes for disabled veterans. “Last summer, I [had] a major double fusion on my back, so going to Nepal and lifting rocks is not something I can do. But I’ve found that I can pound nails. I can really feel like I’ve had a sense of accomplishment after a day’s work.”
While on the west coast, Plusquellic also attended the Conference of Mayors, an organization that he has been very involved in over the years. During this meeting, he was presented with a service award from the Conference of Mayors. “When I talk about the Conference of Mayors, I’m emotional. It has been such an important part of my life and given me opportunities to deal with national issues that I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.”
Since leaving office, Plusquellic has traveled a lot. Ultimately however, Akron is home for him. “I want to stay here and it’s really why I cared about the perception that people have.”
Of course, whatever decision is made will be scrutinized. That is part of the nature of a democracy. Just like football players, clad in their uniforms and pads, the former mayor says that onlookers often forget the human beings that make up the players. “You see public officials arguing and you don’t realize why they are arguing. You see them as combatants in a coliseum and not as human beings,” he says. “I’m a human being. I bleed, I am emotional, I feel things. So I cared about what people thought of me as a human being and I just said I’ve had enough.”
So what will the former mayor of Akron do now? Professionally, he plans to do some consulting work and utilize the years of experience he picked up in the mayor’s office. “I am probably going to get my law license reactivated,” he says. “I haven’t practiced law in 28 and a half years, [and by] practice law, I don’t mean going into court and making some argument before the Supreme Court. But to represent clients and people here in Ohio in situations where they need a representative.” No matter what specific positions he takes on, the former mayor intends to remain in the area.