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Election Climate in Strongsville Heats Up

Friday, June 20, 2003 at 1:12 PM

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As the summer months begin to heat up, so will campaign season. Would-be candidates are exploring possible runs for a variety of seats throughout northeast Ohio. Perhaps the most interesting election climate in the region is the one developing in Strongsville. The city's mayor of 25 years passed away last month. And now, there's only one name on the ballot: a virtual unknown who faces squaring off against some of the city's political veterans. ideastream's Renita Jablonski reports.

Morning, noon, and night, the traffic never seems to let up on Route 82 in Strongsville. There’s South Park Mall, the recreation center, and what seems like shopping strip upon shopping strip, development upon development.

Kim: There was no mall, there was no shopping plaza, there wasn’t even a movie theater when I moved here. We had a bowling alley, no fast foods. So it’s really grown, now you can’t even get through the city.

Kim, who didn’t want to give her last name, has lived in Strongsville most of her life. And throughout that time, she only remembers knowing one mayor. Walter Ehrnfelt was first appointed to the mayor’s seat in 1978. After that, he was elected six times. He led the city for a quarter of a century. But with his death last month, the city’s political future is in limbo.

Laura A. Smith wants to be the city’s next mayor. Her mail carrier jokes with her as his eye catches the sign hanging in her front window. The sign reads “Laura Smith for Strongsville Mayor, Time for a Change!” Smith has lived in the southwest suburb for 12 years with her husband and children. She works in a local doctor’s office. She’s never held political office but says it’s something she always thought about as a child growing up in Parma.

Laura Smith: I grew up right on Ridge Road, right where the nursing home is on Ridge and Pleasant Valley, and right where they built that nursing home used to be a strawberry patch and my brother and I used to lay there in that strawberry patch and eat them right off the vine. And then next thing you know, there’s a nursing home right there. Our strawberry patch was gone. And so I thought some day I will fight city hall. And, this is it.

At the top of Smith’s agenda for Strongsville, to control the city’s development.

Laura Smith: There’s too much growth that the people have complained about. It’s happening but not the way they want it to happen. We have a lot of green space that’s been taken away. We want to keep it.

Terry: Like right across here from Tops, I mean, we’ve got enough shopping malls. I’d like to leave some of the nature-looking stuff, the trees and all that so I’d like to slow it down just a little bit and kind of, I like growth but not too much too fast.

Some voters like Terry, who also didn’t want to give her last name, like Smith’s idea. Still, Terry says she’s not comfortable punching the ballot next to a name she’s never heard of. But that’s the way the ballot’s going to look in Strongsville this November. That’s because Laura Smith was the only candidate willing to challenge the long-term incumbent Walter Ehrnfelt. Ehrnfelt died in office after the filing deadline, leaving only Smith’s name on the ballot. Therefore, anyone wishing to challenge Laura Smith must do so as a write-in - hoping that voters remember your name. That’s what Joe Demio’s counting on. Last week the Strongsville Councilman-At-Large filed with the Board of Elections as a write-in candidate for mayor.

Joe Demio: Right now I think we have to have a stabilizing effect. We lost a great elected official who was on the school board and then of course, the administrator of the city. He always had that calming effect because he was always there. He was the great institution of the city and I think that what we need to work on and that’s why it’s very, very important for the next mayor to be a person that the residents already know.

Demio, who’s served on council since 1995, may have a little more name recognition than Smith, but he still has the challenge of trying to run a successful campaign without having his name printed on the ballot.

Ray Haseley: Write-in candidates are not the best way to elect any official. But that’s what we have to work with.

Ray Haseley is a ward councilman for Strongsville, Council President, and acting Mayor of Strongsville. He’s the latest person considering a write-in bid. The 70-year-old was a close friend to Mayor Ehrnfelt. Ehrnfelt was best man in Haseley’s wedding two weeks before he died.

Ray Haseley: Like a great many people I always felt Walter (would) be here forever.

Haseley says he almost feels like he owes it to Ehrnfelt to seriously consider a run for mayor, especially given his concerns about Smith and Demio, the only official candidates so far.

Ray Haseley: (laughs) Well, knowledge… lack of. Sum it up on that.

Haseley’s been on council for five years. Prior to that he was chairman of the Planning Commission for seven years. There’s also the issue of party politics. For 25 years, Strongsville was headed by a Republican, and while the election is nonpartisan, the Cuyahoga County Republican Party wants to do everything it can to keep it that way. By the way, Haseley’s a Republican, Smith describes herself as such, and Demio’s a democrat. All three say party strategies aren’t important in this race. Haseley says he’s got something more important to worry about if he decides to run.

Ray Haseley: You have to make the people aware, first of all, how to spell your name.

For anyone in this race, education will be key. So, as Haseley and others debate whether or not to join in the write-in race, Joe Demio is busy working out his own write-in campaign strategies, and Laura Smith is planning her next fundraiser, wings and beer Monday night, $20 a head. She’s already spent the $300 that was in her campaign war chest.

Laura Smith: Just enough to buy signs…

In Strongsville, Renita Jablonski, 90.3.

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