New Akron poll: Crime, Jayland Walker and undecided voters dominate public opinion in mayor’s race
The people of Akron have spoken in an opinion poll released Monday. And they’re ready for the change coming this election year.
At the time the survey was conducted from Jan. 17 to Feb. 4, the field of seven Democrats running for mayor on the May 2 primary ballot was still forming. As expected so early in the race, 66% of the survey's 510 respondents were undecided about who should succeed Mayor Dan Horrigan, who is not seeking reelection.
But these Akron residents resoundingly said they want a leader with high ethical standards, fresh ideas and a clear vision for the city, by margins of 71% or better. Less than half prioritized previous experience in city government.
Akronites are measurably eager to have their voices heard at the ballot box, in part, because 86% say their voices aren't always or frequently heard in the halls of city government. And 53% say the city is on the wrong track.
They would have the next mayor do more than just run the city. They want a visionary with a reform agenda.
The most important issues for Akronites can be grouped as economic or reform-minded, said John Green, director emeritus of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. One category pertains to economic development — job creation, providing a safe environment — while the other dimension lumps policies that would deliver change, such as reforming police and giving citizens a greater voice in city government.
“The reform cluster is stronger statistically. That means it’s more prevalent,” said Green, who was careful not to discount economic concerns.
“There are a significant number of people on both of these dimensions. But, really, the reform one is stronger,” said Green, making a larger connection to the majority of Akronites not happy with the direction of their city.
The survey, released by the Center for Opinion and Marketing Research (CMOR), is rich with detailed responses to open-ended questions, allowing the people to set the agenda for the campaigns.
No longer top of mind is the economy (which dominated public opinion in Akron 10 years ago) or fatal drug overdoses (which spiked in a 2018 survey) or basic public services like plugging potholes (which led polls in last municipal elections of 2015 and 2019). Leaping sharply to the forefront this election year are issues of public safety and policing.
Experts who orchestrated the poll — including Green and Michelle Henry, president and co-founder of CMOR — attribute the dramatic shift to three years of sustained levels of gun violence and murders nationally and locally, and the community’s reform-minded reaction to the June 2022 police killing of Jayland Walker.
The poll found 62% of surveyed residents want the next city administration to prioritize police reform. That’s exactly the percentage of voters who passed a charter amendment in November creating a Citizens’ Police Oversight Board; 63% of survey respondents think the board will increase transparency and accountability in policing.
Even though 62% of respondents said they want police reform, even larger percentages said they prioritize safety and crime (89%), k-12 education (75%) quality housing (73%), affordable housing (72%), racial justice and equality (71%), job creation and retention (70%), economic development (70%) homelessness and evictions (70%), giving citizens a greater voice in government (63%) and streets and infrastructure (63%).
Crime dominates public concern
Akronites desire more than anything for the next mayor to curb crime and violence.
When asked to give a specific concern, gun violence was public enemy No. 1. And a shrinking sense of safety in their own neighborhoods is shared more widely by Akron residents — regardless of race, age, income or political ideology.
“This community is dying here, and it's being overrun by crime,” said Daniel Rolf, a biracial 55-year-old man from West Akron who participated in the survey. “And it decreases the property value every time you turn around. Who wants to live in the area where you hear gunshots every night?"
Fifty-one percent of survey respondents said they feel less safe now than a few years ago.
"I've lived in Akron all my life. And I am 46 years old. And I have never seen the violence as bad as it has been in the last two, three years,” said Derek, another survey respondent. The white man from West Akron gave permission for only his first name to be used to speak publicly about a sensitive topic.
Most often saying they want better quality of life, one in five people said they may leave Akron in the next two years as the city continues to shed more than 1,500 people annually, on average. With no Republican on the ballot this year, plans for public safety feature prominently in the platforms of the seven Democratic hopefuls.
Jayland Walker looms large on Akron minds
Four years ago during the city’s apology-worthy effort to plow snow, Akron residents prioritized the maintenance of roads and other public infrastructure when asked to rank their top concerns, though their answers at the time covered the entire county.
Sewer bills remained high and public service concerns persisted for Akron residents through 2022, despite a new 0.25% income tax paving hundreds of additional miles of roadway and funding tens of millions of dollars in police and fire upgrades, from new cruisers and equipment to reconstructed fire stations.
But Green, who’s conducted thousands of polls in his career, said public sentiment is almost always a reflection of the times. And nothing in Akron appears more salient today than the shooting death by Akron police of Jayland Walker.
The Black, 25-year-old DoorDash driver led a caravan of police cruisers on a crosstown vehicle pursuit at night in late June. Police say Walker fired a single shot while driving. Walker, who was unarmed as he fled, was shot 46 times by eight officers after running from his car.
The incident sparked a summer of protest beyond what the city witnessed in 2020. Longstanding calls for police reform resurfaced. A grand jury decision on whether to indicate the eight officers involved in Walker’s death is expected as early voting begins in April.
Henry, who’s measured top concerns in Akron and Summit County for the past two decades, called public safety nearly doubling as a concern the “biggest shift” in the new poll.
“It would really surprise me if the Jayland Walker incident didn’t influence people’s perceptions,” Green agreed. “The crime rate hasn’t increased as rapidly as this opinion.”
Thirty percent of respondents, particularly Akron’s Black population, said police should be punished — specifically fired, charged, arrested and jailed. A quarter, evenly split by race but skewing younger, called for police reform. Twenty percent, with a more even distribution by race, income and age, want police to be held accountable. And skewing older are the 10% of respondents withholding their personal judgment until the release of a “full and fair investigation.”
Older, more affluent and white Akronites were overrepresented among the 15% who say police did nothing wrong. These views were most prominent in the 44312 (Ellet) and 44319 (Coventry Crossing) ZIP codes.
ZIP codes covering Wards 3 and 5, with disproportionately more Black and low-income residents, were more likely to seek punishment for the police officers. Young, poorer and Black respondents also said they feel the least safe in their neighborhoods, though it’s now white, older and more affluent respondents who are increasingly saying it’s getting more dangerous to live in Akron.
Poll illustrates recent hot topics
Walker’s death isn’t the only current event driving public opinion.
After crime and public safety, the second-highest selection from a provided list of specific issues was k-12 education.
Akron Public Schools, for the second time in the past four years, is again without a permanent superintendent. Parents, educators, school discipline data and police reports detail an alarming frequency and scope of violence in the city’s public school buildings.
Next on the list is the availability of quality and affordable housing. Newly formed tenant unions in publicly subsidized apartment complexes and housing rights activists have flooded city council these past two years, demanding that their city hold landlords accountable. Apartment complex fires, maintenance issues and a fatal carbon monoxide leak have many in the majority of the city who rent on edge. And the city’s eviction crisis survived the pandemic.
Mayor Horrigan’s tax abatement program for new housing, launched in 2017, has revived residential construction while stirring opposition from community, environmental, social and economic justice activists. Entire communities have protested the residential development of housing at the old Riverwoods Golf Course and wetlands at White Pond, which are moving forward with added environmental protections, while stopping a plan for luxury homes on wooded public land at Theiss Road.
A solid 62% of respondents said they favor environmental sustainability over economic value as the focus of new housing development in the city.
And 74% of respondents favor rehabilitating existing homes over building new units. Horrigan has dedicated federal COVID relief funds to help with home repairs, though the money may cover only half the requests for help.
After landing an Amazon fulfillment center on Romig Road — made possible by tax breaks and public infrastructure improvements — the people of Akron want more small business growth. Only 35% said the city should support big businesses when given a choice to help the little guys. The Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce, United Way’s Financial Empowerment Centers and city grant programs have already taken note.
And, in a debate that’s raged for decades, it’s in the neighborhoods, not downtown, where 80% of respondents say they want the city to invest.
The “magnitude” of support for neighborhoods and small businesses reflected “bigger numbers than I thought we would see,” said Green. The political professor was “really surprised” to see so many people support environmental sustainability over the economic benefits of development.
Is Akron on the wrong track?
A majority (53.8%) of Akron residents said their city is on the wrong track while 53% also said Summit County’s suburbs are headed in the right direction. For context, about 65% of Americans in national polls say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Akronites’ negative views of the city were sharpest in Goodyear Heights, Ellet and among the city's more conservative, younger, less affluent and less educated residents.
By race, 51% of Black respondents said the city is on the right track while 54% of white residents said their city is headed in the wrong direction.
Age correlated more strongly than race or income. Among respondents younger than 45 years old, 61% said Akron is on the wrong track compared to 53% of the older group who said the city is on the right track.
Priorities also predicted satisfaction in city government. The wrong-track camp emphasized crime, safety and law enforcement while the right-track camp put heavier emphasis on public services.
Ideastream Public Media reporter Anna Huntsman contributed to this report.
About the poll
The Akron Decides Survey was conducted with 510 residents of Akron, yielding a 4.3% margin of error at a 95% confidence level. Data Collection began on Jan. 17 and ended on Feb. 4.
Surveys were conducted online and over the phone including both landline and cell phones. Small weights were applied to the final data to ensure the final sample is representative of the adult population of the city of Akron.
This survey was conducted by the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research with the following sponsors: The Akron Press Club, the Ohio Debate Commission, the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce, State and Federal Communications, and the United Way of Summit & Medina.
The media partners were the Akron Beacon Journal/BeaconJournal.com and WKSU/Ideastream Public Media.