LIMA — A year before the 1989 election, several local businessmen approached a 35-year-old David Berger and encouraged him to run for mayor. Berger had been with the Rehab Project for 12 years at that time and was entertaining other job opportunities, including working with a couple of national foundations.
The possibility of being the city’s mayor left him intrigued, though.
“I talked with my wife, Linda, who of course is a Lima girl. Her parents were still alive at the time, and she was the only one of her siblings still here, so I decided to pursue the mayor’s job. If I lost, I figured I still could seek the foundation work,” he said.
The primary in 1989 would see six people staking a claim for the title of mayor. It included the current mayor, Gene Joseph, and former mayor, Harry Moyer. Joseph had beaten Moyer by four votes in 1985, which to this day remains one of the biggest upsets in Lima political history. Moyer had held the office for three terms.
Three other candidates also had backgrounds in city government. Rolland Smith worked as the public works director. Paul Mullenhour was the auditor for Lima. Jerry Winkler served on city council for 10 years during the 1970s, the last four as its president.
That left Berger alone as the only one of the six without any experience working in city hall.
The primary was an aggressive one with many ideas and plenty of talk about leadership. Berger had the backing of some of Lima’s heavyweights, including Earl McGovern, the superintendent of Lima Schools; Walter Potts, a black businessman with an impeccable reputation in the minority community; and John Timmerman, vice president of the South Side Savings Bank. They called Berger a “determined individual,” one who has “the energy and persistence to get things done.”
Berger won 33% of the vote, and Moyer took 28% to advance to November’s general election. That victory would see Berger — with a wife and four children at home — quit his job in September at the Rehab Project to concentrate on the upcoming mayoral race.
“I couldn’t do both, I had to choose,” Berger recalled when sitting down with The Lima News for this story. “The race was all-consuming. I couldn’t keep my mind on doing the job at the agency. So we decided if we’re going to run for mayor, we had to be clear about things and pursue it with all the vigor that we could bring.”
It paid off.
Berger cruised to an easy victory over Moyer, 57% to 43%, to become Lima’s new mayor, a job he would hold for 32 years before retiring in December.
“The sense of a need for change was a major driver in that first race,” Berger said. “I had worked with leaders in the community for a long time. Rehab Project was a very well-supported and appreciated organization. And so, the work we did was pretty high profile.”
A city in peril
There’s an old saying: “Be careful what you wish for.”
In Berger’s case, his mayoral victory put him in the driver’s seat of a city coming off a decade of despair.
Job losses and population losses had pounded Lima. Legacy industries had either shut down or left town. Crime was rising, and there was still an undercurrent of racial division from the riots that rocked Lima in the late 1960s.
Gone were the enthusiastic predictions made during the 1970s by people like Robert L. Tracht of the Lima Area Chamber of Commerce. He spoke back then of a metro area growing to 140,000 by the end of the 1980s and employment soaring from 59,300 to more than 70,000 jobs.
His forecast was so wrong.
The nation’s economy figuratively and literally went south as the 1970s closed. The Midwest became known as the Rust Belt as the economies in city after city were destroyed by job losses from closed factories.
In no way was Lima going to be spared.
There was pressure in Washington, D.C., to downsize the defense budget. The ramifications of that trickled down to Lima in a big way during the 1980s and early ’90s. An estimated 8,800 jobs were lost. Among them was Westinghouse, which once employed 5,000. It sold to Sundstrand in 1992, which eventually closed in 1996. Ex-cell-o, which later became Airfoil Textron, put 1,800 people out of work with its closure. The tank plant would go from 4,000 employees to 400.
“Lima was really on its heels,” Berger said. “These were huge, huge losses.”
The local economy would be one of the top issues not only in that first election but in the next seven that followed. As it turned out, Berger was a natural when it came to the political end of the job. Some would even view him as the most skilled politician the city has ever seen.
“He was a skilled manager,” said Ben Rose, a highly regarded political watcher and former Republican state representative for Lima from 1973 to 1986. “Berger had an ability to reach out and ask for help and was not afraid to ask anybody and everybody. He could get strong support.”
He also wasn’t afraid to step on toes, said Heather Rutz, a former reporter with The Lima News who covered county and city government from 2006 to 2014.
“Dave is a forward thinker, with ideas about the economy and technology that are ahead of many people. And he’s bull-headed,” Rutz said. “He often needed his stubbornness and perseverance to see something through, because many times, other people couldn’t see the potential that he saw.”
During his first few years as mayor, Berger built a reputation that would follow him throughout his 32 years in office. He would never stand still when bad news hit home. Even when there was no hope of reversing it, he fought the battles.
“There certainly are times when there’s nothing you can do, but there have also been times that I think we could respond … where there was an opportunity, where we could make a difference,” Berger said.
Jim Krumel is the editor of The Lima News. He began working at the newspaper as its projects editor in 1993 and was named managing editor in 1994 and editor in 2001.