MANSFIELD -- The Democratic Party primary would have been the contested race if Aurelio Diaz and Jason Lawrence had competed four years ago in the Mansfield City Council 5th Ward race.
Instead, with Lawrence switching political parties 10 months ago, the Nov. 2 general election will now determine the seat.
The winner will represent the ward of 7,608 residents, earning an annual salary of $8,311.
Lawrence has held the seat since 2014, when he was appointed to replace Democrat Ethel Hightower, who had received 72 percent of the ward's votes in 2013 and departed after a decade in office.
Lawrence, 52, was unopposed for re-election in 2017, choosing to switch to the Republican Party in December 2020, saying the GOP more represented his beliefs system.
He now faces a challenge from the 45-year-old Diaz, who is in his second try for public office as a Democrat. Diaz ran a strong race for City Council president in 2019, gaining more than 46 percent of the vote against long-time local Republican politician Cliff Mears.
The race has gained attention in a ward that has seen only 11 to 12 percent voter turnout in the last two ward election cycles.
Lawrence, who earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Mount Vernon Nazarene University in 2010 and worked in various financial occupations as well as Richland County Juvenile Court, said his first contested campaign has been interesting.
"Some things have happened that been headscratchers for me," he said. "In last few weeks, it's gotten hot and heavy. I think of myself as a public servant. I hate the politics thing.
"People who know Jason Lawrence know I have worked hard for the residents of the 5th Ward for the last seven years. I know I am in a ward that is predominately Black and heavily Democratic.
"It's tough. People see that 'R' by your name and they feel they just can't (vote for you). (But) I feel like I have put in the work. I am really confident," said Lawrence, who helped lead the campaign on City Council to successfully push for the engineering/design of a dry dam in the city's north end.
"My campaign isn't geared toward one party, but rather, all of Mansfield, Republican and Democrat, and those find themselves in between," Lawrence said, adding he believes families are fundamental to successful and vibrant communities.
Diaz, a 1995 graduate of Mansfield Senior, a longtime social worker now working as a PrEP navigator for Third Street Family Health Services, said he learned a great deal in his first campaign two years ago.
"I started early (this time). I started knocking on doors even before I filed my (election) petitions. I have put this campaign before my music, before my art ... even before my job," Diaz said.
"It's been a great experience. I thought I knew a a lot about the 5th Ward, but I have learned a lot of things that I didn't know. It didn't feel good at first, but I needed to feel that. My goal was to knock on every door five times between February and November ... I am on my fifth rotation now," he said.
"Win or lose, I am going to keep doing what I do. I feel I have grown a lot (during the campaign). I will always be a moderate. I get into trouble when I say that sometimes and I don't really care. I want the focus to be on local conversations (not national politics.)
"I want to be a council member like a social worker. I want to help give people the tools they need to be a part of the solution," Diaz said. "I take pride in my background and passion in social service and advocacy because I sincerely care about the rise of Mansfield and Ward 5."
Both candidates were asked to respond to some of the issues raised by residents during the six-week "Talk the Vote" listening tour arranged by Richland Source.
Both candidates said they favor consideration of expanding public transportation opportunities, particularly Richland County Transit, an idea that seems to be gathering momentum.
The transit system operates under its own board, but City Council does provide some funding and council members are in a position to lobby for changes to the operating hours it offers and geographic area it serves.
Aurelio, a member of the RCT board, said he supports public transit service in the evenings and on weekends, especially for second- and third-shift workers. He said his family often used the bus service when he was younger.
"We have talked about the possibility of using smaller vehicles, which might make more sense for after-hours service and weekends. Nothing has been decided. We are always looking for ways to become more progressive. Last year was tough on RCT with the pandemic ... more people stayed at home and worked from home," Diaz said.
Lawrence said there is increased competition for transportation in the city, including private services such as Lyft and Uber.
"I would love to see some buses dedicate for second- and third-shift workers. I think it depends on ridership and how many would support such a service. I would fully support it if RCT determines there is a great enough need for the service," Lawrence said.
Both are in favor of improving the city's parks, though they divert in their enthusiasm for additional funding. The city administration unveiled a parks "master plan" in 2020, a laundry list of projects that carries a $29 million total price tag.
Leaders have called the plan a "wish list" that would take years to implement. The city's parks and recreation department now is funded only through the city's PRIDE tax, which allocates about $850,000 per year, two-thirds of which is spent annually on mowing and maintenance.
Lawrence said he was in favor of the city administration first "picking low-hanging fruit" from the projects list.
"There are things we can do right now," he said. "Let's do the things with lower costs first, without giving up on the ideas of the high-dollar projects."
He said he wasn't sure of his support for a parks-only income tax.
"I would have to take a look at the proposal, and what it would cost residents, before I could say if I would be behind it," Lawrence said. "Citizens want good parks and I think we have good parks."
Diaz said the city first needs to address maintenance, security and safety issues in the parks.
"Safety is a big thing. Shootings and vandalism and other problems makes people not want to go to the parks. People want to see surveillance cameras in the parks, especially parents. People are frustrated. The city is putting money into equipment and then due to a lack of cameras, people just mess it up.
"People want to know why we continue to put money into the parks if it's just going to get jacked up. Neighbors aren't going to report it because then they can become targets. We need cameras," Diaz said.
Lawrence said it's important for council members "to do their homework" when economic development ideas are brought to legislators.
"We need to assess if it will be of value to the community. We need to stay in our lane as council members, but I hope the administration is remaining aware of possibilities of landing new industries into the city," he said.
"Did we even know about this opportunity? I hope we did," he said.
"Anything that comes to us that will lead to job creation, I support. I don't think anything has ever come to (council) that will provide jobs has not been supported," he said.
Diaz said council members need to start by getting input from businesses and residents in their own wards.
"The ideas in my ward will be different from Ward 1," he said. "We need to talk face-to-face, on social media, do surveys ... start figuring out what people want and what ideas they have. Start combining these ideas together.
"We all want to see economic growth. Now is a great time to start developing new businesses downtown and throughout the county. We as council members need to be out there doing the best way we can to connect with people," Diaz said.
Trash hauling/illegal dumping.
These issues were raised in 2019 during "Talk the Vote" sessions, resulting in a four-part series of articles in Richland Source in February 2020.
City Council, in March of 2021, took a stab at creating trash-hauling zones, which would result in private haulers working in specific areas of the city on one day a week. The idea was dropped when residents and haulers opposed any such move.
Rather than council looking to make changes on its own, Diaz said he would like to see the city and private trash haulers work together on a better system.
"The traffic and noise every day is annoying," said Diaz, a North Walnut Street resident. "I hear it all the time. I support the independent haulers and I wish they could come together and work out a system that has less daily traffic congestion, especially when people are sleeping. It's easier said than done."
He said the illegal dumping enforcement needs to be stepped up by the city and that it is creating health and safety issues.
Lawrence, a West Fourth Street resident, said the city needs to look at manpower issues in its codes and permits department to enable better enforcement and also needs to work with the county on an environmental enforcement officer.
He said he doesn't have concerns with the local trash hauling system and called early-morning noise "a part of city living. They have got a job to do," Lawrence said.
There is a growing issue with homeless residents in the community, especially in the downtown Central Park area. Harmony House, the city's only homeless shelter, is usually at capacity.
A month ago, Richland County Commissioner Tony Vero said the apparent visible rise in homeless residents in downtown Mansfield was prompting him to see how the county can help. He said commissioners have been contacted by multiple business owners and residents "inquiring what we can do."
Since that time, the city has learned it will receive $1 million in federal funds to assist with homeless residents and those at risk of becoming homeless.
Lawrence said the city should start by better addressing the root causes of homelessness, which he said were mental health and drug addiction. He said, however, some residents make a choice to remain homeless.
"You can't just pick people up (for being homeless)," he said. "I would not be in favor of any legislation that would stop or penalize loitering. That can get real sticky.
"I feel the problem has to be addressed holistically. We have to look at all the factors. Sometimes it's not just a guy living under a bridge who lost his job and is down on his luck," Lawrence said, adding he has heard from some north end residents who do no want a new 200-bed homeless campus built in the former Hamilton Park area.
Diaz said he seems the impact of homelessness outside his downtown residence every day.
"It's my number one passion," he said. "I live in the heart of it. I had to yell at people the other day, 'Move your tallboys out of my doorway. Pull up your pants.' I work in social services and then I come home and see this in a different light," Diaz said.
Diaz, who is on the Harmony House board, said Mansfield has seen homeless residents being dropped here from other areas and even other states. He said these people have a variety of issues, including mental health and drug addiction, and that some are just hanging out, trying to cause trouble.
He said the approaching winter months will make it an even more volatile situation with "more break-ins, more craziness and more harm."
"Harmony House can't help everyone," he said. "It has no openings. I spoke to some and told them they need to go somewhere. They said, 'OK, but where do we go?' It's going to continue to until someone is raped or killed. It should not take something like that in order to get something done."