You couldn’t make a local politician more partisan than Frank Szollosi was on the Toledo City Council. He was a third-generation Democratic pol in a county run by Democrats, and even his fellow Democrats marveled at his party loyalty. He once refused to meet with the mayor, who was also a Democrat, over the unpardonable sin of supporting a Republican for council chairman. “Give me a roomful of partisan Democrats and Republicans any day,” Szollosi said in 2006, “over people who don’t care.”

Time passes; careers change; new goals require new ways of looking at the world. “I’m much less partisan these days,” Szollosi said recently, “work just as well with Rs as Ds.”

His new job requires it. Szollosi left elected office after two terms in 2009. He earned graduate degrees at the University of Michigan and took a job with the National Wildlife Federation, where he urges lawmakers –and citizens – of all affiliations to worry more about climate change and the Great Lakes. As Toledo plunged into a drinking-water crisis earlier this month, Szollosi intensified his efforts to explain to Republicans, Democrats and anyone else who would listen that warming lake waters are increasing the risks of harmful algal blooms, like the one that rendered Toledo’s water supply undrinkable for two days.

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(Courtesy Frank Szollosi)

Szollosi discussed the water crisis and the changing resonance of a green issue in blue-collar northwest Ohio with Storyline late last week. His comments are edited for length and clarity.

“We have more water shooting through the natural system, more fertilizer, more nutrients, more manure. More storm incidents are occurring, and it’s [all] collecting in the western basin [of Lake Erie]. Warming hits the lake several ways. The water is warmer. Farmers have a longer fertilizer application season because the warmer season starts earlier and ends later. (And the combination of warmer water and more chemicals ups the risk of algal blooms.)

“What we’re afraid of is that basin’s hitting a tipping point. Climate’s a threat multiplier to it.

“We’ve been working on these issues for quite some time. What this does is, it elevates attention on that work and that agenda and trying to deal with all these different vectors. I’m out there talking to the mayors, talking to [Republican] Sen. [Rob] Portman, some of the officials who are trying to bridge the science and the policy piece. Portman gets it. We’d like him to acknowledge the role climate plays. We need that kind of science-based policymaking that can’t be politicized.

“We’re in the process of putting together additional, new campaigns to make that explicit connection between climate and all these different ways [it affects algae in Lake Erie], in a way that will reach out to the general public.

“I think people’s eyes are opening. It’s complicated science. There’s a window of opportunity here with the public to help them make the connections. It’s gonna take work.

Nothing focuses parents’ attention like not being able to bathe their kids. And they couldn’t bathe [in Toledo] for three days.”

Jim Tankersley is the editor of Storyline, where he explains complex public policies and illuminates their human impact.