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Published: Thursday, 3/22/2001

Kest must show voters what he's all about

Nobody could better illustrate the trepidation some Democrats feel about the suspected sleaze accompanying He Who Would Be Mayor next fall than the electrical workers' business manager, Dennis Duffey.

He withdrew his union's support for the Dems' St. Paddy's Day event because party chairwoman Paula Ross said she'd quit if Toledo Democrats had the bad grace to nominate Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest to be Toledo's second strong mayor.

So tact isn't Ms. Ross' strong suit. As an American she's allowed to speak her mind. But since this fight is years old and a united party is better than a cracked one, why would she aggravate a healing fissure by picking at the scab? The same may be asked of Mr. Duffey.

His muscle flex is as unattractive today as G. Ray Medlin, Jr.'s was in 1994, when, as head of the Northwest Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council, he threatened to pull labor support from the Dems if members didn't make John Irish, a top Kest aide, the party chairman.

Arm-twisting doesn't win friends and influence people. It just leaves them achy and resentful. It backfired for Mr. Irish, by all accounts a thoughtful gent, in 1994. It could for Mr. Kest now.

It represents the kind of fears some folks harbor for a Kest regime. Worse yet, they joke about it, as they did about Bill Clinton's libido. Can a guy who counts a political sign plucker of local reknown and another guy who paid $10,000 to settle a sexual harassment suit as his closest allies rise to the job of carrying on the Finkbeiner vision and improving on it?

Mr. Kest's smarts are not in question. Dummies don't get to be CPAs. Nor is there doubt about his political verve. Mr. Kest has, in the past decade, shown himself a vigorous, ambitious campaigner in runs for state and local office, even when his party shunned him. In the 1988 county treasurer's race his votes came from both parties.

He knows plenty about Toledo's assets and liabilities. And, though he isn't above putting his own spin on them, the few proposals emanating from his office, including help to finance the Marina development, have seemed innovative and doable.

Mr. Kest has been the victim, albeit a Teflon one, of others' political games. Discredited state auditor Tom Ferguson filed an imaginative audit that made Mr. Kest look bad for not much reason, and a former bookkeeping client, who kept a sports book, dropped his name in a false affidavit, putting Mr. Kest for awhile in the heart of a federal gambling probe.

But, as far as we know, Mr. Kest hasn't murdered anybody or ripped off the county for millions. Nor has he been caught on a beach in Corfu with a babe - something that would offend many Toledoans.

Mr. Kest, for his part, has, when pressed, a stand-up quality to him. He didn't shrink from admitting error in jumping the gun and passing a school bus whose lights, though about to be turned off, were still flashing. His rebellious streak led him to give staff raises in 1990 despite a countywide wage freeze. His good sense led him to back off when commissioners told him to.

Overall, he has acquitted himself well as county treasurer, upping collections of delinquent taxes. But the devil is in the details. One of his chief aides, Dominic J. Montalto, who has an affinity for political signs and is in charge of back-tax collections, had no written records for some of the collection arrangements he cut, which is troublesome to many, to say nothing of unbusinesslike.

The other, Mr. Irish, an effective fund raiser with political savvy and smarts, who paid the 10 grand though he denied sexual harassment, is another Democrat some in the party love to hate. Mr. Kest himself was acquitted in another sexual harassment matter. But the “smoke and fire” adage inevitably clings. Some women consider Mr. Kest's attitude as pure old-time sexist.

And if Carty Finkbeiner's index finger in the face is too confrontational for voters, what will they make of the 1989 fracas between Mr. Kest and then County Auditor David Lewandowski in a downtown tavern, a wrestling match that even generated an invitation (rejected, by the way) to settle their differences in the “Toughman Contest” at the Sports Arena?

It is valid to ask if we want a mayor who conducts himself like an aging adolescent with entourage. It is also valid to weigh a candidate's positive achievements against ancient errors which are spun, perhaps maliciously, into political mortal sins.

Mr. Kest is an able player of the political game. And it is still early in this campaign. His challenge will be to show the serious stuff he is about, and trust voters to look past the tiresome downside.

Eileen Foley is a Blade associate editor. E-mail her at efoley@theblade.com.



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