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Published: Monday, 1/10/2005

Will Lucas County Democrats heal the rift that divides them?

While some local Democrats must be at least somewhat relieved to have settled the question of who will fill out the balance of former Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest's term, it remains unclear whether party leaders will be able to make much headway with their efforts to now unify the fractious party.

The acrimonious meeting Tuesday night that installed labor leader Dennis Duffey into the treasurer's office until September revealed some deep-seated divisions that won't be easily healed.

The background on this long-running squabble is well-known: differences between the factions, known affectionately as the "A team," which controls Toledo City Hall, and the "B team," which controls party headquarters over on Madison Avenue, have been deepening since the B team finally won control of the party chairmanship last spring - after nearly 30 years of trying. Things simply grew worse when Mr. Duffey, a B team leader, won Tuesday's appointment over Toledo Councilman Wade Kapszukiewicz, an A teamer.

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At the center of the controversy is Mr. Kest, who began in his 20s as a political hotshot and moved from local office to office, finally settling in as treasurer. Before the financial scandal that led to his resignation, the only serious bumps in the Kest career stemmed from complaints of sexual harassment that cropped up against him or top aide John Irish, another force on the B team.

Those harassment allegations were a bitter political pill for the pair to have to swallow, and they surfaced again on Tuesday, back in the cheap seats at the United Auto Workers hall on Ashland Avenue, where poison spilled from the lips of activists.

At one point in the evening, when party Chairman Sandy Isenberg was at the microphone nominating Mr. Kapszukiewicz, she got into an off-mike discussion with Mr. Irish, who disagreed about who should fill Mr. Kest's shoes. While the audience waited for them to finish their back-and-forth, Democratic operative Keith McCrea, now the legislative manager for Toledo council, who was positioned near the back of the room, walked within a few feet of Mr. Irish's wife, Diana, and shouted for all to hear:

"Keep your pants on, John."

The comment fell on the room like a brick.

Casually walking 10 feet past her, he turned and looked back at her face, like an Iraqi insurgent surveying the damage of an improvised explosive device.

She stood motionless, staring straight ahead, offering him no satisfaction.

If such cold, calculated abuse is how these Democrats treat each other in public, I shudder to think what must go on in private. Can there be healing from such wounds?

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The next flash point between the warring factions comes tomorrow, of course, when Toledo City Council chooses a successor to Democrat Peter Gerken, who resigned to take his new seat on the Board of Lucas County Commissioners. The party has officially endorsed Teamster vice president Mark Sobczak, but Laborers Local 500 official Phil Copeland has continued to campaign for the post. There is evidence the eight Democrats on council are split, which means the three Republicans could find themselves in the unusual position of saving the endorsed Democrat from defeat at the hands of his own party.

This is because the Teamsters have been more supportive of GOP candidates in recent years, and Mr. Sobczak may receive their votes as a "Thank you" to the union.

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I'm not sure just where Mr. Kapszukiewicz, 32, picked up the name "Skippy," but he was clearly hung with the moniker because it conveys a sense that he is young - very young to have banked the political experience he now possesses. And while his face has matured nicely since splashing onto the local political scene 8 1/2 years ago, he still enjoys a markedly youthful appearance.

After the birth of his first child, he confided that he hoped the nickname would fade into history, but it never did.

In the recent treasurer wars, his opponents employed it as a term of derision, perhaps because they know it bothers him. But maybe there's another reason he can't shake the nickname. Maybe it's because he repeats his scripted lines over and over, sounding like an old record player needle that incessantly "skips" until someone bumps it.

There's no doubt the Toledo councilman ran into a big bump Tuesday night, but it apparently wasn't big enough to knock him out of his rut. After the Democratic Party central committee vote favoring Mr. Duffey for the temporary appointment as treasurer, Mr. Kapszukiewicz, referred to the "Kest political machine" or the "Kest status quo" no less than 12 times in an interview that ran just 3 minutes, 40 seconds. That's one reference every 18.3 seconds - over and over and over again.



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