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Published: Monday, 3/21/2005

A house divided: Local Democrats just can't get along

New Democratic Party Chairman Jack Wilson took the reins of leadership last week after decades in the political trenches, and promptly upset half of the central committee by saying there is nothing wrong with the existing chasm between the two factions of the party.

"I don't plan to be the great uniter. I think things will just go along the way they are," he told the 149 members of the committee who showed up to vote for chairman, a majority of them party B-teamers who now dominate the committee. Many out-of-power A-teamers found other things to do Wednesday evening.

Elaborating on the concept, he said the party has been fighting against itself for years, and yet has won most elections, at least in the city of Toledo and in Lucas County government. Therefore, the infighting must be a reason for success, his reasoning goes. "Hate's a good thing," he said.

Other local Dems are not so sure that one follows the other. Elsewhere in history, it's difficult to find a corollary to the Wilson premise.

President Abraham Lincoln, discussing the divisiveness caused by slavery, declared that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." The Civil War came in the years after the speech because neither side capitulated.

"I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other," he said.

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In the world of sports, even the most talented teams falter when members cannot get along. Last year's Los Angeles Lakers had Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, and other top-flight talent, but they couldn't figure out how to play with just one basketball. In the end, they failed to win the expected championship. Now those stars are scattered, and fans search elsewhere for greatness.

And the world of business is cluttered with examples of winners who joined together, but couldn't get along. AOL-Time Warner is one that comes to mind. Leaders at Hewlett-Packard and Compaq have been battling mightily since their merger. Finally, CEO Carly Fiorina was tossed overboard.

In other words, if it is the conflict at local Democratic Party headquarters that has been the key to their ballot box success, it is a rare organization, indeed.

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On the subject of Democratic Party divisiveness, the A-team is showing is own fractures, as Larry Sykes, the African-American president of the Toledo School Board, crosses verbal swords with fellow A-teamer Anita Lopez. Their disagreement stemmed from comments Ms. Lopez, a Hispanic, made as she left the school board to take over as Lucas County recorder. She was critical of what she characterized as missed opportunities for the school board to improve the district.

"Board members set policies and procedures, but they wore blinders," Ms. Lopez was quoted as telling La Prensa, a local Hispanic newspaper. Mr. Sykes shot back at Ms. Lopez with both barrels in an interview with a local African-American newspaper, the Toledo Journal.

"She reminds me of a dog that can't pass a fire hydrant without urinating on it," Mr. Sykes said of her parting comments. He called Ms. Lopez, a lawyer, "book smart and common sense stupid," saying she never would have won the race for recorder had it not been for the help she received from Toledo Mayor Jack Ford, an African-American.

The tiff was remarkable for the coarse language involved. This past week, both of them apologized. But their disagreement came on the heels of another spat between minority pols. During the recent Toledo council battle over whether the Fifth Third Bank should be allowed to raze buildings downtown to build a parking lot, Councilman Louis Escobar, a Hispanic, found himself at odds with Councilman Michael Ashford, an African-American. Nasty things were said. Those wounds are still fresh.

Both Mr. Escobar and Mr. Ashford are - you guessed it - Democrats from the party's A-team.

Mr. Wilson said he is comfortable with disunity in the party. It's looking like he's in for a very comfortable chairmanship.

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By the way: In case there was any question about who is now feeling more comfortable mingling with party insiders, former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner - now considering a comeback race against fellow Democrat Jack Ford, the incumbent - made two visits to the party's annual St. Patrick's Day fund-raising dinner on Thursday. Mr. Ford didn't go at all.



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