The race for mayor of Toledo has been joined, as prominent Democrat Jack Ford took the first signifi-cant step to enter the race last night, interviewing for the endorsement of party leaders.
His only major opponent, Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest, interviewed with the party screening committee for the endorsement as well, but he said he does not believe he has a chance to win its backing.
“I have no illusions. Their minds are already made up,” Mr. Kest said before his 45-minute interview began. Mr. Ford's talk with the committee lasted 70 minutes.
“I don't think there were a lot of surprises,” said Paula Ross, chairwoman of the party. “Certainly there was a lot of information shared about how the two different candidates would approach their campaigns and how they would approach being mayor.”
“Certainly there is a clear difference in how the two candidates approach the [Democratic Party] endorsement,” Ms. Ross said. “Ray Kest has said he's running, period. Jack Ford said he is running if he wins the endorsement and the party believes he's the best candidate for mayor.”
Ms. Ross has been a vocal supporter of Mr. Ford.
“They need to make a decision based first on what is best for the city, and then secondly, what is best for the [Democratic] party,” Mr. Ford said. “I said, `Don't make a decision based on personality, what you think, or what you have heard.'”
The screening committee also interviewed Margaret Hollinger-Powers, a perennial candidate who has never won an election despite several tries, and Opal Covey, who said she is running to avenge her conviction on 14 counts of animal cruelty in Toledo Municipal Court.
She gained public attention in 1997 when Toledo Humane Society cruelty investigators seized about 450 dogs, cats, rodents, and birds from her East Toledo thrift shop.
Committee members will consider last night's interviews until Thursday evening, when they meet again to vote on an endorsement. The committee will forward its recommendation to the party executive committee, which will consider the recommendation and vote on an endorsement the same evening.
Mr. Ford, an African-American, has hinted at an interest in the race for months, and has talked in recent weeks to many leaders and rank-and-file Democrats to gauge their support.
If he wins, Mr. Ford would become the first black mayor in Toledo history.
The minority leader of the Ohio House, Mr. Ford is a former president of Toledo council, leaving the body in early 1995 to take a seat in the state legislature. He rose quickly to a leadership position in the Democratic caucus in Columbus, but said he will step down when he files his petitions of candidacy for mayor, a move expected in July.
Mr. Kest has been campaigning and raising money for the race for more than a year, and has the bank account to prove it. Documents on file with the county board of elections show he had a balance of more than $200,000 in campaign funds, and has held several fund-raisers since. Mr. Kest would not say how much he has in the bank today, but indicated it could be well over $300,000.
In what amounted to the only jab at his opponent, Mr. Kest said Mr. Ford had to be begged to run for mayor because Democratic officials did not like the treasurer and wanted a strong opponent for him.
“I think Jack was actively recruited by the party to run for mayor. I don't know how much fire in the belly he has,” said Mr. Kest.
Mr. Ford countered that he had been interested in the post for years - and interviewed for the party's endorsement against incumbent Carty Finkbeiner four years ago. He said he could not come out with a public campaign earlier this year because he still had leadership and fund-raising responsibilities to fulfill as minority leader in the Ohio House.
“The worst thing that could have happened would have been for me to start talking about this race [for mayor] a year ago,” said Mr. Ford. “I struggled with leaving an institution I have come to love - the Ohio House - but I am leaving anyway because of term limits” next year.
Mr. Kest has been county treasurer since 1984. He decided to seek the post after first considering a run for Ohio's 9th congressional district seat in 1982. He decided not to challenge freshman incumbent Ed Weber, leaving the door open for Marcy Kaptur, who defeated Mr. Weber and has served in Congress ever since.
Like Mr. Ford, Mr. Kest has been on Toledo council.
The next mayor of Toledo will be paid $136,000, up from the $75,000 paid to Mayor Finkbeiner. Voters approved the pay increase in last fall's election.
Unions are split on Mr. Kest and Mr. Ford.
Mr. Kest has won the backing of the Teamsters, police command and patrol officers, and firefighters. Mr. Ford won the endorsement of the local UAW Community Action Program - the union's local political organization - and Mr. Ford said he would battle hard for other unions, including the local teachers union, one of the largest in the area.