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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2001

Democrat support of Jack Ford riles Teamster officials

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER
Ford: He has the support of the United Auto Workers. Ford: He has the support of the United Auto Workers.
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Minutes after the Lucas County Democratic Party executive committee - the 200-member body that decides who gets the party's official stamp of approval in races for public office - voted one evening last month to confer its endorsement on Jack Ford in the race for mayor of Toledo, several local Teamsters who preferred Ray Kest stormed out of party headquarters with rage in their eyes and revenge on their minds.

The endorsement was nothing more than a railroad job, with party chairwoman Paula Ross as the conductor, they said.

They proclaimed that the party rank and file would never go along with the endorsement and that they would work overtime to make sure Mr. Kest won the election.

Mr. Ford, the Ohio House minority leader, had not yet officially entered the race for mayor - and said he would not do so without the backing of the party - while Mr. Kest, the county treasurer, had been laboring for more than a year behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for the contest and said he was in the race, with or without the party's backing. Because Mr. Kest worked so hard and raised so much money, he deserved the party's endorsement, the angry Teamsters said.

The white-hot emotions triggered by the party's endorsement is evidence of a serious split among Democrats over who they want to control the most important political office in northwest Ohio.

“There's some bitterness with the Democratic Party,” said Bill Lichtenwald, who as president of Teamsters Local 20 represents about 8,000 members. His union endorsed Mr. Kest weeks before Mr. Ford had even announced his interest in the race.

“I think the Democratic Party made a mistake. They aren't listening to organized labor. That's how we see it,” he said.

Mr. Lichtenwald said new leaders inside the county party don't appreciate the hard work and advancements won by older generations of labor leaders and are now going their own way.

“It's changing. Younger members of the party have their own ideas,” he said, a reference to Ms. Ross, who converted to the party after running the failed 1993 mayoral campaign of liberal independent Mike Ferner and quickly rose to its top leadership position. “We are kind of disappointed.”

Because his union membership feels “burned” by the Democratic Party, Mr. Lichtenwald said he will move carefully on other political endorsements this year, particularly in the race for Toledo council.

Bob Bernius, president of the Northwest Ohio District Council of Carpenters political action committee, supports Mr. Kest. He said the committee also will be very careful dispensing help and money to any other candidate who may harm, directly or indirectly, the Kest campaign.

“I am not going to endorse or support financially any candidate who is against my candidate for mayor,” Mr. Bernius said, because the office of Toledo mayor is by far the most important on the ballot this year.

As a result, he said he expects to support the three Republican candidates for council: Gene Zmuda, Rob Ludeman, and George Sarantou.

If the Teamsters and other unions supporting Mr. Kest follow suit, it could make the difference in a close race for council. Four years ago, Mr. Sarantou narrowly lost the race for an at-large seat.

In addition to the Teamsters and the building trades unions, Mr. Kest lined up several important, early endorsements of his own in the mayoral race, including the firefighters and the police and command officers unions. The early push for support by Mr. Kest was partly to scare other possible candidates from the race.

But he hasn't won over every labor union. Even with the late start, Mr. Ford has won backing from the United Auto Workers - one of the largest and most important unions - and is expected to win support from the Toledo Federation of Teachers, whose members proved their political value last year in working hard to produce a stunning upset by teacher Teresa Fedor over Republican incumbent Jim Mettler in Ohio House District 52.

Still uncommitted in the mayoral race are the public employees unions and the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Like Mr. Lichtenwald and Mr. Bernius, Al Segur, executive secretary of the Northwest Ohio Building Trades Council, said he is upset that Ms. Ross has been openly critical of Mr. Kest.

“I am not very pleased with Paula's outspokenness. I just don't think she's doing what is appropriate,” Mr. Segur said. “That's the issue. If there is any anger, that's the reason.”

Ms. Ross has been critical of Mr. Kest's management style in the treasurer's office and was open about her efforts to try to recruit another high-profile Democrat to run against him.

Mr. Ford denies he had to be convinced to run. He said his responsibilities as minority leader of the Ohio House kept him busy until recently, when he was able to explore a possible race for mayor.

“This kind of split that we are seeing in Toledo, I don't think this is unique. I think this is happening in a lot of cities,” said Ms. Ross, who predicted it will have only short-term implications.

“I believe that people have to come together again over the things they believe in,” she said. “I have worked very, very hard to build relationships with labor across the board.”

Kest: Teamsters say he has worked hard to get the job. Kest: Teamsters say he has worked hard to get the job.
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The flap over the party endorsement is an attempt by Mr. Kest, Ms. Ross said, to “diminish the value of the [party] endorsement. I don't think he'll succeed in doing that.”

Other candidates endorsed by the party may suffer a lack of backing from select unions, she said, but it would be offset by support from party regulars and Mr. Ford. “Most of our endorsed candidates understand that they are hoping to have support from Jack and from voters who are Jack's base. It's unfortunate if any organized union isn't able to look at an individual candidate and decide to support them based on their merits and what they can do for the [union] membership.”

Lloyd Mahaffey, director of Region 2-B of the United Auto Workers, who support Mr. Ford, likened the conflict to a “family disagreement” and said time will heal the fresh political wounds. “It's not the first time this has ever happened. When it is all said and done, we will work together again. We will remain friends. I understand that people get upset about things. It doesn't change how I feel about the Teamsters.”

Another longtime labor leader in Toledo agreed with Mr. Mahaffey, seeing a silver lining to the in-fighting. G. Ray Medlin, Jr., a former leader of building trades unions, said the division “could be a very good thing” for local Democrats. “It strengthens us. It energizes us,” he said. “It gets more people involved.”

Sure, he said, there will be disagreements over the next few months, and some of them will be heated, but “usually you don't get a rainbow without a little bit of rain.”

While Mr. Kest and Mr. Ford may focus exclusively on the election this year, organized labor must take a different perspective, Mr. Medlin said.

“I think that labor is mature enough to know that whoever gets elected mayor, they have to get along in this town for a long time to come,” he said.

Mr. Segur is not so sure. “Maybe it will change the way we interact with the party in the future. We are going to go very, very slowly. We got cooked pretty good” for supporting Mr. Kest.



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