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Published: Sunday, 10/28/2001

Ray Kest: Bright star of 1970s is a survivor

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It was supposed to be an election night victory party, but Ray Kest knew his political career was over.

The board of elections announced he had lost his race, and Mr. Kest had told himself that he'd never run again. So, he stood up and politely thanked a somber group of about 50 supporters and sat down - resigned to his fate of a regular 9-to-5 accounting job.

Then election officials called with the news: He had won.

“The roar was deafening,” recalled lifelong friend Bart Young.

Mr. Kest had pulled off one of the biggest election surprises of 1975 - at age 25 becoming one of the youngest elected city councilmen in Toledo history.

Twenty six years later, he's in another race that's going down to the wire, this time for Toledo mayor.

A victory would cap a life that's included stints as a Teamsters trucker and a fraternity president, a bespectacled accountant and a barroom brawler, a father of three, and an heir to a storied family name. It also would cap the political career of a brash South Toledoan who became a rising Democratic star only to have higher ambitions derailed by controversies.

Now a grandfather of two, the 51-year-old has his best chance ever for a political promotion in a heated race for mayor against state Rep. Jack Ford.

Mr. Kest is armed with a host of endorsements from business and labor and a sizable political war chest for crucial advertising. And he's armed with a passion for public service that, friends say, is as strong as it was in 1975.

Until Ray, the Kest name didn't grace ballots. The family claim to fame was selling newspapers.

Grandfather Raphael “Ray” Kest ran The Blade's circulation department, and father Newell Kest was working for Toledo Times circulation when Raymond Thomas Kest was born at Toledo Hospital on Dec. 13, 1949.

The newborn - 18 months younger than his brother, Brian - went home to live with his parents, brother, and grandparents in Raphael's four-bedroom home on Meadowwood Drive in West Toledo. Five years later, the young family moved to a three-bedroom home on Rugby Drive in South Toledo after the birth of another son, David.

But they wouldn't stay in Toledo long.

Three years later, when Ray was a third-grader at Beverly Elementary, Newell took a job at a newspaper in New York City and, two years later, in Philadelphia - first moving the family to a suburb in northern New Jersey and then southern New Jersey. Those years exposed the young Ray Kest to everything from New York Yankee baseball to Philadelphia's emerging rock-n-roll scene.

The moves also forced Ray to be outgoing.

“If you stood in the corner and were shy, you'd get tramped on,” Mr. Kest recalled.

The family returned to Toledo in 1963 for Newell to take over as Blade circulation director - a week before Ray began his high school career at Bowsher.

The teen picked up some of his old friends, like Mr. Young, but he quickly realized he and his older brother Brian were a bit different. Besides having thick East Coast accents, the brothers danced with girls - a habit from Philadelphia.

“You'd go to the Y [in Toledo] and the girls would be on one side, the boys would be on the other, and here my brother and I would be dancing with the girls,” he recalled, adding it caused “a little jealousy.”

Still, Ray's charm won over.

“He had a real sophisticated air about himself, yet he was a really nice guy,” recalled classmate Gary Forquer. “People naturally gravitated to him. He was a leader.”

It was a politically charged era, and the teenager was enthralled. He began working on political campaigns, for Republicans and Democrats, but he wanted a piece of the action. He won election as class president his junior and senior years.

He wasn't the only one with the political bug in his extended family. Peter Silverman - a distant cousin whose grandmother was Raphael's sister - would become a mayoral candidate in 1993, albeit an unsuccessful one, and then preside over the Toledo Public Schools' board.

Mr. Silverman was still in elementary school when Mr. Kest graduated from Bowsher in 1967.

Mr. Kest went off to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, as a business major but transferred to the University of Toledo after a year to be closer to his girlfriend, Linda Bondy. He became a delivery driver for The Blade and its affiliate, the Toledo Times - making him a Teamster.

He soon became president of his fraternity, Theta Chi.

And he still had time for politics, becoming a student senator. That's when he forged friendships with two men who would become longtime political aides - John Irish, now his top lieutenant, and Dave Huey, now president and general manager of Buckeye CableSystem and Ray Kest's campaign treasurer. [Buckeye and The Blade are both owned by Block Communications, Inc.].

Politics, however, did not dominate his life in the early 1970s.

He joined an Army Reserve construction unit based in Camp Perry in 1970 - the year the draft lottery began. The next year, he married Ms. Bondy, left UT with a business administration degree, began working as a law clerk, and went to night law school.

But he quickly gave up a future in law.

He left Toledo in February, 1972, for four months of Army training in Missouri. Seeking an immediate career to help pay the bills, he returned to take an equivalency test and become an accountant for Ernst & Ernst. His marriage ended in divorce in 1973. He's uncomfortable explaining why, except to say, “We were young.”

He also met Sherry Thompson, a secretary in the downtown building next to Ernst & Ernst's offices.

They married in April, 1975, in a Methodist church, the second Methodist wedding for Ray. Even though his legendary grandfather, Raphael Kest, was raised in an immigrant Jewish family, Ray was baptized a Methodist.

Within months of his marriage to Sherry, he embarked on his first professional political bid for city council.

He had the support of political powerbroker Ned Skeldon - a friend of Mr. Kest's grandfather - but there were plenty of disbelievers.

“I wasn't supposed to win. People would tell me, `[You're a] first-time runner. You've got to lose once or twice, plus you're very young,'” Mr. Kest recalled.

But the 25-year-old wasn't prepared to lose once or twice. He told himself that if he lost, he would go back to being a full-time accountant and plan on pursuing politics in his spare time, behind-the-scenes for other politicians.

That election night, he had invited friends and family to a party in the recreation room of a South Toledo apartment complex. But the party wasn't hopping. In a battle for the eighth and final spot, Mr. Kest appeared to finish ninth. So, he gave his concession speech.

“I said, `Boy, we tried hard. It was a great campaign. But I guess it wasn't in the cards,'” he recalled.

The cards changed. Two friends received a phone call in a back room. Election officials had counted the last ballots, and Mr. Kest had won a seat by 1,200 votes.

There soon emerged another hurdle: cash.

Mr. Kest received a master's degree in business from UT in 1978, but the couple's income had dropped in two years.

Ernst & Ernst forbade employees to hold elective office, so Mr. Kest had to quit the firm. He helped begin a campus bookstore to compete with UT's, but it was on its way to bankruptcy. And Mr. Kest's side jobs as an accountant, coupled with his council salary of $7,800, was not enough to live comfortably, particularly after the birth of their first son in 1977.

He feared he would have to quit politics, until an opportunity emerged in 1978 that was unheard of for a 28-year-old: becoming a county commissioner. With the backing of the Democratic Party, he successfully took on an incumbent more than twice his age, Max Reddish. .

Commissioner Kest pushed for the overhaul of county finances - getting budgets to be much more detailed and submitted sooner as the county braced for recession.

“They were operating on pencils and paper,” Mr. Kest recalled. “The accounting system was atrocious.”

He also helped push the formation of the county's 911 system, and he got behind levies to shore up financing for the Toledo Zoo.

It was time to consider a promotion. Some powerbrokers had been grooming him to be a successor to Mr. Ashley, who had been beaten by Republican Ed Weber in 1980. But Mr. Kest couldn't run for Congress and re-election as commissioner at the same time. If he lost that 1982 House race, he'd lose the paychecks that had finally stabilized his family's finances.

“At this time, I had three little kids. I knew I could get re-elected as county commissioner,” he said.

So he made a decision he later regretted: He didn't run against Mr. Weber. Instead, Democrats drafted a young political newcomer named Marcy Kaptur. She came from the other faction of the Democratic Party, aligned with people like now-council president Peter Ujvagi, political powerbroker Jim Ruvolo, and Jack Ford.

Miss Kaptur won that race and has since become one of the most popular politicians in the Toledo area. And she - like others in her faction - are using their clout to campaign heavily for Mr. Ford.

Mr. Kest did not want to run against a fellow Democrat for Congress in 1984. Instead, he set his sights on another job that he considered a natural fit for an accountant: county treasurer.

He won that race and inherited an office that hadn't filed a foreclosure in two years and faced rising tax delinquencies.

Many Democrats expected Mr. Kest's stint as treasurer to be short-lived. By April, 1985, the party endorsed him in a run against Republican Donna Owens for mayor of Toledo.

But then another man's name entered the picture - Paul “Butch” Wilson, a convicted gambler from the 1970s. Wilson had been nabbed again by authorities - this time running one of the area's biggest betting rings from his South Toledo bar.

Mr. Kest was not only Wilson's personal and business accountant, Mr. Kest had accepted free use of Wilson's Acapulco condominium three times in the early 1980s. Mr. Kest insisted he knew nothing about the gambling, and he was never formally accused of any wrongdoing. But, citing the stigma, he dropped out of the mayoral race.

That fall, state troopers arrested Mr. Kest for drunken driving on Garden Road. He had a blood-alcohol level of 0.12 - just above the 0.10 legal limit. He was sentenced to three days in the Toledo workhouse and, for two months, was allowed to drive only for work purposes.

Mr. Young remembers that year as one of Mr. Kest's toughest.

“When they went after Butch Wilson, they figured Ray must have known,” Mr. Young said.

“We'd sit in his kitchen at night and he'd say, `That's it. I'm quitting politics. This is killing my family.'”

Mr. Kest considered job offers outside Toledo during the Wilson saga.

“The more I thought about it, the more I said, `You know, I haven't done anything wrong. I'm not going to let these people run me out of town,'” Mr. Kest recalled.

The Republicans, however, had different ideas for a man they nicknamed “Acapulco Ray.” It began a storied battle of wills between then-county Auditor David Lewandowski, a Republican, and Mr. Kest's camp that ended in a 1989 fistfight in a local bar.

Mr. Lewandowski was a chief strategist behind a fierce 1988 campaign by Republican Judy Jones to unseat Mr. Kest, and through the years Mr. Lewandowski and Mr. Kest continually criticized each other publicly.

Their fury for each other boiled over in the infamous fight in the men's bathroom of Wesley's Bar & Grill, 1201 Adams St. Each told reporters the other started it, but after the fight made statewide news, the embarrassed pair dropped charges.

Still, across Ohio, Mr. Kest was gaining a positive reputation as a county treasurer. He had shepherded state laws that, among other things, allowed homeowners and businesses to pay off back taxes on payment plans.

Locally, he boosted tax collections, lowered delinquencies, and increased earnings from investing the big pot of tax money - about $240 million on average - that the treasurer's office controls.

At the same time, he continued his accounting practice and began a side loan company, Second Chance Mortgage, Inc. He sold the company earlier this year.

As county treasurer, he has increased the diversity of the office workforce, with seven of his 33 employees racial minorities.

And he has touted his openness to new ideas.

While treasurers usually deal strictly in safe, government-backed investments, the treasurer's office under Mr. Kest bought $6 million in bonds to help build the Mud Hens stadium. If he remains treasurer, he has pledged to buy $22.5 million in bonds to help finance the Marina District.

He has said his is the first he knows of such investments, which he said are an “innovative” way to help the city's economy.

For Mr. Kest, most headlines in the 1990s and beyond have dealt with other issues.

John Irish, his chief deputy treasurer, settled a sexual harassment complaint by an office employee for $10,000 in 1991.

In 1994, Mr. Kest lost significantly in the Democratic primary for state auditor: “I had my lunch handed to me.”

The pair had known each other since kindergarten and had dated between his marriages in the 1970s. She said he touched her inappropriately in an attempt to have sex with her. He countered that she was the one making sexual advances, which he rebuffed, and he fired her for running her interior decorating business while working at the treasurer's office. Mr. Kest won that civil lawsuit in 1998, but the testimony and depositions were damaging.

Two other former employees - who hadn't sued - alleged that Mr. Kest harassed them. And Mr. Kest admitted that, while at a Youngstown bar after a 1996 conference, he told one of them, Shelley Singer, she had “beautiful breasts.” He later apologized.

Still, Mr. Kest considered the jury's decision a redemption of his character. After hearing the verdict, a red-faced Mr. Kest wiped away tears and hugged his wife. He then turned to Mr. Irish and said, “John, we're still in politics.”

Mr. Kest cringes whenever past controversies are mentioned. He and his supporters, like Lucas County Commissioner Sandy Isenberg, say they are old news.

“I think he served his penance, and I think that you have to move forward and look at the things he's done to help Lucas County, that made us money, that gave us good and innovative ideas, that provided us leadership,” Ms. Isenberg said.

But critics disagree. Paula Ross, the county Democratic Party chairwoman, cited Mr. Kest's past and threatened to quit if the party endorsed him for mayor.

But Mr. Kest has his backers as well - plenty of them. Over the last two years, he has lined up major support from Toledo's labor and business community.

Still, the race remains tight, and Mr. Kest has spent the last week on the defensive.

Both candidates gave The Blade permission to publish their credit reports. Mr. Kest's showed he and his wife owed $81,810 on credit cards - seven times the Fords' $11,490 and nine times the average American household debt.

Last week, Mr. Kest conceded he must have “mistakenly” left off much of that credit debt on ethics disclosure statements he is required to file with the state. Officials must list all credit cards with more than $1,000 debt.

Mrs. Kest then took the blame, saying she paid the bills and didn't tell her husband about their spiraling debt. The couple has attributed much of it to the costs of caring for and educating their children and grandchildren. This month they paid off some of it with a $55,000 second-mortgage.

Besides, Mr. Kest has said, he considers their debt a sacrifice for his being a public servant because he could get a private-sector job paying twice his $62,000 salary.

He has said what matters is his record shaping public policy over the last quarter century, and he hopes voters see him as “principled and competent.”

“And I hope they see that I really do represent their interests.”



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