State UAW director Lloyd Mahaffey says local politicos exaggerate his power, but Lucas County Commissioner Harry Barlos is one politician who disagrees.
Perhaps the top union leader in the state, Mr. Mahaffey has enough influence to make Mr. Barlos consider giving up his job as county commissioner without a fight.
Mr. Barlos, president of the board of Lucas County commissioners, said he may run for treasurer instead of seeking re-election to the top job in county government.
The reason: Mr. Mahaffey, displeased by Mr. Barlos lack of communication with him, announced he ll use his influence and money to back Toledo City Councilman Peter Gerken in a Democratic primary that party leaders don t want.
“In the next two weeks, my decision is whether to seek re-election to county commissioner,” Mr. Barlos said. “The fact that there may be a primary challenge isn t weighing too heavily on me. At the same time, the opportunity might be presented to lend my management skills to the office of treasurer.”
One source of friction between Mr. Barlos and Mr. Mahaffey was Mr. Barlos questioning of a contract the United Auto Workers negotiated early this year for some sheriff s office employees.
Mr. Barlos said it s the job of county commissioners to be fiscally prudent and the contract ultimately took effect as negotiated. Mr. Mahaffey said he could handle the disagreement over the contract, but Mr. Barlos should have contacted him to tell him about it.
Mr. Mahaffey said that situation is indicative of Mr. Barlos lack of communication with him since Mr. Barlos took office in 1999. Mr. Barlos said he s tried to patch up the relationship but Mr. Mahaffey won t take his calls.
“He s never tried to call me. His secretary tried to call me,” Mr. Mahaffey said. “I ve seen him out in public and he never tried to talk to me. It s not personal between Harry and me - I just think Pete would be a better commissioner.”
For his part, Mr. Gerken, who works for Mr. Mahaffey as director of the DaimlerChrysler UAW Training Center, says it s no secret that he s interested in the job.
“I think we have to put the best candidate out there. If it s Pete Gerken, I m willing to take that challenge,” Mr. Gerken said.
Stuck in the middle of this inter-party squabble is Paula Ross, chairman of the county s Democratic Party. She said she doesn t want a primary fight, but Mr. Mahaffey s mind seems made up that he wants Mr. Barlos out of the commissioners office.
She said she wants to maintain the good relationship she s had with Mr. Mahaffey for years. The commissioner race, after all, isn t the only one in which the UAW will play a role in 2004. Apart from it being a presidential-election year, there will be races for the U.S. Congress, another commissioner s seat, treasurer, recorder, and a number of judgeships.
Ms. Ross said she has talked to Mr. Barlos about running for treasurer as a way to avoid a primary fight with Mr. Gerken.
“Such a primary would be harmful to the entire slate and divisive to the party,” she said. “We hope to avoid such a divisive primary.”
Some party members are surprised Ms. Ross couldn t stop Mr. Mahaffey s primary threat and are concerned about the message that s being sent to other incumbents. Former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said he doesn t recall an incumbent being pushed out of office by a union leader, and he doesn t think it would happen under a different party chairman.
“There s no question that under the leadership of [former party chairman] Bill Boyle or, in more recent times, Keith Wilkowski, this would not have happened,” Mr. Finkbeiner said. “You sit down and learn about the misunderstandings between Lloyd and the candidate. You see that proper apologies are made and that omissions are corrected. Then you move forward.”
Ms. Ross said Mr. Mahaffey knows how she feels but his mind appears to be made up. She said sometimes her viewpoint doesn t prevail and party unity becomes more important than her opinion.
“When the United Auto Workers eliminated the other region and consolidated Ohio, that made Lloyd Mahaffey probably the top labor leader in Ohio,” she said.
“I don t know how my predecessors would have dealt with this. I just know I ve worked to try to do what s best for the party in Lucas County,” Ms. Ross said.
Mr. Mahaffey was already a powerful union figure when his stature was enhanced last year by the merger of the state s two UAW regions, leaving him leading 85,000 members.
The move provided him with more money to spread around on political campaigns.
Mr. Mahaffey has shown a willingness to use his financial influence. Mayor Jack Ford received at least $70,000 from the UAW in 2001 when he ran against Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest, according to campaign finance records from the Lucas County Board of Elections.
The combination of money and influence with his members makes Mr. Mahaffey a powerful figure in politics, said Sandy Isenberg, a former county commissioner.
“He has a lot of juice. He has a lot of power. He has a lot of members. He has a lot of money,” Ms. Isenberg said. “It s tough to turn your back on that. I imagine it would be a very difficult decision for Paula.”
Mr. Mahaffey knows he s in a position of power, but he said he doesn t throw his weight around. He said he wouldn t see it as a good thing if candidates were afraid of reprisals if they made him mad.
“I want people to feel they can disagree with me,” Mr. Mahaffey said. “This is just one instance where I disagree with the candidate.”