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Published: 11/6/2005

Ford-Finkbeiner friendship damaged by time, politics

BY JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

In the good days, there was tennis.

They would play at Ottawa Park, or outside an apartment, or behind a school, cocooned in trees, where grass poked through the concrete. During the games they talked trash. In between, they talked politics.

Jack Ford served hard but struggled to cover ground. Carty Finkbeiner nailed passing shots but hit a weaker serve and a "tepid" backhand, Mr. Ford recalls. They battled for hours, two or three days a week, sometimes drawing small crowds of neighbors.

At night they would double-date, laugh about sports, revolutionize city government over pitchers of grape juice.

On the court they competed.

"I knew his game, he knew mine," Mr. Ford said recently. "We would kind of play to our weaknesses."

Now Mr. Ford and Mr. Finkbeiner are competing again, in Tuesday's election, for a Toledo mayor's office both have occupied. The men suggest their contest has shredded much of what remained of a relationship already tattered by ambition, time, and above all, politics.

"We were very good friends," Mr. Finkbeiner said yesterday. "Very, very good friends."

They met in 1979. They do not agree where. Mr. Ford vaguely remembers it was the University of Toledo's student union, where Mr. Finkbeiner, a twice-failed congressional candidate then running for City Council, was giving a speech.

Mr. Finkbeiner recalls coming home one afternoon and finding Mr. Ford, a social worker just beginning to dabble in politics, waiting to meet him in his living room.

They made an odd pair in many ways. Mr. Ford was tall, cerebral, soft-spoken, African-American, and a Democrat. Mr. Finkbeiner was shorter, feistier, white, and at the time, a Republican. (He has since run as an independent, created his own party, and now is the endorsed Democratic candidate in the mayor's race.)

They shared an interest in youth, unspectacular collegiate football careers - Mr. Ford at Ohio State University, Mr. Finkbeiner at Trinity College in Connecticut (he later graduated from Denison University in Granville, Ohio) - deep community involvement, and a political outlook that challenged Toledo's conservative Democratic establishment.

And they both loved politics.

"There was just a synergy that the two of them had with each other," said Amy Finkbeiner, Mr. Finkbeiner's wife, who has watched the men interact since 1984. "They could talk about any subject with intelligence - and have fun with it."

Mr. Ford worked for Mr. Finkbeiner when he won a council seat in 1979, when he lost a 1981 mayoral bid, and when he won council re-election in 1983. Their relationship spread to business: Mr. Ford said he once hired Mr. Finkbeiner for a social service job, then fired him when Mr. Finkbeiner argued with other staff.

Their friendship grew nonetheless.

Mr. Finkbeiner, divorced from his first wife, began dating Amy in 1984; they married in 1990. Mrs. Finkbeiner said she and her future husband regularly dropped in on Mr. Ford and his first wife, Claudia, at their home off Cherry Street, becoming "personal friends."

Mrs. Finkbeiner said the couples would laugh and joke until late at night. Her son attended his first sleepover at the Ford house. When Claudia Ford wanted to wallpaper her dining room and kitchen, Mrs. Finkbeiner said she volunteered to do it for her.

Mr. Ford does not remember those visits, only eating "a couple hamburgers" with the Finkbeiners. But he remembers a personal friendship with Mr. Finkbeiner that spanned Mr. Finkbeiner's 1981 divorce from his first wife, Mr. Ford's 1990 divorce from Claudia, and other difficult points Mr. Ford, who married his second wife, Cynthia, in 1993, declined to discuss.

They were political colleagues by 1987, when Mr. Ford won election to city council. Council-watchers dubbed the duo, along with Councilman Mike Ferner, "the F Troop," for their often lock step votes that pushed issues such as diversity in city hiring.

"They would sometimes do joint press conferences with almost no notice or preparation," said Paula Ross, the former chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Party. "Both thought on their feet. They often did happily and collegially join forces."

Mr. Ford and Mr. Finkbeiner teamed to sell Toledo on a youth curfew. They also wrote an amendment to the city charter to install a "strong mayor" form of government.

Mrs. Finkbeiner remembers the men drafted the measure over several nights at her paper-cluttered kitchen table, downing pitchers of Welch's grape juice that she mixed from frozen concentrate. They only cut back, she said, when Mr. Ford - a Type 2 diabetic - realized how much sugar the juice contained.

Politics, meanwhile, were slowly souring their relationship.

A series of minor blowups escalated in 1992, Mr. Ford said, when the city council prepared to vote on an issue involving diversity with a city contractor.

Mr. Ford said he and Mr. Finkbeiner agreed how they would vote on the matter at 12:30 a.m. When council met less than nine hours later, Mr. Finkbeiner changed positions, he said - and never explained why.

"At that point," Mr. Ford said, "I realized when it came to a certain level of ambition, you couldn't trust what he said."

Mr. Finkbeiner does not recall the incident.

Voters approved the strong-mayor charter change that year. Mr. Finkbeiner narrowly beat the third F Troop member, Mr. Ferner, in 1993 to become mayor. Mr. Ford won the council presidency.

Their tennis matches, a staple of the late '80s and early '90s, dwindled with their new responsibilities.

Colleagues from that time saw cordiality and occasional conflict, but not friendship, between the city's two most powerful politicians.

"I wouldn't call it confrontational, but there was a certain amount of head-butting" between Mr. Finkbeiner and Mr. Ford, said Gene Zmuda, a former council member who is now a municipal judge.

"I have recollections of Jack repeatedly reminding the mayor that whatever he wanted to do, he couldn't get by fiat," Mr. Zmuda said.

When a state legislative seat opened in 1994, Mr. Finkbeiner publicly urged Mr. Ford to run for it. At least one columnist accused Mr. Finkbeiner of trying to rid the council of his old friend.

Mr. Ford won the seat. He rose to House minority leader in two terms in Columbus and he saw little of Mr. Finkbeiner.

In 1997, he nearly came home to run for mayor.

Mr. Finkbeiner faced low approval ratings in his re-election bid. He and Mr. Ford both screened for the Democratic Party's endorsement. When Mr. Finkbeiner won it, Mr. Ford declined to run. Mr. Finkbeiner squeaked past a Republican to a second term.

Mr. Ford's flirtation with the race "probably hurt me more than I ever acknowledged," Mr. Finkbeiner said yesterday.

Term limits forced Mr. Finkbeiner from office in 2001. Mr. Ford, who had criticized the mayor in his second term over an ethics issue and his treatment of minority city officials, ran to replace him.

Mr. Finkbeiner endorsed his opponent, Ray Kest. Mr. Ford won handily.

Soon after he took office, Mr. Ford said, Mr. Finkbeiner began criticizing him from his new position as a political commentator on WTVG-TV, Channel 13. Mr. Ford said he knew then that Mr. Finkbeiner would challenge him in 2005.

Mr. Finkbeiner did not enter the mayor's race until July. His wife said his decision followed years of phone calls from residents concerned with Toledo's direction.

"He wants to give the city some life," she said.

Mr. Ford rejects that account.

"He is an ambitious, power-hungry guy" who thinks "only he can lead the city," Mr. Ford said recently. He added: "I never could have done what he's doing."

Mr. Finkbeiner said he is "disappointed" with Mr. Ford's tactics in the general election. Mr. Ford has compared Mr. Finkbeiner to scandal-plagued Gov. Bob Taft, blamed him for a $16 million hole in the city budget, and repeatedly raised a 1999 incident when Mr. Finkbeiner allegedly hit a city employee with a coffee mug.

"Someday," Mr. Finkbeiner said, "he'll realize that the person I know as a human being took a back seat to the political challenges of 2005."

After a particularly brutal televised debate last month, Mrs. Finkbeiner said she saw Mr. Ford on the way to the parking lot, where he apologized for what he said on air.

Mr. Ford's campaign said he didn't apologize - he just said hello and acknowledged the fierceness of the debate.

The mayor offers no public apologies for his tactics. He said Mr. Finkbeiner deceived him and the city by "playing coy" about his mayoral ambitions for three years.

"Even a friend running against a friend will keep it at the level of telling the truth," Mr. Ford said. "He's not a friend. He's an opponent."

Mr. Finkbeiner said he still has "a soft spot in my heart for Jack" - and he does not know when their friendship double-faulted.

"Sometimes," he said, "you just drift apart."

Contact Jim Tankersley at: jtankersley@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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