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Published: Sunday, 11/20/2005

Candidates eager for area Democrats to fix longtime rift

BY JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

Michael Coleman phoned on Election Night; Ted Strickland, the morning after. They carried congratulations for Carty Finkbeiner and hopes that Toledo's mayor-elect might support them before May.

But what Mr. Coleman and Mr. Strickland, Democrats' two leading candidates for governor next year, likely need most from Mr. Finkbeiner is the fulfillment of a campaign promise: to unite Lucas County's perennially fractured Democratic Party in time for a crucial and opportune statewide election.

It's a tough task.

A local party power struggle more than two decades old produced another Democrat vs. Democrat smackdown on Nov. 8, pitting a faction that controls the county party against a group that formed its own political action committee after losing party control last year.

Mr. Finkbeiner, running with the official party endorsement, ousted incumbent Democratic Mayor Jack Ford. One of the mayor-elect's political allies, Mark Sobczak, bumped incumbent Karyn McConnell Hancock, a Ford ally, from Toledo City Council. Republicans took advantage, winning judgeships and key suburban seats.

Mr. Finkbeiner and some of his former campaign foes say they're trying to mend the Democratic rift. A county party leader says healing will take hard work - and money.

The stakes are high: Analysts say scandals engulfing Republican Gov. Bob Taft, who is term-limited, and indicted GOP fund-raiser Tom Noe make 2006 the Democrats' best chance for statewide victory in a decade.

"We need to win," Mr. Strickland, a congressman from southeast Ohio, said this week, "and we can't win if we aren't united and don't come together for a common purpose."

Local Democrats stopped bickering last year to support John Kerry's failed presidential bid. Many of them will gather tonight at a fund-raiser for U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur that some bill a "unity dinner".

"Those issues that bind us are much more powerful than those that divide us," Miss Kaptur said.

Others say unity will take more than a meal.

"All of a sudden you kiss and make up?" said Dominic Montalto, a senior political adviser for the county party. "No. Do we say, 'You kids have been bad boys, you come on home and we won't spank you, and your bedrooms are all the same?' I don't know."

Mr. Finkbeiner pledged on Election Night to bring Democrats together. He laughed at a press conference a few days later, when a reporter asked how he'd do that. "Now that's a challenge," he said.

In a subsequent interview, Mr. Finkbeiner said he'd already begun talking to Mr. Ford's supporters about joining forces, quickly, to back a candidate for governor. The early endorsement, he said, would help the candidate gain footing in the race and boost Lucas County's share of state funding down the line, should the candidate win in November.

Two leaders of the "LucasCountyDemocrats.org" political action committee - which left the county party after Mr. Finkbeiner's faction won control of it last year - said they'll work with Mr. Finkbeiner to reunite local Democrats.

Wade Kapszukiewicz, the county treasurer and the spokesman for the LucasCountyDemocrats.org PAC, and County Commissioner Pete Gerken both said this week they're willing to let the PAC go dormant as a token of reconciliation. Mr. Gerken said the PAC had "outlived its usefulness."

Mr. Kapszukiewicz said he was one of a dozen leaders who need to start "swallowing their pride and swallowing their own individual egos, perhaps ... and focusing on what makes us Democrats."

Mr. Gerken said the loss of judgeships and suburban seats this month showed the need for unity.

"Obviously what we're doing is not working in Lucas County," he said. "That's the difference. In the past we would kind of have a family feud, get together, elect our candidates, then go back to feuding. We didn't elect our candidates this time."

Mr. Montalto downplayed the judgeship losses. He said if Mr. Gerken and his allies want back into the county party, they should bring the support of Lloyd Mahaffey, the Ohio director of the powerful United Auto Workers union, and cash.

The county party reported just $5,000 in donations from last November to August - which all came from the state party - and Mr. Montalto said its coffers have dwindled after raising and spending about $50,000 for the recent election.

"Those guys got money," he said of the rival Democratic faction. "Hey, bringing money always brings you back home, doesn't it?"

Other roadblocks to a group hug include the election of a City Council president. Mr. Kapszukiewicz and Councilman Frank Szollosi say the seven Democrats on the new council should cross faction lines to pick a president. Mr. Finkbeiner said last week council Republicans "will have a role to play in that."

Then there is the issue of whether - and whom - to endorse before the governor's primary.

Mr. Coleman's staff did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with their candidate, the mayor of Columbus. Mr. Strickland, in a phone interview, cast himself as a man Democrats can agree upon for the simplest of reasons: electability.

"What Ohio Democrats need to do, and I think desperately want to do, is have a candidate to unite the state in a way to get a majority of the vote," Mr. Strickland said. "I'm someone that I would hope people could rally around regardless of their past experiences with each other."

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



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