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Published: Wednesday, 2/25/2009

Politicians prize Lagrange

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
Keith Wilkowski, one of three declared mayoral candidates, recalls his childhood at 546 East Lake St. Former Toledo Fire Chief Michael Bell said he played basketball at Mr. Wilkowski's house. Keith Wilkowski, one of three declared mayoral candidates, recalls his childhood at 546 East Lake St. Former Toledo Fire Chief Michael Bell said he played basketball at Mr. Wilkowski's house.
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Going to Lagrange Street to load up on the pre-Lenten Polish treats known as paczki was more than a grocery expedition for Toledo mayoral candidate Keith Wilkowski yesterday.

It was a trip into a community, known both as Lagrange and the Fourth Ward, in which the political tradition is legendary, especially among Democrats.

"This was one of the strongest Democratic wards in the city and the county. I think it had deserved political punch," said Mr. Wilkowski, who bought 18 of the confections sold on Fat Tuesday to mark the start of Lent today. He said he made the purchase because "people like to eat them, and to support the neighborhood."

He is one of three declared candidates for mayor - a group that easily could double in the next few months.

In the next mayoral election, voters may have to choose between two native sons of the Lagrange area. Mr. Wilkowski and former Toledo Fire Chief Mike Bell are both 1973 graduates of Woodward High School. Mr. Bell, the state fire marshal, has said he is seriously considering entering the race.

Also in the race are Republican Jim Moody and independent Opal Covey. Still mulling a run are Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop, who are both Democrats.

Mr. Wilkowski, who lives in Old Orchard, grew up in the Lagrange neighborhood. His father, the late Arthur Wilkowski, was a member of the state House of Representatives from 1969 to 1983 and for several years was a judge.

The family lived at 546 East Lake St. starting in the early 1960s. Before that, they rented homes on Weber and Oakland streets, at a time when it was common to have a credit account at the corner grocery.

Mr. Wilkowski's late mother ran a ceramics shop upstairs in an addition that made their house one of the largest around.

Mr. Bell, who works in Columbus while keeping a residence in West Toledo, grew up on Stickney Avenue and recalls playing basketball at the Wilkowski house.

"When I was there [as fire chief], we would have paczki contests with the police. We used to go in there and see if we couldn't beat the police, and as usual, we were able to do that," Mr. Bell asserted.

As a candidate for president, Democrat Jimmy Carter visited the former Jim & Lou's bar at Central Avenue and Mulberry Street in 1975. The bar burned in 2005 in a riot triggered by an attempted neo-Nazi march.

Voter turnout has waned somewhat since the 1980s. In the 1988 general election, turnout in the Fourth Ward was 72 percent, compared with 73 percent countywide. In 2008, turnout was 61 percent, compared with 70 percent for the county. But it's still solidly Democratic. Democrat Barack Obama beat Republican John McCain with 91 percent of the vote in the Fourth Ward last year.

Despite Mr. Wilkowski's self-identification with the Fourth Ward, in the 2005 mayoral primary Mr. Wilkowski got 21 percent of the vote against Democratic incumbent Jack Ford (43.3 percent) and Democratic challenger Carty Finkbeiner (32.4 percent).

Michael Ashford, the city councilman whose District 4 includes the more economically stressed southern half of Ward 4 and who hasn't ruled out his own run for mayor, said the drop in voter involvement is typical of all of older Toledo, not just Lagrange.

"Fourth Ward is just a snapshot of other parts of Toledo - you're getting people moving out and people who are less concerned about politics moving in," Mr. Ashford said.

"What has happened is disappointment about politicians over the last two decades," he said.

Mr. Ashford said the ward "is going to be truly a battleground in the [mayoral] primary."

City Councilman Lindsay Webb, whose council District 6 includes most of the ward north of Central, said the community continues to have an outsized influence on politics in her district, in part because of the village council and the Lagrange Development Corp.

"Lagrange is a highly organized neighborhood. There is a certain level of expectation of politicians who represent the Fourth Ward. You have to be responsive. They still have a big bark," she said.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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