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Long a powerful faction in local Democratic Party politics, labor asserted itself last week to win a seat on Toledo City Council.
But its heavy hand is raising questions about how much union muscle is too much.
The building and construction trades unions waged a successful, but bruising, campaign to install electricians’ union organizer Shaun Enright in an at-large seat on council. The appointment sets up Mr. Enright to run as an incumbent in the fall for a four-year term as an at-large councilman.
The move occurs as organized labor is struggling against a declining membership and rising attempts by Republican lawmakers to weaken public and private-sector unions.
Mr. Enright, 33, of East Toledo, a journeyman electrician and organizer for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 8, was pushed by the Northwest Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council as its preferred candidate for the vacancy left by Councilman Phil Copeland. Mr. Copeland resigned Jan. 4 to take over the post of Lucas County recorder.
Despite a history that included losing a 2011 city council race, getting arrested for an open container and carrying a concealed weapon in 1999, and a recent personal bankruptcy, Mr. Enright successfully screened with the party in December and won the party executive committee’s recommendation in a closed-door meeting, reportedly by a 68-2 vote.
When the appointment came up in council on Tuesday, Mr. Enright secured only five of the seven Democratic votes on the panel and won the seat only when Republican George Sarantou switched his vote to Mr. Enright on the third ballot.
Democrats Joe McNamara, council president, and District 3 Councilman Mike Craig bucked the party and voted for former Mayor Jack Ford for the vacancy.
Mr. McNamara’s rebellion against the party’s endorsement could cost him dearly with the party at a time when he is weighing a run for mayor in November or at least re-election to his at-large seat on council — and it could trigger a split similar the A-team/B-team factionalism of nearly a decade ago.
Some party leaders said he should be expelled from the party’s 70-member executive committee. But not everyone agrees.
“Labor has been a big force in the Democratic Party here locally for many, many years,” Jerry Chabler of Sylvania, a longtime party activist, especially in the role of raising money for Democratic candidates, said.
“They’ve been very beneficial as it relates to monetary contributions to the party and candidates, and I think every elected official realizes that. I would hope this would not cause any irreparable damage within the Democratic Party, and I really don’t see it happening.”
Dennis Duffey, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council and an influential figure in the Lucas County Democratic Party, ratcheted up the political rhetoric last week when he suggested Mr. McNamara should be “tarred and feathered” or “de-nutted” for failing to live up to his oath to support the recommendations of the party’s executive committee, of which Mr. McNamara is a member.
The graphic threat attracted coverage from Fox News, which asked in its 10 p.m. Wednesday program On the Record with Greta, with host Greta Van Susteren: “Why is this union president so hostile? He called for castration of a city council president.”
The show drew an average of 1.4 million viewers during one ratings week last July.
Union representatives account for 22 designated seats on the 70-member executive committee — and that doesn’t include the other seats held by people who may happen to be union members or have a union membership in their family.
Ron Rothenbuhler, chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Party, said if a rift is developing, it was started by Mr. McNamara and Mr. Craig.
“That’s what got the ball rolling,” Mr. Rothenbuhler said. He said some of his members, and not just the labor-affiliated ones, want some action against Mr. McNamara, such as removing him from the executive committee.
According to the party’s bylaws, a member can be removed by a vote of 60 percent of the executive committee and for one of three reasons. One of those reasons is “publicly opposing Democratic candidates endorsed by the Lucas County Democratic Party.”
Mr. McNamara has carefully avoided publicly criticizing Mr. Enright, focusing rather on his support for Mr. Ford to get the Copeland seat.
A lawyer, Mr. McNamara said he was trying to maintain an at-large black member on council to replace Mr. Copeland’s seat, a position he said was in line with a section of the party’s bylaws that calls for “striving to eradicate social, political, and economic injustice in our communities.”
“Craig and I disagreed [with the council] on who was best to fill that seat, and we were concerned with African-American representation going down, which it now has. That was an honest disagreement, and it’s time to move forward,” Mr. McNamara said.
He said it’s “too soon to tell” whether he’ll support Mr. Enright in the fall and is unannounced on whether he’ll run for mayor or seek re-election to his at-large seat.
“My oath to the people of Toledo comes first,” he said.
Labor’s move to claim a council seat occurs as labor strength is under attack at both the state and city levels.
Two adjoining states, Michigan and Indiana, have adopted “right-to-work” laws that prohibit an employer from having a union contract that requires members to pay dues to the union, and labor officials are grimly expecting Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich to seek the same kind of legislation in Ohio.
Democrats and unions joined forces in 2011 to defeat the Republican-backed Senate Bill 5 that would have weakened public-employee bargaining rights. And Toledo had its own version of the Senate Bill 5 fight in the 2010 issue of “exigent circumstances” when Mayor Mike Bell requested and won council approval to sidestep employee union contracts to impose concessions and avoid an operating deficit.
Mr. Rothenbuhler said the memory of those fights is strong. “Absolutely I think that only enticed labor to be more diligent to ensure representation of labor is at every level possible,” said Mr. Rothenbuhler, who recently retired as a regional director of the Ohio carpenters’ union.
“They are large contributors to the party and so they wanted to express their opinion, not only because they contribute support but because they believe that since Pete Gerken and then Phil Copeland, that labor deserved a voice on council,” Mr. Rothenbuhler said.
Mr. Copeland is business manager of Laborers Local 500 and his predecessor as at-large councilman, now-Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken, whom he replaced in 2005, was on the United Auto Workers payroll as co-administrator of a training facility.
However, there is no assignment of any council seat for any particular demographic, and the Enright seat has not always been occupied by a labor representative.
The first two people in that seat were Bill Boyle, a Democratic businessman, and the late Eleanor Kahle, known as a champion of the poor and elderly.
Mr. Craig said the building and construction trade unions came on too strong.
“The unions have pretty tight control of what goes on in the party. That’s not a bad thing. The bad thing is they’re not tolerant to debate and opposing points of view,” Mr. Craig said.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think the party should be telling anyone how to vote — on council, Congress, or the Statehouse. I’m elected by my constitutents, and my allegiance is to the community,” said Mr. Craig.
Despite the ongoing party dispute, Mr. Craig and Mr. Enright were seen speaking amicably to each other after the vote last Tuesday and at a retirement party honoring former Lucas County Recorder Jeanine Perry.
“We have to work together. He’s a fellow east sider and hopefully we can work together to get some things done in East Toledo,” Mr. Craig said.
Mr. Enright also said his intent is to work cooperatively with other members of council.
“When it came down to it, when I screened with the Democratic Party ... I think what they saw in me was someone who wants to do better and who has a great ambition to make the city better. My intent was never to start anything like [a division in the party] or have anything happen,” he said. “I can sit down with Joe McNamara and Mike Craig anytime.”
Contact Tom Troy at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6058.