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Published: Monday, 1/3/2005

Gerken set to take office after tough fight

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In 1976, a union job at the Jeep plant putting parts on Grand Cherokees promised an attractive paycheck for Pete Gerken, but not much more.

Nearly 30 years later, though, it's hard to overestimate the influence the United Auto Workers have had on his life and political career.

From giving him his first taste of elected office in 1983, when he won an in-house race for shop steward, to becoming a Toledo city councilman in 1996 to November's election for Lucas County commissioner, Mr. Gerken's fortunes have been intertwined with the UAW.

"It certainly gave me access to an organization that worked on the same kind of issues that intrinsically in my heart I was interested in," he said. "I've always been interested in civil rights, social activism issues, watching out for the underdog, and making sure people were treated in a fair and just way. [The UAW] was a good mechanism because it was already doing those types of activities and gave me a chance to be a part of that."

Mr. Gerken, 52, takes office after a bitter campaign with Commissioner Harry Barlos. Mr. Gerken ran for the job when state UAW leader Lloyd Mahaffey became disenchanted with Mr. Barlos, whom Mr. Mahaffey had backed for commissioner in 1999.

Mr. Mahaffey's tough stance against Mr. Barlos led to a struggle in the Democratic Party and provided ammunition for a long-out-of-favor faction of the party to topple the leadership last year.

The focus on Mr. Mahaffey's role in the process frustrates Mr. Gerken. He acknowledges that the UAW leader's influence was helpful, but points out that he had to win the screening committee's endorsement.

"Lloyd expressed his dissatisfaction with Harry, but it was Pete Gerken who went into the screening committee with his ideas and vision for the job," Mr. Gerken said.

Mr. Mahaffey said he had a professional, not personal problem with Mr. Barlos and that he thought Mr. Gerken, whom he's known for more than 20 years, would make a better commissioner.

"He's really developed good leadership skills," Mr. Mahaffey said. "I think he's developed a vision for the county - he wants to see it grow and prosper."

Mr. Gerken, a 1969 graduate of Central Catholic High School and a 1991 graduate of the University of Toledo, started laying the groundwork for his political career within a few years of getting a job at Jeep.

He said the shop steward's role at the plant intrigued him as he watched from the assembly line. In 1983, he got a chance to stage his first campaign, which he said was similar to the races he would later run for public office.

"You had to strategize, put together a campaign, go out and shake hands, and articulate your positions," he said. "Actually, it was going door to door right on the assembly line."

During his eight years as a steward, he learned lessons about the need to adapt and be flexible that remain with him. He said in 1987, Chrysler officials told union leaders they foresaw closing the plant in three years. Up to that point, he said stewards intentionally would pick fights with foremen as a way to divert attention from the line workers - an approach that he thinks negatively affected the finished product. After the 1987 meeting, that philosophy had to change overnight. The new strategy was to find a foreman and ask how you could help him.

"We had three years to make sure the company knew we could be a good work force and we could be valued," Mr. Gerken said. "Almost on a dime, you had to turn your mentality about your approach to your job. There were a lot of stewards who couldn't make that transition and they didn't survive."

He thinks that change in approach helped convince the company to build the Jeep plant that opened in Toledo in 2001 and the planned $2.1 billion expansion announced last year.

In 1991, he left his job as a steward to take a seat on the executive committee of the union's Jeep unit. In 1996, he became co-administrator of UAW DaimlerChrysler Training Center, which helps provide training and education for workers, retirees, and their families.

Mr. Gerken made his move to publicly elected office in 1996 when Bill Boyle announced he was giving up his council seat. He received the blessing of his former UAW boss, Jack Sizemore, screened with the Democratic Party, and was selected for the post.

While on council, he gravitated toward utility issues such as dealing with storm-water problems, buying gas and electricity with a coalition of area cities, and helping to create a 2 percent set-aside fund for economic development from water, sewer, and storm sewer billings.

The issue he's probably best known for was the controversial living-wage ordinance he pushed. The law applies only to companies working on city contracts or benefiting from economic assistance, such as tax abatements or bond financing, but Mr. Gerken thinks some people believe all businesses in the city are affected by it. The law defines a living wage as $10.03 an hour if the employer provides health insurance, and more if it does not.

Though he knows he's been vilified for the law in some quarters, he remains unapologetic.

"Why would you take tax dollars and invest them in jobs that keep people in poverty?" he said. "When people are in poverty, you burden your educational system, which costs you more tax dollars, you burden your health-care system, which cost you more tax dollars, and you burden your job and family services, which costs you more tax dollars. It's just illogical for government to invest in opportunities that keep people in poverty."

Those types of stances tend to mirror those of fellow Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak, who joined the board in 2002 and who was elected in November to her first full term. She served with Mr. Gerken on council from 1997 to 2002.

Ms. Wozniak anticipates having more of an allegiance with Mr. Gerken than she enjoyed with Mr. Barlos and Commissioner Maggie Thurber, the board's sole Republican.

Mr. Gerken "serves with a great deal of passion," she said. "He's a real high-energy person, and he's not afraid to stir the pot."

His membership on the board also has political insiders wondering how he'll get along with Ms. Thurber, who also has a strong personality. Even before he took office, Mr. Gerken and Ms. Wozniak decided to bring Toledo Clerk of Council Michael Beazley on board to replace county administrator John Alexander.

They also have met with Mayor Jack Ford to plan for a unification of the city and county economic development offices. Both moves have rankled Ms. Thurber, who was left out of those key decisions.

Sandy Isenberg, chairman of the county's Democratic Party, said Ms. Thurber too often has been able to control the message even though she's in the political minority. She doesn't anticipate that happening after Mr. Gerken joins the board.

"I think Pete is going to be very spirited, and he's not going to back down on issues that he feels strong about," Ms. Isenberg said. "He won't take a secondary stance to Maggie Thurber. I think Pete and Tina will make a good team."

Contact Dale Emch at: daleemch@theblade.com or 419-724-6061.



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