Wednesday, November 5, 2014

After an easy win, will Armond Budish keep his promise?

Today, at Armond Budish’s first press conference after his victory in the Cuyahoga County executive race, I asked him to name the most difficult moment in his campaign.

He had to think.

“Waking up this morning at 5 a.m. to do a television interview,” Budish said finally, “after [being up] last night and being at the polls all day yesterday.”

Before Election Day, I doubt the guy lost much sleep. Budish was the race’s front-runner from start to finish, ever since Ed FitzGerald and other key Democrats anointed him as FitzGerald’s successor in May 2013.

Jack Schron, Budish’s Republican opponent, was well-qualified and ran a visible, pretty assertive race. That won Schron 41 percent of the vote -- the best performance in 10 years by a Republican sacrificial lamb in a countywide election.

Now Budish and Schron will have to co-exist. Schron ran for executive from a safe seat on the county council, and he chairs its economic development committee. Today, Budish suggested Schron could help with a goal both men share: matching county job training programs with available local jobs.

“[Schron] talked a lot about a business he created to train workers for the jobs that exist,” Budish said. “That’s certainly an area we need to focus on. I look forward to working with him.”

Continuity, not change, was the mood of the day. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” I heard a guy, probably a county employee, say just before the press conference.

Budish’s agenda sounds similar to FitzGerald’s. Today he announced he’s forming his transition team, with three panels to take on his major goals.

An economic growth team will work on attracting new businesses to the region, supporting small businesses, aligning jobs and training, and creating “pathways out of poverty for people who want to work hard.” A regional team will explore ways to make college more affordable, advance clean energy, and deal with foreclosed homes, infant mortality and the health of Lake Erie. A third team will aim to make the government more cost-effective and responsive.

Budish said it’s too early to talk about his cabinet. But it doesn’t sound like he’ll clean house.

“We’ll look at everybody. We'll look at people who are here. We'll look at others,” Budish said. “There’s no plan at this point for making changes. We’ll make changes as needed.”

On hiring, Budish faces a test. He’s a loyal, partisan Democrat with a lot of connections.

He’s taking over five years after voters’ revulsion at patronage and cronyism convinced them to create a new county government. Now, many voters have moved on to new concerns. It’d be easier today to stack a cabinet with party loyalists.

This spring, I asked Budish if he’d root out patronage as aggressively as FitzGerald.

“Absolutely,” he said.

I asked how he’d deal with job requests from political allies.

“Nobody has been promised anything, nor will anyone be promised anything, during this campaign,” Budish said. “Anybody who is hired for any job will only be hired if they are the most qualified person for that job.”

Many people who worked hard to break up the Democratic patronage machine five years ago are nervous about Budish's election. Now that he’s hiring, it’s time for the public and press to hold him to his promise.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

FitzGerald loses even his home county in epic defeat

He could’ve run the town for as long as he wanted.

Ed FitzGerald had a job with no term limits. He could’ve run for reelection this year as the guy who restored confidence in Cuyahoga County government after the Jimmy Dimora era.

Instead, FitzGerald let hubris guide him. He thought he could pull off a leap as daring as his jump from Lakewood mayor to Cuyahoga County executive. So he ran for governor, taking the long odds any Democrat faced this year, despite the scandal he should’ve known awaited.

So FitzGerald lost, by an embarrassing, almost two-to-one margin, to Gov. John Kasich. Voters’ repudiation of him is complete: He even lost here, in the county where he’s executive.

Four years ago, as executive-elect, FitzGerald was talking about how the story of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign reminded him to advocate for the poor. His ambition was obvious to everyone.

Now, if FitzGerald is remembered outside Cleveland, it’ll be as a minor character in the story of Kasich’s likely imminent presidential campaign. He’ll be sort-of known as the other guy in the infamously missing video, the one who asked Kasich about rape crisis centers and got snubbed.

I think FitzGerald could’ve saved his career, not just by spending a Saturday at the BMV getting a license, or calling a cab for the lovely Irish trade delegate, but by knowing he’d pressed his luck. When the cops handed him back his years-old learner’s permit that early morning in 2012 and told him he was free to go, wasn’t that a sign to start playing it safe?

If FitzGerald had run for executive again, he might’ve dodged his car trouble. Perhaps the Republicans’ opposition research wouldn’t have dug that deep. Or, if a local opponent had used it against him, I think he would’ve survived it, thanks to Democrats’ 20-year winning streak in countywide races and his record as executive.

Though it’s deeply unfashionable to mention this right now, FitzGerald has a compiled a pretty long list of accomplishments: a smaller payroll, an under-budget convention center project, progress on regional cooperation, a $100 million economic development fund and a $50 million blight demolition fund – and, last but not least, his signature anti-corruption idea, an inspector general so independent that she was even free to scold him for his car trouble a week before the election.

But recklessly plunging into the governor’s race? Taking the Democratic ticket down with him? That, the voters who elected him four years ago couldn’t forgive.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Will Cleveland voters shut down traffic cameras?

It’s the election’s sleeper issue: Cleveland’s traffic cameras. For nine years they’ve watched over major intersections and avenues, snapping photos of drivers’ license plates when they detect a speeder or a red-light-runner.

Tomorrow, Cleveland residents will decide whether to shut them off.

To supporters of Issue 35, which would effectively end the city’s traffic camera program, Election Day is the citizen’s chance to fight back against an unfair system and a government trying to raise cash. An anti-camera Facebook page has posted a picture of Mayor Frank Jackson, altered to show glowing dollar signs in his eyes. Jackson has warned that he’ll have to cut $6 million from the city budget if the cameras are shut down.

“If the mayor and council was concerned about safety rather than revenue, they probably would have looked at safety data sometime in last nine years while the cameras have been up,” argues petition drive organizer Jason Sonenshein. “They haven’t compiled that data.”

Issue 35’s backers spent four years gathering petition signatures for their proposed charter amendment. A yes vote would ban photo traffic enforcement in Cleveland unless a police officer is on the scene and personally issues the ticket. (That would reduce the cameras to expensive alternatives to radar guns.) A no vote on Issue 35 would preserve the camera program.

“I’m mostly concerned about the lack of due process with camera tickets,” says Sonenshein. “They ticket the owner, not necessarily the driver. If you weren’t driving, it’s up to you to prove your innocence, rather than up to the government to prove you’re guilty.”

Camera tickets can be appealed, and Cleveland Magazine recently found that about half of appeals result in a dismissal or reduced fine. But Sonenshein says only four percent of ticketed motorists appeal. "A lot of people can’t afford to take off work," he says. Hearing officers aren’t neutral, he complains, because they’re employed by the city, not a court.

The mayor and various city councilpeople, including council president Kevin Kelley, oppose Issue 35. Councilman Brian Cummins has posted arguments for keeping the cameras on his website. He and others argue that the cameras deter residents from speeding, that most of them are deployed in high-crash areas, and that they free police officers to combat violent crime. Bike Cleveland, the cycling advocacy group, also opposes Issue 35, arguing that the cameras help keep cyclists and pedestrians safe by slowing down car traffic.

I asked Sonenshein to answer the safety arguments, including the point on Cummins' website that pedestrians are likely to survive a collision with a car driving 20 mph, but likely to die if hit by a car going 40.

“There are lots of ways to improve the safety of the streets without raising the risk of punishing innocent people,” Sonenshein says, suggesting narrower traffic lanes and longer yellow lights. He also says the city hasn’t done a thorough study of the camera’s effects, and that a national study that claims traffic cameras reduce fatal crashes by 24 percent is flawed.

The camera debate cuts across the usual political divides. Sonenshein and several other petition organizers have a libertarian bent.  (Sonenshein's anti-camera PAC is called Liberate Ohio. He says it's spent about $1,300.) Councilmen Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, usually allies, are on opposite sides of this issue. Johnson has defended the cameras, saying neighborhood groups often request them. Reed says he's become convinced the camera program is really about revenue, not safety. Most of council has long supported the cameras, but Joe Cimperman has voted against them, arguing they lead to rear-end collisions.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

$50m demolition fund passes Cuyahoga County Council unanimously

Cuyahoga County will soon give cities tens of millions of dollars to tear down blighted buildings. A $50 million bond issue for demolition, debated all year, passed the county council unanimously last night.

The aggressive action addresses one of Cleveland’s most urgent and overwhelming problems. Many city neighborhoods are still scarred by abandoned homes from the recession and foreclosure crisis.

“No one has done anything as ambitious in this nation as $50 million,” said councilman Pernel Jones, a strong supporter of the legislation.

The vote, seven days before Election Day, gave county executive Ed FitzGerald a new accomplishment in the last days of his run for governor. It also affected the race to replace FitzGerald. Jack Schron, the county councilman who’s the Republican candidate for county executive, voted for the demolition plan, even though his attempts to amend it failed.

The council’s Republicans and Democrats ironed out their differences about the demolition program by approving 11th-hour amendments.

The council adopted Republican Dave Greenspan’s idea of letting cities apply for a grant or a loan. The idea is to stretch out the $50 million bond issue, which isn’t nearly enough to demolish the area’s estimated 20,000 abandoned homes. If cities go for a loan, they’ll get a grant of half the loaned money when they pay it back. Cities are expected to apply for grants at first, then loans as the fund dwindles.

Schron's amendment lost 9-2. He wanted to make the grants competitive and establish an independent review committee to make the awards.

“If we don’t change this, that means the county executive, whoever that’ll be, will be making the determination of how the money will be utilized,” Schron said. But council went instead for Pernel Jones’ amendment, which says council intends to create a committee to oversee the program.

Schron dropped his earlier idea of favoring demolition applications for land with high development interest. The county’s bond counsel advised that restrictions on the use of sales tax bonds prevented it.

Schron’s vote for the final legislation prevents his opponent in the executive race, Democrat Armond Budish, from making demolition a defining issue a week before the election. Budish has said he “strongly supports” the program.

FitzGerald adopted the $50 million demolition proposal in his February State of the County address. (Former county treasurer Jim Rokakis had promoted it for years before.) At the meeting’s end, Democratic councilwoman Sunny Simon praised FitzGerald’s leadership on the issue. Her remarks contrasted with complaints two weeks ago from Greenspan and council president Ellen Connally, who said FitzGerald had offered a vague proposal and left the details to council.

The county will borrow the $50 million and pay it back over several years -- despite concerns that county is already borrowing heavily to finance projects such as the convention center hotel.

The county council went forward despite complaints from Cleveland city councilmen Zack Reed and Jeff Johnson that favoring demolition over rehabilitation might hurt the historic character of their neighborhoods. County councilwoman Yvonne Conwell argued two weeks ago that some of the money should go to rehabbing houses, but she also dropped her idea on the advice of the bond counsel.

The Cuyahoga Land Bank will get $9 million to demolish properties it owns. Cities will be able to apply for up to $1 million in the first round of funding and possibly $2 million in later rounds. Every city that shows a need will get an award. Once a city uses 80 percent of the award, it can come back for more.

Under that system, most suburbs will get the money to demolish all their eligible blighted buildings in the first round. The cities with the greatest need -- Cleveland and East Cleveland, and perhaps a couple more inner-ring suburbs – will come back for many later rounds.

Here's the full text of the final ordinance.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Kasich nearly sweeps newspaper endorsements; FitzGerald's driver's license trouble dooms him

John Kasich’s slouch said it all. The governor showed up to the Plain Dealer endorsement interview without a tie, and he leaned back in his chair, one arm off to the side. He never talked to his Democratic opponent, Ed FitzGerald, even ignored his questions until reporters repeated them. The governor figured he had the endorsement in the bag.

He was right. The centrist Plain Dealer gave Kasich a surprisingly enthusiastic thumbs-up on Friday. In fact, the governor won the endorsements of nearly all of the major-city newspapers in Ohio.

Final score: Kasich 6, FitzGerald 0, none of the above 1.

It’s not easy to run the table with Ohio’s newspapers, since their editorial pages range from conservative to progressive. Kasich came close. The Columbus Dispatch, Canton Repository and Plain Dealer praised his four years as governor.

“John Kasich’s first term as governor has been one of the most consequential, successful and remarkable in Ohio’s history,” wrote the conservative Dispatch, which credited him for cutting the state’s budget and filling the rainy-day fund after the recession, and called him a “social moderate and reformer.”

The Akron Beacon Journal, Youngstown Vindicator and Toledo Blade editorial pages, had a tougher decision. How could they reconcile their frequent criticisms of Kasich with the dilemma posed by FitzGerald’s campaign?

“Inept,” the Blade described FitzGerald’s run, politely. “Pathetic performance,” the Beacon Journal said.

Here’s the official scorers' ruling on FitzGerald’s errors -- how many newspapers cited them as a reason not to endorse him:
No drivers license for 10 years: 7 of 7 
First running mate’s tax troubles: 2 of 7
Found in car with Irish trade delegate: 2 of 7 
“If you can't trust a politician to take care of the small but necessary things – for TEN years – how can you trust him with the futures of nearly 11.6 million citizens and 53,000 state employees?” asked The Cincinnati Enquirer. The Dispatch, which said much the same, didn’t even deign to print FitzGerald’s name.

The Beacon Journal and The Vindicator went for Kasich on balance, hinting they might’ve endorsed a stronger challenger. The Blade compiled a long list of criticisms of Kasich, then endorsed no one. “These failings argue for a change in the governor’s office,” it wrote. “But Mr. FitzGerald does not make a persuasive case that he is that change.”

FitzGerald, The Beacon Journal argued, has been successful as Cuyahoga County executive, but is unready to be governor. “The shame is that he did not seek a second term to build on what has been started and sharpen his skills.” A shame, the Beacon implies, because FitzGerald is unlikely to get another shot at a major office.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

FitzGerald and the Greens shadowbox Kasich at the City Club

photo by Donn Nottage
So it’s come to this. Ed FitzGerald -- spurned by the press, the polls, campaign donors and the governor -- took the City Club of Cleveland’s lonely stage last night with the only opponent willing to debate him.

Anita Rios, the Green Party candidate for governor, sat beside FitzGerald before an audience of more Greens than Democrats. John Kasich was a no-show, unwilling to let pesky challengers chink his armor and chip at his 22-point lead.

So “the only gubernatorial debate in the state of Ohio in 2014” (as City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop noted) became a shadow play of the debate Ohio could’ve had, if not for the car trouble that drove FitzGerald to the curb.

There wasn’t much debating in this debate. FitzGerald and Rios tag-teamed, slamming Kasich’s policies on jobs, taxes, local government cuts, gay marriage and Lake Erie.

“Yes, we woke up one morning and couldn’t drink the water,” said Rios. Like many Toledoans, she drove to Michigan for bottled water after the lake’s algae bloom made tap water undrinkable for 400,000 people this summer. She and FitzGerald said they’d regulate fertilizer use on farms to protect the lake.

“It’s not rocket science to fix the runoff issue,” Rios said. “There are many things farmers can do to correct that. It’s just that there have been no regulations put in place. Our leaders do not have the will.”

“Gov. Kasich and his friends are still having conversations about how they’re going to balance the concerns of the fertilizer industry and everybody’s need for safe drinking water,” FitzGerald said. “When it comes to safe drinking water, you don’t balance it. It’s a moral issue. It’s a human right. Anything poisoning it needs to be regulated immediately.”

It was a night for issues, not the character questions that have dominated press coverage of the governor’s race.

Moderator Robert Higgs of the Plain Dealer’s Columbus bureau asked FitzGerald, almost apologetically, about his ten years of driving without a license and his late-night appearance in a car with an Irish trade delegate. What role should character issues play? he asked.

FitzGerald said he should be judged by his record as Cuyahoga County executive, such as cleaning up after corruption. Kasich, he argued, revealed his character by not showing up for the debate and by working for the defunct Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers. Kasich once lobbied public pension funds to invest with the firm; pension funds in Ohio later lost about $500 million because of its collapse. “What’s a greater moral issue?” FitzGerald asked, to applause.

Rios backed him up. “Shame on the media for focusing on that,” she said of FitzGerald’s car trouble.

Higgs asked FitzGerald and Rios how they’d encourage higher-wage jobs. FitzGerald said he’d support small business over large corporations and raise the state’s minimum wage. He bashed Kasich for not opposing free-trade deals. Rios said she wants the state to support worker-owned cooperatives.

Both candidates ripped Kasich’s tax cuts. But when Higgs asked if they’d reverse any, FitzGerald demurred. “I’m not running on a tax increase philosophy,” he said. “I do think we need to fund social services, hunger relief and job creation. [But] is there a way for us to live within our means?” Rios said she’d restore the estate tax, because it mostly taxed the wealthy.

Questions from the Green Party tables swung the debate farther left. FitzGerald searched politely for common ground. Rios supported amnesty for illegal immigrants; FitzGerald endorsed immigration reform and voiced concern about exploitation of migrant workers. Asked about affirmative action, FitzGerald talked about including disadvantaged groups in contracting, while Rios endorsed civil disobedience to preserve racial preferences in college admissions.

One questioner asked a wide-ranging question about the war on terror, militarized police forces, and “subsidizing violence all over the globe, but mostly in Ohio.” Rios promised to assemble a group of anti-war governors, “rather than squandering [money] in some sad place, doing some evil deed.” FitzGerald, not used to debating pacifism, said he endorsed community policing and the need to fight poverty because “you can’t prosecute your way out of a problem.”

Finally, a Green pushed Rios and FitzGerald to disagree about something. “I think I’m a lot more strident on anti-fracking,” Rios said. “I consider the Lucasville 5 on Death Row to be heroes.” (The convicts were found guilty of leading a murderous 1993 prison riot.) FitzGerald agreed to disagree with her on that.

In his closing, FitzGerald fired off the tightest critique of Kasich that I’ve heard from him. He said Kasich is taking credit for a nationwide economic recovery, while Ohio’s job growth has been slower than most states. “That’s one of the reasons John Kasich is not here -- he would love to have a 30-second television commercial conversation about that.” He bashed Kasich’s tax cuts, saying the governor paid for them with higher property taxes and cuts to public schools, local governments and heroin treatment.

“We are one election away from going in a totally different direction if we actually focus on real issues,” FitzGerald said.

He was describing the election Democrats wanted. But because of FitzGerald’s slipups and despite his best efforts, it’s not the election Ohio is getting.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The politics of demolition put Schron on the spot in the executive race

After a lot of talk and months of negotiations, the Cuyahoga County council is poised to approve a $50 million plan to demolish thousands of blighted houses – just before Election Day.

That puts county executive candidate Jack Schron -- a Republican county councilman – in a political bind. He wants a different demolition strategy. How will he vote?

“This might be our one shot at spending $50 million,” Schron said at a council meeting yesterday. “If we spend it before we’ve ever put the comprehensive plan together, we’ll put the cart way before the horse.”

The demolition plan is heading for a vote Oct. 28. Will Schron vote no, a week before the county executive election, and create a contrast between himself and his opponent?

The idea of borrowing $50 million to battle blight has been in the works a long time. Former county treasurer Jim Rokakis and various political candidates suggested it, and executive Ed FitzGerald adopted the idea in his February State of the County address. But it had languished in council for months.

Yesterday, the legislation picked up speed. As the council hashed out details, political tensions flared.

Dave Greenspan, the frugal conservative, argued for loaning money for demolition instead of making grants. Yvonne Conwell, who represents much of Cleveland’s East Side, argued that some of the money should go to renovations. The mayors of Shaker Heights, Lakewood and Parma addressed the council, arguing some of the money should be guaranteed for inner-ring suburbs.

Greenspan and curmudgeonly council president Ellen Connally, both critics of FitzGerald, complained about him again.

“This matter was talked about, and suddenly the executive announced it was going to happen,” Connally said, “and we didn’t have any legislation. So we really had to do the down and dirty work.”

Pernel Jones, also from Cleveland, took the lead in arguing for the legislation as written.

“I thought it’d be a whole lot easier to give away $50 million,” Jones said with a smile.

That left an opening for Schron, the manufacturing CEO who seeks efficiency in government.

“It probably is easy to give away taxpayers money,” Schron replied. But even $50 million isn’t nearly enough to tear down all of the estimated 15,000 abandoned buildings in Cuyahoga County.

So Schron, who built his company’s headquarters on a Cleveland brownfield, argued that the demolition program should work more like the state’s brownfields program. He said it should favor sites where a business wants to develop and banks want to invest, near economic development engines such as the Cleveland Clinic.

“The comprehensive plan should come before the money starts to get spent,” Schron argued.

Dan Brady, rumored to be a top contender for council president next year, challenged Schron.

“Plans can get more and more and more comprehensive and never happen,” Brady said. “I’ve seen it over and over and over in government.”

Soon after, Connally called for the legislation to move forward. Council members can propose amendments over the next two weeks, she said.

“Is it the intent that we would be voting on this final legislation in two weeks?” Schron asked.

“It is our anticipation that we vote on the final legislation in two weeks,” Connally replied coolly.

“Will there be no other opportunity for public participation?” Schron asked.

“The public has had every opportunity to come to our meetings, to submit information,” Connally said.

Schron looked peeved. He shook his head, ever so slightly, and said he’d offer an amendment.

After the meeting, I asked Schron if he was frustrated. He said he wanted more time to get the council to consider his ideas. He smiled and said he might hold a press conference about the issue.

I asked if he’d vote for the demolition fund if his amendment is defeated. “I’ll have to wait and see,” he said.

Across the room, Brady was talking with a focused confidence, as if he’d taken the temperature of the room and found it to his liking.

I asked if he had the votes to pass the legislation as it is now.

“Yes,” he said.

What about the amendments still to come?

“If the legislation gets to a place where it’s not going to work, I’ll no longer support it,” Brady said.

Would Schron’s amendment keep it from working? “Yes, and it would take us another six months,” Brady claimed. Blight in Cleveland will get worse if the city can’t tear down abandoned homes, he argued. “It’s an emergency situation.”

Schron can’t be happy that the council’s Democratic majority is forcing him to vote on the demolition plan seven days before Election Day. But if he has to take a stand, he seems ready to use it as an example of how he thinks differently.

He’s trying to make the demolition program business-friendly, to open up land with blighted buildings on it for development. It could be a good way to grow the tax base. But, it could also mean less demolition in city neighborhoods where the real-estate market has hit bottom.

Armond Budish, Schron’s opponent in the executive race, says he “strongly supports” spending the $50 million. So if Schron’s amendment gets shot down, he’ll face a tough vote Oct. 28. Does he vote no and position himself as the more cautious spender, even though Budish may use that vote against him in the city? Or does he vote yes, for a proposal he thinks could be better, to assure voters he’ll take on the blight issue if elected?