Wednesday, December 31, 2008
One box I'm purging is the elections box. After two years of making the board of elections one of my beats (an unusual beat for a magazine writer, in most times and places), I hope not to write about Cuyahoga County's voting system again.
That's because our once-sad voting agency has gotten its act together. Cleveland and Ohio shed their reputations for election buffoonery this November with a stress-free, snafu-proof Election Day. No more national horror at our lame mistakes. No more conspiracy theories convincing our friends in other states that we're at fault for an election result they didn't like.
What I saw on Election Day -- no lines at once-clogged voting locations, the elections office calling in to check on poll workers instead of leaving them stranded by busy signals -- showed how far Cuyahoga's elections office has come. Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner's decision to release the agency from her supervision this November was the final thumbs-up that confirmed our civic crisis over voting is over.
Credit goes to the leaders who took over our voting agency in 2007, from director Jane Platten to the four elections board members. I made some light fun of them in our September issue pieces on voting -- but I sat through a lot of meetings held by the old board and the new board, and saw old guard offer a perfect example of how a public agency should not act, while the new leaders showed how a troubled office can reform itself. And Brunner, who I was pretty tough on in September, held firm this fall against state Republicans' attempt to throw our system into a new round of chaos.
Yes, the board fought too much and spent too much money, straining the county budget. And a careful post-mortem look at the election results still shows ways voters can lose their vote through their own mistakes. But Platten has set up a system for noting problems and addressing them next time.
Ohio probably benefited from the fact that Obama won here by 4 percentage points. That's a margin too big to contest, so no one bothered to prod our weak spots. Any big city in a swing state or recount state will have its election flaws exposed. But some flaws are worse than others. Minnesota's Senate recount is exposing some mistakes, but way fewer than in Florida eight years ago. How will we hold up if we're the swing town in the swing state again? Much better, I think, with the officials and system we have now.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
OK, the words "waste" and "patronage" do not appear in auditor Mary Taylor's press release today. But read her report along with the "Recorded Deeds" section of my October profile of O'Malley, or the Plain Dealer's April exposé of his employees' political connections, and that's the obvious conclusion.
The report says O'Malley personally chose who to hire, what job to give them, and what to pay them. That made his employees totally dependent on him and very likely loyal.
He hired too many people and paid them too much. He larded the staff with more than eight people who simply went to meetings to talk about what the recorder does -- serious overkill for an office that records deeds, but it surely helped his name recognition at election time. In all, $1 million of his $7 million annual budget was unnecessary spending.
Total control made it easy to reward political allies with jobs and get employees to campaign for him. It also made it easy to do what Cathy Luks, former North Royalton mayor and recent Republican candidate for recorder, says he did: Attempt to bribe her with one of those public outreach jobs if she quit running against him.
Taylor's press release and report put it more politely. Highlights:
-Cuyahoga County recorder's employees have a light workload. They process 2,522 documents per employee per year, compared to 3,912 and 4,688 in Franklin and Hamilton counties.
-They're overpaid. Top aides make 48 percent more than their peers in similar counties. The average employee makes more than $43,400, compared to $36,300 among their peers.
-The office should get rid of most or all of its 8.4 public outreach employees, who attend "community libraries, meetings and other events to increase awareness of services provided by the Recorder's Office." Other large Ohio counties have either 2 outreach employees or none. Cutting seven would save $365,000.
-The recorder should cut 17 other employees, saving $700,000.
-The office has no formal hiring process, evaulating process, or job descriptions. "The previous Recorder determined the need for a position, the person selected for the position, and the salary provided to that employee. ... [The office] determines initial salaries without regard to skills required and/or minimum qualifications at the time of hire."
The audit did praise the recorder's office for performing all its required duties and using new technology to make it easier for citizens to file deeds. The new recorder, Lillian Greene, says she's already started reducing the staff. She also claims the comparisons with other counties aren't fair because the others outsource some work.
My favorite tidbits from the Plain Dealer's story this morning:
-"O'Malley could not be reached Monday for comment." Yeah, because he's in federal prison, serving a 15-month sentence for downloading obscenity.
-Yet another argument for reforming county government: "Cuyahoga's elected officials, such as the recorder, have the authority to outspend their budgets and occasionally do so."
Now that we've fully recovered from our post-election news hangovers, it's time to catch up. In the spirit of New Year's, this week I'm going to look at several bits of recent political news and blog about how they either helped bring big stories from 2008 to an interesting close, or hint at how the city's biggest political questions of 2009 will play out. As the new year gets going, I'll be blogging regularly about the latest headlines. Thanks again for reading.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Cleveland loses Hauser at an awful time. He was asking important questions about two huge public projects that may each cost $500 million: the medical mart/convention center and the port relocation.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
"That's for others to decide. I’m not there quite yet," Redfern said late today.
Barack Obama's share of the vote in Cuyahoga County was higher than John Kerry's in 2004, but not by a lot. "Among the worst performers was Cuyahoga County," Redfern told me. "At a national election of this magnitude, you would expect [better]. Obviously, the distractions Jimmy and others have been dealing with in the last few months clearly impacted this particular election."
The Plain Dealer's Mark Naymik wrote about Redfern's disappointment with Cuyahoga's results on cleveland.com Monday. "With the election over, it won't be surprising if party leaders press Dimora, who's at the center of a massive public corruption probe, to step aside soon," Naymik wrote. Bloggers picked up on that and on Redfern's comments Tuesday at a public forum in Pepper Pike about the election and Dimora. (See this post on Buckeye State Blog, including the comments at the bottom.) The bloggers thought Redfern was saying Dimora's situation would be dealt with in a few weeks.
"I was speaking about the weakness of the county party," Redfern says. "The state party will be providing county leadership and county activists intensive training in the first quarter of next year." That'll include several counties, such as Youngstown's Mahoning County, where Redfern thinks Democratic turnout should've been higher. "Those unwilling to embrace strong robust county parties [should] change or step aside. It's nothing to do specifically with Jimmy."
I asked Redfern if he thought Dimora should stay on the county commission. "That's for others to decide," he repeated. "I'm not a constituent."
Sounds like Redfern is letting Dimora dangle in the wind, but isn't yet ready to push him out.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Here is the final report. It's 10 pages and worth reading.
The commission proposes to eliminate the elected jobs of auditor, recorder, treasurer, engineer, coroner, and clerk of courts. It'll combine the first three into a finance department with an appointed director. It'll keep the three-person county commission, but voters would choose a commission president who would be a quasi-executive: recommending budgets, appointing the county administrator and department directors, representing the county in major negotiations. The state legislature will decide whether to put the reform proposal up for a county-wide vote next year.
This plan is clearly a compromise between those who wanted a separate county executive and county council and those who didn't (Louis Stokes) because they worried minorities wouldn't get elected as often.
But here's an important detail: The report also points out that there are two ways to change the county government's structure: 1) the legislature puts a new government structure on the ballot, or 2) county residents themselves start a movement to create a county charter. A charter would give the county government new powers under Ohio's principle of home rule.
The reform commission itself expresses hope that Cuyahoga County citizens will go farther than the commission could, and organize and create a charter. And it says if we did, then the county's new powers would justify having a separate county executive and council.
Actually, a group is already pushing for a charter: the Citizens for Cuyahoga Success, which grew out of Forest City Enterprises co-chairman Sam Miller's March 2007 speech favoring county reform. Its website, cfcsuccess.com, has only posted a volunteer sign-up sheet so far. So the best sources for info about its proposal are this article and this follow-up from Inside Business. (Inside Business is owned by the same company as Cleveland Magazine, Great Lakes Publishing. The articles' author, Lute Harmon, Sr., is chairman of the company as well as a member of Citizens for Cuyahoga Success.)
What happens if two reform proposals both go before voters next year? I don't think anyone has thought that far ahead yet -- we'll see.
Two other details from the reform commission's proposal are worth mentioning. It recommends creating a county law department, instead of having the county prosecutor serve as county legal counsel, which sometimes creates conflicts of interest. Also, it would create a human resources commission that would set uniform standards for hiring in all departments, which would cut down on patronage.
Here are some key quotes from the reform commission's report (bolds are mine):
- "From any perspective – efficiency, fairness, accountability, effectiveness – the structure of Cuyahoga County government is letting us down."
- "Eight elected administrative officials operate with virtual autonomy. In practice, they each run their own hiring operations and effectively set their own budgets. Three County Commissioners have far less budget and administrative control than good governance demands."
- "The diffusion of power also means duplication of effort, inefficiency and waste of taxpayer dollars. Nearly all of the elected administrative officers have staff who separately perform basic functions such as human resources, public outreach, information technology and financial management."
-The county also suffers from a "lack of a clearly identifiable leader."
-"Streamlining Cuyahoga County government would make it far more efficient by eliminating unnecessary elective offices and by giving leadership authority to the President of the Board of County Commissioners. ... Millions of dollars could be saved each year."
-"Our community needs the County to be a more effective leader on regional issues, especially economic issues. A Board of County Commissioners led by a 'strong President' would be a nimble and effective actor in this arena."
The reform commission also interviewed almost all the current elected county officials to get their opinions on reform. The interview notes are online here. Highlights:
-Most of the eight elected administrative officials were skeptical of the reform proposals, though some (such as Prosecutor Bill Mason) were more enthusiastic about reform than others.
-Treasurer Jim Rokakis was strongly in favor of reform. He believes it could lead to a leaner government, which he estimated could save $40 to $60 million a year. Right now, he says, the commissioners don't question what the other elected officials spend.
-County commissioners Peter Lawson Jones and Tim Hagan (link is broken, sorry) both testified before the reform panel and supported making most of the elected positions appointed. Hagan was skeptical of a county executive and council plan. (It looks like Jimmy Dimora is the only elected county official who didn't talk to the reform panel.)
Monday, November 10, 2008
"Cleveland's Medical Mart threatened by New York project," the headline reads. The lead is direct: "A major threat to Cleveland's proposed Medical Mart is growing in New York, where developers say they are ready to start building a $1 billion World Product Centre."
The Plain Dealer is no longer buying the claims that the New York medical mart poses no threat to Cleveland. Toby Cosgrove, the Cleveland Clinic's CEO and an early supporter of the Medical Mart, is sounding an alarm about delays in the project here.
Why the delays? That's what you have to read backwards to learn. Here's my rewrite of the info in the article's 19th to 29th paragraphs:
Cleveland's proposed convention center and medical mart may not be built at Tower City after all.
Merchandise Mart Properties, the project's developer, has quietly rejected the Greater Cleveland Partnership's recommendation of Tower City as the cheaper location for the project. The developer, which has re-examined both Tower City and the site of the current convention center, now says it could build on either site for a much lower cost than the Partnership estimated.
"We think that both [Cleveland] sites are viable," said Mark Falanga, senior vice president. The company and its consultants have reduced costs at both places to about $400 million, he said.
The county commissioners had planned to choose a site months ago. Now they say they "want to" vote on a site in January.
The public has had little chance to examine the decision-making about this project, though it will be built with $400 million in public funds. That's because the county commissioners have relied on private entities, MMPI and the Partnership, to analyze it. This September story from Scene looks into some of the big questions the public will have to ask the county and MMPI when they finally nail down a deal.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Incumbent county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones (pictured) defeated Bay Village Mayor Debbie Sutherland, even though she made the scandals her top issue.
Compare Barack Obama's vote totals in Cuyahoga County to the local races:
Barack Obama (D) 441,836 68%
John McCain (R) 196,369 30%
Peter Lawson Jones (D) 341,976 62%
Deborah Sutherland (R) 206,319 38%
Lillian J. Greene (D) 351,454 70%
Cathy Luks (R) 151,438 30%
Bill Mason (D) 402,366 74%
Annette Butler (R) 142,227 26%
How many people who voted for Obama split their tickets to vote for Sutherland? About 6 percent of the electorate. Sutherland got more votes in Cuyahoga County than McCain, a sign her arguments made some impact, but not nearly enough to break up Democrats' one-party rule.
It's also a sign of Jones' popularity and reputation. Voters knew he is not implicated in the FBI probe. Sutherland's best argument against him was that he had not done enough to curb patronage hiring.
What could ever cause Cuyahoga County voters to elect a Republican to county office again? I think the Democratic candidate would have to be facing a felony charge. (A misdemeanor charge isn't enough, we learned in 2004.)
This doesn't end the debate over the problems in county government. It just shifts it away from the ballot box. The Cuyahoga reform commission's recommendation is due tomorrow. And the FBI probe continues. Indictments of elected officials would cause big change fast.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
"Change has come," read the headlines on the Plain Dealer's front page and the Washington Post web site this morning. It's a quote from President-Elect Barack Obama's speech in Chicago last night.
It's not just a turn of Obama's campaign slogan. Obama was echoing "A Change is Gonna Come," the Sam Cooke song and civil-rights anthem.
Cooke wrote the song in 1963 as a reply to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and a response to his arrest after he tried to stay at a whites-only hotel in Louisiana. Here's the third verse and chorus:
- I go to the movie, and I go downtown
- Somebody keep telling me "Don't hang around"
- It's been a long time coming
- But I know a change is gonna come
"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America."
By echoing the song, Obama acknowledged that his election showed America can live up to the civil rights movement's moral ideal.
I've embedded a video of the speech above (the line comes at 2:10), followed by Cooke's recording of the song from YouTube. Or, you can read the transcript of the speech here and read the lyrics here. Here's Wikipedia's entry about the song.
The painting above is the latest work from Michelangelo Lovelace, the Cleveland artist I profiled in the September issue. It's a tribute to Obama and Biden, titled "Stand Up and Be Counted." For a larger version, click here.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
This morning I stopped by the polling place at the Addison Branch Library in Hough. In 2004, local filmmaker Laura Paglin filmed a terrible breakdown in voting there, and the late city councilwoman Fannie Lewis' attempts to get it fixed. It became her film No Umbrella: Election Day in the City, which has been screened at several film festivals.
I figured visiting Addison would give me a quick test of how voting was going today.
There was no line when I arrived at 8:30. The vote was going smoothly, a huge contrast to 2004, when Paglin's film showed a long line of angry people, not moving.
Charisse Eppinger, the polling location coordinator, said the line had been long when the polls opened at 6:30 a.m., with about a half-hour wait, but it had moved along. (A rush at 6:30 is pretty common at voting locations.)
In 2004, the film showed, poll workers at Addison kept calling the board of elections, asking for more voting equipment and more poll workers. They kept getting busy signals.
But when I was talking to Eppinger today, the board of elections called her, on a cell phone it had given her for the day. She told them everything was okay.
I also talked to Alice Jones, presiding judge for the main precinct voting at Addison. She worked there in 2004 as well. Back then, "We couldn't get the board on the phone," she confirms. "Things were more confusing." Today, "they gave us more help. That's the difference."
The board had deployed sharper, younger poll workers, Jones said. "We have newer people today, working." In 2004, "we had a lot of senior seniors, so things were slow."
Jones said many more people had voted early this time. (Early voters are checked off in the poll books so they can't vote again today.) That fits the Plain Dealer report today that 26 percent of Cuyahoga County residents voted early by mail or at the board of elections.
It was a great example of how the board of elections has gotten its act together under director Jane Platten. In my September report on voting in Cleveland, I noted she has 43 workers taking calls from poll workers on election day; her predecessor had as few as four.
Outside, Laura Paglin was filming again. I went up and introduced myself. This was an interesting encounter, since I wrote a very mixed review of her film for the magazine -- though I also used it as an important source in my profile of Michael Vu, the former elections director.
Paglin remembered my review, and said she thought my comments about it were "narrow." But she graciously agreed to talk with me for the blog. In a very meta-moment, we interviewed each other while her camera rolled.
"So far, there's no comparison" to 2004, she said. The only disturbance had come from one person, who wasn't sure where he was supposed to be voting. "In 2004, the line was stuck. It was complete chaos." She wondered whether the calm today was a sign of heavy early voting or light turnout. In the last few days, she says, she attended a press conference at the Board of Elections. "[It seemed like] they tried to anticipate every problem. You could tell a lot of thought had been given to their procedures."
When a county has 1,400 voting precincts, you can't judge based on one location. And I've learned, covering the voting beat, not to declare an election a success until you have a lot of information. But this report from cleveland.com this morning seems to suggest things got off to a much better start than in 2004 and 2006
Here's what I saw at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections when I went to pick up my press pass at 6:30 last night:
-A line stretching around the corner of East 30th and Euclid, almost all the way to Chester. People at the door to the building said they'd waited 40 minutes at that point.
-Former Cleveland law director Subodh Chandra and two other merry Obama supporters singing folk songs to the crowd in line: "Shower the People" by James Taylor and Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."
-Around the corner, a bus with a huge sound system inside, blasting out soul music, including Otis Redding doing "This Little Light of Mine."
-Volunteers for Obama and county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones handing out literature.
-More volunteers -- Obama people, I think -- giving out bags of potato chips.
-A candidate for county judge, Laura Gallagher, campaigning.
Last night a friend took bets on which states Obama and McCain would win. The winner of the bet wins $20.08. Here's my prediction, mapped out.
He also asked for a popular vote prediction. I said Obama 51, McCain 44.
We'll see how I did!
Monday, November 3, 2008
1. Research how you'll vote before you go. Write down your choices --- you can take notes with you to the polling place. You can follow the links in my earlier post to do your research. Read the ballot proposals beforehand, and if you live in Cuyahoga County, view a sample ballot for your precinct and check out the bar association's judicial endorsements.
2. Know your precinct number. That way you know which line to get in at your polling place. People can lose their vote by getting in the wrong line (3J instead of 3K, for instance). Your precinct number is on your voter registration card and other mailings from the Board of Elections. If you live in Cuyahoga County, you can check it online here.
3. Bring ID. Take a current photo ID (driver’s license, state ID or military ID), or a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government check with your name and current address.
4. Don't wear anything that favors one side. You can't go into a polling place wearing an Obama T-shirt or McCain hat or Yes on 5 pin. It's considered "election campaigning" under this law.
5. Choose your time to vote wisely. The polls are open 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (If you're in line at 7:30 p.m., you can stay to vote.) The first and last hour are often the busiest. So vote in mid-morning or mid-afternoon if you can. Around 8 a.m. is next best.
6. Be prepared to wait in line. Elections officials predict huge turnout and long lines tomorrow. Bring something to read.
7. Fill out your ballot carefully. Cuyahoga County switched to paper ballots this year. You can ask for a new ballot if you make a mistake on the first one (or second one). Reread your ballot before you turn it in, looking for double-votes in a race, any races you left blank by accident, and stray marks. Fill in your choices completely. Don't fill in the write-in area if your candidate is already on the ballot -- that's a double vote, and the scanner will kick it back.
8. Feed your ballot through the scanner. Grab a cardboard privacy sleeve if you’re nervous about someone seeing your completed ballot. Then take your ballot to the scanner and run it through. If you double-voted, it’ll warn you and ask if you want the ballot back.
If something goes wrong:
9. Try cast a regular vote, not a provisional ballot. If a poll worker pulls out a yellow provisional envelope, ask a lot of questions to be sure you need to use it. About one in four are rejected later. Try to solve the problem first: If you forgot to bring your ID, go home to get it; if you’re not in the poll book, check your registration card or the wall maps to confirm you’re in the right precinct.
If you do vote provisionally, fill out the envelope carefully. You should be given a hotline number to call to find out if your vote counted.
10. Call these numbers to report a problem. If you or someone else has serious difficulty voting, call the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections at (216) 443-3298, the Secretary of State’s Office at 1-877-VOTE-VRI, or the Election Protection hotline maintained by voting-rights groups, 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
Sarah Palin spoke this morning at the Lakewood Park bandshell, promising lower taxes and energy independence if she and John McCain are elected.
"Only John McCain has the experience, wisdom, and courage to get this economy back on track," Palin said. McCain will have a "pro-private sector, pro-business agenda" and will confront the $10 trillion federal debt with a spending freeze in all categories except defense and veterans' and seniors' benefits, she said.
The vice-presidential candidate also promised tax relief for "every American and every business" under a McCain Administration. She promised to lower income taxes, double the deduction for families and cut the capital gains tax.
As she and McCain have for weeks, Palin tried to cast doubt on Barack Obama's often-repeated pledge to cut taxes for people making less than $250,000 a year. Obama would reverse earlier tax cuts for those making more than that. "Now is the worst possible time to even think about raising taxes on you and your small business," Palin told the crowd. She claimed Obama's $250,000 figure was shifting lower, and that an Obama spokesperson recently said only people under $120,000 would get the cut. (She was likely referrring to a recent quote from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Here's a summary of Republican talking points on this question.) Many audience members behind her were wearing oval stickers with the name "Joe" on them, a reference to "Joe the Plumber," the suburban Toledo man who challenged Obama on his tax plan.
Palin promised to make the country energy-independent through increased domestic production of oil, natural gas, and coal. She said Obama plans to bankrupt the coal industry, citing a January interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that has gotten new attention in recent days. In the quote, Obama suggests that his proposal to limit greenhouse emissions would make new coal plants economically infeasible unless they use new clean-coal technology.
"We have the domestic solutions right here," Palin said. "We'll drill, baby, drill, and mine, baby, mine!"
The Alaska governor also pledged more federal support for education of special-needs children, while hinting at her ticket's opposition to abortion. She and McCain, she said, share a "vision of America where every innocent life counts and every child is cherished."
Warning against putting Democrats in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, Palin attacked U.S. Rep. Barney Frank's recent call for a 25 percent cut in defense spending. "This is a time of multiple conflicts and obvious danger, still, to the homeland," Palin said. "Do they think the terrorists have changed their minds?"
Palin ended the rally with praise for McCain and swipes at Obama's eloquence. McCain, she said, "inspires us not just with words, but with heroic and trustworthy deeds."
The opening act at the rally was Shauna Carter (not sure I have the spelling right), a country singer from central Ohio, who sang heartfelt ballads accompanied by a guitar player.
U.S. Sen. George Voinovich introduced Palin and her husband, Todd. "She has energized our base like nothing I have ever seen!" Voinovich said. He said he'd talked to "lots of Democrats who say Obama is too far to the left and with no executive experience, and [they ask,] how [is] a person who was a state senator and hasn't completed his first term in the U.S. Senate qualified to be president? ... It's not a question of whether Sarah has the experience to be vice-president of the United States, it's whether Obama has the experience to be president of the United States."
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Rain started to fall. Obama ad-libbed. "A little rain never hurt anybody. Sunshine is on the way. We've only got two more days of these clouds."
Update: The PD has a video of highlights from the rally.
I think any smart politician would want Bruce Springsteen vouching for him at campaign events. The singer's six-song set and speech at Barack Obama's rally in downtown Cleveland today were plain-spoken and stirring.
Springsteen, appearing solo with an acoustic guitar, started his set with "The Promised Land," a 1978 song about resolve in the face of adversity. Next came "Youngstown," a stark ballad that mentions Northeast Ohio in the first line, followed by "Thunder Road," the classic first track from the Born to Run album. He sang the last line, "We're pulling out of here to win," to huge cheers.
With his wife, Patti, Springsteen sang a song he hasn't released on an album yet, dedicating it to Obama. "I'm working on a dream/Though it can feel so far away," went the chorus. He got the crowd singing on "This Land Is Your Land," and even sang one of Woody Guthrie's less-known verses, set "in the squares of the cities" and in a "relief office" -- noting the moment and evoking the Great Depression.
"For 35 years, I've been writing about what it means to be an American," Springsteen told the crowd. He said he believed in "economic and social justice, America as a positive example in the world, truth, transparency, and integrity in government," and a right to a job and a living wage. "Today those freedoms have been damaged and curtailed by a reckless and morally bankrupt administration." His songs, he said, have often measured the distance between the American Dream and reality. "I believe Senator Obama has taken measure of that distance in his own life and in his work." He finished his set with "The Rising," a poetic redemption song, the title track of the album he wrote in response to the 9/11 attacks.
A friend listening elsewhere in the crowd, inspired, texted me to read the words engraved on Public Hall behind Springsteen. He asked me to quote them on the blog, thinking them appropriate for the occasion. They read: "A monument conceived as a tribute to the ideals of Cleveland and builded by her citizens and dedicated to social progress, industrial achievement, and civic interest. Patriotism, progress, culture."
Update: Lots of video of Springsteen's performance on YouTube today, of varying quality. Here he is peforming "This Land Is Your Land" and "Thunder Road." Go to youtube.com and search for Obama, Springsteen, Cleveland for more.
When I took the Health Line downtown today, I saw the Board of Elections had erected canopies over the sidewalks on Euclid Ave. and E. 30th St. to shelter the voters waiting in line to vote early. It was 11:45 a.m., and the elections office was supposed to be open 1 to 5.
When I came back the other way, about 7, people were still standing in line to get in the building. Just like on Election Day, if you're in line when the polls close, you can still vote.
A woman on the bus said she'd voted that day. She said the line extended all the way up E. 30th from Euclid to Chester, then snaked around until it was blocking the freeway exit. So the line shifted and snaked back down 30th to Euclid again. She waited two hours; when she left the projected wait was four hours.
A DJ was playing hip-hop to keep the crowd entertained and energized, she said. Judges were campaigning, asking those in line for their votes. She showed me a card she'd gotten from Peter Sikora, a state Supreme Court candidate.
Four years ago, Ohioans were complaining about long lines, saying they'd disenfranchised some voters. Now, people are going out of their way to stand in long lines, they're so excited to vote early.
(Photo by Erica Jacobson)
Anyone in Cuyahoga County can download a sample ballot for your voting precinct. That way you know exactly what you'll be voting on and can make your decisions in advance.
To help you evaluate the candidates for judge in Cuyahoga County, check out Judge4Yourself.com, which compiles the endorsement decisions of bar associations and newspapers in judicial elections.
To learn more about the six statewide ballot proposals, see this quick summary from the Plain Dealer, or this 32-page report from the Ohio Secretary of State. If you read the proposals in advance, you can vote faster and not slow down the line. The city of Cleveland has several proposed city charter amendments on the ballot. You can read them here and see a Plain Dealer summary and endorsements here, and charter commission member and blogger Bill Callahan's thoughts here.
Here are all the PD's endorsements and its voter guide.
I turned to Barr, who kept a poker face. "Good seeing ya," he said, offering his hand. I guess he's gotten used to being called fringe this year.
Cleveland's City Club hosted a third party candidates' presidential debate about the economy this Thursday. Appearing were Ralph Nader, who's at about 2.3 percent in the polls; Barr, who's at about 1.5 percent; and Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin, a Baptist minister, talk show host and columnist whom the pollsters don't even ask about.
The City Club room wasn't as packed as it was for the Jones-Sutherland or Mason-Butler debates. This one was organized and announced on very short notice. But several dozen people attended, so the room was pretty close to full.
You count on third-party candidates to bring up issues the major parties aren't touching. Nader, Barr, and Baldwin did that -- and also taught a lesson in how the hard-left, libertarian right, hard-right can agree on challenges to both Democrats and Republicans.
All three are against the financial bailout and think the government should prosecute Wall Street firms and banks for fraud instead. ("Tarring and feathering," Baldwin suggested, "might even be appropriate.") They all want to pull the United States out of international trade agreements, from NAFTA to the WTO (though Barr, a free-trader, says he's all for open trade and lowering tariffs, but against international organizations that can overrule American laws). All are against the war in Iraq and want our troops out (probably much faster than Obama would take them out). Barr, who regrets his 2002 vote for the Patriot Act, warned the Bush Administration had implemented a "tremendous unbridled growth of government power, and as a result, erosion of our civil liberties." Nader agreed.
The agreement was so striking that one audience member suggested they "combine forces" and field one candidate. This led them to politely point out their differences. "I believe in strong regulatory agencies, and single-payer health care," said Nader, who said thousands of Americans die each year because they don't have health insurance. Baldwin explained he is strongly pro-life and pro-gun rights.
Illegal immigration also showed their differences. Baldwin wants to shut the borders and crack down on illegal immigrants. Barr wants to open the borders to anyone who wants to cross, including workers, but screen travelers carefully to make sure they aren't a terrorist threat. Nader emphasized how migrant workers are exploited; he said U.S. policies toward Latin America hurt economies there and displace workers, that a crackdown should focus on employers, not migrants; and that migrant workers have to have the same rights as Americans, or else U.S. labor standard will erode.
One young questioner asked if participating in Social Security and Medicare should be voluntary. Yes, Barr and Baldwin said. Social Security, Barr said, is an "immoral program, whereby government takes, by threat of force, money from individuals. No, answered Nader. "What would Americans who are elderly be doing now," with retirement accounts' values dropping with the stock market, "if not for Social Security?" He launched into a passionate defense of "a sense of community" in society and argued that we, like the social democrats of Western Europe, should use government to create universal health care, "decent wages," paid maternity leave, sick leave, and day care.
(WCPN has some audio clips from the debate. C-SPAN taped the debate and is replaying it, but their online link doesn't seem to work, so here's a fuzzy version on Google Videos. The New Yorker recently ran an interesting profile of Barr.)
Friday, October 31, 2008
Meanwhile, John McCain was in Mentor last night. Here's a video of the rally from the Washington Post.
His opening act was "Joe the Plumber," the working-class conservative from suburban Toledo who famously argued with Obama about taxes earlier this month.
It looks like the McCain-Palin camp's strategy depends on winning Ohio and Pennsylvania. Check out this post on Real Clear Politics, especially the maps that show where they've held rallies lately.
This could be a huge rally, even bigger than John Kerry's election eve rally at the same place in 2004, especially because, as The Professor points out, Obama's campaign is probably timing this with the Browns game in mind. The game starts at 1, so a stadium full of people will be emptying out around 4:15. Let's hope the tailgaters who stop by the rally aren't too rowdy.
Update: If you're going to the rally, take the Rapid. The Browns crowd and Obama crowd will completely fill downtown. "There won't be parking," the Cleveland police spokesman warns in the Plain Dealer today.(Photo by Alex Hempton-Smith, from Flickr)
Thursday, October 30, 2008
The Plain Dealer reports that Stokes is against it because he thinks Cuyahoga County voters would never elect a black county executive.
This fulfills the fear that our columnist Michael D. Roberts expressed last year: that racial mistrust in our county would hurt efforts at reforming our government. I can understand what Stokes is thinking: would black officials advance as far in an executive-council system as, say, Peter Lawson Jones has by serving on the county commission?
But Stokes' focus on racial politics may have foreclosed a good option for Cuyahoga County. A county executive and a council elected from districts would provide more checks and balances. Right now the county commission is the executive and legislature, with no check on its power. An executive could also hold everyone in county government accountable, making it harder to set up patronage fiefdoms. And a county council with districts would likely include some Republicans, bringing two-party government back.
Stokes' most ridiculous suggestion makes it clear that he is thinking about race so much, he's not thinking about efficiency. He wants to keep the elected county recorder's office, just because Lillian Greene, who is black, now holds the office! The recorder is the first position that every reformer wants to combine with others and make appointed. Fortunately, the rest of the reform commission, which deferred to Stokes on the executive-council issue, ignored him on this one.
The reform commission will send a recommendation to the state legislature Nov. 7. Looks like we know what we'll get: a reform that keeps the three-person county commission and makes some elected offices (recorder, auditor, coroner, etc.) appointed.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
I figured the Peter Lawson Jones vs. Debbie Sutherland debate at the City Club today would be interesting, but wow.
Sutherland, the Republican candidate for county commission, started and finished with a sharp challenge to Jones on the county corruption scandal. Jones, the Democratic incumbent, began with an incumbent's friendly confidence, but by the end he was furious and fighting.
"We have a total lack of leadership at the county level," Sutherland charged. She cited the FBI and IRS raid on the county building in July, "patronage, corruption, and bloat," and added, "Let's not forget the chauffeur and strip club manager." She said nothing would change unless she was elected, and she challenged Jones, "What actions have you taken to address the patronage and corruption and fix our county government?"
Jones never directly answered. His opening statement was friendly and easy-going. He listed accomplishments in office: starting a county economic development fund, advocating public funding for arts and culture, spearheading a fatherhood initiative and a summer jobs program for kids.
Later, during the Q&A, Jones said his integrity had never been questioned in 20 years in public office -- a reminder that the FBI isn't looking at him. Questioners nudged him -- why didn't he call for Jimmy Dimora to resign, or stop voting on contracts? (Contracts are almost all that the commissioners vote on.) Dimora hasn't been indicted, and investigations don't always end in charges, Jones said. But if Dimora is indicted, Jones added, he'll likely ask him to resign. Sutherland said she'd have called on Dimora to not vote on contracts the investigation might touch on.
The candidates argued about the Ameritrust Tower. Jones mentioned his vote against demolishing it as an example of his independence from Dimora and Tim Hagan. "He voted to buy the tower initially," Sutherland replied. "We should never have purchased that property in the first place." She pointed to K&D's struggle to buy the tower off the county.
The sales tax to pay for the Medical Mart and convention center came up too. Jones mentioned his dissenting vote against raising the tax. Sutherland, who supported the tax then, said that knowing what she knows now, she would have submitted it to the voters. Jones pounced on that as second-guessing.
They fought over Jones' use of a driver to get to meetings around town, and his habit of conducting county business from his law office. I think these are pretty cheap arguments, but much of the crowd liked them. "I don't understand how you can manage from an office down the street," Sutherland said to applause. Jones fought back about the driver. "It enables me to work in back [of the car]," he says, instead of having down time between 10 to 12 meetings per day. "I'm not smoking stogies, drinking mint juleps... I'm reading, writing, making phone calls."
The most tense moment came when a questioner asked Sutherland how she, as mayor of an "upscale city," would relate to "people of limited means." Maybe Sutherland thought she was a plant. (A lot of audience questioners did seem to support one candidate or another.) "We are all suffering" in Cuyahoga County, she said, then added: "What my opponent would love ... is to continue to drag this down [and make it] about race and class, and it's not. It's about the viability of this county."
Jones' face lit up with rage. I've never seen him so angry. "Mayor Sutherland, how dare you!" he seethed. "I have done nothing in this race to play on race and class. When people have suggested that you ran against me because you thought it might be easier to beat somebody who was African-American, I stood up for you and said that would never play into your calculations."
They also fought about county reform. Sutherland said she'd support whatever recommendation comes from the commission studying a new government structure from the county. Jones said he'd support whatever the legislature recommends after the commission's report. Sutherland accused him of doing nothing to reform the county; Jones, who'd already mentioned a 2004 City Club speech he gave about possible reforms, glared at the ceiling in anger. Sutherland said county government was badly run; Jones cited its high bond rating.
"I believe hard work and honesty is rewarded, not negative campaigning that misleads, distorts, and in some cases outright prevaricates," Jones said in his closing argument.
"I have asked Peter to let us all know what he has done about the corruption and about the patronage, and he has not answered," Sutherland said at the end. "I'm going to fix it."
Let's sort through the claims:
-There is no evidence that anyone is trying to steal the election.
-The Cleveland example sounds scary, but won't lead to anyone voting illegally. Freddie Johnson, the 19-year-old who filled out 70 to 80 identical registrations in exchange for cigarettes and dollar bills, will only vote once. He filled out the same address every time. No one actually trying to stuff a ballot box would do this. They would almost certainly get caught. Even if their multiple registrations slipped past the data-entry clerks, poll workers would either recognize the same person coming to the voting table twice, or they'd notice the duplicate listings next to each other in the poll book.
-ACORN is not scamming elections officials. Lazy ACORN employees scammed ACORN. Their system is vulnerable to hourly workers who'd rather convince registered people to fill out a duplicate card than do their jobs right.
-Brunner is not concealing voter fraud. This is about the GOP's lost lawsuit trying to force her to compile lists of mismatches between the state's voting and driver's license databases. But Brunner is providing the mismatch information to counties in another format. The mismatch info is one tool for verifying registrations, but on its own it's several times more likely to accidentally flag valid voters because of typos and other clerical errors.
Republicans are not only trying to make ACORN and Brunner a campaign issue -- they're getting ready to try to force overtime if Obama wins Ohio.
Here are some questions to ask when you hear scary claims about voting scandals from the right or the left:
-How many votes is the problem affecting? Do you have solid numbers, or just scary anecdotes?
-If you say votes are "at risk," or that there's a "risk" of fraud, how likely is the risk?
-What's the cause of the problem? Are there other possible explanations besides the most sinister theory?
Just like the left-wing conspiracy theories about Ohio in 2004, this right-wing conspiracy theory falls apart when you ask these questions.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Last week, developer K&D asked for eight more months to try to purchase the Ameritrust Tower from Cuyahoga County. CEO Doug Price's letter to the county, which I've posted online, reveals that its plans for the tower are increasingly fragile.
That makes the county commissioners' controversial 2005 decision to buy the tower -- described in my June article "Tower Play" -- look even more questionable and risky.
K&D asked the county to waive the $500,000 fee to extend the closing date past Oct. 31. The developer has already paid a $500,000 deposit on the potential $35 million sale.
"We cannot commit $1,000,000 to a project that may never happen," Price wrote in the Oct. 16 letter. County commissioners were expected to waive the fee at their meeting this morning.
Price says banks won't lend because of the economic crisis. But the letter's attachment shows another problem. Five banks decided K&D's ambitious plan to remake the Ameritrust Tower into a mixed-use apartment and hotel complex was too risky. Three financial institutions showed interest, but couldn't proceed because the national credit market has seized up.
Let's hope a bank takes on the K&D project once credit starts flowing again. It'd be exciting and good for Cleveland, bringing life to a key corner of downtown. And it'd be good for county taxpayers.
The county has already lost $6 million on the tower. If the K&D deal fell through, the county's options would be costlier than ever: 1) Selling the tower to someone else, quite possibly for a bigger loss; 2) Getting stuck with an empty building it's spent $42 million on; or 3) reviving plans for a new county administration building at the site -- which my article showed would add millions of dollars a year to the cost of government.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Barack Obama was in Canton giving a new speech his campaign billed as a "closing argument." Here's the PD's video of parts of the speech, and a transcript of what he said.
If you'll be downtown in the next couple of days and want to vote early, you might call the Board of Elections (216-443-3200 in Cuyahoga County) and ask what the wait time is like. But after Friday, you're better off going to your polling place on Election Day.
Here are the vote by mail rules, straight from a Cuyahoga County Board of Elections release:
-Vote by Mail applications must arrive by mail, or be hand delivered to the Board of Elections by Saturday, November 1, 2008 at noon.
-Voters who already have their ballots but have not returned them are encouraged to mail their voted ballots to the Board of Elections as soon as possible, and not take the chance of missing the deadline.
-Voted ballots mailed in the United States must be postmarked by November 3, 2008.
-Voted ballots may be delivered in person to the Board of Elections by 7:30 P.M. on November 4, 2008.
I'd add one more thing: be very sure you fill out your application and ballot envelope correctly, to be sure your vote counts.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
"If I still lived in Ohio, I would go all the way and embark on a career as an undecided voter. Nothing could force me to make up my mind. Every day, cable TV shows would call me up to take my political temperature. If I had a cranky, anti-Obama day, it would make the CNN map turn pinker. Wolf Blitzer would have my phone number on auto-dial."
Friday, October 24, 2008
David Broder, the Washington Post columnist, regularly visits swing regions of the country to find out which way an election is going. In yesterday's column, "Blue Sparks in Red Ohio," Broder visits normally Republican Wooster, and he finds Obama's campaign office filled with volunteers and humming with excitement. It sounds like Broder thinks Obama will win the state.
Which vision is more likely? Take a look at Pollster.com's chart of Ohio polls.
That blue line shows Obama pulling out to a four-point average lead. Those blue dots on the top right show that a couple of recent polls show him 10 to 12 points ahead.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
A man in a squirrel suit crashed Gov. Ted Strickland's press conference in Columbus this week to protest ACORN's voter-registration drives.
Strickland, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, standing on the Statehouse steps, denounced Republican attacks on Barack Obama. As Strickland complained that the GOP was scaring Ohio voters by threatening their right to vote, the squirrel chipped in the other side of the story with a sign: "Don't let ACORN + Obama steal Ohio."
I think the right's stolen-election charge is exaggerated and unfair, but this video is really funny.
"They even resort to things like sending squirrels to news conferences because they have nothing else to talk about," Coleman ad-libbed. "Well, I say to Sen. McCain and those who are backing Sen. McCain in the way they are doing now, is to stop being squirrelly and start being straight with the voters."
Some reporters chased the squirrel through the streets of Columbus. This reporter played it straight. Here's the squirrel's blog.
If you're trying to decide who to vote for in the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's race, I recommend Scene's cover story on Bill Mason.
I also recommend skimming the parts about issues you don't care about. It's nine or so stories crammed into one exhaustive one.
In the story's most heated moment, Mason refuses to talk with Scene, saying he knows it'll be a "hit piece." He chastises lawyers in town who he thinks are talking to the reporters.
Actually, the article is critical but fair, a comprehensive guide to all the major controversies around Mason's office, from questions about racial disparities in drug cases to his friendship with Pat O'Malley. The only elements with a "hit piece" feel are the title, "Bill Mason's Mean Machine" (named after a kids' football team he sponsors) and the scorching sidebar about Mason campaign donors caught in scandal and controversy.
Mason's critics will like the story, but other readers may decide they agree with the prosecutor on the death penalty, drugs, and discovery.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
The Plain Dealer has finally reported that a lot of people who were close to the late Fannie Lewis don't believe the grand dame of Hough really chose Stephanie Howse to succeed her on Cleveland City Council. They think council president Martin Sweeney and other lawmakers were lying when they named Howse to the seat.
I can't believe it took the paper so long to cover this story. Mansfield Frazier wrote about the controversy over Lewis' succession in Cool Cleveland on Aug. 20 and Sept. 3. I mentioned the dispute in my Sept. 5 blog post about Lewis, and when I talked about Frazier's work on WCPN's Aug. 28 reporters' roundtable, Frazier called in to the show. (If you download it, listen starting at 33:20 and 37:57.)
This ward meeting agenda, from three days before Lewis' Aug. 11 death, seems to prove that Lewis told some people she wouldn't name a successor. (But it could be interpreted as referring to the 2009 election, not her death.)
The controversy probably won't knock Howse off council. She won 46 percent of the vote in a special primary last week, compared to 12 percent for top challenger T.J. Dow, so she's the heavy favorite to win the Nov. 18 runoff. Still, The Professor of Political Science 216 has an idea for figuring out what the mercurial Ms. Lewis really wanted: holding a seance.
Update: Turns out the PD briefly acknowledged the doubts in the ward in this Aug. 19 story about Howse. Phillip Morris wondered why Lewis didn't endorse Howse publicly in his column that day.