Sunday, November 16, 2008

Activist Ed Hauser dies

Local activist Ed Hauser, who pushed doggedly to make the beautiful, underappreciated Whiskey Island a county park, and who attended countless government meetings, politely but stubbornly asking questions no one else was asking, died Friday of a heart attack. He was 47.

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.

In our May issue, columnist Michael D. Roberts wrote admiringly, "Hauser is a pain — a persistent, nagging, unyielding pain. On the medical scale of one to 10, he would rate a 10. What makes him so painful is that he challenges the way the town and its dysfunctional government work."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Should Dimora resign? "I'm not there quite yet," says state Dem chair

Lots of buzz this week on political blogs about whether Chris Redfern, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman, will ask Jimmy Dimora to resign as Cuyahoga County Democratic chairman. So I called Redfern.

"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 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

County reform: the plan

The Commission on Cuyahoga County Government Reform issued its proposal Friday. You might have missed the news, amid all the election coverage, but the reform plan is a big deal. It'll be at the center of our debate about our county government in the new year.

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,, 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

Medical Mart might not go to Tower City after all

A weird story in the Sunday Plain Dealer shows something's happening behind the scenes with the convention center and Medical Mart project. It's clearer if you read the article upside-down.

"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.

That means the powerful Forest City Enterprises, which owns Tower City, may yet lose out on the project. MMPI hasn't even started negotiating with Forest City. And the county commissioners, who asked the chamber for its recommendation, now say they'll go along with whichever site MMPI prefers.

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

Democrats sweep county offices again

Cuyahoga County's corruption and patronage scandals had very little effect on this week's election. The three county Democrats with Republican challengers beat them as soundly as ever.

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%
Total 646,994

County Commissioner

Peter Lawson Jones (D) 341,976 62%

Deborah Sutherland (R) 206,319 38%

Total 549,125

County Recorder

Lillian J. Greene (D) 351,454 70%

Cathy Luks (R) 151,438 30%

Total 502,892

Prosecuting Attorney

Bill Mason (D) 402,366 74%

Annette Butler (R) 142,227 26%

Total 544,593

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'

"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
And here's Obama's line in the speech last night:

"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.

Obama wins

Barack Obama and Joe Biden won the presidential race last night, 52 percent to 47 percent in the popular vote, and a likely 364-174 total in the Electoral College.

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 time, they brought an umbrella

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 this morning seems to suggest things got off to a much better start than in 2004 and 2006

Last night at the Board of Elections

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.

My prediction

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

Voting advice

Here's my advice for everyone going to the polls tomorrow. Some of it is adapted from my article in the September issue about how to protect your vote, "In Case of Election Emergency, Break Glass." Some of it is new.

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.

Palin in Lakewood

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

Obama in Cleveland

Barack Obama spoke to tens of thousands of people at Cleveland's downtown Mall this evening, from supporters who waited all afternoon to get close to the stage to football fans who stopped by after the Browns game.

Obama led with the economy. "The last things we can afford is four more years of the same old tired theories," he argued, "when no one in Washington is minding the store, so Wall Street goes crazy, and lobbyists block [needed] regulations." He acknowledged John McCain's break with George W. Bush on the issue of torture, but claimed that where the economy is concerned, "He hasn't been a maverick; he's been a sidekick."

Defending his tax plan, Obama took a shot at McCain's alliance with "Joe the Plumber" on the issue. He said, "99.9 percent of plumbers make less than $250,000 a year," which means their taxes would be cut, not raised, under Obama's proposal. "This is what they [Republicans] do in every election," he claimed. "They use ordinary people and make them afraid, so they can protect the fat cats."

Obama claimed his plan to stimulate the economy by spending federal money on infrastructure -- roads, bridges, rail, fiber optic networks -- would create 2 million jobs. He proposed spending $15 billion a year on renewable energy, which he claimed would lead to 5 million jobs (indirectly, he must mean, since that'd be $12,000 per job over four years).

He sounded like a New Democrat, a centrist in the Bill Clinton mode, when he pitched his program as a third way between old, false choices. "It's not about big government versus small government. That's the old way of thinking. We need a better government, a more honest government, a competent government." On Iraq, "We don't have to choose between retreating from the world and fighting a war without end."

He cracked some jokes at Dick Cheney's expense. "Yesterday, Dick Cheney came out of his undisclosed location. He hit the campaign trail, and said he is delighted to support John McCain." Not only did he use Cheney's endorsement to assert that McCain would continue Bush Administration policies, he got to play off the vice-president's dour public image -- he said it was "interesting to picture Dick Cheney being delighted."

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.

Springsteen opens for Obama

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 and search for Obama, Springsteen, Cleveland for more.

Four-hour line for Sunday voting

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)

Before you vote

You probably know how you'll vote for president, but what about all those races farther down the ballot? Here are a few websites that can help you cast an informed vote.

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, 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.

Ralph Nader debates Bob Barr in Cleveland

Bob Barr, former congressman and now Libertarian candidate for president, walked up to me, with WCPN host Dan Moulthrop at his side. Moulthrop shook my hand. "Welcome to Fringe Fest '08," he said.

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.)

Mason pushes back against Plain Dealer

Tense times between Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason and the Plain Dealer. Yesterday the paper published a very back-handed endorsement of him. In today's paper, Mason challenges its report on racial disparities in the justice system.

Saturday's editorial blasted Mason as too political and says he's maintained friendships with questionable people (we assume they mean Pat O'Malley). The editorial board says it wouldn't have endorsed him had his opponent, Annette Butler, run a stronger campaign.

Mason responds to the PD's "Justice Blinded" series (see part 1 here, part 2 here) in a Forum op-ed today. His arguments that the series was flawed are serious enough that the PD ran a follow-up news story about them.

In the story, Mason also pledges to study the clear racial disparities in the drug-crime sentences of black and white offenders in Cuyahoga County. But he denies his office is causing the justice gap, and he attacks some of the catchy anecdotes in "Justice Blinded."

Articles like the "Justice Blinded" series usually identify a trend with statistics, explain why it's happening, and offer dramatic anecdotes to make the point memorable. All three parts should hold up.

From the evidence Mason has offered, it looks like some of the paper's shocking tales -- of a black person getting a felony and jail time while a white person who committed a worse crime gets treatment -- were not the prosecutor's fault.
Blaming Mason wasn't the whole point of the series, but it did identify the prosecutor's office as a major influence in who gets treatment or a plea deal and who doesn't. Mason argues that other court institutions, from judges to the probation department, deserve more blame for the justice gap than the series suggests.

Mason hasn't refuted the series, but it looks like he's found some weaknesses in it. Anyone who reads the series should also read today's two articles.