Friday, January 16, 2009

PD's Sweeney deathwatch -- and a failed coup

Martin Sweeney, Cleveland's city council president, has been in the news a lot lately, and almost every time, the Plain Dealer speculates he's about to be deposed. But now, Sweeney's made a power play: he's banished Matt Zone from council's powerful finance committee for vying to unseat him.

Turns out Zone (photo at right) was trying all last year to get the 11 votes needed to replace Sweeney (at left) as council president. Then he spoke out publicly against Sweeney, saying the council was redrawing its ward map too secretly. So Sweeney gave Zone the boot.

"If you decide to oppose the direction of council leadership, you will also stand to lose plum committee assignments," Sweeney explained.

PD reporters must've known about Zone's efforts -- it'd explain their extended Martin Sweeney deathwatch throughout 2008. It's not over: Zone tells the paper the fall council elections could change the factions on council and depose Sweeney.

What would a change in leadership mean for Cleveland? Zone, who represents the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, is smart, independent, and assertive about issues he cares about, such as supporting arts and culture.

If he took over as leader, I think council would become more assertive, more of a check and balance on Mayor Frank Jackson's power.

Sweeney succeeded Jackson as council president because he was Jackson's top lieutenant. That's why council hasn't challenged the mayor on much at all in three years. Racking my brain, I can only think of a few newsworthy occasions when council has shown leadership independent of the mayor. One was on tax abatements for new homes -- Jackson wanted to cut back on them, but council convinced him not to. A second was the new domestic partner registry, designed to make Cleveland more gay-friendly -- that was council's idea. The third, which was symbolic, came when Jackson said little about the Kinsman shooting incident in 2007, so council stepped up.

Relations between Cleveland's mayor and council swing like a pendulum. When Mike White's term as mayor ended, Clevelanders wanted an end to the strife between him and Mike Polensek's council faction. (Polensek had taken power in a 1999 coup because council felt White was walking all over them.) Mayor Jane Campbell tried to usher in an era of peace, but her falling-out with Jackson led to his successful run to replace her. Now the pendulum has swung so far toward peace and cooperation that the council rarely challenges the mayor.

Sweeney's move shows he feels his hold on power is still strong, despite questions about his leadership and his name appearing on subpoenas connected to the county corruption probe. Just as in the recent special elections in Hough and the Lee-Harvard neighborhood, lots of council races this year will shape up as pro-Sweeney vs. anti-Sweeney races (which must be why the ward redistricting is so important to Zone).

What the elections will mean for the mayor, I'll get to next week.

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