Thursday, January 29, 2009

New PD editorial page editor

Last week I wrote about the Plain Dealer editorial page moving from center-right to center-left during the Bush years. Well, it's going to keep moving left.

Brent Larkin, the editorial page editor, is retiring in May after 17 years on the job. Elizabeth Sullivan, the paper's foreign-affairs columnist, will take over the page.

Sullivan wrote a lot of critical columns about the Bush Administration and the Iraq war. While the editorials under Larkin reflected a sort of sad disappointment toward Bush, Sullivan was angry. A recent piece of hers about Dick Cheney is a good example. (Not that there wasn't a lot to write about -- 25 U.S. senators recently said this about Donald Rumsfeld, another frequent target of hers.)

These archives of Sullivan's recent print columns and online columns include lots of pieces with a more moderate take, including a nice story on George Voinovich. But overall, I think her appointment means the editorial page will become more reliably liberal.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Med Mart free-for-all

Usually January's a good time for a Clevelander to take a vacation. But this year I'll be missing a week of Med Mart fun!

Everyone who's in local politics, or who follows it, has an opinion about the county choosing the Mall site for the Medical Mart and convention center. Roldo takes the occasion to tell Forest City to get out of town. Jill Miller Zimon gets mad about Tim Hagan's bad habit of telling citizens they don't need to express an opinion or ask for information because they've got an elected representative -- him!

Mayor Frank Jackson has an opinion too. He called all 21 city councilpeople into his office to tell them. Here's a letter he's put out about it. He's definitely questioning the premise that the Mall site is cheaper, and whether MMPI can really save $100+ million by building on the old convention center foundation. But note that he also says, "With this critical decision made...."

Here's the Greater Cleveland Partnership's reaction to the total rejection of its recommendation of Tower City as the site: "The MMPI numbers ... require intense scrutiny. ... MMPI and the county should ... work closely with Forest City to re-examine whether there are potential savings at the Riverfront site. ... The community ... can't afford going down a road that leads to a no-build scenario." Strong wording for a chamber of commerce press release. I wonder what they're saying behind the scenes?

Lots of people are pointing out the many questions still unanswered. Here are mine.

-Last year people were saying a new convention center on the Mall would have to expand beyond the current site. Will it still expand? In which direction, north or west? North would be the best answer -- toward the Rock Hall, to connect conventioneers with our biggest tourist attraction. West would mean knocking down the county administration building, so all the arguments about the Ameritrust Tower and the cost of moving the county government would start up again.

-Is there any money to build that spiffy pedestrian bridge over the Shoreway that people were talking about, to take convention-goers all the way to the Rock Hall and Science Center? Or did that get cut in the cost-cutting?

-When the Partnership and Forest City push back and try to undo the Mall decision, someone needs to ask two questions about the Tower City proposal. The plans the public saw were for a tall, thin convention center on the slope down to the river. The exhibit hall was a few stories up. How much would it cost to build a convention exhibit floor strong enough to host industrial conventions, if the floor is several stories above the ground? And how much would it really cost to build the big weird bridge you'd need to get dozens of trucks to the exhibit floor?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More on the mayor's race

Picking up on my post about the mayoral race, Henry Gomez at cleveland.com drops a few more names of possible Frank Jackson challengers, including former city tech czar Michael DeAloia and councilmen Mike Polensek and Zack Reed (I will bet that Polensek and Reed won't run, but we'll see). Gomez also pointed out something I should have mentioned: Joe Cimperman is a political ally of Jackson's -- another reason Cimperman won't run.

In that previous post, I wrote that Chris Ronayne had thought about running for mayor this year. Actually, Ronayne was too coy to name the year he wanted to run. I just tweaked the post to reflect that.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Frank Jackson and the bully pulpit theory


One reason some people wish someone would run against Mayor Frank Jackson is that they think big-city mayors have powers far beyond the official definitions of the job. They want an inspirational leader. It’s an idea we explored in our coverage of the 2005 mayor’s race, when we went in search of “The Perfect Mayor.”

Trouble is, Cleveland is shrinking, so City Hall has no extra money to spend, so the mayor’s clout and power are shrinking. Being mayor of Cleveland just ain’t what it used to be.

That frustrates some people. They say: The mayor should use his bully pulpit to rally the city and region around a plan for a comeback!

I hear this all the time, and I heard it when Jane Campbell was mayor too. The bully pulpit idea is one of the two biggest clich├ęs about how a big-city mayor should lead. (The other, usually used against bully-pulpit mayors, is the charge that a mayor is favoring downtown and neglecting neighborhoods. This automatically comes up whenever a big project is built downtown.)

The bully pulpit theory of leadership is popular among businesspeople, who want the mayor to be a dealmaker, handing out tax breaks and schmoozing people like them to bring jobs in the city and build big stuff downtown. It’s popular among journalists, because dramatic speeches, calls to action, and huge and expensive projects are all good stories for us. Suburbanites usually like bully-pulpit mayors (unless the mayor is a total bully), because their opinions come from TV or the paper.

But city residents judge the mayor by whether their garbage gets picked up or the cops show up when they call. I think that’s why the bully pulpit theory isn’t popular with most Cleveland voters.

If it was, they wouldn’t have elected Jackson. They knew he wasn’t a bully-pulpit mayor when they elected him. They chose the quiet guy because they saw him as reliable and trustworthy.

I think bully pulpits are overrated, but there are moments when a mayor, like a president or other leaders, needs to speak up and calm everyone’s over-shocked nerves. Take the scary incident in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in 2007 that caught the whole town’s attention: a man’s house was riddled with bullets as revenge after he shot an armed robber in self-defense. Jackson’s stubborn refusal to speak up about that made him look weak and out of touch.

But if you think Jackson should be more of a cheerleader, stage-directing a little more Believe in Cleveland drama, well, he does that, in his own way. Take a look at this op-ed piece the mayor sent to the Plain Dealer last month. Read it twice. First, just read it as Jackson’s variation on the common complaint that “Cleveland has a self-esteem problem.” Then read it again, asking, who does he believe is the critical voice inside Cleveland’s collective mind, telling Cleveland it’ll never amount to anything?

Here’s the clue: the quotes. Jackson wrote the piece in response to the Sunday, November 23 edition of the Plain Dealer, which had the caption “Pittsburgh’s power over Cleveland” atop the front page and the headline “Cleveland is falling apart: Who will pick up the pieces?” on the Forum section front.

A bully pulpit mayor would've called a press conference and yelled and screamed that the Plain Dealer was bringing the city down. Then the press would've written self-referentially about the mayor's feud with the press. Instead, the angry but polite mayor (or an aide) sat down at the keyboard and wrote something. How civilized!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Medical Mart: Behind the closed doors

Excellent story about this week's Medical Mart decision in the Plain Dealer today -- a must-read.

The front-page story asks why the commissioners decided, within hours of hearing the developer's recommendation, to pick the downtown mall as the location for the convention center and Medical Mart.

The story's highlights:

-Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones and county negotiator Fred Nance wanted to negotiate price before announcing a decision. Tim Hagan and Jimmy Dimora decided to make the decision right away -- another big disagreement between them and Jones.

-Hagan and Nance are very sensitive to the critics who assume local politics is beholden to Sam Miller and Forest City (which owns the other possible site).

-Hagan's biggest motivation was a sense of urgency -- an urgency the Plain Dealer and a lot of other people in town complained has been missing during the year and a half of studying and deliberating about the project. This story will likely infuriate Hagan, Dimora and Nance. They feel whipsawed -- criticized for moving too slow, then for moving too fast.

-But that's not the real issue here. Here's the real issue, high up in the story:
"The county has decided to spend nearly a half-billion public dollars without holding a meeting in public to discuss the basis for its decision. ... Why would a county government in the middle of a sweeping federal corruption investigation choose not to conduct its business in the most open way possible?"

-That's why Dimora's take isn't satisifying. Here's his quote: "We figured, 'Why continue to prolong the decision'" when MMPI had already done the analysis[?] "The public and the media should trust the due diligence" and cost analysis, he said.

-The commissioners do decide too many things in private executive sessions. But with this story, the Plain Dealer has done a great job of getting them to explain what went on behind those closed doors.

-The Plain Dealer and other citizens who want this decision explained clearly will probably not get what they want. Hagan and Dimora are usually not inclined to do this. When Jones held public forums on the Medical Mart site selection this summer, they didn't attend. If they act like they acted with the Ameritrust Tower issue, they're more likely to rant at the Plain Dealer at Thursday's commissioners meeting. (Wish I could be there to blog about it, but alas, I'm leaving for vacation that day.)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The quiet mayor


I’ve had this same conversation a few times in the last couple of months. Hey, when is Frank Jackson up for re-election? someone asks. November, I tell them. Oh, good! they say, with a sigh full of frustration. Then they ask, Who’s going to run against him?

No one, I say.

So they ask about Chris Ronayne (if they’ve been paying some attention to local politics) or Joe Cimperman (if they haven’t).

Nope, sorry. I’ve asked a few of my political sources: Who’s thinking of running against Jackson this year? The word is: no one of any stature.

This prospect -- the mayor coasting to re-election in November -- will drive some people crazy. What’s he done? they complain. But in his own quiet way, Jackson's been pushing regionalism, making deals with suburbs that include promises not to lure city businesses away. He’s flown to Costa Rica, Germany and France to try to attract foreign investment. He’s kept the city’s books in decent shape, while nearby cities such as Detroit are slashing budgets.

So far, Jackson has avoided one of the biggest cliches about mayoral leadership: he is the rare big-city mayor who is not accused of favoring downtown and neglecting neighborhoods. Jackson's years as a ward leader help him with this. I’m hearing that he is quite popular in most city neighborhoods, and that he even went door-to-door this summer to ask random citizens how the city can improve its services. I bet the news that the mayor showed up down the street gets around the block fast.

I’m sure that's why Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle, isn’t planning to challenge Jackson. A year ago, my colleague Andy Netzel profiled Ronayne, wrote about his interest in being mayor someday, and sized up his prospects if he ran against Jackson. But in December, Ronayne told the Plain Dealer's Mark Naymik that he does not plan to run for mayor in 2009.

A lot of Clevelanders remember the buzz eight years ago about Joe Cimperman running for mayor someday. Cimperman is definitely ambitious – just look at his run for Congress against Dennis Kucinich – but I’m hearing he’s more likely to try to move up to a county office next time one opens up.

Naymik's piece explained some of the other reasons that Jackson will be tough for anyone to beat. For instance, he came up with a graceful way to say that black candidates have an advantage because the city’s population is 54 percent black.

The column upset Norm Roulet at RealNEO – check out his funny poll: “Plain Dealer Has Declared Frank Jackson Re-Elected Mayor in 2009... is that what you want?” (Click here and scroll down.)

But I’m hearing what Naymik’s hearing. So another online survey ought to ask, “Who should run against Frank Jackson in 2009?” and, more important, “Who can beat him?”

If you’ve got a name, let me know.

(Photo by Mike Raby, from flickr)

Friday, January 23, 2009

County chooses downtown mall as Medical Mart, convention center site

This is a surprise! The county commissioners have decided to build the Medical Mart and convention center on the downtown mall, not at Tower City.

MMPI, the developer, says it's figured out a way to build the project on the site of the current convention center for $108 million less than on Forest City's property on the river.

This'll stun everyone who thinks Sam Miller of Forest City controls Cleveland politics. But it's happening for a simple reason: Sam Miller does not control MMPI, and MMPI had an incentive to save money.

This summer, I was worried that the project would go to Tower City simply because Forest City was (naturally) lobbying for its proposal, while the mall site, which was publicly owned, didn't have an advocate. So when the Greater Cleveland Partnership's site committee declared that building the project at Tower City would save $60 million, who was going to argue?

But the county commissioners put a really important clause in their agreement with MMPI: the developer is responsible for all cost overruns. They did that because they knew critics would try to attack the convention center as "another Gateway." Lots of people opposed to big public downtown projects still point to the flaws in the 1991 Gateway deal, which left the public paying for lots of unexpected debt and expenses.

So MMPI threw out the Partnership's recommendation and started over. (See my earlier post about a Plain Dealer story that explained this, but not clearly.) The Chicago-based developer came up with a cheaper way to build the convention center: by using the existing center's foundation.

Yesterday's talks were held in private, a lot of details about the project haven't come out yet, and the county's deal with MMPI is still not finalized. Still, the debate about where to put a convention center has gone on for more than ten years. So this is really big news.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New City Hall blog


Last month Roldo Bartimole pined for the long-gone days when reporters swarmed Cleveland City Hall, digging for news. He lamented that he heard the Plain Dealer was cutting back from two City Hall reporters to only one. Well, at least that one guy's working hard.

Henry Gomez, our daily's watchdog at 601 Lakeside, is now blogging daily from City Hall, passing on politics news with speed and webby verve. I've posted a link to his Inside City Hall blog on my blogroll of local politics sites (over there on the right).

Now anyone who's wondering, what the hell is Cleveland City Council doing lately? Anything? can find out daily. Sadly, Gomez's post today is about how few council members showed up for an major hearing about which big projects Mayor Frank Jackson will ask President Obama to fund. (Want to stimulate the Cleveland economy? Build us an Inner Belt Bridge that won't fall down!)

Nice use of the web by the Plain Dealer here. Sometimes it seems like cleveland.com thinks "blog" just means "page where we post the news we're printing tomorrow." This one's different. The editors are letting an ambitious reporter post newsy and observational stuff that won't make the paper and play with a voice that wouldn't fit the Metro section. It's a newspaper blog that reads like a blog.

Yes, it's sad more of what Gomez is doing can't make the print edition. His report last week about Matt Zone's failed council coup shouldn't have been hidden on page 3B. But newspapers and Cleveland are shrinking. The city has gone from 750,000 people in 1970 (when Roldo was a young reporter) to 444,000 or less today. Also, since Cleveland is poor, City Hall doesn't have much money to spend. So most political attention shifts to the county or Washington, and those of us who want more news about the Zone-Sweeney battle can go online.

Turns out, plenty of readers want a daily fix of City Hall news. In 11 hours, 26 people have commented on Gomez's post! I'm jealous!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More inaugural blogging

On Cleveland Magazine's main blog, intern Michael Bartlett has a report from the inauguration simulcast at the Palace Theater in Playhouse Square.  Check it out.

Monday, January 19, 2009

An inauguration blog


I'll be watching the inauguration at the Palace Theater in Playhouse Square, but Cleveland Magazine has a correspondent in Washington this week, sort of: Kristin Majcher, a recent intern for us, is one of three reporters blogging from the capital this week for the Athens News, a newspaper in Athens, Ohio.

Their blog is at athensinauguration.blogspot.com. Check it out.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

PD says goodbye to Bush

I roll my eyes when someone says the Plain Dealer is "too liberal," but I also roll 'em when someone says it's "too conservative." Do angry PD-hating liberals read the paper? Connie Schultz? Dick Feagler, after the Iraq invasion? Elizabeth Sullivan, before and since the invasion?

Or the editorial page, whose horror over the Bush Administration grew and grew?

Today the page does its final penance for endorsing George W. Bush in 2000. It's hardly the angriest or most damning denunciation of him. (This is what it sounds like when a newspaper does that.) It starts off as a spurned love's "thought I knew you" lament. "We liked his talk about humility and compassion," it says.

That's an allusion to Bush's "compassionate conservative" slogan and his famous line in the second Bush-Gore debate about the rest of the world -- "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us." I watched that debate too, and I remember thinking the line sounded insincere. I guess the PD believed him.

But the editorial really gets going in its second half. I'll just quote some key words it attaches to Bush: squandered, ignored, surrendered, degradation, disdain, squandering (again), refusal. Read it and you see why the PD endorsed Obama, and how the Bush era led the editorial page from center-right in 2000 to center-left today.

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.

Friday, January 9, 2009

My favorite columnist


No disrespect to my favorite Plain Dealer writers. But my favorite local political columnist these days is Mansfield B. Frazier of CoolCleveland.com.

Frazier wrote the best stuff out there about the fight over who should succeed Fannie Lewis on Cleveland City Council. His CoolCleveland piece on how Obama-worship is getting out of hand was so funny, the Plain Dealer picked it up as an op-ed.

His column this week is a very personal, suspenseful, and terrifying story about his son and ex-wife -- and it ends with a sudden but effective turn to the gay-rights battle brewing in Cleveland.

Journalists often lament that our profession has gotten too professional, no longer a haven for interesting characters. Guess they don't know Frazier. This week's column attests to the wild life he's lived. So does his 1995 book, From Behind the Wall -- the author's bio notes he's been "arrested 15 times on felony charges and convicted 5 times."

Sometimes I wish CoolCleveland edited him more, to hone the rough diamond and ask the unanswered question (such as, Do you really think your wife did what she hinted at? If so, how?). On the other hand, his rough edges are part of the fun.

This became obvious when I compared Frazier's original Obama column and the edited version in the Plain Dealer. Most of the edits improved it (including the helpful correction that the plural of "honky" is "honkies"). But PD readers lost his aside about the late Ms. Lewis ("sharing only went so far with Fannie"), his assessment of Obama as "cooler than Frosty the Snowman," and a great digression about a Harlem street hustler nicknamed Seldom Seen, who "knew that in all cultures and societies, too much access deflates value and diminishes cachet."

There's no archive page for all Frazier's columns, like fellow CoolCleveland columnist Roldo Bartimole's blog. But you can go through the CoolCleveland archives and find a link to Frazier's column in each issue. Also, he's got a new gig with TheDailyBeast.com (so far he's written about how alleged pyramid-schemer Bernard Madoff will like prison). Plenty of Mansfield for us to dig into.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

NYT Mag memorializes Stephanie Tubbs Jones


The New York Times Magazine looked back on Stephanie Tubbs Jones' career in its year-end issue, "The Lives They Lived." Matt Bai's elegant obituary captures aspects of Cleveland's late congresswoman that we didn't often see.

After her husband died, Tubbs Jones poured herself into friendships with other congresspeople, including Florida's Kendrick Meek and New York's Yvette Clarke — and Hillary Clinton. Tubbs Jones and Clinton bonded over a concern for voting rights, forging a loyalty that led the congresswoman to campaign for Clinton in her presidential run, despite Barack Obama's popularity in her district. (I wrote about Tubbs Jones' pledge to Clinton and her 2001 support of mayoral candidate Raymond Pierce, controversial for an opposite reason, in our October issue.)

Bai's article mentions some of Tubbs Jones' flaws — her "penchant for jetting off to exotic lands on privately financed junkets," a backhanded comment she made about Obama. But mostly, he illuminates her loyalty to friends and her sense of humor. The piece also led me to this great clip from Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," in which Stephen Colbert, playing off Tubbs Jones' judicial experience, gets her to play-act the title role on an imaginary TV show, "Judge Tubbs."


Monday, January 5, 2009

Reform is dead

Oops, sorry. Less than two months ago, I predicted the movement to reform Cuyahoga County government would dominate Cleveland's headlines in 2009.

Actually, just before Christmas, the state legislature killed the idea. It took the Commission on Cuyahoga County Government Reform's proposal for a leaner, less costly government and threw it onto the shelf, where all such plans turn brittle yellow, then molder away. Someone's already pulled the plug on the commission's website (the lonely, barely Google-able ccgovreform.org), but here's another link to its proposal.

The legislature created the reform commission in June, so I naively figured it would let county residents vote on its plan. Guess not.

The state House backed the plan, but Republicans in the state Senate voted for a different proposal to replace the Cuyahoga County commissioners with an executive and nine-member council. Rather than write a compromise, the legislators let the idea die with the lame-duck session. Rep. Armond Budish, the new Speaker now that the Democrats control the House, said that in 2009, any reform ideas will have to apply to all 88 counties. That likely means reform will never happen -- it multiplies the number of vested interests motivated to stop it.

Killing reform was easy. Its champions aren't in positions of power. Once people started disagreeing about how far to go with it -- Louis Stokes vs. the rest of the commission, House Republicans vs. Senate Republicans -- doing nothing became the easiest option. Elected officials who benefit from the status quo only had to keep quiet for the idea to go away.

County treasurer Jim Rokakis, who supports reform, estimates the county government wastes $40 million to $60 million a year. The recorder's office, ripe for a $1 million budget cut, is just one example. But if Cuyahoga County taxpayers want change, the state legislature is not going to help. Voters will have to create a charter, like Summit County did years ago. It's not easy: it takes a petition drive and more than 45,000 signatures.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Medical Mart: The mayor gets mad

I was going to blog today about Frank Jackson, The Quiet Mayor. But Jackson's on the Plain Dealer front page today, angrily asking what's going on with the Medical Mart project.

This is big news. For three years, Jackson has deferred to the Cuyahoga County commissioners on the convention center and Medical Mart. No more. After reading about the project's latest delay, he called the PD on New Year's Day to say the county didn't consult him and that he'll travel to Chicago to talk to the developer himself.

Jackson's declaration will surprise and impress the people who think he's a weak leader. It's the kind of dramatic big-stick moment that they long for from a mayor.

Surely the mayor is stepping up because he's lost confidence in the county commissioners. They've been promising for several months that they're this close to nailing down the Medical Mart deal. These days, Jimmy Dimora, waiting to see if the feds indict him, is saying little in public. He, Tim Hagan and Peter Lawson Jones have cast their fates with MMPI, so when the developer blows their "deadlines," they can't do much but ask for patience. Jackson senses he has to step in to save the project -- and keep the developer from cutting corners by building a too-small convention center.

It's been a year and a half since the commissioners voted to raise the sales tax to build the convention center and Medical Mart. The county has collected more than $50 million so far, but there's nothing to fund. The developer, MMPI, rejected the Greater Cleveland Partnership's recommendation to build it at Tower City, and it's doing its own study of the site and a downtown Mall location. As delays pile up, the county, its negotiator, and the developer are practically silent. Meanwhile, plans for a competing medical mart in New York City are moving forward.

If Jackson's trip to Chicago brings progress on the Medical Mart, reporters will call it a turning point for his first term. I'll write more about the mayor soon.