Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ken Lanci: Only an independent can change the county

Ken Lanci says he’s running for Cuyahoga County executive because neither Democrats nor Republicans can reform county government.

“If people really want to see change, you cannot put in a Democrat or a Republican, because it’s all about the party,” the independent candidate argues. “As much as somebody will sit and tell you, ‘I will go down the middle and work for the people,’ the party that gave the money to that individual is going to get that marker cashed. There’s going to be things he can’t fight for, because he’s going to be told, ‘If you think you’ve got a career, this could be your last job.’”

Lanci, 59, a printing company owner and business turnaround expert, says he can use his talents to turn Cuyahoga County around. “The experience I have was gained over 40 years,” he says. “If I can make money from nothing and be successful, I should be able to go in and help the people of the county as well.”

He’s owned 20 companies, all startups or turnarounds. “I don’t think I can remember having purchased a company that was doing very well.” Starting with his father’s company when he was 19, he’s brought back several companies from the brink of death, from Northeast Wine Distributors to a division of the Cleveland Paper Company. National City sometimes turned to him to help salvage failing companies that couldn’t repay loans.

Today, Lanci owns two companies on Cleveland’s near East Side, including printing company Consolidated Graphics Group. He says he’ll work for $1 a year if elected, as a way of giving back.

Lanci says job growth would be his top priority by far. He wants to work closely with the developers of the Medical Mart, the casino, and the $150 million renovation of St. Vincent Charity Hospital to develop training programs for local workers that fit the employers’ needs. He praises the current county government’s efforts to build the Medical Mart, calling it “the cornerstone of Cleveland’s future.” Beyond that, he says the county needs to say yes to business deals, not throw up obstacles.

Candidates like Lanci flare up in politics now and then: Centrist businessmen who run against both parties, appealing to voters who distrust politicians and think government needs more financial discipline. But the CEO candidates’ big challenge is to prove they understand how government works.

Judging by my interview with Lanci, he’s not there yet. I asked him to critique the performance of the county’s economic development department. He said he couldn’t.

“There are a lot of things I can’t comment on without getting in the belly of the beast,” he said. “I’m not promising anything until I get inside. But when I get inside, I will report on a regular basis what we find and how it’s going.”

He said he’s reviewed the county government’s 2009 and 2010 budgets, but can’t tell if its spending is well-disciplined: “I don’t know how much effort really goes into the individual departments to see the efficiencies.”

This sounds too much like, Trust me, I'll figure it out. Before voters can trust him as a turnaround expert, Lanci needs to show that his business turnaround experience is relevant to county government: He needs to apply his expertise to the county's challenges and tell voters what he'll do if elected.

The new county council will approve the county executive’s budget and appointments. That could be an adjustment for Lanci, a private-company CEO. I asked Lanci what relevant experience he had at needing approval from people who don’t work for him. His answer suggested he expects conflict, not cooperation.

“In government, I am working for the people; so are they,” he says. “They just need to be held accountable to work for the people, not the parties anymore. That’s what I plan on doing.”

Starting new companies has taught Lanci the importance of inspirational leadership, he says. “The employees of any company or any government are the backbone. If you don’t get buy-in from the people that are working with you, then you can’t do anything.” He suggests the new county exec will have to balance house-cleaning after scandal with retaining the government’s best talent. “There’s no secret there’s been a lot of patronage over the years,” he said, but added: “I have to believe there’s a lot of very capable, qualified people out of the 7,500 that are still there. … This is not going to be a wholesale firing.”

I asked Lanci about the fears that the new county government would not address minorities’ concerns. He said he was skeptical about “set-aside” programs, but wasn’t inclined to alter the county’s small business enterprise program, which benefits many minority contractors. At Lanci’s companies, minorities are about 29 out of 150 employees, he says. He’s set up a small apprenticeship program with the Cleveland schools for students interested in the graphic arts. His biggest philanthropic efforts, Project Love and Gift of Sight, focus their efforts in the city, he says.

Lanci’s political donations have covered both parties: He gave to Joe Cimperman’s 2008 Democratic primary campaign for Congress against Dennis Kucinich, Lee Fisher’s current Democratic primary run for U.S. Senate; Republican Ken Blackwell’s 2006 campaign for governor, and the McCain campaign and the Ohio Republican Party in fall 2008. He says he likes Cimperman’s energy, Fisher’s experience, Blackwell’s support for small business, and Sarah Palin’s advocacy for special-needs children.

Lanci’s biography includes an unusual family tie: his older brother, Thomas Lanci, was convicted of bribery and racketeering in federal court and pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in state court in connection with the 1977 bombing death of Danny Greene – the most legendary organized-crime murder in Cleveland’s recent history. (Thomas Lanci now lives outside Ohio and does not talk to reporters, Ken says.)

Lanci says he’s often had to address his brother’s crimes in his professional life. “If you can imagine walking with a ball and chain for a while, that’s how I would describe it.” In the late 1970s, the FBI spent a few days at Lanci’s printing business to ascertain that it had no financial ties to his brother. Lanci says he later passed rigorous federal-government background checks before assuming control of Northeast Wine Distributors and becoming a director of Independence Bank. “If everybody was disqualified for family relationships, we’d have a lot of openings all over the place,” he says.

Lanci says he’ll refuse donations from county employees and political action committees and all donations above $250. Since the new charter doesn’t include campaign finance limits, “I decided to start my own campaign reform,” he says. “Somebody’s got to take the lead. And because I can, I am.” If donations don’t raise enough, Lanci says he’ll personally spend what’s necessary to be competitive. Political veterans tell him he’ll need $1.5 million.

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