The Plain Dealer's Mark Gillespie calls it Mayor Jackson's most controversial proposal ever, and he's right. The deal to make a Chinese company the city's exclusive streetlight supplier is heading for a skeptical reception at city council today.
The mayor says he's using Cleveland's buying power to bring 350 jobs to town: Sunpu-Opto Semiconductor of China will build its North American headquarters here if it's named the city's exclusive supplier of LED lights. GE, watching from its plant in East Cleveland, is furious, demanding a chance to compete. It claims Cleveland is violating a competitive-bidding law. Jackson's lawyers say that's not so.
City council has hardly ever challenged Jackson. The same majority that keeps Martin Sweeney ensconced as council president has also deferred to the mayor on almost every big issue since 2006. I can think of very few exceptions: renewing the tax abatement for new homes and a couple of issues where council, not Jackson, took the lead.
So I'll be watching to see who on council asks tough questions, who sticks with Jackson out of loyalty, and who morphs into the loyal opposition. Mike Polensek, a frequent dissenter, has spoken up. Significantly, so has Jeff Johnson, who's re-establishing himself as an independent force on council. Who else?
The questions the councilpeople ask will reveal their politics. Some may argue with the mayor on nationalist grounds: Why give jobs to a Chinese company? Others will take the practical good-government approach and focus on the legal and technical questions, such as whether Sunpu-Opto's lights are really the best LEDs the city can buy.
Meanwhile, Jackson's arguments illuminate little-seen aspects of his thinking. All his critics who say he's too shy to take bold action ought to love this deal, he says. He's also trying to fight nationalism with nationalism, bashing GE, saying it "shipped jobs overseas." It's a risky strategy that could win him a flawed victory: He could land the 350 Sunpu-Opto jobs while alienating GE and local businesspeople who think GE got snubbed.