Ed FitzGerald acted like a front-runner in today’s City Club debate. He declined every opportunity to criticize Terri Hamilton Brown, his opponent in the Democratic primary for county executive. He kept his eye on the general election, even opening with a joke about a candidate he expects to face in November.
“I’m a little bit relieved,” he told the crowd. “I heard a rumor that Ken Lanci had purchased exclusive rights to speak here.”
Brown opened like a challenger finding her feet. She jabbed at FitzGerald in opening remarks, and when he declined to punch back, she followed with an uppercut.
She said she joined the race because other candidates “were lacking the broad experience needed to start our government off properly.” One candidate “talked about hiring economic development czars and an inspector general,” she said -- at this, FitzGerald nodded; the inspector general idea is his -- “to do what is essentially the county executive’s job.”
The new executive, Brown added, should be “someone who has actually cleaned up corruption and not just identified wrongdoing” -- meaning she thinks her work at the county’s public-housing agency trumps his years with the FBI as a reform credential.
After Brown talked, about the balance between the new government’s top goals, providing human services and spurring economic development, moderator Joe Frolik asked FitzGerald for his rebuttal.
“I don’t feel the need to rebut that statement,” FitzGerald replied, passing up the chance to fight back. “I’m almost 100 percent in agreement with it. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Terri’s record and resume and vision for the county.”
As if rebutting Republican frontrunner Matt Dolan instead, FitzGerald talked about why he became a Democrat. Like Robert F. Kennedy, he said, he believes “that government can be a positive force for changing people lives, that your final destination in life should not be dependent on the circumstances you’re born into.” Republicans, he argued, believe “it’s every person for themselves. If you’re doing well, good for you. If you’re not doing so well, it must somehow be your fault.”
Brown replied that she and FitzGerald agree on a lot -- “but this is a debate, and we are here to define the differences.” She hit FitzGerald for his ambition: he “sought three offices in three years” – Lakewood mayor, county auditor if Frank Russo resigned, now county executive – and he opposed Issue 6, but started running for the top job it created less than two months after it passed. “County executive is the only job I want,” Brown said, slyly implying FitzGerald wants more.
After that, peace prevailed. With the Brown campaign taking up five lunch tables at the City Club and FitzGerald’s four, I expected loaded, negative questions from the audience in the Q&A, but none came. Stuart Garson, the new county Democratic chair, asked both if the loser of the primary would support the winner in November. Both agreed they would. FitzGerald’s enthusiastic agreement sounded almost like an endorsement: “I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. Terri is a class act, a public servant in the best sense of the word.”
FitzGerald, the more seasoned politician, came up with most of the debate’s best quotes. Frolik asked him if being endorsed by the Democratic party and the AFL-CIO would make it harder to change the county government’s hiring-hall patronage culture.
“In my opinion, there’s three major parties in this county,” FitzGerald answered. “There is the Democratic party, and the Republican party, and there’s another party of people who are out for themselves. And some of the government officials and folks that have public contracts were not really interested in public service at all. … I’m going to do the same thing I did as mayor: you have to come in with the attitude that you’re going to do what’s right. If you lose some friends along the way, they probably were people that shouldn’t have been your friends in the first place.”
It was a good answer, with an opening line brilliant in its versatility. FitzGerald can use the “three parties” bit to distance himself from Jimmy Dimora, Frank Russo and company – and also turn it around on independent candidates such as Ken Lanci or Tim McCormack in the fall.
Brown couldn’t match FitzGerald’s gift for sound bites, but she stepped up her game today, sounding more succinct and focused than in earlier, less-inspired performances. She pitched herself as an experienced problem-solver who’d lead an “open, honest” government with no patronage or “sweetheart contracts.” With a state budget crisis looming, “the first county executive will have to be a chief lobbyist and advocate for the county,” she said. She’d go to Columbus to convince the legislature to keep Cuyahoga’s deep needs in mind.
FitzGerald, leading in fundraising and endorsements, seems to have decided he can afford to be gracious to Brown, that he can win the primary if the race keeps going as it has, and that not fighting her now will pay off when he needs her supporters’ votes in the fall. But Brown – whose recent endorsements from Frank Jackson, Marcia Fudge and Joe Cimperman have given her momentum -- did what she had to do today. She defined the differences between her and FitzGerald in a strong performance that’ll help address doubts about her campaigning skills. I didn’t see a turning point, but I felt the race tighten.
(For more coverage of the debate, see Henry Gomez's cleveland.com article -- or, listen to the City Club's podcast of it here.)