Ken Lanci walked into the conference room looking very stern. He carried two bulky binders and few sheets of paper. He showed no sign of the smile he’s replicated on 75 buses. No diplomacy, just business.
Lanci set the binders and papers on the table in front of him. I recognized my blog’s logo on the top sheet and saw a single paragraph marked. I knew which one.
I first interviewed Lanci in January, a week after he announced his run for county executive. I slammed him on my blog for not knowing the county government well. I’d asked him to critique the county’s economic development department and he gave a maddening non-answer.
“There are a lot of things I can’t comment on without getting in the belly of the beast,” he said then. “I’m not promising anything until I get inside.”
I wrote: “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.”
Now, in our second interview, Lanci wanted to confront what I’d written. He turned one of my questions around and read my “Trust me” paragraph back to me.
“The challenge, I consider legitimate, a great question,” Lanci told me. “I answer it the way I’ve always done business. I look at the county as if I’m buying it.”
I don’t know if I’d nudged him to dig deeper, or if he’d meant to do it all along. But the guy had done his research.
“I’ve had about 60 agency visits, meeting with directors and with staff,” he said. “And as a result of that, I’ve put together my plan. Now, I’m not going to share the details with you because —
“There’s 60 of them,” I said.
“That wouldn’t be prudent at this time either, to lay out the plans for everyone else to take a look at.” (Meaning the other candidates, I assumed.)
He opened a binder. “I have each budget for each agency I reviewed. I have the director, a bio of the agency, as well as photos of directors.”
Lanci said he thought some county departments were working just fine, including Developmental Disability and, surprisingly, Children And Family Services. He defended Deborah Forkas, CFS’s embattled director, as a “professional of the highest standard,” unfairly blamed for abuse of kids in families the agency monitored. The law prefers that kids be reunited with their parents, Lanci noted. “It’s easy to say it’s the director’s fault. It’s not the director’s fault.”
He promised to reorganize the auditor’s and recorder’s offices, but wouldn’t tell me which other offices he thought needed improvement.
“The last thing you want to be perceived [as] is a bull in a china shop before you get there,” he said. “That’s not what I am. I don’t want people to anticipate things that aren’t real, just because I say, this department has issues.”
I suggested he was passing up a chance to show voters what sort of change he’d deliver.
“I’m schooled on the business of the county,” he replied. “They can trust that if I spent the time getting that information, I know which [agencies] are the tough ones, and the ones I need to deal with. … This is that part where you said ‘Trust me.’ I ask you to trust me not based on my statement, ‘Trust me.’ Trust me based on the work that I’ve done.”
I left full of conflicting thoughts about Lanci. By the interview’s end, he’d reinforced my feeling that he’d have trouble getting along with other elected officials. He told me he’d press Northeast Ohio’s congressional delegation to bring home more federal spending.
“Every one of these people are going to be called in and are going to be required to be part of the solution,” he declared: “Every other senator, every other [U.S.] representative, the governor, treasurer, everybody, has got to work for Cuyahoga County.”
To the best of my knowledge, county officials don’t “call in” governors, senators or congressmen. They have to ask them for help. Politely.
But addressing my criticism showed his willingness to tackle a challenge. And he proved this much: He’s worked hard to figure out county government in case voters choose him on Tuesday.