Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ellen Connally’s horrible week

Well, this isn’t what C. Ellen Connally expected. Belligerent Tea Partiers from “District Zero” getting in her face. A rival who cuts a deal with her, then publicly apologizes. Angry front-page headlines for four six days straight.

Yes, Connally, my November profile subject, had the Worst Week in Cleveland.

On Friday, Connally thought she’d nailed down the six votes she needed to become Cuyahoga County council president. Turns out it won't be so easy. News of the private meeting where she forged a pact with fellow councilman-elect Dale Miller reached the Plain Dealer, and the town went wild.

The council-to-be’s get-together yesterday at Cleveland State degenerated into a chaotic embarrassment, the likes of which I haven’t seen at a public meeting since Jimmy Dimora shut up and East Cleveland got rid of Eric Brewer. Now, an extremely scientific online poll of people who read the Plain Dealer’s angry editorial finds (as of tonight) that 84.75% think the “secret meeting” was “outrageous” and “must not stand,” while 9.36% think it’s merely “regrettable.”

Watching the pitchforks gather, I’m tempted to mount an extremely unfashionable defense of the old-fashioned art of politics. I'm as big a fan of transparency as the next reporter, but I also know how leadership contests in councils and legislatures really work. Of course candidates line up their support before the actual vote. Of course a three-way fight ends with two hopefuls cutting a deal to ice out the third. Connally's machinations look pretty mild by most political standards. And compared to the gladiatorial combat I’ve seen break out over the Cleveland city council presidency, the county councilors who met at Julian Rogers’ house look like nuns in a convent.

Still, I’m counting four errors Connally and her allies made that are impossible to defend as good politics, let alone good government.

#1: After Stuart Garson’s plan to hold a Democratic caucus was ferociously slapped down, she didn't take the hint that "secret meetings" are not in vogue in the post-Dimora era. She showed a tin ear for the public's desire for transparency -- and a simple lack of shrewdness by not striking her deal in a dozen phone calls instead.

#2: Connally called Chuck Germana to say there was a party, but he wasn’t invited -- thus assuring the friendly get-together would end up exposed on page A1. (Note how Dave Greenspan was “shocked” in the Saturday story, but Germana wasn’t.)

#3: Rogers invited five council members, but let a sixth in when he showed up. Now everyone can say they violated the spirit of Ohio’s sunshine law. Once the council takes office, it’ll be illegal for six or more of the 11 to meet in private.

#4: Connally tried to talk her way out of the mess and made it worse. Her possibly fatal quote, “Leadership is not the public’s business,” strikes me as a former judge’s failed attempt to be law-school clever. Trying to argue that the sunshine law doesn’t apply to leadership debates, Connally stumbled into a gaffe that may have done terrible harm to her reputation.

That’d be a shame. Connally doesn’t fit the arrogant caricature flying around Cleveland.com’s scabrous comment sections. She’s still one of the new council’s top talents. Like I said in my profile, “Change Agent,” she’s got a judge’s calm demeanor, rectitude and intellect, combined with a blunt honesty and sharp wit. Her op-ed takedown of George Forbes last year over a fawn-beating in Euclid is a classic of recent Cleveland political humor. It’s ironic how quickly someone can go from being the rotten-tomato-thrower to the splattered.


Roldo Bartimole said...

Erick this is a wise and needed commentary on the situation. The Plain Dealer has been overplaying the vote to elect in January a president of the new County Council. Some clumsy effort could be a problem but it isn’t a crime.
The PD can’t seem to let go of the County scandal. This is dangerous for the paper and community. Treating every move by the new County officials as scandalous is damaging to any effort at getting a good start. The PD’s front-page scandal binge could be most destructive for those who want change in the operation at the County. The paper, for the sake of big headlines, threatens a good start by the new government. It’s handling of these situations breeds cynicism.

If the paper is going to pounce – with big headlines and photos (Oh, how they miss having Jimmy’s fat face on Page one) – about every minor infraction it will seriously deter the new county government and its leaders attempt to get off on the right foot. The paper is acting as a drunk that can’t stop itself.
Finally, I’m getting a very bad feeling about the imperiousness at the monopoly newspaper. The Editorial Board’s “commanding” elected officials to their den for questioning is unseemly. No one elected the PD. I can see inviting potential officeholders to their offices as preparation for editorial endorsements. But I think the public should resent when a newspaper believes that office-holders owe allegiance to them. There is an element of pressure here that sticks in the craw.

Anonymous said...

Listen, based on the quality of people they elected, the citizens of Cuyahoga County are in for very rough weather ahead. This is just the first sign.

These are the same people who gave the indicted judge McCafferty over 100,000 votes.

It all adds up to trouble. So, hang to your underwear, Roldo, this whole thing is going to go south. Sit and watch.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone ever think of checking Connally's vote by mail numbers in the primary and how most were delivered to the board of elections on election day? How about the signatures on those ballots? She won because of them. If you can win an election that way, what makes you think anything is going to change! Different faces, same old big city politics!!

Erick Trickey said...


Connally did get a lot of absentee votes in the primary -- 4,195, or 4 times more than her closest opponent.

But she also beat her closest opponent by more than 2 to 1 in the election day voting -- 1,350 to 609.