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.