Tuesday, February 19, 2013

FitzGerald burnishes reformer credentials, floats new Great Lakes Expo in State of County speech

Ed FitzGerald tackled a political challenge of his own making today. How could he deliver a State of the County address without sounding like he’s running for governor? His answer: a pair of headline-making announcements and the latest hard sell of his reformer credentials.

First, FitzGerald announced that the Medical Mart has a new name, more vague, less blatantly commercial, more aspirational: the Global Center for Health Innovation. The name change seems inspired by the Cleveland Clinic’s Medical Innovation Summit, which will open in the Mart Center in October. It could also be borrowed from the latest announced tenant. FitzGerald announced that the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society will locate its Innovation Center here. It’s another win for the ever-strengthening project. The HIMSS center, which will take up most of a floor, was going to be an anchor in the failed Nashville medical mart.

Next, FitzGerald called for Cleveland to host a sequel to the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936-1937 in three years. Indulging a bit of history geekiness, he talked about how FDR pressed a button on the White House desk to open the Expo gate and later visited the grounds. Maybe, he speculated in the Q and A, a new expo could be based on medicine and music, like the 1930s expo was based on Cleveland’s industries of the time. Or it could be based on music and performing arts, entrepreneurship and local food. Or “it could be all those things or none of those things,” he said, trying to leave room for others in town to add their ideas.

Ever since the Great Lakes Expo lit up our waterfront with its carnival midway, its exotic Streets of the World and its towering art deco architecture, reviving it has been a recurring civic dream. Dennis Kucinich floated the idea in the 1970s. But world’s fairs, or almost-world’s-fairs, have a tougher go of it today than in those Depression years before the Travel Channel and frequent-flier flights to Europe. My advice to FitzGerald: think less about a sequel to the Romance of Iron and Steel and more about recruiting great characters who can stir up a bit of scandal. Who’ll be our Billy Rose, our Eleanor Holm, our Toto Laverne?

Near the start of the speech, you could learn a lot about FitzGerald by listening to him execute a pair of moves. First, he gave thanks for the federal corruption investigation, singling out U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach in the audience and issuing him a “long overdue thank you for your zealous pursuit of corruption and support for integrity.” (The corruption probe started before Dettelbach took the job, and he’s had to recuse himself from it, but minor point, I guess.)

Then FitzGerald called the corruption probe Phase One of the effort to clean up Cuyahoga County government and called his administration’s efforts Phase Two. “We dismantled the political patronage machine which was choking county government,” he said. FitzGerald’s opposition to patronage seems genuine and proven. But he’s still executing a clever pirouette, dancing past the real Phase Two, the Issue 6 campaign that created a new county government system. FitzGerald, awkwardly, opposed the charter he now governs under, a fact that still complicates his reformer persona.

FitzGerald made one other revealing move. It was the one moment when you could hear his gubernatorial ambitions loud and clear. I'll post about it tomorrow.

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