Thursday, April 25, 2013

Can FitzGerald’s reformer persona work in governor’s race?

Ed FitzGerald has a gift for timing. He’s the Cuyahoga County executive today because he sensed the leadership vacuum left by the county corruption scandal and filled it. A former FBI agent as well as Lakewood mayor, he promised to restore honest government after the fall of Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo. The ambitious FitzGerald was the right candidate at the right time.

But yesterday, when FitzGerald announced he’ll challenge Gov. John Kasich, he took a big risk. Can he win a very different race with very different issues? Will his record as a reformer propel him past Kasich, or will the race transform him into a conventional Democratic politician?

Before a cheering crowd at the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, FitzGerald tried to take his reformer persona statewide and connect the job he holds with the job he seeks.

“As the first county executive, I helped to dismantle a corrupt patronage regime that was choking our county government,” he said. “The people in this county had lost faith that county government could be effective, efficient, transparent, and honest. And we did restore that faith.”

Boldly, FitzGerald then turned his reformer’s eye on Kasich. Ohio has been “on a much different path” than Cuyahoga County since Kasich’s election, he argued. “The pay-to-play system in state government is as bad as it’s ever been, with the governor’s lobbyist friends making millions.”

FitzGerald doesn’t have a corruption scandal to run against this time, so he’s trying to compare Kasich and Columbus lobbyists with Dimora and the contractors he partied with. Can FitzGerald make this stick? It’ll be interesting to see him try.

From there, FitzGerald made the turn to politics in ordinary times and the standard Democratic critiques of the governor. “The budget was balanced by making one of the worst decisions possible: defunding our local schools,” he said.

He denounced Kasich’s cuts to the local government fund, saying they’d led to police and firefighter layoffs. He attacked the failed Republican election law, HB 194, calling it the “voter suppression law.” He cast Kasich’s complex plan to expand the sales tax’s reach as a tax increase on poorer families. And, in one of the speech’s biggest applause lines, he claimed Kasich “attacked working people” by signing the voter-rejected Senate Bill 5.

In contrast, FitzGerald offered changes he’s implemented here as county executive: expansions of early childhood education and sheriff’s patrols, the new $100 million county job creation fund, and the county’s just-approved college education accounts for local youth. (A heckler pointed out each kid gets only $100.) He balanced the county’s budget without raising taxes or cutting education, he said, implying that he could manage the state’s budget better than Kasich, even in tough times.

But FitzGerald’s positive agenda, as he outlined it yesterday, showed little of the innovation he’s brought to Cuyahoga County (and his web site’s “issues” page doesn’t add much). It’s mostly a collection of Democratic grievances from the past two years: “respect all workers, not demonize them,” support the right to vote “instead of suppressing it,” “partner with cities and townships instead of using them as an ATM.”

FitzGerald said he wants to create a jobs strategy based on local businesses and high-wage jobs, “not corporate giveaways.” That suggests he’s going to run against parts of Kasich’s jobs strategy and vow to do better. He also says he wants to invest in early childhood education.

Where will he get the money to spend more and restore cuts, without raising taxes? His website says he’ll find strategic cuts in the state budget, as he did in Cuyahoga County’s. But if state government isn’t as bloated as the county was under the Dimora-Russo regime, that may not be so easy.

Yesterday, FitzGerald showed his political talents and appeal as a candidate: his record of accomplishment in his short time as county executive, his trustworthy biography (he investigated corruption while with the FBI). But many reasons he gave for running for governor will rally loyal Democrats more than independent voters. He can’t win just by re-fighting the battles against SB5 and the election law.

With his issues that do have broad appeal -- funding schools, encouraging job growth -- FitzGerald’s challenge is to explain exactly how he’ll do better than Kasich and why he’s the guy to do it. But his record as executive is incomplete, his jobs and education initiatives still new.

He has a year and a half to make his case, of course. But so far, it’s not clear that the governor’s race is the right fit for him.


Angie said...

I think this is a good reading. I consider myself progressive and I HATE John Kasich. So I want to love Fitzgerald and I've been pretty happy with his county record.

I have been pretty disappointed to to see him sort of fall in line with the old boys on this skyways issue though. That was a good opportunity to demonstrate his reform credentials, but he punted. His Facebook feed is full of all these cloying appeals to teachers. He can't win without exciting progressives, probably. And so far, I feel a little underwhelmed with him.

It's hard to get excited about an old-school Democrat from NE Ohio, at least for me.

Roldo Bartimole said...

It was unfortunate that Mayor Jackson choose the same day to have his police shooting press conference. One has to wonder why. Jackson has played footsie with Republican Kasich for some time. It was interesting that former Congressman Lou Stokes played a prominent part in introducing FitzGerald and that African-American council members attended because Fitzgerald will need the minority vote to win.

I think by emphasis on Kasich's terrible record of taking money from local governments is important. Media have not flushed out what that has meant to local government and schools nearly enough, especially when he wants to give tax reduction that favor the wealthy.

Vanessa said...

This is cool!