Wednesday, February 19, 2014

FitzGerald delivers State of the County, with glances statewide

I counted only two rips into Gov. John Kasich in Ed FitzGerald's State of the County address today. Though statewide media came to cover his speech, and a new poll today says FitzGerald is only 5 points behind Kasich in the governor's race, never did the Cuyahoga County executive mention his November opponent by name. He merely criticized the state for cutting the local government fund and not spending more on early childhood education.

Instead, FitzGerald offered a progress report on his agenda, from his early reforms to a lightning-round list of initiatives at the speech's end. He portrayed himself as impatient to create change, not just change jobs.

"Our priority in year one was to restore public trust," said FitzGerald, recounting his role in dismantling the old county government's patronage regime. "The pursuit of excellence replaced politics," he claimed -- true on one level, but funny coming from a candidate for higher office.

Movement, progress, optimism -- FitzGerald aimed to project all three. As usual, he announced new initiatives during the annual address. He wants to wants to issue $50 million in bonds to tear down abandoned houses. "Our economic recovery is still hobbled by thousands of properties which, unfortunately, are beyond salvaging through renovation." It's an issue he hasn't taken on in a big way until now.  

"County government in the last few years has been a battleground between those who have given up on Cleveland and those who will never give up on Cleveland," FitzGerald asserted -- which left me wondering who represents the give-up caucus. 

But the rhetorical move helps him as a local leader and a candidate for governor. Locally, it's the pol's rhetorical version of slipping on a CLE Clothing Co. T-shirt, an embrace of town pride. Statewide, holding his address in the new convention center and declaring that "the list of downtown projects is unlike anything that any of us have seen happen here in a generation" heads off Republican attempts to use Cleveland's struggles against him downstate.

FitzGerald also announced the county will take over operations of the Cleveland and Euclid jails. That gave him a chance to praise Mayor Frank Jackson (whom Kasich has also courted). It also helped him talk about regionalism, an area where he's had to temper expectations.  

Three years ago, FitzGerald helped Orange, Pepper Pike, Moreland Hills and Woodmere launch merger talks.  That idea has faded.  Buzz about a Cleveland-East Cleveland merger arose late last year. FitzGerald implied he doesn't see that happening either. 

"Regionalism in the near term is only likely to be expressed through shared services," he said. He touted the services the county offers to towns, and again suggested they could build the trust necessary for a big metropolitan government someday. Working on shared services is "not as exciting as a merger in one fell swoop, but it has the distinct advantage of being real."

The City Club sponsored the event, and in its traditional Q and A, FitzGerald faced only one tough, conservative questioner: David Tryon, an attorney and local Federalist Society leader. Their exchange sounded more like the debate ahead in the governor's race than anything else today. 

"Cuyahoga County has the highest taxes and fees" in Ohio, Tryon said. "They hurt people who can’t afford tickets to events like this. Why not decrease the sales tax and reduce fees?"

FitzGerald portrayed the questioner as a laissez-faire libertarian and argued that his a has justified a government with a larger role. "I suppose we could have cut taxes," he said rhetorically, "and reduced the number of sheriff’s deputies, or not funded universal pre-kindergarten or early childhood education." 

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