Monday, September 29, 2014
Reform and resumes, or activism and empathy? Schron & Budish clash in county exec debate
Finally, the Cuyahoga County executive race is heating up. Armond Budish and Jack Schron’s debate today didn’t upend or shift the contest to succeed Ed FitzGerald, but it did provide voters a good sense of the choice they face.
Is it a resume battle? Another reform election? Or just a liberal vs. a conservative? At the City Club of Cleveland debate today at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, it was all three.
Budish, the former Ohio House speaker, started the race with an advantage because of the magic D next to his name. He presented himself as a passionate advocate for the poor, a resurgent town, and an active government. “The most important skill for a county executive [is] empathy for people,” Budish said.
Schron, the Republican county councilman, aimed his message at independents. He cast himself as the candidate with the best resume, the experienced CEO who’ll sustain the momentum of the county’s post-corruption reforms. “Cuyahoga County needs someone who’s been there,” Schron said, “someone who’s created jobs.”
Budish, running as a new-economy Democrat, tried to out-entrepreneur Schron, the CEO of Jergens, Inc. “It’s tough to get banks to invest in new startups,” the Democratic state representative said in his opening statement. He proposed creating a county venture capital authority and offering microloans, “maybe $25,000 that a small barbershop or corner store might need to expand.”
Schron asked voters to look beyond party labels and compare resumes to the job description. “[I’m] an executive in charge of a multinational corporation that makes things and sends them all over the world,” he said. He retold the story of Jergens, Inc.’s decision to build its headquarters in the old Collinwood rail yards. Its diverse workforce, he said, “looks like the city of Cleveland.”
Budish boxed Schron with a right jab and left hook on the county’s other main task besides job creation: caring for the poor. He stole an idea I first heard from Schron months ago: using iPads and smartphones to sign up more social-service clients. After Schron, too, talked up iPads, saying they could streamline services, Budish claimed Schron was too much the penny-pincher, focused “strictly” on bottom lines, “efficiencies and saving money.” Budish said he wants to lift more people out of poverty by connecting them to existing county programs.
Schron struck back. “I would say [Budish] doesn’t know what it takes to run an organization,” he said. Efficiencies in government would free up millions more dollars for social service efforts, Schron argued. Budish replied he hadn’t seen Schron propose legislation about efficiency.
Throughout the debate, Budish brought up partisan differences between him and Schron, while Schron argued that the county executive job should be nonpartisan. Budish went after Schron on labor rights, voting rights, and Medicaid expansion, issues more relevant to a statewide campaign than a local one. Schron reminded listeners that corruption had festered during the old county system’s one-party rule. He hit Budish for opposing the 2009 county charter that created the job he now wants. He also implied Budish will use it as a path to higher office. “We want somebody who actually wants to be here,” Schron said.
During the audience questions, Bruce Akers, a Republican and a framer of the charter, tried to get Budish to pledge to serve two terms. As usual, Budish implied he wants to be executive for a long time, but left himself wiggle room for 2018. “I’d like to stay as long as I can, but it’s going to be up to two things, my health and voters of this county,” Budish said. “To talk about a second term or third term [is] premature.” Schron pounced, and pledged to run for a second term if elected.
The debate did expose some previously unseen differences between the candidates. Schron is against creating a county department of sustainability (he says he values all jobs, not just green jobs). Budish said the county government could encourage local governments, businesses and homeowners to become more energy-efficient.
Budish said he “strongly supports” FitzGerald’s proposal to float a $50 million bond issue to demolish abandoned houses. He added that he wants it spent as part of a larger strategy that also includes rehabbing some vacant homes. Schron also asked smart questions about whether the $50 million would be spent strategically enough to have an impact, but he sounded like he’s not a sure vote on council for the plan.
Both candidates sounded smart, qualified, and relatively well-informed. No one won the debate – which, given the electorate’s partisan imbalance, works in Budish’s favor.
Really, Budish and Schron were debating a bigger question: what is this county executive position? Do you want a CEO-style leader, or an activist liberal? Will all future campaigns for the position focus on jobs and social services, much like all mayor’s races are about jobs, schools and safety? Is the county a second front for the partisan debates in Columbus, or will a less partisan executive be more effective? Do we still need to focus on a post-corruption spirit of reform and bipartisanship, or is it time to pivot to activist government?