Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Jones vs. Sutherland debate

Well, it sure is exciting to live in a two-party town again!

I figured the Peter Lawson Jones vs. Debbie Sutherland debate at the City Club today would be interesting, but wow.

Sutherland, the Republican candidate for county commission, started and finished with a sharp challenge to Jones on the county corruption scandal. Jones, the Democratic incumbent, began with an incumbent's friendly confidence, but by the end he was furious and fighting.

"We have a total lack of leadership at the county level," Sutherland charged. She cited the FBI and IRS raid on the county building in July, "patronage, corruption, and bloat," and added, "Let's not forget the chauffeur and strip club manager." She said nothing would change unless she was elected, and she challenged Jones, "What actions have you taken to address the patronage and corruption and fix our county government?"

Jones never directly answered. His opening statement was friendly and easy-going. He listed accomplishments in office: starting a county economic development fund, advocating public funding for arts and culture, spearheading a fatherhood initiative and a summer jobs program for kids.

Later, during the Q&A, Jones said his integrity had never been questioned in 20 years in public office -- a reminder that the FBI isn't looking at him. Questioners nudged him -- why didn't he call for Jimmy Dimora to resign, or stop voting on contracts? (Contracts are almost all that the commissioners vote on.) Dimora hasn't been indicted, and investigations don't always end in charges, Jones said. But if Dimora is indicted, Jones added, he'll likely ask him to resign. Sutherland said she'd have called on Dimora to not vote on contracts the investigation might touch on.

The candidates argued about the Ameritrust Tower. Jones mentioned his vote against demolishing it as an example of his independence from Dimora and Tim Hagan. "He voted to buy the tower initially," Sutherland replied. "We should never have purchased that property in the first place." She pointed to K&D's struggle to buy the tower off the county.

The sales tax to pay for the Medical Mart and convention center came up too. Jones mentioned his dissenting vote against raising the tax. Sutherland, who supported the tax then, said that knowing what she knows now, she would have submitted it to the voters. Jones pounced on that as second-guessing.

They fought over Jones' use of a driver to get to meetings around town, and his habit of conducting county business from his law office. I think these are pretty cheap arguments, but much of the crowd liked them. "I don't understand how you can manage from an office down the street," Sutherland said to applause. Jones fought back about the driver. "It enables me to work in back [of the car]," he says, instead of having down time between 10 to 12 meetings per day. "I'm not smoking stogies, drinking mint juleps... I'm reading, writing, making phone calls."

The most tense moment came when a questioner asked Sutherland how she, as mayor of an "upscale city," would relate to "people of limited means." Maybe Sutherland thought she was a plant. (A lot of audience questioners did seem to support one candidate or another.) "We are all suffering" in Cuyahoga County, she said, then added: "What my opponent would love ... is to continue to drag this down [and make it] about race and class, and it's not. It's about the viability of this county."

Jones' face lit up with rage. I've never seen him so angry. "Mayor Sutherland, how dare you!" he seethed. "I have done nothing in this race to play on race and class. When people have suggested that you ran against me because you thought it might be easier to beat somebody who was African-American, I stood up for you and said that would never play into your calculations."

They also fought about county reform. Sutherland said she'd support whatever recommendation comes from the commission studying a new government structure from the county. Jones said he'd support whatever the legislature recommends after the commission's report. Sutherland accused him of doing nothing to reform the county; Jones, who'd already mentioned a 2004 City Club speech he gave about possible reforms, glared at the ceiling in anger. Sutherland said county government was badly run; Jones cited its high bond rating.

"I believe hard work and honesty is rewarded, not negative campaigning that misleads, distorts, and in some cases outright prevaricates," Jones said in his closing argument.

"I have asked Peter to let us all know what he has done about the corruption and about the patronage, and he has not answered," Sutherland said at the end. "I'm going to fix it."

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