Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ken Lanci: Only an independent can change the county

Ken Lanci says he’s running for Cuyahoga County executive because neither Democrats nor Republicans can reform county government.

“If people really want to see change, you cannot put in a Democrat or a Republican, because it’s all about the party,” the independent candidate argues. “As much as somebody will sit and tell you, ‘I will go down the middle and work for the people,’ the party that gave the money to that individual is going to get that marker cashed. There’s going to be things he can’t fight for, because he’s going to be told, ‘If you think you’ve got a career, this could be your last job.’”

Lanci, 59, a printing company owner and business turnaround expert, says he can use his talents to turn Cuyahoga County around. “The experience I have was gained over 40 years,” he says. “If I can make money from nothing and be successful, I should be able to go in and help the people of the county as well.”

He’s owned 20 companies, all startups or turnarounds. “I don’t think I can remember having purchased a company that was doing very well.” Starting with his father’s company when he was 19, he’s brought back several companies from the brink of death, from Northeast Wine Distributors to a division of the Cleveland Paper Company. National City sometimes turned to him to help salvage failing companies that couldn’t repay loans.

Today, Lanci owns two companies on Cleveland’s near East Side, including printing company Consolidated Graphics Group. He says he’ll work for $1 a year if elected, as a way of giving back.

Lanci says job growth would be his top priority by far. He wants to work closely with the developers of the Medical Mart, the casino, and the $150 million renovation of St. Vincent Charity Hospital to develop training programs for local workers that fit the employers’ needs. He praises the current county government’s efforts to build the Medical Mart, calling it “the cornerstone of Cleveland’s future.” Beyond that, he says the county needs to say yes to business deals, not throw up obstacles.

Candidates like Lanci flare up in politics now and then: Centrist businessmen who run against both parties, appealing to voters who distrust politicians and think government needs more financial discipline. But the CEO candidates’ big challenge is to prove they understand how government works.

Judging by my interview with Lanci, he’s not there yet. I asked him to critique the performance of the county’s economic development department. He said he couldn’t.

“There are a lot of things I can’t comment on without getting in the belly of the beast,” he said. “I’m not promising anything until I get inside. But when I get inside, I will report on a regular basis what we find and how it’s going.”

He said he’s reviewed the county government’s 2009 and 2010 budgets, but can’t tell if its spending is well-disciplined: “I don’t know how much effort really goes into the individual departments to see the efficiencies.”

This sounds too much like, Trust me, I'll figure it out. Before voters can trust him as a turnaround expert, Lanci needs to show that his business turnaround experience is relevant to county government: He needs to apply his expertise to the county's challenges and tell voters what he'll do if elected.

The new county council will approve the county executive’s budget and appointments. That could be an adjustment for Lanci, a private-company CEO. I asked Lanci what relevant experience he had at needing approval from people who don’t work for him. His answer suggested he expects conflict, not cooperation.

“In government, I am working for the people; so are they,” he says. “They just need to be held accountable to work for the people, not the parties anymore. That’s what I plan on doing.”

Starting new companies has taught Lanci the importance of inspirational leadership, he says. “The employees of any company or any government are the backbone. If you don’t get buy-in from the people that are working with you, then you can’t do anything.” He suggests the new county exec will have to balance house-cleaning after scandal with retaining the government’s best talent. “There’s no secret there’s been a lot of patronage over the years,” he said, but added: “I have to believe there’s a lot of very capable, qualified people out of the 7,500 that are still there. … This is not going to be a wholesale firing.”

I asked Lanci about the fears that the new county government would not address minorities’ concerns. He said he was skeptical about “set-aside” programs, but wasn’t inclined to alter the county’s small business enterprise program, which benefits many minority contractors. At Lanci’s companies, minorities are about 29 out of 150 employees, he says. He’s set up a small apprenticeship program with the Cleveland schools for students interested in the graphic arts. His biggest philanthropic efforts, Project Love and Gift of Sight, focus their efforts in the city, he says.

Lanci’s political donations have covered both parties: He gave to Joe Cimperman’s 2008 Democratic primary campaign for Congress against Dennis Kucinich, Lee Fisher’s current Democratic primary run for U.S. Senate; Republican Ken Blackwell’s 2006 campaign for governor, and the McCain campaign and the Ohio Republican Party in fall 2008. He says he likes Cimperman’s energy, Fisher’s experience, Blackwell’s support for small business, and Sarah Palin’s advocacy for special-needs children.

Lanci’s biography includes an unusual family tie: his older brother, Thomas Lanci, was convicted of bribery and racketeering in federal court and pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in state court in connection with the 1977 bombing death of Danny Greene – the most legendary organized-crime murder in Cleveland’s recent history. (Thomas Lanci now lives outside Ohio and does not talk to reporters, Ken says.)

Lanci says he’s often had to address his brother’s crimes in his professional life. “If you can imagine walking with a ball and chain for a while, that’s how I would describe it.” In the late 1970s, the FBI spent a few days at Lanci’s printing business to ascertain that it had no financial ties to his brother. Lanci says he later passed rigorous federal-government background checks before assuming control of Northeast Wine Distributors and becoming a director of Independence Bank. “If everybody was disqualified for family relationships, we’d have a lot of openings all over the place,” he says.

Lanci says he’ll refuse donations from county employees and political action committees and all donations above $250. Since the new charter doesn’t include campaign finance limits, “I decided to start my own campaign reform,” he says. “Somebody’s got to take the lead. And because I can, I am.” If donations don’t raise enough, Lanci says he’ll personally spend what’s necessary to be competitive. Political veterans tell him he’ll need $1.5 million.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

County transition team promises big spending cuts, job growth fund

Cuyahoga County's transition team just announced an ambitious goal: It wants to cut county spending 15 percent and use $50 million of the savings for economic development programs. It's also set up several advisory committees, full of influential names, to give the county some guidance until the new government gets elected and settles in.

The news shows that power at the county is already shifting toward the reformers, 11 months before the new charter takes full effect. Today's announcement comes from Martin Zanotti, the Issue 6 reform leader, and the commissioners' top employee, county administrator Jim McCafferty. They're co-chairs of the transition group.

That $50 million goal for new jobs programs goes way beyond what the county's doing now: it would quadruple $16 million for economic development in the county's 2010 recommended budget. The spending-cut goals are also ambitious: The county has already cut its staffing from 9,500 employees in 2008 to 8,000 this year, and it already planned to cut general fund spending to $310 million this year, down from $330 million in 2009 and $360 million in 2008.

The list of advisory committees is an interesting mix of prominent names from politics and business and from last year's pro-Issue 6 and anti-6 camps. The transition executive committee includes seven people:
-co-chairs Zanotti and McCafferty
-Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson
-Eaton Corp. CEO Sandy Cutler (a top fundraiser for Issue 6)
-Tri-C president Jerry Sue Thornton
-University Hospitals CEO Tom Zenty
-Randell McShepard, head of the Policy Bridge think tank.

(Incidentally, Jackson, Thornton, Zenty and Cutler all made the top 25 in Inside Business' Power 100.)

The three picks for the all-important economic development committee are:
-Sandra Pianalto, the powerful president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland
-Judy Rawson, former Shaker Heights mayor and Issue 6 co-framer
-Lee Trotter, recently retired deputy county administrator.

A public engagement committee includes both Harriet Applegate, who helped lead the campaign against the new charter, and Robyn Minter Smyers, a Thompson Hine attorney and Issue 6 co-chair.

“We are not fighting battles from yesterday or last year," McCafferty said in the press release. "We are looking toward tomorrow and next year."

The transition team also announced that Tim Hagan and KeyCorp CEO Henry Meyer III will co-chair the campaign to pass the county health and human services levy on May 4. It'll be interesting to see what Meyer and other business leaders do to support the levy campaign. Hagan is known as a champion of social services on the commission, but this year, with trust in county government at a low point, the commissioners will need people outside the county building to vouch for them and the levy.

What about campaign finance reform? Issue 6 supporters have pledged to come up with proposals for the new government to implement in 2011 -- too late for this year's county election, which won't have limits on individual campaign contributions, as critics have pointed out (see this week's Scene article). Today's press release says New Cuyahoga Now, Zanotti's pro-6 group, will contribute campaign finance reform proposals and a recommended code of ethics to the transition team's final report.

Update, 2/3: Scene, which opposed Issue 6, criticizes the transition team as wielding too much unaccountable power. The most interesting part of its story: it draws connections between the list of committee members and the Issue 6 campaign's donor list.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ronayne vs. Brady race tops county council races so far

Chris Ronayne isn't running for county executive -- he's taking a shot at joining the county council instead. The former City Hall chief of staff has decided to run for the part-time council, as I suggested he would a couple of weeks ago, so he can remain president of University Circle, Inc.

But Ronayne will hardly have an easy path to the new council. He's running against Dan Brady, the former state senator, in the most dramatic matchup so far in the 11 new county council districts.

It'll be a generational battle of sorts: the new guy with new ideas versus the old-school veteran. You could call both men "progressives," but with two different meanings of the word: Ronayne, a favorite of the young, professional, believe-in-Cleveland crowd, and Brady, a classic pro-labor liberal.

Brady moved up from Cleveland city council to the state house to the state senate in the 1990s, then aimed at Mike White in 2001, running for mayor when most people thought the embattled White would run for a fourth term. I remember the Free Times running a cover story on him and his candidacy, a hopeful profile by Roldo Bartimole. Once White left and the mayoral race got crowded, Brady tried to stand out with a left-of-everyone pitch that he'd lead a "labor government" at City Hall. The pitch fizzled: he finished with 2 percent of the vote.

Still, Brady was easily re-elected to his senate seat in 2002. His biggest strengths are his experience and knowledge of the district he's running in (the light green one on this map): it's Cleveland's middle-west side, neighborhoods he represented in the senate. (His wife, Dona Brady, represents part of the area on city council.)

Brady is about to launch a campaign website: I'll link to it once I get the address. He spoke with me for my October profile of Jimmy Dimora: click here to read it.

Nelson Cintron, the controversial former city councilman, also plans to run in the same district. He finished fourth in his attempt to rejoin council last year, so it's hard to imagine him beating Ronayne or Brady. But that makes three interesting personalities in one race.

The other races look less exciting so far. Well-known names include state Sen. Dale Miller, who's running for the Lakewood/Brook Park/West Park district, and Parma's former mayor, Gerald Boldt, and city council president, Chuck Germana, running in district 4.

To me, the most interesting candidate in the other races is C. Ellen Connally, the former Cleveland Municipal Court judge. (She's running in a district that sweeps from Shaker Heights and Cleveland's far-southeast wards to Orange and Bedford.) She wrote a feisty op-ed piece in August calling George Forbes an "out-of-touch, salty-mouthed curmudgeon" who overplays the race card (and that was before the Call & Post's Jemima-gate!). It's one of several entertaining missives Connally has sent to the Plain Dealer opinions page. (See my August blog post, full of links to her writing.) Weird trivia about Connally: She figures prominently (through no fault of her own) in a bizarre left-wing conspiracy theory about the 2004 election in Ohio.

Backgrounding all the county council candidates is too big a task for my little blog, but the Plain Dealer's county politics reporters are on the case: Henry Gomez surveys the field in this post at the Cuyahoga County Insider blog. Ohio Daily Blog has also been reporting on some new candidacies. To see the board of elections' list of early petition-pullers, click here. (Here's the district map again.) But it's a long way to the June filing deadline -- lots more people will probably take a shot.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Me on WCPN tomorrow: Mason, Power 100, and more

I'll be on 90.3 WCPN's Reporter's Roundtable tomorrow morning with host Dan Moulthrop, Plain Dealer reporter Mark Puente, and Joe Ingles of the Ohio Public Radio statehouse news bureau.

We'll be talking about Bill Mason, the Inside Business Power 100, Gov. Ted Strickland and challenger John Kasich choosing their running mates, and other stuff. The show starts about 9:06 a.m. and goes to 10.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pressure builds on Mason: How will he respond?

A month ago, it seemed like a great time to be Bill Mason. After Issue 6 passed, Cuyahoga County’s prosecutor looked both principled and shrewd: He was the only county official who supported the issue, and the only one who keeps his job under the new charter. By signing up for reform, he softened his machine-politics reputation, distanced himself from the Dimora-Russo scandal, and again proved his skill at reading voters’ moods and picking winners. He was the last man standing, the survivor.

Today, though, Mason’s problems are gathering and cresting like an angry wave. The news that Mason was in the car when his campaign treasurer got pulled over and charged with drunk driving is only his latest, most obvious challenge. Long-brewing troubles and a new round of bad press have sparked lots of buzz in town about how he’ll respond and what the future holds for him.

Mason’s woes began with the July 2008 FBI raids on the county building. Ever since, a tough question has hung over him: Where was the prosecutor when county government got so corrupt on his watch? That question still lingers as the feds dig deeper and get more allies of Dimora and Russo to plead guilty.

The prosecutor also faces a little-noticed Ohio Ethics Commission investigation into his financial ties to Bedford Municipal Court clerk Tom Day, a political ally and a likely successor to Dimora as county Democratic chairman. Mason and Day are partners in a political consulting firm, Victory Communications. Ethics investigators are looking into whether Mason’s office continued to give no-bid printing contracts to another company, Qwestcom Graphics, after Day became an investor in Qwestcom. It’s illegal for a public official to give public contracts to a business partner. Mason self-reported this question to the Ethics Commission this summer, after WKYC-TV3 reporter Tom Meyer brought it up; the commission responded by opening an investigation.

“I do not think there has been any ethics violation here,” Mason told Meyer in July. The prosecutor’s office did stop giving work to Qwestcom around the time Day invested in the company. But, perhaps more interestingly, Mason’s political campaign kept hiring Qwestcom long after the prosecutor’s office stopped. During Mason’s 2008 re-election effort, his campaign paid Qwestcom $141,000. That’s not an ethics-law problem, but it’s an interesting glimpse at how his political machine operates.

At the height of the Issue 6 debate this fall, Mason’s enemies in the Democratic Party, trying to tag him as a fake reformer, attacked him for taking $100,000 in contributions from his own employees. Though legal, such donations are a prime target of campaign-finance reformers, since they raise the question of whether political patronage plays a role in government hiring. Cornered, Mason pledged to return the contributions. He started doing so just before Christmas, WKYC-TV3 reported.

The patronage questions escalated in December, when the alt-monthly tabloid The Independent published the names, photos, and salaries of several politically connected Mason employees. It was billed as “the article the Plain Dealer was too afraid to publish” and styled after the patronage exposes the PD ran in 2008 of the recorder and auditor’s offices under Pat O’Malley and Russo. The Plain Dealer did drop a similar story on Mason’s office, former PD reporter Joe Wagner told Roldo Bartimole in December – but the Independent piece seemed more a backhanded homage to the newspaper’s work than a leaked draft.

Mason’s critics feel the Plain Dealer has been underplaying Mason controversies since its 2008 dust-ups with him over racial disparities in justice and open discovery. But the paper sure hasn’t given the prosecutor any breaks in the past month or so.

The bad-news floodgates opened with this Dec. 24 article about Judge Nancy Margaret Russo’s angry protest when Mason nudged her about changing a court date for a high school acquaintance of his. Then came a story about how Mason’s campaign finance reports got pulled off the board of elections Web site for a month. They’re back up now, with the addresses of all those assistant-prosecutor donors edited out. Mason’s office had a legitimate point -- law enforcement officials’ addresses are exempt from Ohio’s public-records law, for security reasons – but the PD, ever the open-records advocate, wrote the article with skeptically raised eyebrows. (In a similar move that’s been misconstrued in the blogosphere, Mason filed an affidavit with the auditor’s office to have his name taken out of the county’s online property records database under the exemption in the records law.)

Then, Mark Puente (the reporter who brought down Sheriff Gerald McFaul) broke the news that Mason was the passenger in Parma city councilman Tom Regas’ car when Seven Hills police pulled Regas over Dec. 30. Regas now faces a DUI charge, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving is lashing Mason for getting in the car with his allegedly intoxicated campaign treasurer.

{Update, 1/17: The PD takes on Mason again with a huge Sunday-front headline, "Mason gives $1.1 million in work to ex-employee." Peter Szigeti officially left his job with Mason, got a no-bid contract to stay and run Mason's office computer system, and also did a bit of campaign work for him. The contract started small but grew to $1.1 million. Mason's spokesman defends Szigeti's contract as a quality and cost-saving (!) measure, and an Ethics Commission lawyer offers some mild comments about "revolving-door" contracts like this one. But $1.1 million is a lot to award without competitive bidding.

Likely sources for the story include the judges feuding with Mason over a different computer upgrade for the courts; Szigeti has a tie to the company Mason favors for that job. The story's interesting as another example, like Qwestcom, of how lucrative it can be to join the Mason machine. (It's a sharp story, but one nitpick: the article says Mason "authored" Issue 6. It was actually written by several political and business figures.)}

Add it up -- an ethics investigation, patronage and campaign finance controversies, nudging a judge, passenger during a police stop, all while a massive FBI investigation digs in down the street – and some political-watchers wonder if the pressure is getting to Mason. Will he resign? rumors shot back and forth across town this week -- though I couldn’t tell if they’d originated inside Mason’s camp or were just speculative gossip in an echo chamber.

Here’s the unfashionable counterargument: Mason is a tough politician. He has survived deep scrutiny of his alliances and connections before (see his campaign contributions to Pat O’Malley). He’s just come off a big strategic win. Voters like him: He got 74 percent of the vote in 2008. He has three years left in his term and an awful lot of allies in town. Surely, many of them are telling him to stay cool and ride out his bad luck streak.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Jackson vs. Plusquellic, reform's coattails: the Inside Business Power 100

Give up on those "quiet mayor" complaints already. Frank Jackson keeps gaining in power and influence, not in spite of his mild personality, but because of it. That's my conclusion in one of several pieces I wrote for the Power 100, in the January issue of Cleveland Magazine's sister publication, Inside Business.

Plenty of politicians appear among the business and non-profit leaders on our list of Northeast Ohio's 100 most powerful people. Jackson ranked #2, below only the Cleveland Clinic's Toby Cosgrove. Hotheaded Don Plusquellic, Jackson's mayoral polar opposite, came in at #12, after shaking off his enemies in last year's recall election while retaining the confidence of the Rubber City's business community. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and congressmen Steve Latourette and Tim Ryan also made our top 25.

I handicapped Northeast Ohio's congressional delegation, scoring who's gained and lost power lately (George Voinovich down, Betty Sutton up). I also calculated Issue 6's effects on local political figures -- Jimmy Dimora, Tim Hagan, and Peter Lawson Jones dropped out of our top 100 entirely.

Of course, political buzz can shift fast: since IB went to press just before Christmas, Chris Ronayne seems less likely to run for county executive, Joe Cimperman lost some city council committee assignments, and Bill Mason's presence in the car when his campaign treasurer was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving has sparked speculation about his political fortunes. (Oh, and Frank Jackson's "no layoffs" record? No longer true.)

One more Power 100 piece may appeal to political junkies: my interview with Sam Miller, Forest City co-chair and influential political donor. "The very person that, let’s say, is a precinct committeeman, a relative nobody politically — one day, you wake up and discover he’s a senator for the state," Miller counsels aspiring power brokers. "When you helped him as a precinct committeeman, that he’ll never forget."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ronayne: county executive or council?

Right after Issue 6 passed, buzz gathered around Chris Ronayne as a potential county executive candidate. The gregarious, energetic president of University Circle, Inc. got behind county reform in a big way this fall, pitching Issue 6 on the debate circuit. That fit his reputation for innovative ideas, dating back to his time in the Campbell Administration. He told reporters in November he was exploring a run for the county's new top job.

Then, last week, Ronayne told Henry Gomez he's still looking at the county executive race, but he's also considering a run for county council. That seemed significant, so I put in my own call.

"I'd like to be involved," Ronayne told me. He's assessing "which level, if any, I should go at."

Running for the 11-member council would be a less daunting leap for Ronayne. He's never run for office before, so it's unknown how voters would react to him -- or how he'd react to the pressures of a high-stakes county-wide campaign. He lives in Cleveland's Edgewater neighborhood, and campaigning in the council district there (the light green one on this map) might be a more manageable challenge. (Former state Sen. Dan Brady and former city councilman Nelson Cintron may also run in that district, Gomez reports today.)

Also, right now, much of Ronayne's appeal is in his potential. Four years at University Circle have given him executive experience. But Ronayne might be able to add to his list of accomplishments by remaining UCI's president while serving on the part-time council.

"I need to evaluate what we're doing out at UCI," Ronayne tells me. "If we have an agenda that's robust [over the next] three or four years, [joining the council is] another option to stay substantially involved."

The county executive job still appeals to Ronayne's instincts as a former city and county planner. "We have the opportunity to turn Cuyahoga County around," he says. "This job is an organizational turnaround, but it’s also a place turnaround. What interests me is turning around places."

But the council's tasks look good to him too. By overseeing budget and personnel, it can push for greater efficiency and more economic development, he says.

"Either [job] is important," Ronayne says. "You can’t have the new county system without a good county council."

He says he, like other possible candidates, will likely make his decision by March.

It looks like Ronayne will run for something. (Check out his new Facebook page, where you can "become a fan" of his.) I won't write off the possibility that he'll run for executive if the Democratic primary field looks weak or unexciting by March. But it sounds like he's tempering his ambitions a notch and aiming for the county council race.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Med Mart won't be on Mall bluff

Looks like the crisis with the Medical Mart project is over. Developer MMPI has abandoned its controversial proposal to build the Mart on Mall C, the bluff overlooking the lake. It's ready to build on St. Clair Avenue again, now that negotiations for the land are making progress. Groundbreaking could happen by October.

That's the news from the county commissioners' meeting this morning. Laura Johnston has the details on the Plain Dealer's new Cuyahoga County Insider blog, and so does Tom Beres on

Also announced today is a new construction agreement between the county and MMPI, detailing some rules and oversight the developer will follow while building the publicly financed Mart and convention center. It also describes how MMPI is using the $333,333 a month construction manager's fee from the county. That fee has been widely criticized, especially this fall, when the project stalled.

Most everyone who wants the Medical Mart built will be relieved to know the Mart plans have returned to the St. Clair site. Civic-minded fans of the downtown Mall will be happy too. Lots of opposition flared up to the idea of messing with Daniel Burnham's famous downtown plan by building the Mart on public parkland.

It also bypasses a political standoff between Cleveland City Hall and MMPI. Mayor Frank Jackson and city council were furious that MMPI made its case for building on the Mall by releasing its list of expensive problems it found in Public Auditorium. City officials demanded that MMPI help fix up the aging building as a sort of payback for having publicized its problems -- a weird argument that came pretty close to shooting the messenger.

There's still plenty of fallout from the November dust-up. Jackson and council will probably still make it hard for MMPI to finalize the purchase of the current convention center site -- they'll ask, rightly, what the plan is for separating it from Public Hall. Later, MMPI will need the city's approval for its building plans.

The November debate also may have affected Joe Cimperman's standing in City Hall. One reason he's fallen out with council president Martin Sweeney is his solo move to get MMPI to attend public meetings about the Mart, the PD's City Hall blog reports.

Dropping Public Auditorium from the plans still means Cleveland's Medical Mart loses its "first mover" advantage. MMPI originally planned to set up medical showrooms in the building this year, as a way of beating proposed New York and Nashville medical marts to market. Now it's a sprint to see who can open first. That's why Peter Lawson Jones quipped, "Take that, Nashville," as he approved the construction agreement today. (Meanwhile, the New York developers tried to speed up their project today by announcing they'll scale it back and lease a mart site, not build new.)

But the big news is, Cleveland's Med Mart is back on track, Cleveland City Hall recedes as a player, and the county has reasserted itself as MMPI's main partner. The county stepped up negotiations with the owners of the office building and parking garage across from the Key Marriott (see this Dec. 24 PD article), and those talks sound close to bearing fruit.

Administrators even have a plan to deal with the last holdout on St. Clair. They are thinking of seizing the last property, the Sportsman's Restaurant, by eminent domain -- not to hand over to MMPI, a move that could be challenged in court, but for a county park right next to the Med Mart site! Clever. Update, 1/8: This print-edition PD story says negotiations with the Sportsman are going well. So odds are, the county won't need eminent domain.

To read my article on the Medical Mart project from the June 2009 issue of Inside Business, click here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

FitzGerald: Fighting corruption is "a passion"

Ed FitzGerald says he’s running for Cuyahoga County executive to tear the corruption out of county offices.

“I’ve been interested in reforming government in general for a long, long time,” the Lakewood mayor says. “When I went into the FBI, I requested to work on public corruption investigations. That was a passion of mine.”

FitzGerald stopped by the Starbucks in the Hanna Building last week to talk with me about his hopes of leading the new county government. He’s the first declared candidate for the new charter’s top job, though others are on the verge of announcing.

The former FBI agent says he’d clean house faster than current leaders, not wait for the long criminal investigation to run its course.

“If somebody is involved in misconduct, and I can substantiate it, I don’t have to wait for the FBI to come and drag them away,” he says. “I’m going to terminate ’em. When you start doing these things, it really sends a wake-up call that business as usual is over.”

FitzGerald says he’d get rid of corruption-implicated employees “very, very, very rapidly,” then bring in “a team from outside” to conduct rolling audits of the government, starting with its “most dysfunctional” parts, including the auditor’s office. He’d also require performance evaluations for all county employees.

The new charter names job creation as a main goal, and so does FitzGerald’s campaign. County government should be a “catalyst” for “medicine, biotechnology, clean and green energy, and arts and culture,” he said in his campaign announcement last month. He doesn’t offer spectacular new ideas on job growth, just the Issue 6 reformers’ main points: One executive can negotiate deals better than three commissioners, the county’s economic development department needs more funding, doing so without slashing human services means eliminating inefficiency and patronage on the payroll.

I can think of three big questions FitzGerald will have to answer in his run for executive. The first is his reputation as a young man in a hurry. “There doesn't seem to be a public office FitzGerald doesn’t want,” Damian Guevara and Anastasia Pantsios write in this week’s Scene. FitzGerald, 41, maneuvered this fall to become county auditor if Frank Russo resigned. He’s only been Lakewood mayor for two years.

But FitzGerald claims a long record of accomplishments in the job. He says he’s brought Lakewood back from a projected $5 million deficit to a $1.5 million surplus. Crime has dropped by double digits after he increased the police force by 15 percent, he says. That’s despite a 15 percent cut in City Hall’s overall payroll. New nuisance laws have made it easier for the city to go to court against unruly renters and banks that neglect foreclosed properties. The city has bought run-down houses and torn them down.

Opponents may challenge FitzGerald’s reformer credentials by pointing out he opposed Issue 6, which creates the government he now wants to lead. FitzGerald says he publicly supported the idea of a county executive, but felt the Issue 6 charter lacked sufficient checks on the executive’s power. “Concentrating power in an individual without providing the appropriate checks and balances could put us right back in the same situation we’re in now in the corruption scandals,” he says.

FitzGerald’s solution is to create an inspector general or office of public integrity — a professional examiner that the county executive couldn’t fire. “I’m going to appoint somebody that is completely non-political, that is not beholden to me, that I’m not going to be able to hire and fire at will,” he says. “You need to have somebody that has a small but professional staff that can really watch the financial transactions.”

Finally, FitzGerald will have to address the fears that the new charter government might not be responsive enough to minorities’ concerns. Every candidate for the top job will face that question, but, fairly or not, FitzGerald may face more scrutiny as a West Side suburban mayor. Mansfield Frazier’s recent Cool Cleveland column questioned (without naming FitzGerald) why no one of color appeared in his first campaign flyer. (The mayor says he used family photos and a picture from a Lakewood parade.)

Lots of immigrants and African-Americans moved to Lakewood in the 2000s, so I asked FitzGerald what he’s done to make Lakewood welcoming to diversity.

“We’ve tried to be more inclusive in our boards and commissions,” he said. “That’s kind of the gateway to civic participation in a suburb.” He says he has zero tolerance for discriminatory comments in the workplace and holds community meetings in all the city’s neighborhoods.

“I try to talk about race,” he adds. “In Lakewood, in political discourse, we just didn’t really talk about it very much. … I think that’s important to set a tone that it’s not a secret, it’s not anything to have alarm about.” He says he plans to campaign to attract a broad coalition of support, then choose “a leadership team that is reflective of the whole community” if he wins.

“Cleveland is cursed with a bunch of old racial attitudes,” FitzGerald says. “They’re like weeds that grow up, and you just have to confront them whenever you see them.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Jean Murrell Capers, pioneer

Anyone who knows local politics knows Cleveland was the first major U.S. city to elect a black mayor -- Carl Stokes in 1967. Plenty of other black political pioneers in Cleveland helped create the path that led Stokes to the top. We wrote about one such figure, councilman Charlie Carr, in the fall.

My interview with another pioneer appears in the January issue of Cleveland Magazine. Jean Murrell Capers, one of our 2010 Most Interesting People, was the first African-American woman elected to the city council of any major city. She joined council in 1949, at age 36. Compare that milestone to other big cities: New York, Chicago, and Detroit each elected their first black councilwoman in the 1970s, Los Angeles in the 1990s.

Now 96, Capers, also a former city judge, still practices law. She met Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Langston Hughes. She is a font of knowledge about Cleveland's black community in the mid-20th century and earlier. Talking to her, I learned that black electoral politics in Cleveland goes back more than a century: The first black city councilman in Cleveland, Tom Fleming, was elected in 1909.

To read my piece about Capers, click here.

U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, who authored the Cash For Clunkers bill, is also one of our 30 Most Interesting People. You can read my piece about Sutton here.