Saturday, June 5, 2010

Welo: “I’m here to build the foundation”

Most of the candidates for Cuyahoga County executive try hard to pitch themselves as agents of change, contrasting themselves with the scandal-plagued, lame-duck county government. Not Georgine Welo.

The longtime Democrat carefully avoids criticizing anyone now in power. Instead, she’s running on her record as mayor of South Euclid, arguing she can turn around Cuyahoga County the same way she’s changed her East Side suburb of 22,000 people.

“I think we’re a microcosm of the county,” she says.

In Welo’s 6½ years as mayor, she says, South Euclid has fought the foreclosure crisis by remodeling vacant homes with green technology. It’s torn up an old concrete culvert into an urban marsh that’s attracted bird-watching homebuyers and a Bavarian tea house. “We are very, very diverse ethnically,” she says. “It’s helped fill our homes, our school district.” Most of all, her administration’s been aggressively business-friendly, Welo says, helping new businesses open and convincing manufacturers not to leave by shepherding them through their expansions.

“We have to compete constantly,” Welo says. “And you have to win. And you have to be able to show that no matter where you do business, you will never be treated better than here.”

That kind of talk appeals to the corporate leaders who bankrolled the county reform effort and will likely fund candidates’ campaigns this year. It fits the new county charter’s goal of encouraging job creation. Looking at Akron and Pittsburgh’s experience with county executives, Welo says the exec should be a “facilitator” who moves projects along and builds coalitions.

“I want the business community involved,” she says. “I want them at the table.”

Beyond that, Welo sometimes sounds like the establishment Democrats who proposed a more gradual approach to county reform last year. Welo opposed Issue 6, which created the new government she wants to lead. She thought the sheriff should be elected and all county races non-partisan, and she was upset that the initiative’s authors didn’t consult her.

If elected, Welo says she’d focus on social services, workforce training, and restoring trust. She wants to expand the county’s overworked economic development department – but she sounds skeptical of the idea that restructuring government will save money and help fund economic programs.

“Most of the money in the county [budget] is a pass-through for health and human services,” she says, echoing an argument used against Issue 6. “There’s a very small amount that can be used for other projects. That’s what hopefully we can grow. Some people are saying we’ll be able to grow that because we’ll have less employees, less leased buildings. But until you get in there and see it, it’s only words.”

Asked to judge the current government’s failures and successes, she offered only mild criticism.

“Looking at their financials, they’ve done very well in managing the money,” she says, mentioning buyouts that have shrunk the workforce. She hints at the Department of Children and Family Services’ recent failures, saying she’d ask Case Western’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences to figure out “how can we actually save more lives,” because “we continue to lose children.”

Surprisingly, Welo defends the county commissioners’ decision to buy the Ameritrust Tower, a miscalculation that’s cost the taxpayers $40 million and left the government owning an empty skyscraper.

“I also think they’ve been good in some other ways that maybe people think they have failed,” she says. “The county looked at the building at Euclid Avenue and Ninth Street. I think all the intentions were good. I think it was an exciting idea to try to start building.” A new county headquarters there would’ve unified and brought new life to Euclid Avenue, she says. “What happened? Don’t know. You really don’t know what happened after that.” (The commissioners figured out two years too late that they couldn’t afford their plans. See my June 2008 article “Tower Play” for the full story.)

Welo, 51, served as the Democratic Party’s co-executive director for two years in the late 1990s, during Jimmy Dimora’s early years as chairman. (“Jimmy didn’t ask me to take money from anybody,” she says. If he did anything unethical back then, “I never saw it.”)

Restoring public trust is her top priority, she says. That means leading by example. “If you go into the local restaurants, they’ll tell you I don’t take anything free,” she says. South Euclid City Hall stopped doing business with her husband’s hardware store when she became mayor. “We have policies: none of the elected officials’ family members in our city are allowed to work [for the government]. You’d have to put those same kind of policies and procedures in handbooks [at the county]. We have an ethics commission in our city. You could put an ethics commission in.”

Welo’s closing argument seems to position her against one Democratic primary opponent, Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald, who’s developed a reputation for grand ambitions.

“I’m someone who’s going to put their political capital on the line,” she says. “I’m not going to run for congress, governor, senator. I don’t have young children. … I’m here to give you 12 to 14 hours a day. I’m here to build the foundation, to pass this county government on to a younger generation.”

Welo’s steady-hand pitch — she’ll adapt to the new system but not crusade to overturn the old — may help her attract allies among Democratic insiders who’ll decide the party and AFL-CIO endorsements and help get out the vote. Already, her work as chair of the First Suburbs Coalition has helped win her endorsements from seven mayors. But if Democratic primary voters go to the polls Sept. 7 looking for a reformer, Terri Hamilton Brown’s first-time candidacy or FitzGerald’s aggressive anti-corruption message may be more likely to catch on than Welo’s quieter approach.

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