Monday, August 30, 2010

FitzGerald donates $3,150 from Dimora, Russo & Co. to charity

Last month, Ed FitzGerald donated $3,150 from his county executive campaign to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, a charity that funds rehab for wounded veterans. He was motivated by more than kindness. He was cleansing his campaign fund of 2½-year-old donations from Jimmy Dimora, Frank Russo, and other figures associated with the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal.

“We don’t want anything to do with those individuals,” FitzGerald says. “I’ve been very clear, I have no tolerance or acceptance of how they’ve behaved -- far from it.”

In December 2007 and April 2008, months before the FBI raids of their offices made them political pariahs, Dimora and Russo were among many local Democrats who made contributions to FitzGerald, the newly elected mayor of Lakewood. Dimora gave him $550, Russo $500. Vince Russo, the auditor’s son, gave FitzGerald $750. Ferris Kleem, a Berea contractor and friend of Dimora and Russo’s, gave $1,000. The contributions, an overture to FitzGerald after he’d unseated Democratic incumbent Tom George, helped FitzGerald pay off a $30,000 campaign debt.

FitzGerald says voters shouldn’t make anything of the contributions, since Dimora and Russo, as party leaders, used to donate to dozens of candidates a year. “It means that they contribute to people who were incumbent elected officials,” says FitzGerald. “When I ran in 2007, none of them supported me.”

By this summer, Vince Russo was defending himself against federal bribery and extortion charges. Kleem had pleaded guilty to bribing Dimora with a visit from a Vegas prostitute. (Dimora and Russo, still uncharged, still deny any wrongdoing.) Because Ohio law doesn’t allow candidates to return contributions, FitzGerald donated the money from them to the veteran’s charity instead. It’s the latest of several moves FitzGerald has made to distance himself from his party’s former leaders.

“I might have been the first public official to call on them to step down,” he says. “I actually asked my state senator to change the law so they could be recalled.”

With the whole town still waiting to see if the feds indict Dimora and Russo, all the candidates for the new county government want to be seen as reformers. That’s a special challenge for FitzGerald, even though he spent three years as an FBI agent investigating political corruption – an irony I’ve written about in my coverage of the county executive race, out now in the September issue of Cleveland Magazine. His opponents in the Sept. 7 primary and the general election question his reform credentials because he opposed Issue 6, which created the new county government. And with the Democrats’ former party chairman under investigation, the Democratic party’s endorsement is a mixed blessing for him.

By donating to Intrepid Fallen Heroes, FitzGerald seems to be inoculating himself from attacks by his opponents. If one of them still tries to use the Dimora and Russo donations against him, he’s got an answer ready.

“If somebody donates something and later that person gets into trouble, it isn’t fair criticism,” he says. “What’s fair is if you continue to receive [donations] from someone engaged in improper behavior, or if you receive them and don’t do anything about it.

“It’s impossible to predict the future.”

Update, 9/16: FitzGerald also donated $250 he received from William Neiheiser, who leased the Winterhurst ice rink from Lakewood. Neiheiser was indicted with Jimmy Dimora on corruption charges yesterday. FitzGerald appears briefly in the indictment as "Public Official 14" because of a phone call from Dimora, but prosecutors do not accuse FitzGerald of wrongdoing. “I think I handled it appropriately,” he told me yesterday. See my new blog post for more.

I've also posted about Dimora's indictment, not-guilty plea, and comments at the courthouse yesterday.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cleveland's first female judge, remembered on 90th anniversary of women's right to vote

Two stories to tell today, the 90th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. The first, told by Gail Collins of the New York Times, explains how the 19th Amendment squeaked through the Tennessee legislature in August 1920, thanks to 24-year-old lawmaker Harry Burn's advice from his mother.

The second story is Cleveland's, and it appears on the magazine's history back page, The Terminal, in our August issue.

Florence Allen, the young suffragist pictured at right and holding the "Votes For Women" flag in the photo above, realized that the 19th Amendment implicitly gave women a second right besides voting: The right to hold office. So the day after the amendment was ratified, Allen announced she was running for judge.

Clevelanders voted her onto the county bench by a huge margin that November. Allen went on to become the nation's first female state supreme court justice and federal appeals court judge. A 1984 biography of her was entitled First Lady of the Law.

To read about Cleveland suffragists' 1912 fight to win Ohio women the right to vote, pick up the August issue of Cleveland Magazine or click here.

Suffrage headquarters photo from the Library of Congress. Allen portrait from

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Brown punches, FitzGerald looks ahead at City Club debate

Ed FitzGerald acted like a front-runner in today’s City Club debate. He declined every opportunity to criticize Terri Hamilton Brown, his opponent in the Democratic primary for county executive. He kept his eye on the general election, even opening with a joke about a candidate he expects to face in November.

“I’m a little bit relieved,” he told the crowd. “I heard a rumor that Ken Lanci had purchased exclusive rights to speak here.”

Brown opened like a challenger finding her feet. She jabbed at FitzGerald in opening remarks, and when he declined to punch back, she followed with an uppercut.

She said she joined the race because other candidates “were lacking the broad experience needed to start our government off properly.” One candidate “talked about hiring economic development czars and an inspector general,” she said -- at this, FitzGerald nodded; the inspector general idea is his -- “to do what is essentially the county executive’s job.”

The new executive, Brown added, should be “someone who has actually cleaned up corruption and not just identified wrongdoing” -- meaning she thinks her work at the county’s public-housing agency trumps his years with the FBI as a reform credential.

After Brown talked, about the balance between the new government’s top goals, providing human services and spurring economic development, moderator Joe Frolik asked FitzGerald for his rebuttal.

“I don’t feel the need to rebut that statement,” FitzGerald replied, passing up the chance to fight back. “I’m almost 100 percent in agreement with it. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Terri’s record and resume and vision for the county.”

As if rebutting Republican frontrunner Matt Dolan instead, FitzGerald talked about why he became a Democrat. Like Robert F. Kennedy, he said, he believes “that government can be a positive force for changing people lives, that your final destination in life should not be dependent on the circumstances you’re born into.” Republicans, he argued, believe “it’s every person for themselves. If you’re doing well, good for you. If you’re not doing so well, it must somehow be your fault.”

Brown replied that she and FitzGerald agree on a lot -- “but this is a debate, and we are here to define the differences.” She hit FitzGerald for his ambition: he “sought three offices in three years” – Lakewood mayor, county auditor if Frank Russo resigned, now county executive – and he opposed Issue 6, but started running for the top job it created less than two months after it passed. “County executive is the only job I want,” Brown said, slyly implying FitzGerald wants more.

After that, peace prevailed. With the Brown campaign taking up five lunch tables at the City Club and FitzGerald’s four, I expected loaded, negative questions from the audience in the Q&A, but none came. Stuart Garson, the new county Democratic chair, asked both if the loser of the primary would support the winner in November. Both agreed they would. FitzGerald’s enthusiastic agreement sounded almost like an endorsement: “I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. Terri is a class act, a public servant in the best sense of the word.”

FitzGerald, the more seasoned politician, came up with most of the debate’s best quotes. Frolik asked him if being endorsed by the Democratic party and the AFL-CIO would make it harder to change the county government’s hiring-hall patronage culture.

“In my opinion, there’s three major parties in this county,” FitzGerald answered. “There is the Democratic party, and the Republican party, and there’s another party of people who are out for themselves. And some of the government officials and folks that have public contracts were not really interested in public service at all. … I’m going to do the same thing I did as mayor: you have to come in with the attitude that you’re going to do what’s right. If you lose some friends along the way, they probably were people that shouldn’t have been your friends in the first place.”

It was a good answer, with an opening line brilliant in its versatility. FitzGerald can use the “three parties” bit to distance himself from Jimmy Dimora, Frank Russo and company – and also turn it around on independent candidates such as Ken Lanci or Tim McCormack in the fall.

Brown couldn’t match FitzGerald’s gift for sound bites, but she stepped up her game today, sounding more succinct and focused than in earlier, less-inspired performances. She pitched herself as an experienced problem-solver who’d lead an “open, honest” government with no patronage or “sweetheart contracts.” With a state budget crisis looming, “the first county executive will have to be a chief lobbyist and advocate for the county,” she said. She’d go to Columbus to convince the legislature to keep Cuyahoga’s deep needs in mind.

FitzGerald, leading in fundraising and endorsements, seems to have decided he can afford to be gracious to Brown, that he can win the primary if the race keeps going as it has, and that not fighting her now will pay off when he needs her supporters’ votes in the fall. But Brown – whose recent endorsements from Frank Jackson, Marcia Fudge and Joe Cimperman have given her momentum -- did what she had to do today. She defined the differences between her and FitzGerald in a strong performance that’ll help address doubts about her campaigning skills. I didn’t see a turning point, but I felt the race tighten.

(For more coverage of the debate, see Henry Gomez's article -- or, listen to the City Club's podcast of it here.)

My live coverage of Dems' county executive debate

The leading Democratic candidates for county executive -- Ed FitzGerald and Terri Hamilton Brown -- are debating at 12:30 p.m. today at the City Club. (Minor candidates James F. Brown and Dianna Hill did not accept the club's invitation.) I'll be covering the debate live on Cleveland Magazine's Twitter feed and blogging about it this afternoon.

To read my tweets, click here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Thomas Fleming, Cleveland's first black councilman, profiled in August issue

How many Clevelanders know that the city's first black city councilman took office 100 years ago? Though Thomas W. Fleming was a pioneer, he is all but erased from our history, because his career doesn't offer a simple tale of racial uplift.

In February 1929, Fleming's career was marred by a sudden, shocking scandal that sounded notes all too familiar to Clevelanders in 2010: money exchanged at a clambake fundraiser, his angry accusations that his enemies and the press conspired to bring him down. Throughout his 15 years on council, even as he became one of City Hall's most powerful men, questions trailed Fleming about his part in a ruthless political machine, his work as a lawyer defending gamblers and prostitutes, the lawless growth of vice in his ward, his alliance with a swaggering saloonkeeper who controlled a grimy underworld.

Fleming was one of Cleveland's great characters of the 1910s and 1920s. Cheerful and optimistic, yet a shrewd ward politician, Fleming was blacks' lone voice at City Hall and their one-man hiring hall. At a time when African-American leaders debated whether to agitate for social equality or focus on self-improvement, whether to join political machines or oppose them, Fleming, a classic politician, chose the machine. He made deals, granted favors and called them in. Until he granted one favor too many.

To read my feature story on Thomas Fleming's life and career, pick up the August issue of Cleveland Magazine or click here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mayor Jackson, Rep. Fudge endorse Terri Hamilton Brown for county executive

Here's Terri Hamilton Brown's big break, her chance to step up and compete with Ed FitzGerald: Frank Jackson and Marcia Fudge have endorsed her for county executive.

"We believe Terri Hamilton Brown is the one candidate who understands the complex challenges of our city and its suburbs, especially those suburbs immediately surrounding Cleveland," the mayor and congresswoman said in a joint statement.

What to make of that line, especially since FitzGerald is mayor of Lakewood, a suburb next to Cleveland? Sounds like they're saying FitzGerald's experience is narrow, confined to one town. Brown worked in Mike White's City Hall and ran University Circle and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, which owns housing complexes in Cleveland and four suburbs.

Jackson must like Brown's connections to the city. (He also has a personal connection to her: Her husband, Darnell Brown, is Jackson's chief operating officer.) As for Fudge, my hunch is she's turned off by FitzGerald's ambition and not sure his coalition is diverse enough for her liking.

"I think we should avoid a person who’s trying to just do this as stepping stone to someplace else," she told me a few weeks ago when I asked her about the race, which sounded like a dig at FitzGerald's rapid political rise. The executive, she added, should be "someone who has some experience in running large organizations" and "a person who can garner the respect of all the groups in this community."

That's echoed in Jackson and Fudge's statement today:

She is highly qualified, has the right temperament and reflects the experience and educational credentials to lead our county. If we are to rejuvenate the economy and streamline our county government, we must elect Terri Hamilton Brown as County Executive...

Of all the candidates, we believe Terri Hamilton Brown is the only one who can work with the many small businesses, governments, educational institutions, corporations and other partners in the economic and cultural mosaic of Cuyahoga County.
Did you note the "must," the "only one"? Pretty striking for a Democratic primary endorsement. They could've said she was "the best" candidate and hedged their bets in case FitzGerald makes it to the general election. Instead, it sounds like they're all in for Brown.

Jackson and Fudge "could be the king or queen-maker if they banded together, and worked very hard," a political observer told me several weeks ago, "but I’m not seeing it." Now they've made their move. But some endorsements are backed with more firepower and drive than others. So the question now is, how hard will they work for Brown?

(To read about my June interview with Brown, click here.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Garson calls for Dimora and Russo to resign

"I'm going to have a very low threshold of tolerance for any ill-toward behavior," Stuart Garson, the local Democrats' new chairman, told me for my article about him in this month's Cleveland Magazine. Guess he meant it.

Garson is calling on Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo to step down for the sake of "our community, party and our candidates." The Plain Dealer's Mark Naymik broke the news on today. It's not a reflection on their guilt or innocence, Garson says -- but the appearance of impropriety caused by the endless FBI investigation "has compromised the public's trust."

About time! I can hear you scandal-weary readers saying. So why is Garson saying this now? He's been party chair for about two months, enough time to establish his authority. And the party's focus is turning to the elections for the new county government. Early voting has already started for the Sept. 7 primary, with dozens of eager Democrats competing to be the party's nominees for county executive and council.

"The resignations will allow our candidates ... to focus on their ideas for governance, economic development and social services without any further distraction," Garson said in the PD story.

Translation: Republican and Independent candidates will try to hang Dimora and Russo around the Democrats' necks in November. Garson wants to give his candidates an easy answer: Hey, we've moved on!

Naymik's story includes one vague but tantalizing detail:
Garson said he personally told one of the two officials of his announcement, though he wouldn't identify which one. But he said, "It didn't go well."

Wish I had an audio clip of that!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jail but not prison for McFaul, readers say

Hang over that badge, Sheriff. And while you're at it, hand over those keys. We're locking you away.

That's the sort of justice you, the reader, would've doled out to Gerald McFaul for his corrupt clambakes. My blog's poll asked what you thought of McFaul's sentence to a year of house arrest.

• 61% of you agreed, "He should've gotten at least a few months in jail."

• 15% would've thrown away the key, agreeing, "He should've spent years in prison."

• 23% said Judge Fred Inderlied's sentence of McFaul was "about right, considering he's in poor health."

• 0% agreed that house arrest was "too harsh" because "what he did used to be commonplace."

That leaves one question. Should McFaul have been sent to an out-of-town jail, to make sure he wasn't housed with inmates he may have incarcerated in the past? Or would it've been too irresistibly ironic not to stick McFaul in the McFaul Hilton?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rob Frost rips Ken Lanci for ‘exclusive’ deal with Zack Reed’s festival

Now we know Ken Lanci is a serious candidate. Rob Frost, the county Republican chairman known for his Dimora-baiting, just sent out his first anti-Lanci press release:

While the FBI is investigating Frank Russo, Jimmy Dimora and their cronies for using public money to gain influence and reward friends, we hear news that Ken Lanci bought "exclusive rights" to an area at the Family Unity Festival. The Festival is held in a public park, has historically been partially financed by tax payer dollars and is advertised by the City of Cleveland.

Lanci's actions just go to show that Lanci thinks because he has money, fairness, public access and democracy don't apply to him.

Apparently, Lanci was the only county executive candidate allowed to pass out campaign literature at Zack Reed’s festival in Luke Easter Park over the weekend. On his website, Lanci calmly explains he bought exclusive sponsorship rights to Reed’s festival fair and square. And if his opponents want to pass stuff out at the Glenville Community Festival Aug. 14, they’d better pony up, or he’ll buy that one up too!

“Both local political parties were asked to sponsor Family Unity in the Park, as were other individual candidates. We were told they declined. So I stepped up to help make this event successful,” said Lanci.

This is definitely a new type of campaigning, way more creative than ads on 75 buses. Your average Republican or Democrat just assumes they can hit the neighborhood festival circuit every weekend and meet voters for free. Cheapskates!

But I think I know the real reason Frost is jealous. Who wouldn’t pay to get on the same bill as Morris Day & the Time?