Friday, October 29, 2010

Ellen Connally: first county council president?

When the county executive race ends Tuesday, another contest will heat up: The 11 new county council members will choose a council president. Four Democrats are vying for the job. My profile of one contender, C. Ellen Connally, is out now in the November issue of Cleveland Magazine.

My story, "Change Agent," calls Connally "the feisty bookworm of Cleveland politics, a historian and legal scholar whose integrity belies a courageous bluntness." Connally, a former judge and frequent correspondent with the Plain Dealer's opinion page, jokingly calls her mischievous op-ed takedown of George Forbes "the best thing I ever wrote." She's also danced onstage with Morris Day & The Time.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ken Lanci shows me his homework

Ken Lanci walked into the conference room looking very stern. He carried two bulky binders and few sheets of paper. He showed no sign of the smile he’s replicated on 75 buses. No diplomacy, just business.

Lanci set the binders and papers on the table in front of him. I recognized my blog’s logo on the top sheet and saw a single paragraph marked. I knew which one.

I first interviewed Lanci in January, a week after he announced his run for county executive. I slammed him on my blog for not knowing the county government well. I’d asked him to critique the county’s economic development department and he gave a maddening non-answer.

“There are a lot of things I can’t comment on without getting in the belly of the beast,” he said then. “I’m not promising anything until I get inside.”

I wrote: “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.”

Now, in our second interview, Lanci wanted to confront what I’d written. He turned one of my questions around and read my “Trust me” paragraph back to me.

“The challenge, I consider legitimate, a great question,” Lanci told me. “I answer it the way I’ve always done business. I look at the county as if I’m buying it.”

I don’t know if I’d nudged him to dig deeper, or if he’d meant to do it all along. But the guy had done his research.

“I’ve had about 60 agency visits, meeting with directors and with staff,” he said. “And as a result of that, I’ve put together my plan. Now, I’m not going to share the details with you because —

“There’s 60 of them,” I said.

“That wouldn’t be prudent at this time either, to lay out the plans for everyone else to take a look at.” (Meaning the other candidates, I assumed.)

He opened a binder. “I have each budget for each agency I reviewed. I have the director, a bio of the agency, as well as photos of directors.”

Lanci said he thought some county departments were working just fine, including Developmental Disability and, surprisingly, Children And Family Services. He defended Deborah Forkas, CFS’s embattled director, as a “professional of the highest standard,” unfairly blamed for abuse of kids in families the agency monitored. The law prefers that kids be reunited with their parents, Lanci noted. “It’s easy to say it’s the director’s fault. It’s not the director’s fault.”

He promised to reorganize the auditor’s and recorder’s offices, but wouldn’t tell me which other offices he thought needed improvement.

“The last thing you want to be perceived [as] is a bull in a china shop before you get there,” he said. “That’s not what I am. I don’t want people to anticipate things that aren’t real, just because I say, this department has issues.”

I suggested he was passing up a chance to show voters what sort of change he’d deliver.

“I’m schooled on the business of the county,” he replied. “They can trust that if I spent the time getting that information, I know which [agencies] are the tough ones, and the ones I need to deal with. … This is that part where you said ‘Trust me.’ I ask you to trust me not based on my statement, ‘Trust me.’ Trust me based on the work that I’ve done.”

I left full of conflicting thoughts about Lanci. By the interview’s end, he’d reinforced my feeling that he’d have trouble getting along with other elected officials. He told me he’d press Northeast Ohio’s congressional delegation to bring home more federal spending.

“Every one of these people are going to be called in and are going to be required to be part of the solution,” he declared: “Every other senator, every other [U.S.] representative, the governor, treasurer, everybody, has got to work for Cuyahoga County.”

To the best of my knowledge, county officials don’t “call in” governors, senators or congressmen. They have to ask them for help. Politely.

But addressing my criticism showed his willingness to tackle a challenge. And he proved this much: He’s worked hard to figure out county government in case voters choose him on Tuesday.

Monday, October 25, 2010

FitzGerald argues Dolan should bow out of major downtown development decisions

This weekend, Ed FitzGerald e-mailed me his letter to the Ohio Ethics Commission about Matt Dolan’s conflict of interest with the Indians. It argues that if Dolan is elected county executive, he should have to bow out of any decisions about the casino, the RTA, Public Square, or roads, bridges, or sewers downtown -- because they all “directly and uniquely impact the Cleveland Indians.”

The casino because it’ll be a block or two from the stadium, I assume. But the RTA? Because people take the Rapid to ball games, I guess?

Dolan told me last week that if he’s elected county executive, he’ll let the county council president take the lead on Indians matters and Gateway appointments. He asked the Ethics Commission to give him advice on his plans.

But FitzGerald, his main opponent, is pushing the commission to go way farther than that. He also wants it to rule on whether Dolan should return the huge campaign contributions from his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan, “to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.” FitzGerald’s letter, written Oct. 8, pegs the elder Dolan’s contribution at $280,000. On Thursday, we learned Larry Dolan’s now given a total of $630,000.

The Ethics Commission isn’t answering Dolan’s request until after the election. No wonder: It’ll also have to deal FitzGerald’s letter, which reads more like a political argument than a request for a legal opinion. At one point FitzGerald talks about “an assessment of the appropriateness of Mr. Dolan’s candidacy and potential service as County Executive.” That’s up to the voters, not the Ethics Commission.

But politically, FitzGerald’s playing an interesting card here. He’s saying taxpayers should trust him, not Dolan, to represent their interests on downtown development issues. He’s trying to tap into the mistrust of sports teams’ political influence in Cleveland, a concern that dates back at least to the Gateway project. And he’s again reminding voters that Dolan’s millionaire family is funding the TV attacks against him.

To read FitzGerald’s letter to the Ethics Commission, click here. To read Dolan’s letter, click here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Mason won't run again in 2012

Bill Mason's had enough. Cuyahoga County's prosecutor, targeted by Plain Dealer investigators, shadowed by the question of why he didn't catch the government's corruption, says he won't run for re-election in two years.

Mason revealed his plans yesterday at a taping of WKYC-TV 3's political talk show, "Between the Lines." The full show airs Sunday, but political reporter Tom Beres reported highlights on TV 3's newscast last night.

Mason also told Beres he doesn't believe he's a target of the federal corruption investigation -- and (in a sign that he means it) he hasn't hired a lawyer to address the possibility.

Update, 10/23: The FBI is investigating whether Mason or an aide pressured coroner Frank Miller to hire his ally Pat Coyne, according to the PD. Mason says he welcomes the investigation and did nothing wrong.

The full interview won't come out until Sunday, so we don't know why Mason's moving on after 2012. But this has been the worst year of Mason's 12 years as prosecutor. Think about all the hits he's taken: his treasurer's DUI, the PD report on his staff's political connections, the law professor's op-ed asking why Mason didn't bust Frank Russo and Jimmy Dimora, and now a relentless series of PD investigative pieces about his hiring and contracting.

Mason's decision means even more power shifts are coming in Cleveland politics. One of the Democratic Party's strongest factions is going to weaken, then break up or evolve.

That makes the county executive race even more important. If Ed FitzGerald wins, his political network will become the new force dominating the west and south ends of the county, with Frank Jackson and Marcia Fudge as the counterweight. FitzGerald used to work for Mason, so it'd be interesting to see how much of the Mason network would align with him. If a non-Democrat beats FitzGerald, it's hard to even imagine where political clout in the Democratic Party shifts next.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dolan's Indians dilemma: How he'd avoid conflicts

I called Matt Dolan this week to ask him something I've wondered about for a while -- how he'll avoid dealing with the Cleveland Indians if he's elected county executive.

"If the Indians are involved," Dolan told me, "there will be program in place so I’m not involved in any decision-making." He says he'd ask the county council president to take the lead.

Dolan -- whose father, Larry Dolan, is the Indians' owner -- first addressed the issue this summer. It's a touchy subject, since Dolan's family is donating $1 million to his campaign. His main opponent, Ed FitzGerald, has needled him for the conflict of interest.

The thorniest challenge: The county executive will appoint three out of five board members of the Gateway Economic Development Corp., the Indians' and Cavs' landlord. Dolan wrote to the Ohio Ethics Commission on Sept. 27, asking for an advisory opinion on his plan to recuse himself from that decision. (To read a copy of his letter, click here.)

So I asked Dolan, how can an executive recuse himself from making an appointment? He said he'd pass the decision on to the county council president and a bipartisan advisory panel.

The panel is an idea he proposed in April. It would help the executive choose potential members for dozens of appointed boards and commissions. (See this page of his website.) "They would submit recommendations of who they’ve screened," Dolan said.

"For the Gateway appointment, they would submit it directly to the council president. The council president would make the appointment to council." Then council could approve or reject the person.

Dolan's answer fits what Jennifer Hardin, chief advisory attorney for the Ohio Ethics Commission, told me when I asked how other government executives recuse themselves from appointing someone.

"In most cases, where there are several branches of government involved, another branch may be able to substitute," Hardin said.

What about other decisions the county executive might have to make about the Indians? Say, if the Indians ask for money to renovate Progressive Field?

"If there's a scenario in which the Indians make a request on Gateway," Dolan said, "then the Gateway folks will be instructed to work directly with the council president." No such scenario has come up in the 11 years his family has owned the team, he added.

But the Indians began exploring possible upgrades to Progressive Field in May. The team's lease says Gateway has to pay for any "major" capital repairs costing more than $500,000. But Gateway is not flush with cash, so the team might ask the county and city, which control Gateway, to pay.

"I don't speak for the Indians," says Dolan. "They’re talking about doing renovations. There's no indication at all how Indians intend to finance it. My opponents just assume the county is going to pay for it. That's not accurate."

In 2006, the Cavaliers briefly floated the idea of having taxpayers spend $30 million to renovate Quicken Loans Arena. It fell to Jimmy Dimora, as a county commissioner, to shoot the idea down.

But the mayor of Cleveland would probably take the lead in dealing with any major renovations to the baseball stadium. Under Gateway's structure, the city is the contact for Progressive Field, Dolan notes, while the county is the contact for The Q.

Dolan's letter to the Ethics Commission asks for "a timely response," since "we are drawing constantly closer to the end of campaign season." But Hardin says the ethics commission won't respond until November or December, if Dolan wins.

Dolan's letter asks if recusing himself would be legal. But he says voters shouldn't be concerned that he won't get an answer by Nov. 2. He says he phrased the letter that way because having an advisory opinion backing him up would protect the county in case anyone filed a taxpayer's lawsuit to challenge a Gateway appointment.

"I’m doing the appropriate steps leaders do to prevent any problem in the future," he said.

To read my coverage of the county executive race in Cleveland Magazine, including pieces on the leading candidates, click here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sun papers endorse McCormack

This summer, I asked Tim McCormack, the former county commissioner who’s running for county executive, what he’d say to voters wary of electing someone who served in the old government.

“I think they’d get best of both worlds,” he replied: “Somebody who knows the government and somebody who has a good reputation.”

That argument won over the editors of the Sun papers. The suburban newspaper chain endorsed McCormack this week.

“At a time when honesty and experience are paramount in this election, Tim McCormack more than fills the bill,” they write.

The editorial dismisses Ed FitzGerald for accepting campaign contributions “tied to the old county regime” (without mentioning he’s gotten rid of most of them) and Matt Dolan for running “divisive” campaign ads. The Sun News admits McCormack isn’t well-funded, but says he “has something worth more than gold: his good name.”

When I interviewed McCormack, I thought he stood out in two ways. He’s the candidate most likely to pursue the ultimate step in regionalism: an actual merger of the city, suburbs, and county. “We can build a region if we unite,” he said at the City Club debate this week. “Pittsburgh has done so. It’s growing.” (Pittsburgh and Allegheny County haven’t merged, but they’re talking about it.)

He’s also the candidate who defends human services most passionately. With a budget briefing in hand, he complained hotly to me about cuts to county child-health programs. He did the same when a City Club questioner asked how to fight human-services cuts if budget-slashing Republican John Kasich is elected governor.

“I served with John Kasich,” McCormack replied. “I know him well. Should he succeed, what I would emphasize [is] -- people die. They will die without funding for these programs. The Help Me Grow program, visiting young women who are pregnant. The Early Childhood [program], the only chance most kids in Cleveland have. … Kids that drop out of school -- we need to heavily invest in those children or they won’t make it.”

This summer, I talked to people who saw McCormack as a short-tempered lone crusader when he was county commissioner. The Sun editors have heard that too. “If elected, we urge McCormack to temper his reported testy demeanor,” he says. McCormack agrees – he told me he’d have to set a “positive tone” as executive.

Reading the Sun editorial, though, and thinking about McCormack’s chances in the unusual six-way race, I wondered about a different scenario. What if McCormack doesn’t win, but pulls just enough liberal voters away from FitzGerald to help Dolan edge him out?

McCormack seems to dislike FitzGerald. He praised Dolan’s temperament during the City Club debate. So maybe that ending wouldn’t bother him too much.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dolan-FitzGerald, Lanci-Scipione feuds heat up at City Club debate

Matt Dolan and Ed FitzGerald fought the main bout while Ken Lanci and Don Scipione faced off on the undercard at the county executive candidates’ debate this week at the City Club.

FitzGerald, who's endured two weeks of brutal attack-ad beatings from Dolan, led with a classic political jujitsu move.

“Five out of the six candidates have run positive, issue-based, substantive campaigns,” he said. “Mr. Dolan is the quite clear exception to that. He ran an exceedingly negative primary campaign, and he’s run an exceedingly negative general election campaign. And you can’t change this county if you don’t ennoble this process by trying to be positive and tell people what it is you’re going to do differently.”

Dolan said voters need to know FitzGerald was among the “Democratic entrenched interests” who opposed Issue 6 and supported the “sham reform” Issue 5. Anticipating FitzGerald’s next move, Dolan disclosed that his relatives – including his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan -- are contributing more than $1 million to his campaign.

“Before I got into this race, I talked to Democrats and Republicans,” Dolan said. “I said, ‘What’s it going to take to win? What’s it going to take to beat the entrenched interests?’ They said, ‘It’s going to take about $2 million.’" He repeated his plans to recuse himself from Indians matters and create a bipartisan committee to advise him on appointments. {Update, 10/20: Here's my new post on how Dolan would handle this.}

FitzGerald said Dolan’s friends should have told him to run a positive campaign instead of “commercials that are showing me Photoshopped as a Russian monarch.” The ad's image -- accompanied by balalaikas, no less! -- refers to FitzGerald’s Oct. 2009 complaint that the county executive would be “a czar” who “will control just about everything in Cuyahoga County government.”

“I apologize for being out of uniform this afternoon,” FitzGerald joked.

“Issue 6 is a concentration of political power,” he continued, “but what aggravates that is if you have a concentration of economic power.” A wealthy family "spending money like it’s water" to "capture the most powerful local political office" is "the worst way possible to actually to reform this government. It can’t work.”

Ken Lanci, taking advantage of the latest Bill Mason controversies, tried to make the prosecutor a political bogeyman.

"Who's connected to what?" he asked. "You have Mr. Mason, who is a friend of Mr. Scipione’s, who worked on the charter with him. You have Mr. Mason, who is a friend of Mr. Fitzgerald. You have Mr. Mason, who is a friend of Martin Zanotti’s, who’s now a friend of Mr. Dolan’s. It’s anybody but Lanci! … Lanci is the only guy none of them can control!”

That roused Don Scipione, normally a quirky-scientist figure, the opposite of Lanci’s brawny CEO persona.

“This Mason stuff! Give me a break!” Scipione exclaimed. "The first time I met Bill Mason was a year and a half ago. … The only advice he gave me was not to run!

“Ken, give me a break! You did the pay-to-play with Zack Reed at Luke Easter Park to try to keep me from getting [petition] signatures! You filed a [complaint] at the Board Of Elections saying I was a Democrat, not an independent, and they voted 4-0 against you!

“We’re not going to split the Italian vote! I’m Italian in the vein of Marconi and Michelangelo and Galileo and Enrico Fermi! That’s my Italian heritage!

“What was I going to say before that? I forgot!” The audience cracked up.

A questioner tried to force decorum by asking the candidates which opponent they’d choose as a chief of staff. Dolan chose Scipione, David Ellison named Tim McCormack, and McCormack cited Dolan.

“I’d be tempted to choose some people just so I could fire them,” FitzGerald cracked before picking Scipione.

“I was going to say Mr. Scipione,” said Lanci, “but I can’t get past $200 million in savings without a plan.” (Scipione claims that he could reap vast savings by modernizing the county’s technology and systems. A county transition committee also claims the county could save huge sums that way. {Update, 10/21: See the Comments for more on this.)

Scipione deflected Lanci with more humor. “I would look at Ken, because at $1 a year—” The audience, who’d heard Lanci promise to work for a $1 salary, drowned him out with more laughter.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Plain Dealer endorses Dolan, criticizes FitzGerald

The Plain Dealer spills lots of ink endorsing Matt Dolan for county executive today. But the most interesting part of its editorial comes at the end, when it explains why it's not endorsing Ed FitzGerald.

The Dolan endorsement is no surprise. He's a center-right candidate, and the paper's editorial page is centrist and swinging right this year, dissatisfied with Democratic incumbents, rhetoric and bad habits. So the editors praise Dolan as "thoughtful and independent," citing his work on Cuyahoga County's behalf in the legislature and his willingness to break with fellow Republicans.

What I wanted to see was how the paper judged the recent controversies around FitzGerald, including Dolan's attempts to link him to the Democratic establishment. The PD's answer is about as tough as can be while still showing some balance. "FitzGerald's Achilles heel," it says, is "his ties to the swamp of politics-as-usual."

The editorial does scold Dolan for his "aggressively negative campaign," likely a reference to his TV ad about FitzGerald's appearance as PO14 in the Jimmy Dimora indictment. FitzGerald has rightly protested that the feds' "PO" code-names don't necessarily imply wrongdoing, but are meant to protect the uncharged, including innocent bystanders.

Yet the PD doesn't let FitzGerald off the hook on Winterhurst-gate, turning instead to a campaign donation I've reported about here. "Taking a call from now-indicted businessman William Neiheiser at the behest of ... Dimora may not have been wrong," the editorial says, "but accepting a campaign donation from Neiheiser while his firm was negotiating a contract with Lakewood was."

The paper also scolds FitzGerald for getting rid of contributions from Dimora and Frank Russo -- a move first reported in Cleveland Magazine and on this blog -- and not doing the same with contributions from Plumbers Local 55, a union that's endorsed FitzGerald and was named in the Dimora indictment. It repeats the common complaint about FitzGerald's ambition and his quick switch from Issue 6 critic to executive candidate.

FitzGerald still has a good chance to win the election. He's a talented candidate, and Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in Cuyahoga County. But the PD endorsement amplifies the argument that the county's best chance for reform is to elect an executive with no ties to the Democratic Party at all.

To read my coverage of the county executive race in Cleveland Magazine, including pieces on the leading candidates, click here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Cool Cleveland endorses Lanci

Here's an interesting pairing. Thomas Mulready has just posted Cool Cleveland's endorsement in the county executive race: Ken Lanci.

You might not think the porkpie-hatted culture maven and the deeply-tanned millionaire have much in common. But remember, Mulready's e-newsletter isn't just about the arts, it's also about the new tech economy. The Internet entrepreneur praises Lanci's "ability to turn around companies" and "really strong grasp of the issues."

Lanci "has the best opportunity to take this county in a new direction in a new era," Mulready says in a video. "It's time for the county and voters to make a strong statement that they really want change."

Mulready -- who's done video interviews with all six county executive contenders -- calls Matt Dolan and Ed FitzGerald strong candidates, but doesn't like Dolan's conflict of interest with the Indians and Gateway. He calls FitzGerald "part of the Democratic machine" and complains that the party let Jimmy Dimora remain its chairman too long.

Sure, CoolCleveland's endorsement is not nearly as weighty as the Plain Dealer's. But Mulready, a voice in the ear of the arts-and-culture crowd, may nudge some of his readers to take a second look at Lanci. I think he did that in the 2005 mayor's race, when he surprised the artsy crowd by presciently recommending Frank Jackson over Jane Campbell.

What about the PD endorsement? I think it's coming Sunday. The editorial board interviewed the candidates this week. They liked both Dolan and FitzGerald in the primaries, but they seemed to like Dolan a bit more. My guess is, they'll endorse him.

To read my coverage of the county executive race in September's Cleveland Magazine, including pieces on the leading candidates, click here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dolan, FitzGerald exchange punches over corruption, family ties

Matt Dolan and Ed FitzGerald think they've found each others' weak spots.

Dolan's on the air with an attack ad that tries to tie FitzGerald, the Democratic front-runner for county executive, to the county corruption scandal.

Dolan's ad notes FitzGerald got campaign contributions from several figures in the scandal -- a fact first reported on this blog and in Cleveland Magazine's September-issue coverage of the county executive race. It doesn't say FitzGerald has given most of that money to charity. It cites FitzGerald's cameo appearance as PO14 in Dimora's indictment and slams him for opposing the new county charter.

FitzGerald has put out his own ad touting his anti-corruption bona fides as a former FBI agent.

He's also punching back. This morning he's holding a press conference at the county administration building, attacking Dolan, his Republican opponent, for a conflict of interest. Dolan's father owns the Indians, yet as county executive, Dolan would have to appoint members of the Gateway board, which oversees Progressive Field. From FitzGerald's press release:

Dolan has described his personal financial interest as being a "beneficiary to a trust" that owns a portion of the Cleveland Indians. The new County Executive will be involved in appointing 3 of the 5 members of the Gateway Economic Development Corporation, the landlord for the Indians and the Cavs. Gateway sets financial terms with the sports teams, often involving large sums of money. ... In addition, candidate Dolan has received $430,000 in campaign contributions from his father Larry, owner of the Indians, and uncle Charles Dolan.

Dolan has asked the Ohio Ethics Commission to offer advice on the Gateway issue. He's also said he'd recuse himself from Indians-related matters (which might not be easy). {Update, 10/20: Here's my new post about how Dolan says he'd handle this.} He went online Tuesday with a letter defending his family's donations to him.