Monday, February 28, 2011

How is Ohio different from Wisconsin?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says he talks to John Kasich every day. Ohio’s governor is pushing just as hard as Walker to curb the power of public employee unions, sparking massive protests at both state capitols. Both governors are looking at Mitch Daniels’ union-taming, debt-slashing success in Indiana and saying that’s the way to cure their state’s financial illness.

So why is Madison the new capital of American protest, our new Cairo-like TV-drama stage, and not Columbus?

It’s not just that Wisconsin Democrats have upped the drama by deciding the only way to stop Walker’s bill is by a filibustering at an out-of-state Best Western. (A run for the border won’t do the Ohio Democrats’ tiny Senate caucus any good.)

It’s not just that protest is part of the culture in Madison, a classic liberal college town, or that the Wisconsin left is tapping a 100-year tradition of feistiness, which goes all the way back to gutsy progressive Fighting Bob La Follette. It’s not just that the Wisconsin state capitol lets people sleep over, giving the cheeseheads an opening to create a 24-hour happening, a marble-pillared commune. Or that Ohio lefties and unionists are more likely to swamp the capitol on hearing day, then go home and go to work.

The difference might be – might be – that Ohio is in a more moderate mood than Wisconsin right now, and that some of our state’s moderate Republicans are looking for a compromise. Some Republican senators are distinctly lukewarm about Senate Bill 5. They’re not spoiling for a fight. Unlike Wisconsin’s Republicans under Walker, they’re thinking independently, looking to reform collective bargaining with public employees but not tear it up.

Already Senate Republicans have snipped a ban on collective bargaining for state employees out of SB5, preserving their right to bargain for wages. This week, the Senate considers more amendments. As they do, pay close attention to two Northeast Ohio Republicans, Tim Grendell and Tom Patton. Grendell, though a member of the hard-right “Caveman Caucus,” is looking for ways to change SB5. Patton, a Republican and union member, is being super-careful – note his no-comment to Phillip Morris last week – but he, too, seems to be looking for a compromise way out.

I’m not saying Grendell and Patton are the swing votes – Kasich may eke out a victory without them. But their intriguing disagreements with their party say a lot about where the debate may be going – both in the legislature and at what’s probably SB5’s ultimate destination, a statewide referendum this fall.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ideastream picks up 'Quiet Mayor' theme

It is hard to write about Frank Jackson. Hard to even have an opinion about him sometimes. Cleveland's mayor defies our usual sense of how politicians act. So journalists, involved citizens, and politicians sputter and puzzle over him. When talk turns to leadership style, you can almost hear people goading him: For God's sake, man, have a personality!

Dan Bobkoff, reporter for Changing Gears, ideastream's Midwest project, is the latest to prod the inscrutable sphinx. "Some call him the Quiet Mayor," Bobkoff says in his report, broadcast on WCPN yesterday. (I smiled when I heard that -- I thought I was the first to dub Jackson the Quiet Mayor, though Google reminds me I may have picked it up from Bill Callahan.)

"Some Clevelanders are yearning for a big personality mayor, like Chicago’s Richard Daley, who can bulldoze his way to progress," Bobkoff says. (That's a clever nod to the ultimate triumph of the modern strongman mayor, Daley's 2003 destruction of Chicago's lakefront airport.) Cleveland Magazine columnist Mike Roberts, a frequent Jackson critic, echoes the lament: "Some days you get the feeling the town doesn't even have a mayor."

In the radio segment, Jackson once again bats away the cliché that he ought to be a "cheerleader" for Cleveland. (This is now his critics' most popular line. It's the new version of the idea that mayors should command the "bully pulpit.") Jackson says if people want that kind of mayor, they should vote for one. He knows city voters like having a no-drama leader.

The more interesting Jackson quotes come from Bobkoff's web-only audio clips. Interesting compared to most Jackson quotes, mind you -- this isn't Chairman Mao's little red book we're talking about, or even Coleman Young's. Still, here's a sampling of Jacksonian bons mots:

Paranoia is only wrong if it's not justified.

Everyone has an ego. When you're in positions like these, you can't survive without an ego. The question is whether or not it's healthy. I try to have a healthy sense of confidence that does not translate into arrogance.

I don't need the recognition.

The government closest to the people is the best government. Government, if left to its own accord, will always be abusive. Always.

The Flats East Bank is a project that we put a whole lot of public subsidy in, more than we should. Much more than we should. But we needed to do that because I had to put to rest the debate. The debate was whether there could be waterfront development in downtown Cleveland.

Those cities and urban centers that positioned themselves for the future survived [the '70s] pretty well. Those -- Cleveland being one of them -- who did not do that and were still trying to hold onto that old way of doing business, we declined. ... The corporate world and the political leadership made a decision to stay where they are or not invest in the emerging economy. As a result of that, they were left behind. My intent is not to have that done on my watch.

People always ask me if I'm running again for re-election. ... I'm not running for mayor to be mayor. ... My purpose is to accomplish my purpose. So my decision on whether or not I run or not is based on whether or not I'm effective. If I get to the point where I believe -- and hopefully I can see that -- that I'm not effective, [then] I've outlived my usefulness. ... I don't want to be an old fighter, not knowing when to retire.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Akron's Plusquellic, ever-feisty, running for 7th term

The Don is in no mood to retire.

The long-serving, short-tempered mayor of Akron announced today that he's taking a shot at a seventh term.

Don Plusquellic, mayor since 1987, said it wasn't an easy decision -- his children tried to convince him not to run. But as I wrote in the Power 100 issue of Inside Business, Plusquellic has trouble walking away from a fight. He wants to erase the memory of his near-loss in 2007, and he wants to be the guy who conquers the city's serious budget problems.

That means Akron City Hall will remain an exciting place: four more years* of Plusquellic's Sinatra-esque "my way" politics. Four more years of feuds with the Akron cops and the motley crew that tried to recall him in 2009. And maybe even another campaign appearance and endorsement by Chrissie Hynde.

Plusquellic was as combative as ever in his press conference today (covered by Bill Sheil of Fox 8). He addressed his never-ending union-negotiation struggles with the police thusly:

[Should I say,] here, take more and more, and I'll just sit back and let you fill out your own paychecks? Somebody has to stand-up. Is that polarization? I'll let you choose what word you use. But you can't in this world be successful with the 20-something percent of people who are always against everything.
Those 20-plus percenters* may coalesce around councilman and Don-rival Mike Williams, the Beacon Journal thinks.

*Update, March: Brent Larkin thinks another term for The Don is far from a sure thing. "Friends of Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic fear he will have a tough time winning," Larkin writes at the bottom of this column.

FitzGerald replaces engineer, coroner, children's services director

Here comes the ax. After a quiet first month as county executive, Ed FitzGerald announces that four county officials are heading out the door.

FitzGerald won't keep engineer Robert Klaiber, who failed to notice how his top deputies corrupted his office. He's saying goodbye to coroner Frank Miller, who hired corruption-implicated Strongsville councilman Pat Coyne, then blamed Bill Mason. He's showing the door to Deb Forkas, head of children and family services, who's been held accountable for the deaths of six kids in families her agency monitored. He's also replacing Susan Axelrod, head of senior and adult services.

It's FitzGerald's second dramatic break with the past this week. Wednesday, he announced that four county employees elected to suburban city councils as Democrats will have to resign from either their council seats or their county jobs.

Interestingly, three of them are Parma councilmen: Brian Day, Tom Regas, and Roy Jech. You may remember Regas as Bill Mason's drunk-driving buddy and Day from the board of revisions controversy; also, Day's brother Tom is very close to Mason. Jech is best-known lately for sticking his finger in Dale Miller's face on the Plain Dealer's front page.

The fourth, Danny Colonna, is from next door, in Brook Park. The move is part of the new government's attempt to implement civil service rules and abolish the patronage machines in the auditor's office, recorder's office, and so forth.

The next question is whether Bill Mason's employees who serve on partisan city councils will also have to resign one job or the other. Last March, the Plain Dealer reported that 11 suburban councilpeople worked in the prosecutor's office. If their towns have nonpartisan elections, they're OK. But the ones that have partisan elections may also have to choose.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

With DePiero leaving, who'll be Parma's next mayor?

Now that Bill Mason and Dean DePiero have decided not to run again, who'll be the next king of Parma politics? We'll find out soon. Three experienced Democrats are running to succeed DePiero as mayor of Cleveland's largest suburb: Chuck Germana, Tim DeGeeter, and Mickey Mottl. They'll face off in a May 3 primary.

It'll be an interesting election. DeGeeter, a state representative, is a Mason-DePiero ally. Mottl, former state rep and son of a former congressman, was once a rival of DePiero's. Germana, the former Parma city council president, is somewhere in between.

Germana is probably the best-known outside Parma, thanks to his seat on the new county council and his failed bid for its leadership. He's a solid, reliable guy, the type of mayor Parma was used to having before 2003, when it elected DePiero, then a 35-year-old rising star. If Germana wins the primary and the November election, he'd leave the county council after only a year. When he talked to the Sun News last week, he sounded like he hadn't expected DePiero to bail.

Lots of people didn't. But there are two good reasons DePiero is getting out of politics instead of heading to Congress or Columbus, as Bill Mason once told me he might.

One was foreshadowed in early 2004, when I visited DePiero in Parma City Hall for my profile of him, "The Flamingo Kid." On the way into his office, he introduced me to his administrative assistant and former campaign manager: Vince Russo. Nice guy, very young. I think I asked him if he was any relation to the other political Russos, and learned he was Frank Russo's son. I shook his hand and figured that with that then-golden name, he'd be elected judge within 10 years.

Instead, Vince's brief stint at Parma City Hall linked DePiero to the county corruption scandal five years later. It turns out Frank Russo bribed J. Kevin Kelley to stay out of the 2003 mayor's race. "In exchange for PO2 convincing Kelley to withdraw from the mayoral race, Kelley's opponent gave a thing of value to a relative of PO2," the Kelley charges read. Everyone knew the feds were hinting about DePiero, but he denied any wrongdoing.

The second reason DePiero's leaving is his family. I know, they all say that. But take a look at the Plain Dealer story about his announcement. Below the requisite scandal summary, we learn that DePiero lost his dad and a niece and nephew last year, and that his mother, Roberta (whom I interviewed about Parma in 2009), recently suffered a stroke. Reason enough not to make a bad year worse by spending it traipsing around town, running for re-election, having to answer Frank Russo questions everywhere you go.

So, with DePiero leaving the corner of Ridge and Ridgewood at year's end, and Mason retiring after 2012, who'll command the Parma wing of the Democratic Party -- the remains of Mason's machine, the southwest-county faction that stretches at least from Parma and Old Brooklyn to Berea Municipal Court? My quick guess is DeGeeter -- Mason's support will still help a lot in Parma itself -- but I wouldn't count Germana out either.

To read "The Flamingo Kid," my 2004 profile of DePiero, click here.