Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The case for Kaptur, the case for Kucinich

The race between Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur race has gotten more hostile than anyone expected. Last week at the City Club, Kucinich basically tarred his former friend as a tool of the war machine. Now Kaptur's out with a new radio ad linking Kucinich to Jimmy Dimora. As Dimora's bribery trial nears its end, Kaptur blasts Kucinich for praising him -- seven years before the FBI raided Dimora's home and office (which is totally unfair) and eight months after the raids (which is totally fair).

As the mud flies, it's easy to forget what's really at stake in Tuesday's primary election. Voters in the new 9th district have a choice between two liberal congresspeople with very different approaches to the job.

In the March issue of Cleveland Magazine, I make the case for Kaptur and the case for Kucinich. From a bridge over Toledo to a principled stand on Iran, I take a look at what they stand for and explain their styles, strategies, and priorities. I think my twin pieces answer the question: If you vote for this person, what kind of representative will you get?

To read "A House Divided," my Kucinich and Kaptur pieces, click here.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Roberts: Corruption should be main issue in prosecutor's race

Next week, for the first time in 56 years, Cuyahoga County voters will choose a new prosecutor.

Since John T. Corrigan won the job in 1956, there's always been an incumbent prosecutor on the ballot. Now, as the county corruption scandal nears its climax in federal court, longtime columnist Michael D. Roberts imagines Corrigan's statue near the Justice Center coming alive with wrath.

"Corrigan would have been enraged at what has passed for government here since his retirement in 1991," Roberts writes in the March issue of Cleveland Magazine. "Chances are, with Corrigan in office, corruption never would have become the epidemic it did."

Roberts argues that corruption should be the major issue in the prosecutors' race. He thinks voters in the March 6 Democratic primary should seize the opportunity to demand a prosecutor who will fight political corruption as aggressively as Corrigan did.

Looking at the Dimora-Russo scandal and the Nate Gray case before it, Roberts argues that Corrigan's successors, Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Bill Mason, neglected their duty to deter wrongdoing by public officials. He sizes up the four most experienced candidates to replace Mason -- James McDonnell, Tim McGinty, Subodh Chandra and Bob Triozzi -- and finds some more eager than others to make political corruption a main target.

Roberts' column, "Office Politics," is essential reading before going to the polls. It's in the March issue of Cleveland Magazine, out now.

Friday, February 24, 2012

U.S. EPA forces Jackson to scale back trash-to-gas plant

The dueling press releases started flying yesterday afternoon. By evening, the news about Cleveland's proposed trash-to-gas plant became clear:

The U.S. EPA, tipped off by Dennis Kucinich, says Mayor Frank Jackson has to scale back his proposed gasification plant. It has about 20 more questions for the city and state to answer before the plant can get a federal permit.

The Jackson Administration knew the EPA's rejection was coming, and they already have a scaled-back plan. But the plant's critics, including Kucinich and city councilman Brian Cummins, still want to kill it.

That's my four-sentence summary of yesterday's events. If you, brave reader, want to dig deeper, here's Kucinich's press release with his interpretation of the letter, Jackson's press release about making the plant smaller so it'll pollute less, and Cummins' long list of problems the opponents still have with the plant.

Most important, here's the U.S. EPA letter (pdf) that laid down the law. Basically, it says the plant was going to be too big and could generate too many nitrogen oxides. Also, the feds are listening to the critics' environmental justice concerns, and they have a 3-page list of questions about the project.

Meanwhile, the Plain Dealer reports that the city's trying to cut loose Peter Tien, the controversial consultant who got the city interested in Japanese gasification plants and whom Scene made to look really bad in December.

Is this thing ever going to get built? Or will Jackson suffer a major setback in his efforts to reduce the city's reliance on coal plants and landfills, because too many Clevelanders think the trash-to-gas plant isn't environmentally friendly at all? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kucinich, Kaptur clash on defense spending, job creation at City Club debate

The peace candidate came out fighting. Dennis Kucinich, enraged at Marcy Kaptur’s new attack ad against him, opened yesterday’s City Club debate with five attacks of his own in a minute’s time.

“She’s taken hundreds of thousands of war contractors while voting half a trillion dollars to continue Bush’s wars,” Kucinich complained. “Her votes for the Iraq war cost my Cleveland district and her own Toledo district two billion dollars.”

Kucinch, pitted against Kaptur in the new 9th congressional district, also accused the Toledo congresswoman of taking campaign contributions from a company that locked out workers and from beneficiaries of congressional earmarks she obtained. But he seemed to want to sting her hardest for taking money from defense contractors.

Throughout yesterday’s debate, Kucinich worked to frame the March 6 Democratic primary race for Congress as a contest between peace and war.

He and Kaptur actually voted the same way on authorizing the war in Iraq (both against) and Afghanistan (both for it). Kucinich voted to end the wars by pulling their funding, while Kaptur voted to keep funding them and end them more gradually.

But the contrast between the Toledo and Cleveland representatives goes deeper. Kaptur sits on the House’s subcommittee for defense spending, and often arranges to bring a piece of federal defense programs to Ohio – something Kucinich’s principles would never allow him to do.

“The gentleman has never voted for a defense bill in his life,” Kaptur said at one point.

Moderator Henry Gomez asked Kaptur and Kucinich, “What is one recent bill you’ve championed, in effect today, that’s helping to create jobs in your district?” Kaptur chose the 2010 defense appropriation bill. She ticked off six ways it’s leading to work in northern Ohio, including solar energy and hydrogen research, a study of veteran’s mental health at Case Western Reserve University, and spending on strategic metals industries such as aluminum and beryllium.

Kucinich said he’d voted for the 2009 stimulus package, which included spending in greater Cleveland. Then he pivoted to talk about a bill of his that hasn’t passed and has one co-sponsor. It would “rebuild our roads, our bridges, our water systems, our sewer systems, our colleges and universities,” he said. “We can’t simply rely on the war machine to develop the jobs we need in the future. We need to start developing jobs and technologies for peace.”

The room belonged to Kucinich, the local favorite. His rousing answers inspired the most mid-debate cheers. Kaptur got only polite applause at the end. The third candidate, local entrepreneur Graham Veasey, who's running on a pledge to slash the national debt, had more supporters in the room than Kaptur did.

When Veasey called his opponents “Congressman Status And Congresswoman Quo” and promised to renew the national war on poverty, Kucinich picked up both themes.

“We have to see the connection between war and poverty,” Kucinich said, and promised to repeal the Bush tax cuts and free-trade laws. “I’m the guy who’s been taking on the status quo in Washington ever since I’ve been there.”

That finally got the mild-mannered Kaptur riled up.

“I can see you can take on the status quo,” she snapped, “but who actually makes a difference in bills that get passed?”

Which is how Kaptur wants to frame the March 6 vote: not as peace versus the war machine, but as talk versus results.

Kucinich, in his opening statement, spoke forcefully about his fights to “protect” or “save” jobs. It’s a litany Clevelanders know well: Kucinich’s efforts to keep hospitals open, intervene in the LTV steel bankruptcy, protect NASA Glenn’s funding, preserve DFAS defense payroll-processing jobs.

Kaptur’s opener, by contrast, focused on creating jobs. She said she’d secured federal research and development funding for local efforts in “solar, sensors, biomedicine, advanced energy [and] maritime interests.” She claimed the R&D has created 6,500 solar-energy jobs in the Toledo area and led to several new spinoff companies. Toledo’s port got $20 million in the stimulus bill for new cranes, and Lorain’s port got $4 million, she added; Cleveland’s port got zero. She touted her status as the second-ranking Democrat on the House appropriations committee.

“I think you have to look at the record,” she said, “and say, ‘Who is the job creator across the coast? Who has the committee positions to make a difference?’”

Kucinich, too, said he’s gotten results: a veteran’s clinic in Parma, a new bridge in Berea, a new Social Security office in Lakewood. He mentioned his role in obtaining $422 million from the federal Hardest Hit Fund for foreclosure prevention in Ohio and $29 million to help treat Gulf War veterans’ illnesses.

His closing argument noted several differences between him and Kaptur: she supported the Patriot Act and the Keystone pipeline (he doesn’t), and he supports gay marriage and the DREAM Act immigration reform (she doesn’t).

Kaptur blasted Kucinich for opposing the pipeline, talking about closing the Davis-Besse nuclear plant, and voting no on defense funding that supported local industrial jobs.

“The people of the 9th District have a serious question to ask themselves,” she concluded. “Who can deliver?”

Friday, February 17, 2012

Romney, the CEO-candidate, talks business in Mayfield Heights

I went to see Mitt Romney’s speech at Landerhaven last night, and I think I saw why he’s having trouble connecting with voters.

We all know the story: Romney’s the Republican front-runner who can’t hold a lead. Conservative voters keep turning to other presidential candidates. Rick Santorum is now beating Romney in the polls in Ohio, in Michigan, and nationwide. The right says Romney isn’t really conservative; the left and right say he lacks core beliefs.

But last night, his problems seemed far away. Romney got an enthusiastic reception at the Cuyahoga County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day dinner. He laid out a fiscally conservative critique of President Obama and a conservative agenda that fits who he is and what he’s done.

“This president did not cause the recession, but he made it worse,” Romney argued. “This president is not the reason the economy is showing signs of getting better. He’s the reason it’s taken so long for the economy to show signs of getting better.”

Romney charged that several of Obama’s policies had hindered businesses from hiring people, from health care reform to deficit spending to regulations of the oil, coal and natural gas industries. He promised instead to repeal the health care law, approve the Keystone pipeline to Canada, and “cut spending, eliminate programs, shrink government as a share of the economy from 25 percent to 20 percent and finally balance our budget.”

It’s a classic conservative argument, and Romney is a classic type of Republican: a CEO candidate. A former corporate executive, he thinks government doesn’t understand business and ought to get out of its way.

Obama “never worked in the private sector,” complained Romney, who ran the private investment firm Bain Capital before he was governor of Massachusetts.

“A lot of people in government, they’re never had the great fortune of working in a regular job, in a regular enterprise, and seeing what it’s like to try to make a product or sell a service. They haven’t had the experiences that many of you -- most of you probably in this room -- have had.”

Romney’s argument that he understands the economy better than Obama because of his business experience may be a powerful weapon during an economic downturn.

But his business experience is also his weakness. I noticed something strange about Romney’s speech: He talked to the audience like they were all fellow businesspeople.

“If you’re in the private sector, as most of you are in this room, you don’t have a choice about being fiscally conservative,” he said. “If you’re not fiscally conservative, you’re broke, you’re gone. [Other] businesses [will] put you out of business! You know how to be conservative!”

The tickets to last night’s Republican Party dinner were $50 to $75 -- not cheap, but affordable for a wide range of people. “Parma Republican Club,” read the sign on the table closest to me. But even when Romney tried to aim his message at employees and employers alike, it sounded like a chamber of commerce address.

“What you do is harder than what government does,” Romney said to applause. “If you mess up big time, you lose your job, you lose your investment, lose the jobs of other people. The private sector is not forgiving.”

Romney's message connected at Landerhaven, where he was among conservatives who believe in pro-business, laissez-faire politics, whether they own a business or not. But I wonder how much this message will resonate with people who’ve already lost their jobs or are underemployed.

CEO candidates can’t count on as much support today as Romney’s father did in the 1960s. It’s not just that Tea Party voters are pushing the Republican Party to the right. It’s that the working class has become more Republican.

“Reagan Democrats” aren’t Democrats anymore. They’re conservatives. They don’t like government, taxes, or liberalism. But they’re populist conservatives. They’re not eager to vote for a guy who reminds them of their boss.

Romney needs to get better at talking to people who are suffering from the economic downturn. But part of his problem goes deeper than rhetoric or style. His defense of the “unforgiving” private sector may turn double-edged on him.

The president’s campaign has already filmed attack-ad footage of steel workers who lost their jobs after Bain Capital took over their mill. Obama’s stump-speech line about not going “back to the same policies that got us into this mess” aims the poor economy back at the Republicans and financial-firm executives. In a bad economy, a campaign between a liberal-activist president and a CEO-challenger will be a clear, clarifying fight and a close call.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Russo testifies, lives it up as day of reckoning recedes

A $3,000 dinner bill at XO Prime Steaks, a $4,000 meal for 15 or more at Mallorca -- food upstaged hookers today in Frank Russo's first day of testimony at the Jimmy Dimora trial.

"Everyone knew Jimmy liked to eat and have good food," said Dimora's former pal, demonstrating a mastery of understatement.

Ah, those were the days for Jimmy and Frank, back when they dined out four nights a week, sticking Ferris Kleem or J. Kevin Kelley or some other doormat stooge with the check. That was 2008, long ago for Dimora.

But Frank Russo, enjoying his new career as a government witness, is still out on the town.

This Friday night, Russo was living it up at Fahrenheit in Tremont, a friend who saw him there tells me. The crooked ex-auditor, in a party of four, seemed altogether unvexed by his upcoming testimony. The atmosphere at their table was more festive than funereal.

Since the FBI raided his office in 2008, I've heard about Russo enjoying his remaining freedom: checking out a street festival, heavily over-tipping in Bratenahl and watching sports at the Winking Lizard in Bedford Heights.

But Friday at Fahrenheit, Russo truly had a reason to celebrate. His first day in prison had just been put off indefinitely.

Last week, prosecutors asked that Russo's reporting date of Feb. 29 be postponed until he's finished testifying in multiple corruption trials. Judge Sara Lioi granted the request.

After Dimora's trial, the feds' star witness still has to testify against his former deputy auditor, Samir Mohammad, who's set for trial in June. Russo's services will probably also be required at the trials of lawyer Anthony O. Calabrese III, set for September, and contractor Michael Forlani, which isn't even scheduled yet.

So Russo may have been granted another year of freedom.

He has an obvious reason to stall for time: He's 62 and facing 22 years in prison. He'll get years cut off his sentence in exchange for testifying, but even so, he may not live to be a free man again.

The feds say the delay isn't intended to reward Russo. It'll save the government money. Having him stay in Cleveland is easier for the feds, who don't need to bring him back from prison in Pennsylvania every time they need him. Russo isn't only testifying, he's offered to help the investigation by reviewing and explaining documents and wiretaps. Shipping all that stuff to prison would cause "insurmountable logistical and security problems." Besides, it isn't special treatment. All the corruption defendants get to stay out of prison until their cooperation is finished.

That almost sounded logical to me, until I remembered a moment from the Nate Gray trial seven years ago. A prosecutor asked Emmanuel Onunwor, the convicted former East Cleveland mayor, where he was residing. "The Lake County jail," he testified. The feds can temporarily stash important witnesses in local jails, if they really want to.

Russo keeps buying his reprieve a few months at a time. Though he turned his county fiefdom into a jobs-for-cash machine, stole $1.2 million in cash kickbacks from the taxpayers and agreed to pay $7 million in restitution, he is still dining large.

That upsets my friend, who wonders how Clevelanders can still admit Russo into polite company. Restaurants should refuse Russo a table, he says. Sure, they might get buzz from serving a notorious guest. But they'd get more buzz from throwing Russo out. If they don't, my friend says, "Someone should throw a drink in his face."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Regionalism plan leads FitzGerald’s State of the County proposals

Hoping to unify Greater Cleveland, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald officially revealed his plan for the county to offer municipal services in his State of the County address today.

“For the first time, cities won’t have a monopoly on providing services,” Fitzgerald said during his speech at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, broadcast live on WCPN. “Over time, we will have the prospect of becoming a cohesive metropolitan area.”

FitzGerald sneak-previewed his proposal a month ago in my interview with him for the January-February issue of Inside Business. Today, he reiterated his argument that the plan offers a way to move beyond Cuyahoga County’s futile, century-old debate about regional unity.

“Our patchwork of individual kingdoms is powerless to execute any strategy to compete in a global economy,” FitzGerald argued. But Ohio cities’ strong home-rule powers make a full consolidation of city and suburbs into a single government nearly impossible, he added.

So FitzGerald wants the county to offer several new services to cities each year, from information technology to infrastructure maintenance. Cities would sign up voluntarily, or still provide services on their own. But FitzGerald said the effort would eventually lead to a “county-wide, metropolitan government” that could better compete with more unified metro areas across the country.

The regionalism proposal was the highlight of his speech’s 12-point agenda, which he called the Western Reserve Plan. It includes two more new initiatives he described in IB's latest issue: a “pay for success” formula for delivering human services and pledge to use the county’s casino tax revenue to improve downtown Cleveland and the lakefront.

FitzGerald also announced a pilot program to buy homes on the verge of foreclosure, a plan to help returning military veterans, a health and wellness initiative and an economic inclusion task force. With a nod to the Jimmy Dimora corruption trial in Akron, FitzGerald concluded by promising to fight any attempt to return to the county’s “old ways” of patronage and cronyism.

“I’ll do everything possible in my power to prevent that,” he said.