Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Brown sweeps Ohio newspaper endorsements; papers call Mandel unprepared, and worse

Well, this doesn't happen too often.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown has won the endorsement of every major daily newspaper in Ohio, shutting out Josh Mandel 7-0. Even the conservative editorial pages couldn't justify endorsing the senator's young challenger.

"Sherrod Brown has a record of working for Ohio jobs, workers, businesses and consumers," argues the Cincinnati Enquirer, which endorsed Mitt Romney for president. The Akron Beacon Journal, endorsing Brown for the first time, praises his "attention to what matters for Ohioans, from manufacturing and jobs to health care and farming."

Every editorial page -- from progressive (the Toledo Blade) to conservative (the Columbus Dispatch) to centrist pages that didn't endorse Brown in 2006 (The Plain Dealer) -- praised the senator's work in his first term.

But most striking is what the seven papers say about Mandel. Let's line them up to see the trend.

Akron Beacon Journal: "He isn’t ready for the job. It is apparent in his shallow positions, mostly the usual talking points of the far right. ... an ill-prepared candidate overmatched by his opponent."

Youngstown Vindicator: "Imaginary outsiders will say whatever they think the voters want to hear. If there were a dictionary entry for such political mendacity, it could carry the picture of Josh Mandel."

Plain Dealer: "Electing ... Josh Mandel would reward one of the nastiest campaigns ever waged in this state. It would reward a candidate who hasn't moved beyond partisan slogans and careful sound bites. It would reward ambition untethered to substance."

Toledo Blade: "Mr. Mandel has largely ignored basic duties of the treasurer. ... His stances on major issues rarely go beyond simple partisan slogans — Obamacare, bad; regulation, bad; tax cuts, good. ... Mr. Mandel has waged an unusually nasty campaign. Independent fact-checkers have cited him repeatedly for making false statements."

Canton Repository: "Mandel has plenty of sound bites — how many ways can a TV ad say 'Washington is broken'? — but offers little of substance. His calling Brown a liar in another recent debate was another low in a campaign chock full of lows — a campaign marked, ironically, by Mandel’s collecting numerous 'pants on fire' ratings from the PolitiFact fact-checkers."

Cincinnati Enquirer: "Mandel would continue to practice the politics of divisiveness. His campaign has focused on tearing down his opponent, calling him everything from a 'un-American' to 'a liar.' Mandel’s slash-and-burn campaign has been heavily funded by out-of-state interests. ... He showed little depth on the issues beyond his rehearsed talking points. Mandel, frankly, is not ready to represent Ohio in the United States Senate."

The Dayton Daily News doesn't endorse candidates anymore. That left Brown's shutout bid in the hands of the staunchly conservative Dispatch.

Finally, this morning, the Dispatch published a terse, backhanded endorsement of Brown. It complained that he's too liberal and supports Obama Administration policies, but called him "an accessible and tireless advocate for Ohio."

The Dispatch praised Mandel for "youthful energy" but said "his limited experience... can’t compare to the nearly four decades of public service that Brown brings to the job."

What good are newspaper endorsements anymore?

At least this: In a fiercely partisan time, they still warn voters when $20 million worth of catchy slogans and dirty campaigning make a shallow candidate look serious.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Why I'm voting for the Cleveland school levy

A school levy is never just about the kids. It's also about the adults in charge. And the adults behind Issue 107, Cleveland's school levy, have done just about everything we could reasonably ask of them.

I live in Cleveland, and on Nov. 6, I'm voting for the levy. I explain why in "Stress Test," my commentary in the November issue of Cleveland Magazine.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and schools CEO Eric Gordon (pictured) have assembled a coalition of business, nonprofit and labor leaders around an unprecedented set of reforms. Already, the district's new and innovative schools are already producing better results than the traditional schools around them, proving that a better education is possible.

The district has a plan to open more innovative schools, close and replace failing schools, and assemble and reward teaching staffs based on a new evaluation system. In a feat of persuasion and pressure, Jackson got both the state legislature and the teacher's union to sign off on the plan.

Now, it's the taxpayers' turn to join the effort -- or the reforms will become merely a way to manage layoffs and decline.

If you live in the city, or you're curious about Cleveland's school reforms and the levy effort, please read my piece here.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

End gerrymandering: Vote Yes on Issue 2

What is this ghastly beast?

It's the original gerrymander, spawned in 1812 by politicians who drew creepy map shapes to pack the Massachusetts Senate with members of their party. Designer Elkanah Tisdale made a political cartoon of it and named it the gerrymander, after Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who signed the winged, salamander-like lizard into law.

Nothing's changed in 200 years. This freaky animal, Ohio's new 4th congressional district, was created by Republicans last year to guarantee a safe seat for first-term congressman Jim Jordan. Their Dr. Frankenstein scheming somehow links Elyria and Lima into one dodo-like bird. Sandusky is its eye. Sheffield and Elyria are its nose. Lima is the little spot in its tufted tail.

This third unnatural shape looks a lot like the Lake Erie Monster. But it's actually a congressional district slithering along the lakeshore. Stretched to a snakelike thinness, it links Toledo to Cleveland and pitted liberals Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich against each other in a to-the-death cage match. It's been named one of the five ugliest congressional districts in the nation.

When someone tells you not to vote for Issue 2, the ballot proposal to end gerrymandering in Ohio, ask yourself how much longer you want creatures like this to roam our state. When someone says it's a flawed proposal, ask yourself, what could possibly be more flawed than this system we have now?

Gerrymandering, a legal corruption, lets politicians pick their voters and create safe seats for their allies. Safe seats are usually filled by rabid partisans, not moderates, so gerrymandering leads to Congresses and state legislatures where compromise is rare.

Issue 2 would create a nonpartisan citizens' panel to draw the maps instead. Republicans are fighting Issue 2 and Democrats are for it because the current maps shamelessly favor Republicans. But both sides are to blame for gerrymandering. Democrats in the legislature cravenly abandoned their own redistricting reform idea a few years ago once they won an election and thought they'd have a chance to draw the lines.

You might think the press would oppose the political machines and fight to end gerrymandering, but no. Most of Ohio's big newspapers have come out against Issue 2.  (Here's the exception.)

Editorial pages get persnickety with ballot proposals. They'll usually come out against one if there's even a single thing they don't like in it. With Issue 2, the papers are upset that judges would help choose the redistricting panel. But who else can we trust to stand outside politics and pick people fairly?

The newspapers say the legislature should pass redistricting reforms instead. But that hasn't happened in 200 years.  That's what ballot proposals like Issue 2 are for: to go around the legislature when politicians preserve a corrupt system out of self-interest.  Are you willing to live with gerrymandering for another 10 years? Or 20? Or 200?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Plain Dealer, mistrusting Romney, endorses Obama

Mitt Romney had a chance with them, but he blew it.

The Plain Dealer's editorial board endorses President Obama in today's paper, ripping Romney for foreign-policy "bluster," a "lack of policy details," and "frequent changes" in positions. "Which Romney would [voters] elect?" the paper asks.

The board was "sorely tempted to endorse Gov. Romney this fall," the piece says -- but the editorial, clearly written by committee, resists the temptation. The pro-Obama argument dominates 12 paragraphs, compared to 6 for Romney.

What happened?  The Republican convention, the debates, and Libya. Also, Obama's careful talk about Iran, delivered to the PD in person.

You could see the paper's editorial writers pretty much give up on Romney in September. After his convention speech, they complained he was too vague about his tax and budget plans and how he'd replace Obama's health care law.  When Romney blasted Obama right after the Libya and Egypt embassy attacks, the page declared he'd botched the facts and "flunked" a test of his character and ability to be commander-in-chief.

Romney's sudden move to the center in the first debate may have caught Obama off guard and impressed swing voters, but it didn't impress the editors. They cited "the reborn moderate of recent weeks" as yet another example of Romney's shape-shifting.

Before September, I didn't expect this.  I thought the Plain Dealer, which swung right to endorse John Kasich and Issue 2, might keep angling right and go for Romney.

But only a few paragraphs of today's editorial seem to bear the stamp of publisher Terry Egger, a Republican who pushed a liberal editorial page to the center in his previous job in St. Louis.  The pro-Obama grafs read like the work of editorial page editor Elizabeth Sullivan, a foreign-policy expert who wrote scathing critiques of the Iraq war. She knows that, even though domestic issues decide most elections, presidents have the most power over foreign policy, war and peace.

The president shrewdly courted the PD's endorsement. He granted the editorial board an interview before his September speech in Kent, spending an hour with them in the Kent State basketball coach's office.

Likely well-briefed on Sullivan's interests and opinions, Obama gave her a clear answer about his position on Iran: Basically, he'll attack Iran just before it actually builds a nuclear weapon, but not earlier.  Sullivan made that conversation into one of the best pieces I've read about Iran's nuclear program, a column that ought to be required reading on a national level.

Obama's measured responses to Iran and the latest Mideast turmoil reaped rewards with the PD. "Romney's tendency to bluster on foreign policy provides more cause for doubt," the editorial reads. "The United States cannot afford to be drawn into new wars without clear national interests at stake.... Obama has showed that he favors engagement over bluster."

Newspaper endorsements don't matter as much as they used to; there are fewer newspaper readers and undecided voters today. But this endorsement mattered to Obama, and he got it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Brown-Mandel debate: The dodges, and what they revealed

Watch the dodge, watch the pivot. Pay attention to the answers the candidates don’t give. In a debate like Sherrod Brown and Josh Mandel’s today, with a rowdy crowd cheering attack lines we already heard in TV ads, it’s the best way to see the candidates for who they really are.

If you’ve followed the U.S. Senate race, most of today’s City Club debate between longtime liberal Brown and upstart conservative Mandel was pretty familiar. Mandel cast Brown as a failed Washington insider; Brown called Mandel overly ambitious and untrustworthy. Brown defended the auto bailout, health care law and economic stimulus; Mandel bashed the stimulus, the bank bailout, and part of the auto bailout.

The best moments came when a panel of journalists asked well-crafted questions, trying to get the candidates to say something new. The candidates mostly dodged, but the dodges revealed a lot.

-To Mandel: Doesn’t a no-tax pledge compromise your independence? Mandel has claimed he’ll be a less partisan senator than Brown. Tom Beres of Channel 3 poked a hole in that claim by asking Mandel why he signed conservative activist Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise any taxes.

“You said if you got to Washington, you would not allow yourself to be bullied by political bosses or lobbyists or let anybody dictate to you [how] to vote,” Beres said. “Aren’t you already sacrificing your independence?”

“I’m proud to stand up for lower taxes in our state [and] our country,” Mandel replied. He talked about his role reducing property taxes as a Lyndhurst city councilman and trying to abolish Ohio’s estate tax. Left unanswered was how Mandel could compromise with Democrats and reach a budget deal if he’ll never raise a tax.

-To Brown: What would you give up to solve the fiscal crisis? Henry Gomez of the Plain Dealer asked Brown how Congress can avoid the “fiscal cliff,” the deep spending cuts and expiring tax cuts that hit Jan. 1 and could plunge the country into a new recession.

“What should happen in the lame-duck session?” Gomez asked. “What would you give up?”

Brown quickly called for a “balanced approach” -- the Democrats’ catch phrase for a mix of spending cuts and higher taxes. Then he went back to 1993 to assert his budget-balancing bona fides, citing his vote for that year’s budget deal (which raised income taxes on the wealthy and cut them for the poor). Brown began to blame the deficit on the Iraq war when Gomez interrupted him.

“What should happen in these next few months to address this problem?” Gomez asked. A balanced approach following the same principles, Brown repeated.

After rejoicing that Gomez had challenged Brown, Mandel responded that he’d save money by closing some military bases in Europe. That might not be enough to solve the fiscal crisis, but it was a more specific answer than Brown’s.

-To Mandel: Did the auto bailout help Ohio? Until today, Mandel has been vague about how he would’ve voted on the auto bailout. Instead, he’s blasted Brown for one aspect of it, the fact that it caused some workers at the auto parts supplier Delphi to lose their pensions.

“Do you believe, on balance, that the auto bailout has a boon for the Ohio economy?” Tom Troy of the Toledo Blade asked Mandel.

“I would not have voted for that,” Mandel said. “I couldn’t have, because it stripped from middle class retirees their pensions.”

But Mandel didn’t answer Troy’s question: whether the auto bailout did more good than harm in Ohio. Brown pounced, noting that Republicans George Voinovich and Steve LaTourette also voted for it. “To be against the auto rescue just boggles my mind,” he said.

-To Brown: What free-trade deals would you vote for? Brown is one of Congress’ most reliable opponents of free-trade agreements. Gomez mentioned the senator’s opposition to free trade deals with Colombia, Peru and South Korea and asked what would ever lead him to support a trade deal.

“These trade agreements have clearly sold out the middle class,” Brown said. He argued that Obama’s enforcement of trade rules had led the opening of a steel mill in Youngstown. He said he’d written legislation about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks “that will make a difference in putting trade agreements on the side of American workers and American manufacturers.”

What Brown didn’t say was that he’s almost never met a trade deal he liked. He’s only voted for one in two decades: a 2000 agreement with Jordan.

-To Mandel: How would you pay for the popular parts of the health care law? “As unpopular as Obamacare is among conservatives, some elements of the plan have popular support,” Troy noted. He asked Mandel how the government could maintain those goals, such as requiring insurance companies to accept people with preexisting conditions, without requiring people to buy coverage.

“We’d have to make cuts in other parts of the government,” Mandel said. “In order to pay for covering folks with pre-existing conditions, young adults on their parents’ insurance, if there’s leaders in Washington who want to do that without Obamacare on the books, we’ve got to make significant cuts.”

It’s a confusing answer. How would he help people with pre-existing conditions? Does he mean he’d have the government pay insurance companies to insure them? Or pay to set up a high-risk insurance pool? He didn’t say, and his website’s health care page doesn’t either.

People in the audience of 1,300 definitely noticed most of the dodges. The Renaissance Cleveland Hotel ballroom buzzed as Mandel meandered through his answer on the auto bailout and as Brown tried to steer his answer away from the fiscal cliff. Partisans on both sides cheered and laughed and razzed the candidates, loudly interrupting the debate several times but also calling out Brown and Mandel when they wouldn’t give a straight answer.

Live-tweeting Brown-Mandel debate today

I'm live-tweeting the City Club's U.S. Senate debate between Sen. Sherrod Brown and challenger Josh Mandel today.  It starts at 12:30.  Click here to read my tweets during the debate. 

I'll be posting a report about the debate here this afternoon.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Can Frank Russo please go to prison now?

UPDATED below with news of prosecutors' motion.

Two years after ex-auditor Frank Russo pleaded guilty to stealing more than $1 million from taxpayers, he's still free and living large.

I haven't heard of any Russo sightings in Tremont restaurants lately, but he's comfortably dwelling in a Mayfield Heights condo bought by his longtime housemate, Michael Calabrese, in January. Even county exec Ed FitzGerald has lost his patience, ripping the feds at a town hall meeting Wednesday for Frank's sweetheart fink deal.

Now comes word that Russo's former chief deputy, Samir Mohammad, is pleading guilty to cash-bribing sleaze.  Can Russo please go to prison now?

With Mohammad pleading Monday, only two big cases are left to go in the five-year-long Cuyahoga County corruption scandal.  Charges against Robert Peto, the former port authority board member, don't appear related to Russo at all.

That leaves the February trial of Anthony Calabrese III, who faces 20 charges, including some stemming from his alleged role in Russo and Jimmy Dimora's infamous bribe-spiked Vegas trip. (Calabrese is also accused of witness tampering to cover up possible bribes related to the county's purchase of the Ameritrust Tower.)

Prosecutors say they need Russo close by to prepare for his court testimony. But Russo should only need to testify about two alleged schemes at the Calabrese trial: a contract steered to a halfway house and an alleged property assessment fixing for a senior community in Euclid.

It's time for the feds to do their prep work.  Because it's time for Russo to start doing time.

Update, 10/15: Finally! Prosecutors filed a motion today saying Russo's cooperation is "substantially complete" and asking for a court hearing, where it can recommend a reduction in his 22-year sentence for his testimony.  They want to hold the hearing by Oct. 25.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Vote by mail, starting today

The election starts today. At the Board of Elections office at East 30th and Euclid, the first of 24 voting days between now and Nov. 6 is kicking off with rah-rah ballot hype.

State Sen. Nina Turner held a sleepover outside the elections office so that she could be the first to vote at 8 a.m. sharp. The rally attracted other Democratic politicians, including U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. Supporters of the Cleveland school levy are marching to the board of elections and casting votes starting at 12:30 p.m.  U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge sent out a press release saying she's voting there at 1 p.m.

Everyone who's working to get out the vote is trying to get it out fast, to bank votes now, so we don't see long lines at the polls on Nov. 6.

Which leads to some good, simple advice about how to make sure you get to vote:

Vote by mail.  

Send in the application for a mail-in ballot.

When the ballot comes, vote at home.  Put it in the mail by Nov. 5 at the latest.  No lines, no waiting.

That's the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections' advice. "The ballot is packed with 3 pages of issues and candidates," warns its recent media advisory. "Voters who cast ballots by mail have extra time to study [them]."

All the hype and controversy about how we're voting this fall, all those claims of "voter suppression," focus on a different way to cast a ballot: in-person early voting at the Board of Elections office in each county.  We have 23 weekdays when we can do that too -- basically every weekday from now to Nov. 2 (except Columbus Day, next Monday). They'll be open until 9 p.m. Oct. 9, and until 7 p.m. Oct. 22-26 and Oct. 29-Nov. 1.

Democrats also want us to be able to vote early and in person on Nov. 3-5, the weekend and Monday before Election Day.  A federal appeals court is going to decide that. (Update, 10/5: It decided -- we can vote at the elections office Nov. 3-5.)

But why do that when you can vote by mail?

You probably already got an application for a ballot sent to you by the Secretary of State, or you will soon. You can also click here for it if you live in Cuyahoga County, or click here if you're anywhere else in Ohio. Just be sure to fill out your application, and then your ballot envelope, carefully.

If you're not registered to vote, register by next Tuesday, Oct. 9.  Or, get down to the Board of Elections this week or next Tuesday.  This is the "golden week" -- as election nerds call it -- when you can register and vote at the same time.

If you moved recently, you can change your address online until next Tuesday.  If you want to check whether your registration in Cuyahoga County is up-to-date, click here.

Four years ago, when Cleveland was recovering from all sorts of screw-ups in how we voted, I wrote a long list of advice for voters on how to protect your vote.  Most of the advice still applies, though Cuyahoga County's elections office is in much better shape today.

This time, my advice is simple.  If you're at all worried about having enough time to vote on Nov. 6, if a line at the polls would screw up your day -- then vote by mail.