Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lanci plans statewide newspaper, Lanci Tribune

Ken Lanci isn’t done. The vanquished challenger from Cleveland’s mayoral race is trying to launch a statewide newspaper named after himself.

The Lanci Tribune, which began life as a campaign screed wrapped around the cover of Scene, posted ads for freelance journalists in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo on CareerBuilder yesterday. “The focus will be on what the government is or is not doing and the impact it has on the people as well as business,” the ad says.

Lanci’s been thinking about this move since August, when Plain Dealer reporters greeted his candidacy with less respect than he felt it deserved.

“There’s a piece of me thinking about starting my own newspaper,” Lanci told me then, after complaining that PD reporter Leila Atassi had painted him as irresponsible in this story. “And the whole editorial mission is, give the facts. Do not editorialize [in] your stories. Do not print out of context. If you make a statement, what somebody said, you say all of it. That would be the standard. Anybody violates it, they’re out of here.”

Lanci’s resentment of the local press has hardened since.

“Shame on ALL of YOU! Call and Post, Plain Dealer, and Crain’s Cleveland Business, for Not Caring About the Children and the Residents of Cleveland,” read the lead headline on the second edition of the Lanci Tribune (which I saw, gathering dust, at various bars and diners around town after the election). The papers had endorsed incumbent Frank Jackson, and Lanci was mad. On election night, Lanci barred the press from his party, except for one WTAM reporter.

Remember the saying, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one”? Well, Lanci owns one. His company Consolidated Graphics Group gives him the tools, and his millions gives him the means. Now all he needs are some professional writers with “3-5 years experience writing for a newspaper or magazine” to give his self-titled paper a little polish.

But prospective applicants might want to ask, what’s the mission? Not to editorialize? Or to settle some scores for the boss?

Update, 12/11: The five ads have all disappeared from CareerBuilder, reports Nick Castele of WCPN, though they're still echoing on various sites for freelance writers. Cold feet?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mayor Jackson's bizarre victory speech

Frank Jackson likes to talk in riddles. Tuesday night, amid his cheering victory crowd at Sterle’s Country House, the mayor promised to explain exactly “what it means to be mayor and why I ran.”

Then he told a bizarre story about a nightmare. No press accounts from Tuesday night’s party at Cleveland’s best Slovenian bar have quite captured the surreal moment.

Jackson told a story about the late councilwoman Fannie Lewis, the mercurial ruler of Hough, an eccentric, elliptical speaker. Once, the mayor said, Lewis, stressed out from her job, fell ill and went into the hospital. The staff wouldn’t let her take constituent calls until her blood pressure dropped. Eventually freed, she ran into Jackson at City Hall.

“Frank, I had a vision,” Lewis told Jackson. Then, the mayor continued in a sort of trippy litany.

“She told me her vision was, there was this huge slab of concrete,” the mayor said. “A huge slab of concrete of enormous weight. A huge slab of concrete. And she heard crying, moaning and wailing from beneath the slab of concrete.” Jackson picked up a bit of a Baptist minister’s cadence, something I’ve never heard from him before.

“And it came to her that the crying and moaning and wailing from beneath this huge slab of concrete of enormous weight was that of the people,” the mayor said. “And that they were crying and moaning and wailing because they had to bear the burden of this huge slab of concrete of enormous weight.”

This was the strangest story I’ve ever heard Jackson tell. But his supporters seemed to follow it. They cheered for the payoff.

“And she said to me, it is our duty and responsibility as public officials never to add to that burden but to relieve that burden in what we do. And then if we add a feather, then we have added to the burden of the people.”

Jackson never named the burden. He just let the nightmare vision hang there.

But when the councilwoman from Hough talks to the mayor from Central, maybe the metaphor doesn’t need translating. The burden is poverty, and maybe economic exploitation, racism, predatory crime – all the burdens of living in a poor city.

“In all of what I do, you can measure it by whether or not I am relieving or adding to that burden,” Jackson said.

Will he relieve the burden?

Critics will happily judge him on that. A huge new schools tax weighs a lot more than a feather. Failing schools weigh more.

Will Jackson’s reforms really improve education? Will the community benefit agreements he’s championed really get Clevelanders more local construction jobs?

Jackson said he wants to “institutionalize a way of life that will relieve the burden.” He means, he wants to set precedents future mayors will follow. He wants City Hall to always help the Clevelanders who struggle most.

But to leave a permanent mark, you need results, not good intentions. On schools, jobs and the city's other big issues, Jackson's legacy is still unwritten, still at stake. So, fair question: Will he relieve the burden?

Monday, November 4, 2013

What the mayor’s race means

I feel Roldo’s pain. “A Meaningless Election,” the radical curmudgeon complains about tomorrow’s vote for mayor.

His critique of Mayor Frank Jackson is the best since Michael D. Roberts’ in March. Sadly, Roldo and Roberts are more thorough, credible critics of the mayor than his challenger, Ken Lanci, who’s built his campaign on simplistic blunt-force attacks.

Lanci, who blasts Jackson as a complete failure, isn’t much of an alternative. He’s failed to build a political coalition beyond disgruntled public employees and a motley crew of activists. He hasn’t articulated a governing philosophy beyond religious piety and confidence in his own competence. He’s a thin-skinned, angry grudge-holder. He’d make a terrible, insufferable mayor.

But give Lanci credit: at least he’s given us a mayor’s race. Without him, Jackson would be coasting unopposed to reelection tomorrow with no questions asked.

Instead, Lanci has pushed Jackson to defend his record on the biggest issues in town, including schools, safety and the lakefront. He’s given us a choice -- though not the one Roberts and Roldo would want. And he’s asked questions that will resonate throughout the next four years. Here are three.

1. What if Jackson’s school reforms fail? Lanci has pierced the air of optimism around Jackson’s 2012 school reforms and levy victory. He’s focused on the cold facts: the Cleveland schools still score a big zero on the state report cards.

Lanci dismisses Jackson’s reform agenda of tougher standards for teachers, new specialty schools and plans to dismantle the staff at failing schools. If elected, Lanci would probably let the teachers off the hook.

His alternative is a $40 million expansion of his favorite charity, the mentoring program Project Love. Lanci can seem naïve and self-regarding when he plugs it, and Jackson has dismissed his approach as condescending to mothers and kids. Still, Lanci may be on to something.

The Cleveland schools’ woes have been nearly intractable for decades. Yet Jackson’s reforms need to produce results fast, in time for the levy renewal in three years. A couple more report card Fs, and Jackson’s legacy will be in danger.

If that happens, a massive mentoring program for at-risk inner-city kids may be the only big reform idea left to try. It might look a lot like the renowned Harlem Children’s Zone — or a lot like Project Love.

2. How will the police department change? Lanci is carrying water for the police union on the year’s biggest City Hall debate, the response to last November’s 60-car police chase and fatal shooting. He blames police chief Mike McGrath and safety director Martin Flask for the uncontrolled chase and says he’d fire them if elected.

Under pressure from Lanci, Jackson has said a lot this fall about the chase’s aftermath. He’s gone way beyond his usual line about how he’ll support the police who stayed “inside the box” and followed orders.

Jackson has made it clear he sees the chase as mass insubordination. The mayor views McGrath as reasserting control and discipline.

“Without this police chief there would be no semblance of fairness and justice in the whole thing,” Jackson told Crain’s Cleveland Business. “He stood up against a culture that said there was nothing wrong [with the chase and shootings].”

Neither candidate talks about holding both the police leadership and the rank-and-file accountable. But Lanci’s stance keeps the pressure on Jackson to answer this question: Is disciplining the officers and supervisors for violating policy and procedure enough? Or, if McGrath and Flask are going to stay, how will they improve police training, equipment and communication so that the next chase is handled better?

3. What about the lakefront? Eight years of Jackson, and no construction cranes on the lakefront. Lanci scoffs at the mayor’s plan to develop a new neighborhood along North Coast Harbor. It won’t happen, he says, just like all the past lakefront plans haven’t happened.

Lanci would scuttle Jackson’s lakefront efforts if elected. So if you want the lakefront developed, Jackson’s your candidate, even if he’s disappointed you so far.

The mayor has developers pitching plans for the land around Browns Stadium. An office park project near the East 9th Street pier is a step from final approval. Jackson should take Lanci’s scoff as a dare and get it done.

(Jackson art by Jason Byers, from Asterisk Gallery's 2008 CLE- show. Lanci art by Kristen Miller.)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Lanci buys Scene's cover

"There's a little piece of me," Ken Lanci told me not long ago, "thinking about starting my own newspaper."

No, the millionaire mayoral candidate hasn't bought Scene. At least, not yet.  But he did buy Scene's cover this week. 

About 44,000 copies of this giant Ohio-flag-colored fist are flying out of newsboxes and racks this week. "Surprise! There is a mayoral election on November 5th," the cover announces, as if the scrappy alt-weekly is publishing a cover story about the mayor's race. "Vote Lanci," it says, as if the paper is endorsing Frank Jackson's challenger.

But no, the actual Scene is writing about The Plain Dealer's owner.  

The alt-weekly sold a four-page wraparound ad, including the cover, to Lanci's campaign.  In it, Lanci calls the mayor a failure, slams The Plain Dealer, decries double-dipping and the state of the schools, defends himself against the charge he's a carpetbagger, and endorses himself.  

Or, to be precise, "The Lanci Tribune Editorial Board Endorses Ken Lanci for Mayor of Cleveland."

The ad is classic Lanci: flashy attention-seeking, blunt-force attacks on his opponent, a chutzpah-filled claim that Jackson is a "millionaire" (horrors!), thin-skinned lashing-out at critics in the media, and a confidence that a charity he supports, expanded to 550 times its size, will cure what ails the Cleveland schools. 

I expect no less from the guy.  More questionable is whether this fits Scene's character. 

The paper has been selling its cover a lot lately, but the deals have merely been annoying -- a sticker-ad marring the cover art -- or innocuously craven. Scene's young, nightlife-loving target audience is unlikely to object to a fake cover about Cleveland Beer Week.

Clearly, Scene's ad reps and publisher are getting desperate.  They know alt-weeklies can go out of business.  

Editorially, the paper seemed to bottom out a year or two ago, when it inaccurately predicted Bill Mason would be driven from office by scandal and then changed editors twice in a few months. This year, it's clawing to make a comeback, producing a strong Ariel Castro story 24 hours after his arrest and going where The Plain Dealer didn't go -- well, until today -- on the resignation of the art museum director.  The page counts seem to be bouncing back too.

But shouldn't a rebellious alt-weekly avoid a sleight-of-hand that suggests a millionaire political candidate can buy its endorsement?  

What sort of political coverage of the mayor's race will Scene offer up now?  "Premiere edition," declares the "Lanci Tribune."  Will the paper bite the hand that feeds in the next issue?  Or keep quiet about the mayor's race?

Update, 10/31: Nothing about the election in this week's Scene, though one of its writers definitely feels free to tweet his opinion on Lanci.

Update, 11/5: The mayor has bigger ideas: he unfurls a banner ad on cleveland.com's front page on Election Day.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Lanci on mayor's race: 'Everybody I know thinks I'm crazy for running'

"Everybody I know thinks I’m crazy, for doing this, for running, for spending the money," says Ken Lanci. "They don’t think I have a chance."

But Lanci, Mayor Frank Jackson's challenger in the Nov. 5 election, thinks the state of Cleveland's neighborhoods gives him a shot at taking over City Hall. The millionaire printing company owner and philanthropist is covering the town with bus and billboard ads proclaiming, "Together we can do better." Some are installed upside-down, to get attention.

Lanci's an eccentric, supremely confident guy. He's livened up an otherwise sleepy election season with his his very orange tan, his very expensive car (a Bentley, personalized license plate "Seraph"), and his curious campaign promises (lake cruise ships, asking bikers such as the Hell's Angels to fund youth boxing).

His critique of the mayor is simple and blunt: Lanci calls Jackson a failure on crime, education and jobs. What's his alternative?

My profile of Lanci, "Million-Dollar Challenger," in the new issue of Cleveland Magazine and online now, digs into why he took on Jackson, his ideas on schools and crime and cops, the near-death experience that inspired his runs for political office, and the ink he shows off to voters.  ("So you've never had a mayor with tattoos," he said to a woman in the Lee-Harvard shopping center as he rolled up his sleeve...)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jackson slams Lanci’s motives at contentious City Club debate

Frank Jackson saved his toughest lines for the end. With an anger he’s rarely shown since his 2005 campaign, he ripped into challenger Ken Lanci’s reason for running for mayor at today’s City Club debate.

In his closing statement, Jackson teed off on Lanci’s oft-stated motivation, that the millionaire businessman decided to serve others after a near-fatal heart attack.

“When you face these challenges… from an ivory tower and just decide to move back to Cleveland because you believe you have a burden, you’re not going to get the result you need,” Jackson said.

For an hour today, Jackson and Lanci sparred on crime and education, the big two issues of any mayor’s race. Lanci aimed a blunderbuss at Jackson, calling the mayor a failure at both. He quoted Jackson lines from his 2005 campaign against Jane Campbell.

“We are worse off than we were four years ago,” Lanci said, echoing Jackson. “If I don’t restore hope to the ailing city within 200 days of taking office, I will consider myself a failure.”

In his opening statement, Jackson responded calmly with figures about City Hall spending in city neighborhoods. But by the end, he was worked up, in full populist mode.

Something about Lanci really gets under Jackson’s skin. That a rich businessman would move in from the suburbs to run against him rankles him. It gets him going on a favorite point, about “ivory tower” folks who don’t live working-class struggles. (“Ivory tower” usually means academia -- Jackson is really saying Lanci is acting out of noblesse oblige.)

“It is a contradiction of terms to empower those you intend to oppress,” Jackson said in his closing. “When someone is looking to feel good because they help somebody, that means that relationship always has to be in that way, where you’re in need, in order for them to feel good.

“I don’t feel good. This stuff is painful because I have to live it every day. It is painful when my wife, and my children, and my grandchildren, and their friends have to deal with this on a daily basis.”

Lanci blasted Jackson for the Cleveland schools’ F on the latest state report cards and declared Jackson’s old transformation plan and new school reforms failures. He also attacked Jackson for championing the school levy last year.

“Putting $70 million into the system, from people who could least afford it, is not going to get results,” Lanci said. “We have to mentor our children, and provide the leadership students don’t get in their homes.”

Lanci may have a point -- his idea of an enormous city-wide mentoring program reminds me of all-encompassing efforts, such as Promise Neighborhoods and the Harlem Children’s Zone, to improve kids’ academic achievement by improving the rest of their lives. But mentoring programs are paternalistic by definition, and Jackson pounced on that.

“It’s amazing -- children are the problems in school,” Jackson said. “Mothers being unmarried are the problems. It’s condescending and disrespectful, and it has a tone of disdain. You cannot serve those you disdain.”

Lanci tried to recover. “It’s disrespectful for the people of Cleveland to live with a failed school system,” he said.

But he struggled with a question from an audience member who noted that some have praised Jackson’s school plan as a national model. Lanci answered by quoting a teacher’s complaints about 100-degree classrooms in a heat wave and district staff jobs with jargony titles.

On crime and cops, the debate turned, as usual this year, on state attorney general Mike DeWine’s contention that last November’s 60-car police chase and fatal shooting was the result of a “systemic failure” in the police department. Moderator Rick Jackson brought up the quote, noted that Lanci got the police union’s endorsement, and asked him where he stood on the November incident.

Lanci repeated his campaign pledge that he’d fire safety director Martin Flask and police chief Michael McGrath. Then he went further, promising to let the police union pick the top candidates for chief for him to choose from. It was an attempt to blame the uncontrolled chase on the department’s leaders, not the officers who violated policy by joining the chase, and Jackson jumped on it.

“When [the police] union president [was] asked whether their opposition to the chief was because he was holding them accountable, he said absolutely so, that’s the only reason he wants him fired,” Jackson asserted.

“The systemic failure was not with the Cleveland police division,” Jackson argued, then turned to an attack on DeWine. “The systemic failure was with the attorney general’s office, denying due process and civil rights to the two victims. I’ve never heard you [Lanci] or the police union mention the two victims who were denied their due process and civil rights. And as a result of that, those officers are denied due process, because there’s no way in which even they can have a fair criminal hearing in regard to this, because it wasn’t done properly.”

The candidates' arguments showed how Cleveland can’t move past a simplistic either-or debate about the November chase and shooting. One side blames the leadership, one side the officers. No one ever holds both accountable.

The debate revealed more of Lanci’s platform: He said he wouldn’t continue the mayor’s attempt to develop the lakefront, that Cleveland has more urgent problems that trump building hotels. Instead, he said he’d focus on bringing container shipping, ferries, and lake cruise ships to the port.

In the debate’s weirdest moment, an audience member asked if Lanci had really told the teachers’ union in a questionnaire that he would have the Hell’s Angels and Zulu motorcycle clubs mentor seventh graders.

Lanci said he wants to bring back Golden Gloves boxing city-wide, so sons of single mothers have male mentors.

“I’ve asked some of the motorcycle clubs to sponsor teams, to be able to help mentor these kids, to give them something to belong to other than a gangbanger. We have to stop them from feeding that system. Even the motorcycle clubs are afraid of them. Because they don’t want to kill anybody. They know the consequences. The gangbangers don’t know.”

In his closing argument, Lanci promised an end to “broken promises and platitudes.” He slammed the mayor for his failed attempts to build a gasification plant and use a street-lighting contract to attract a lighting factory to town.

Then came Jackson’s brutal close, in which he painted Lanci as a do-gooder running to feel good. “I don’t go to a place of tragedy with hot dogs and hamburgers, to be disrespectful and condescending to that tragedy,” he said. The mayor’s campaign aide, Chris Nance, says he was talking about Lanci’s appearance on Imperial Avenue, site of Anthony Sowell’s 11 murders, earlier this year.

As Jackson finished, supporters of his, sitting near me, rejoiced gleefully. “This case is closed,” one said.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Zack Reed, Jeff Johnson, Brian Cummins win city council primaries

Zack Reed may be spending 10 days in jail soon, but he beat his DUI conviction at the polls today. Voters in Cleveland Ward 2 rewarded the longtime councilman for his work instead of punishing him for drinking and driving. They gave him 83 percent of the vote in the city council primary election.

Jeff Johnson’s election gamble is paying off. He took 55 percent of the vote in northeast Cleveland’s Ward 10 against fellow councilman Eugene Miller, who got 39 percent.

Johnson, whose old ward was sliced up in redistricting, looks likely to thwart council president Martin Sweeney’s gerrymandering. Sweeney designed the awkwardly stretched-out Ward 10 to set up Miller for re-election. But Johnson, who served on council in the 1980s and returned in 2009, saw an opportunity to unseat the younger Miller.

The two councilmen, who will face off again in the Nov. 5 election, have both been damaged by scandal. Johnson’s political career seemed over when he served prison time for a 1998 extortion conviction, but voters seem to be accepting that he’s followed a path to rehabilitation. Miller’s troubles, smaller by comparison, are recent: an impaired-driving case, a voting-address snafu just referred to the county prosecutor, and embarrassing 911 calls.

Brian Cummins, councilman for the near West Side’s Ward 14, came out on top of a four-way race in first place with 31 percent of the vote. He’ll face challenger Brian Kazy, who got 26 percent.

Kazy edged out an aggressive candidate, Janet Garcia, for a spot in the runoff. Garcia, running in a ward that’s 41 percent Hispanic, argued for electing a Hispanic councilperson. She won the Democratic Party endorsement and campaigned in a white car covered with her name in giant letters. But another Hispanic candidate, former councilman Nelson Cintron, kept her from achieving critical mass. A pending felony case against her, in which she’s accused of assaulting a Westlake police officer, probably didn’t help either. (She has maintained she’ll be found not guilty.)

November victories by Reed, Johnson, and Cummins would shore up the opposition to Martin Sweeney's council majority. But in Hough’s Ward 7, a Sweeney supporter did better than some expected today.

Councilman T.J. Dow won 47 percent of the vote and will face an energetic challenger, Basheer Jones, in November. Jones, a former radio talk show host, poet and motivational speaker, got 27 percent, while former councilperson Stephanie Howse got 21 percent.

Monday, September 9, 2013

FitzGerald prepares to sue over 2005 Ameritrust purchase

The years of controversy over Cuyahoga County’s 2005 purchase of the Ameritrust Tower may be about to reach a climactic moment.

Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald's law department is preparing to file a lawsuit over the controversial real estate deal. The county’s board of control voted today to hire two law firms as special counsel for “potential litigation related to the County’s purchase of the Ameritrust Complex.”

County law director Majeed Makhlouf says the county may sue the former Staubach Co., a former real estate consultant to the county, and Anthony Calabrese III, a lawyer who represented Staubach.

Prosecutor Tim McGinty may become involved in the case as well. The “primary avenue” for a suit, according to Makhlouf, would be an Ohio law that allows county prosecutors to sue for damages over a contract “procured by fraud or corruption” or to recover money “illegally drawn” from the county treasury.

FitzGerald has talked about suing Staubach, now part of Jones Lang LaSalle, since early 2012. He has complained about the $3 million the old county government paid Staubach over the Ameritrust purchase and the allegations Calabrese was involved in criminal wrongdoing related to the deal.

Cuyahoga County’s old government paid $21.7 million for the Ameritrust complex in September 2005 and spent roughly $23 million more on the project, including the $3 million broker fee, asbestos removal, and the purchase of a second parking garage. The new county government sold the complex to the Geis Cos. this year for $27 million, or a loss of about $18 million.

McGinty indicted Calabrese on corruption charges related to the Ameritrust affair this summer. The indictment claims that Calabrese got J. Kevin Kelley to give him “non-public information” from then-commissioner Jimmy Dimora about the pending deal, and that after the sale, Calabrese arranged for Kelley to receive a $70,000 bribe for his help. A county grand jury is also reportedly investigating possible connections among Dimora, Calabrese, and Vincent Carbone, whose company was the construction manager on the Ameritrust project. Calabrese has pled not guilty.

Rob Roe of Jones Lang LaSalle says the company has cooperated with all prior investigations into the Ameritrust transaction and will cooperate in any future inquires. "We believe our efforts on behalf of the County met the highest standards of quality and ethics that our clients have come to expect from us, and no one connected with any prior federal or County investigation into the transaction has ever suggested that they did not," Roe said in a statement Tuesday.

In an interview with me in spring 2012, Roe defended Staubach’s broker fee (which was shared with other companies) and its advice to the county (which was to lease the Ameritrust complex, not buy it). Roe said nothing about Calabrese’s conduct while representing Staubach appeared improper or gave him pause, and that Calabrese never talked about using any connections in county government to help Staubach.

A lawsuit now would come eight years after the controversial real estate deal. In fact, the county may be racing against the clock. If it files suit before September 30, it could avoid a legal battle over whether an eight-year statute of limitations applies.

The investigation of the deal has been long and complex, Makhlouf says. Now, with the federal corruption investigation mostly complete and the Ameritrust complex sold, the county is close to ready.

“This is a very important piece of litigation for us,” says Makhlouf, “but we couldn’t do anything that risked what we were doing in the sale of Ameritrust and the potential for the rejuvenation of that entire quarter.”

To assemble a case, the county’s lawyers have looked at the Jimmy Dimora trial, the federal and county indictments of Calabrese, county documents that federal investigators seized and have now returned, and an employment discrimination lawsuit against Jones Lang LaSalle that alleges senior management improperly destroyed records after learning about clients’ roles in federal corruption probes.

“It wasn’t the kind of investigation you went into, and there were all these records, and you went through them, and [found] the smoking gun,” Makhlouf says. “It was the type of investigation that needed many pieces to fall together from different places.”

The county hired business law firm Brennan, Manna & Diamond of Akron, and Giffen & Kaminski of Cleveland, which has business litigation and white-collar criminal defense practices. It was hard to find law firms who could help the county, Makhlouf says. Almost every local law firm had represented clients in the county corruption investigation, he says, and many firms did not want to sue a real estate broker because they see them as sources for referrals.

A suit under prosecutors' power to protect public funds is now easier because of the new agreement between the prosecutor and the law department over how they will split and share the job of representing the county in court. That law has no statute of limitations, Makhlouf says.

(Updated, 2:50 pm, to reflect the prosecutor's potential role, and 9/10, with details on the law firms hired and a new statement from Roe.)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Campaign finance reform: an activist who won't give up, a county councilman who never understood

Greg Coleridge won't stop. After the Cuyahoga County Council made it clear it doesn't want to regulate the flow of money in county politics in any way, the longtime activist penned an opinion piece for cleveland.com about the lost opportunity to protect our new county government.

Cleveland.com got councilman Michael Gallagher to write a response. In July, Gallagher took the lead in arguing down the charter commission's proposal to give council the power to regulate campaign donations.

Sadly, embarrassingly, Gallagher's op-ed piece shows he didn't even understand what he and the council rejected. He spends the entire piece arguing against limiting the total amount of money any one political candidate can spend.

No one proposed that.  It's illegal. Courts ruled long ago that you can't stop a candidate from spending money.

What you can limit is how much money any one donor can give a politician. That's the rule in national, state and city of Cleveland elections, in order to keep one or two or three wealthy donors from paying for almost all of a candidate's campaign.

Coleridge sums up Gallagher's mistake with a headline on his blog: "Politician confuses political contribution limits with political spending limits."

County politicians have gotten checks for $25,000, $36,000, $50,000, $300,000, and $400,000 in the past.  Once a candidate takes office, what sort of debt do they feel to the writer of checks that big?

Now ought to be the perfect time to ban jumbo-sized donations.  Jimmy Dimora, the poster boy for county reform, testified last week before a grand jury about suspected illegal activity around the 2005 purchase of the Ameritrust complex. Dimora voted to buy the Ameritrust property from the late Dick Jacobs, who seeded Dimora's first campaign for county commission with a $36,000 check.  The county sold the Ameritrust complex this year -- at an $18 million loss to taxpayers.

Coleridge still hopes the county council will change its mind on campaign finance reform. But what are the odds, when Gallagher doesn't even understand what's possible, and most councilpeople clearly want the issue to go away?  It looks like there's only one way for reform-minded people to create a sane campaign finance system in Cuyahoga County -- a citizens' petition for a charter amendment.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

County council rejects adding inspector general to charter

The Cuyahoga County council has shot down another effort that would’ve made our new government more transparent and harder to corrupt. Last night it voted not to strengthen the inspector general’s office by adding it to the charter.

The council needed 8 votes to send a charter amendment protecting the inspector general to the November ballot. The vote was 6 yes, 5 no.

“Machine Democrats continue to block real reform,” tweeted Rob Frost, the county Republican chairman last night after the vote. The council’s three Republicans all voted yes, along with three Democrats. Five Democrats said no.

The inspector general, the county’s ethics officer and anti-corruption investigator, was created to give employees a confidential place to report wrongdoing. The first IG, Nailah Byrd, has looked into problems large and small, from employees who don’t show up for work to possible irregularities in the 2005 Ameritrust complex purchase.

But the IG’s office is fragile. A future county executive and council majority who don’t like its investigations could amend or repeal the ordinance that created the office.

That’s why the charter review commission called the IG its No. 1 priority. Its proposed amendment protected the IG from unjust firing. It said the IG could only be removed before her five-year term ends by the executive and a two-thirds vote of council “for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office after notice and public hearing before the Council.” That got watered down to an amendment that simply put the IG in the charter. Even that couldn’t pass.

Councilman Dale Miller said he voted no because the amendment wasn't strong enough -- it didn’t have language about the removal process. Others said the office was still evolving or needed cost controls on it.

“The inspector general is very important,” said council president Ellen Connally, a no vote, but “I continue to have questions about due process and about the cost of the office. I don’t believe it’s time sensitive.”

County executive Ed FitzGerald disagrees. He proposed the IG as part of his 2010 campaign for his job and says it’s helped create a more open government. He says he’s “disappointed” that council didn’t pass the stronger language from the charter review commission.

“I think it should be put in the charter as soon as possible,” he says. “We don’t know what the future is going to hold in terms of future councils being supportive of the concept.” FitzGerald, who is running for governor in 2014, won’t be in his job after next year. “We don’t know what future county executives are going to have to say about that.”

The council has now shot down the charter review commission’s two best ideas for making the new government more corruption-proof. Council rejected the power to regulate campaign financing last month. The four amendments that are going on the November ballot are all small housekeeping changes – way less important than the inspector general.

Last night did bring some good news for reformers: The prosecutor’s office and law department have settled their years-long conflict about who gets to represent the county in court. FitzGerald and county prosecutor Tim McGinty nailed down the agreement at about 4:30 pm yesterday, just before the council was to vote on whether to settle the matter with a charter amendment.

The Law Department will now represent the county executive and all the departments under his control, including offices such as the medical examiner and fiscal officer. That’s good for efficiency’s sake, because the executive ought to be able to choose his own lawyer.

It’s also an important new check on corruption, because it removes a huge conflict of interest for the prosecutor. After the 2008 corruption scandal, residents clearly want the prosecutor to act as a watchdog of the county government -- which was harder to do when the county government was the prosecutor’s client.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Lanci calls mayor a dirty word – millionaire

It’s an old trick in politics – hit your opponent in the very place you’re most vulnerable.

Ken Lanci’s doing just that in his latest campaign literature. He’s attacking Frank Jackson by calling him – of all things – a millionaire.

Lanci, a self-made millionaire businessman and self-financed mayoral candidate, is trying to out-populist the mayor from the city’s impoverished Central neighborhood. He wants to whip up outrage over Jackson’s salary, currently $136,758 a year. Multiply it by the mayor’s eight years in office and you get to $1 million.

“He will retire on a millionaire’s pension!” Lanci’s flier declares. Jackson’s 36 years as a government employee and his recent salary mean he’ll get about a $100,000 a year pension once he retires.

Lanci’s millionaire jujitsu move is lame – it just calls more attention to his own substantial wealth. He won’t give figures for his own net worth, but it is substantial. He dropped $1 million of his own cash on his 2010 race for county executive, and he says he’s willing to spend $1 million again this year to match Jackson’s campaign fund. He's a flashy guy who’s feuding with Plain Dealer reporters about his very nice car. Clearly he thinks there’s nothing wrong with wealth, or getting paid.

But the flier goes beyond hypocritical millionaire-bashing. Lanci’s trying to argue that Jackson hasn’t earned his salary or pension. The flier also complains that Cleveland crime, poverty and schools have all worsened since Jackson became mayor in 2006.

It’s a potent critique. Education, jobs and crime are the top three issues in any mayor’s race.

But Jackson’s defenders will say Lanci’s attack is simplistic. Mayors don’t control the economy. The Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis hit during Jackson’s first term, wiping out jobs and tearing the fabric of many neighborhoods. The mayor’s supporters will argue that the fairest way to judge him is on how he’s helped Cleveland weather the storm.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

McGinty likely wants to question Dimora about 2005 Ameritrust deal

What's Jimmy Dimora doing in the Cuyahoga County jail? He was moved there from federal prison last night, and in his jail booking photo, he doesn't look too happy about it.

Journalists' Twitter feeds lit up with the news this afternoon. Several reporters said Dimora will go before a county grand jury. Why?

"Prosecutors apparently want to question Dimora about lawyer Anthony Calabrese/Ameritrust deal," WKYC's Tom Meyer tweeted.

I think Meyer's right.  County prosecutor Tim McGinty is trying to get to the bottom of the last big unanswered question in the five-year-old county corruption scandal: Was the county's 2005 purchase of the Ameritrust Tower corrupted in some way?

This January, county executive Ed FitzGerald told me he'd asked McGinty to investigate the Ameritrust purchase, especially corruption defendant Anthony Calabrese III's role in it.  McGinty did just that.

The prosecutor hit Calabrese with a six-count indictment last month, including conspiracy and corruption charges that include the 2005 Ameritrust deal.

The indictment charges that Calabrese -- then an attorney for The Staubach Co., a real estate consultant for the county on the Ameritrust deal -- got Dimora crony J. Kevin Kelley to provide him with "non-public information ... from Dimora relating to the then-forthcoming purchase of Ameritrust by Cuyahoga County." After the sale went through, McGinty alleges, Calabrese arranged for an unnamed businessman to pay Kelley a $70,000 bribe for his help.

Now, the reports that Dimora will be put before a grand jury to testify suggest that McGinty is considering further charges against someone. Where's he going with this?

Dimora is named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Calabrese indictment. It mentions him in connection with the Ameritrust sale and Dimora's famed trip to Vegas.  Why rehash Vegas?  Because conspiracy charges can reach back beyond Ohio's six-year statute of limitations on bribery. To charge anyone with crimes related to the 2005 Ameritrust deal, McGinty needs to prove that it was part of a larger conspiracy that was still active six years ago.

Federal investigators also looked into Calabrese's ties to the Ameritrust deal, and they charged Calabrese with witness tampering in relation to the $70,000 payment to Kelley -- but they dropped that charge when Calabrese agreed to plead guilty to 18 other crimes. Significantly, Calabrese's federal plea deal included no agreement to cooperate with the feds. Does that mean he still has secrets to keep?


To read more coverage of the 2005 Ameritrust purchase, follow these links:

"FitzGerald: Calabrese holds key to 2005 Ameritrust inquiry," Jan. 30, 2013

"FBI, IRS investigated Dimora, Kelley, payment to Staubach Co. over Ameritrust Tower purchase," June 7, 2012

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Will Zack Reed win reelection from jail?

So Zack Reed is guilty of his third DUI. His long reign as councilman for the Warehouse District has finally caught up to him. He’s headed to jail this time, for somewhere from 10 days to six months. He’ll be sentenced Sept. 5 – five days before the city council primary.

Is this the end of Reed’s political career? I don’t think so. We may be about to witness the spectacle of a popular city councilman getting reelected from the Cleveland House of Correction.

While he's still a free man, Reed’s running hard. Sunday, he tweeted that’s he’s got 500 yard signs planted in his ward. WKYC’s man-on-the-street interviews yesterday in Ward 2, on Cleveland’s far south side, found many residents ready to reelect him. People like his fiery, fighting style. His three challengers have nowhere near his name recognition.

“Drunk or not, Zack outworks the rest of them,” says local political activist and commentator Mansfield Frazier (who lives in Hough). “I’ve been to meetings at 7 a.m., and there’s Zack.”

Reed sounded contrite in an interview with WKYC’s Tom Beres. “I need to abstain from alcohol, and I will work to ensure that happens,” he said.

“The credibility of my family’s been lost. The credibility of my friends have been lost. And now the credibility of my constituents have been lost,” Reed said. “And now I’ve got to go back out to work to get that credibility back again.”

That humility is probably what his voters want to hear. Redemption stories play well in city politics.

City council president Martin Sweeney has called on Reed to resign. But Reed has no intention of quitting. So how much farther will Sweeney go?

The council can boot Reed out if he misses ten council and committee meetings for any reason, including an extended jail stay. But why kick him off council if voters are going to send him back in January?

Even if visiting judge Larry Allen gives Reed the maximum six months, would council kick him off twice, in 2013 and 2014? Not likely. Expelling a fellow member is a hard vote for a councilperson. It would bring up tough questions. Mike Polensek has already protested that other council members have skipped meetings without punishment. Others may ask why Sweeney ally Eugene Miller hasn’t been kicked off for his address snafu.

It looks like Reed will ride out his jail stint and stay on council through 2017 -- even if he has to get to City Hall by bus.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

After Cuyahoga council kills campaign finance reform, what's next?

If you want to get really depressed about our local representative democracy, I invite you to watch this video of the Cuyahoga County Council, petulantly refusing to regulate donations to county political campaigns in any way whatsoever.

By a 9-2 vote last week, the council members left the door wide open for gargantuan checks to flood the 2014 race for county executive, and maybe even their own re-election funds. They rejected a charter amendment that would give them the power to regulate donations in races for county executive, council and prosecutor. Single donations of $20,000, $50,000, $100,000, $400,000? It’s all legal!

Take a look at the video, from 43:00 to 1:11:00.  You'll see that allowing a single wealthy donor to dominate a politician’s campaign fund -- and wield way too much influence on them once elected -- doesn’t faze the council.

Councilmen Michael Gallagher and Dan Brady said there’s no evidence of a problem to fix. Sunny Simon said she doesn’t want to limit candidates’ ability to compete with self-funding millionaire candidates. Gallagher and Jack Schron complained that they, as elected officials, already have to follow too many campaign regulations. Council president Ellen Connally said regulating more could create a “chilling effect” on candidates running for office. Some said they didn’t want to be stuck making rules that applied to themselves.

All in all, the council showed lots of concern about themselves and other politicians, and little for the voters who want elected officials to listen to them, not one or two wealthy patrons.

The council’s decision means five- and six-figure donations can play a big role in the 2014 race for county executive. It happened in last year’s race for county prosecutor. One man, local businessman Robert Kanner, gave winning candidate Tim McGinty $50,000 – a quarter of all the money, $203,000, that McGinty raised for the Democratic primary race. That doesn’t necessarily mean Kanner will have undue influence over McGinty –- but doesn’t it at least create the potential for influence, or the appearance of influence?

What about the $36,000 that the late Dick Jacobs gave to Jimmy Dimora’s 1998 campaign for county commissioner? We can’t say that early seed money influenced Dimora’s bad decision to buy the Ameritrust complex from Jacobs in 2005. But since prosecutors alleged yesterday that Dimora leaked secret information about the Ameritrust deal, isn’t this at least an example of why one local businessman shouldn’t be able to give that much money?

Two councilpeople voted yes on the campaign finance amendment, Julian Rogers and Dave Greenspan.

“I think it helps to build trust if people know that they can’t necessarily buy influence from their county council person,” says Rogers. “The way it’s currently set, one person can make a contribution that funds an entire campaign for a county councilperson.” (Rogers says he spent about $47,000 on his campaign.)

“Where the county has come from, appearances mean a lot,” he adds. Donor limits are “an opportunity to continue the good effort we’ve begun to bolster our standing in the community and bring back some trust.”

Local activist Greg Coleridge, who’s worked for years to try to regulate money in local elections, says the council’s refusal was disappointing and surprising. He says rejecting the power to regulate campaign finance at all sends a terrible message.

“Hey, we’re open for business!” Coleridge says. “We’re the Wild West! There’s no limits, no enhanced disclosure… Pay to play! Here we are!”

Amid the council members’ self-serving arguments, I also heard resigned cynicism. They know it’s hard to create campaign finance reform in the wake of court cases such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Gallagher said he feared donor limits would lead the wealthy to form PACs to go around them – a possibility, but one that’s rare on the local level. Brady complained about Citizens United’s protection of anonymous campaign literature. He and Chuck Germana voted no on the charter amendment, saying public financing of campaigns is the only way to make a difference.

“In a sense, we agree with council,” says Coleridge. He’s part of the Move to Amend effort to overturn Citizens United with a constitutional amendment. “You’re not going to find an absolute loophole-free set of campaign contribution limits.

“In the meantime, to throw up your hands and say we shouldn’t even do anything is sending the message that those who have the most money will have their voices heard loud and clear. And it sends the perception that those who don’t have money, their voices are not going to be heard.”

Coleridge served on a transition panel that recommended sweeping ideas for clean county elections to the new government in 2011, including public financing for county campaigns. The panel’s ideas were ignored.

I think council’s refusal to act on donor limits opens up a chance for reformers to go big. They could start a petition drive for a clean elections charter amendment much like the 2011 proposal: donor limits, electronically searchable campaign reports, and public financing that helps candidates without wealthy supporters to compete.

It wouldn’t be easy. It takes more than 33,000 signatures to get a charter amendment on the ballot. But it’s not impossible. The charter’s framers gathered more than 70,000 signatures to get our new form of government on the 2009 ballot. Coleridge’s group recently collected more than 3,000 signatures for its Move to Amend petition in Cleveland Heights alone.

So far, I’m not hearing anyone in town who’s ready to take this issue directly to the voters. But campaign finance limits are exactly the sort of issue the initiative process was created to address. Voters know that a single wealthy businessperson shouldn’t be able to singlehandedly fund a candidate’s campaign. But the political system won’t do anything about it. Will we?

Monday, July 1, 2013

How to ban big money from Cuyahoga Co. elections

It’s time to finish the job of reforming Cuyahoga County government.

Today, the charter review commission releases its proposed amendments to the county charter. Most of its ideas would tweak the checks and balances in our new government -- making it harder for the county executive to fire the sheriff, for example, or writing the job of inspector general into the charter. 

But the best idea is designed to keep big money out of our elections and preserve our political leaders’ independence. It’s an amendment that would give the county council the duty to write campaign finance laws to govern county elections, including limits on campaign donations. 

Right now, wealthy donors can give unlimited contributions to a county executive or county council candidate – checks so big, they practically obligate candidates to give the donor special access once in office.  Five- and six-figure political donations are perfectly legal, even though they can drown out the voices of small donors and non-donors.

“Nationwide, not just this county, the funding of campaigns has gotten totally out of control,” says Bruce Akers, chairman of the charter review commission and a co-author of the 2009 charter.

“You can’t tell me that when candidate Jones or Smith gets elected and someone’s given him six or seven figures … [that it] doesn’t have influence,” Akers says. “There’s got to be some kind of parameters.”

A charter amendment may be the only way Cuyahoga County can limit big-money donations in its elections. Check out this quote from the Secretary of State’s Ohio Campaign Finance Handbook (pdf):

County or local candidates are not limited in the amount of contributions they may receive… unless there is a municipal or county charter that provides otherwise.

The old county government gave us a great example of the need for donor limits. The late developer Dick Jacobs gave Jimmy Dimora $36,000 and Peter Lawson Jones $25,000 in their first races for the old county commission. In 2005, Dimora and Jones voted to buy the vacant Ameritrust complex from Jacobs for almost $22 million. Jacobs got rid of a skyscraper albatross; taxpayers got stuck with it and took a big financial loss.

Can we do better?

Campaign finance reform faces three hurdles. First, the county council would have to vote to put the amendment on November’s ballot. Voters would have to approve it. Then the council would have to use its new power and enact meaningful limits -- in 2014, the year that half of them run for reelection.

That’s hardly a sure thing. Council members may be reluctant to limit donations to their own campaigns. It’s hard to raise a lot of small donations, easier to find a few wealthy sugar daddies.

“It’s difficult for officeholders to put a restriction on themselves,” Akers says. “That’s human nature.”

Which is why Akers and charter commission member William Tarter, Jr., have another idea. In a minority report, they’ve proposed an alternative charter amendment that would require Cuyahoga County to adopt the same campaign finance limit Ohio imposes in state races: currently $12,300. If the council were to put that on the ballot, voters could ban enormous, out-of-control donations in time for the 2014 county executive and council election.

The downside of Tarter and Akers’ idea is that a $12,300 limit is still too high. In races for president or Congress, a donor can only give a candidate $2,600 a year. In elections for Cleveland mayor and city council, it’s $1,000. Lower limits would do more to keep big donors from drowning out the voices of small donors and non-donors. Would the county council go for that?

Maybe – if enough people get behind campaign-finance reform and pressure the council to act.

It makes sense for us to debate how to choose a clerk of courts, protect the inspector general, and change sheriffs. But we can’t let those debates distract from the most important one we need to have this summer: how to keep big money from controlling our new government.

Update, 3:30 pm: Here is the charter review commission's report, which proposes 15 amendments to the county charter. The campaign finance proposal is on page 10.  Tarter and Akers' minority report is on p. 41.

“In 2010,” Tarter and Akers note, “one county candidate received $400,000 from a single individual.” They're thinking of Matt Dolan, who got $400,000 from his uncle, Charles Dolan of Cablevision, and $300,000 from his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan.

I'll write about the other major amendments later this month.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Council drama: Jeff Johnson vs. Eugene Miller, Brian Cummins vs. Garcia & Cintron, Zack Reed vs. DUI charge

Zack Reed's running for reelection to city council despite his latest drunk-driving charge. Brian Cummins faces two Hispanic challengers. And Jeff Johnson's run against Eugene Miller threatens Martin Sweeney's council leadership.

Those are the big storylines we'll see in this fall's Cleveland city council races -- set in motion today, the filing deadline for the city's September 10 primary.

"I am now an official candidate in the race to retain the Council seat in Cleveland Ward 2," Reed tweeted last night. His toughest opponents may not be his four challengers, but his own legal troubles.

Reed is set for trial August 15 on his third drunk-driving charge, this one based on a March arrest. He could lose his council seat if a long jail sentence prevents him from showing up to enough meetings.

But Reed, who's been on council since 2000, has survived adversity before. A blunt maverick who ignores council's peculiar rules of deference, he beat an 2009 attempt to gerrymander him out of a job. He ran in a new ward in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood and won 65 percent of the vote.

Brian Cummins, another maverick who beat a nasty gerrymander four years ago, faces a challenge of a different sort. He's a white guy in a ward redrawn this year to maximize the number of Hispanics in it.

Cummins' Ward 14 includes the Puerto Rican neighborhood around W. 25th St. and Clark Ave. The ward's political atmosphere is charged this summer because of the May 6 escape of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight from Ariel Castro's Seymour Ave. home. Hispanic activists want to redouble their efforts to improve the neighborhood to help move it beyond the Castro case's stigma. For some of them, electing a Hispanic councilman is part of the agenda.

Nelson Cintron, a former councilman with a checkered past, is running against Cummins. So is newcomer Janet Garcia, an insurance agent who seems to have a well-organized campaign. Cummins and Garcia both attended a Hispanic town hall meeting at Lincoln-West High School two weeks ago. After the meeting split into breakout sessions to brainstorm goals, Garcia spoke for her group and called for electing a Hispanic political leader. Cummins let someone else speak for his circle, but he, too, is paying attention to Latino issues, talking up plans to develop W. 25th and Clark into a "Hispanic Village," a destination built on ethnic stores and restaurants, like Little Italy.

In northeast Cleveland, Jeff Johnson aims to thwart council president Sweeney's redistricting map.  The new ward lines seemed to force Johnson into a race against fellow Glenville councilman Kevin Conwell.  Instead, Johnson is running in a weirdly drawn district that was stretched from South Collinwood through Glenville along St. Clair Avenue to try to set up Eugene Miller, a young Sweeney loyalist, with a safe seat.

The race is a high-risk, high-reward move for Johnson, who was considered Mayor Mike White's heir apparent until his 1998 extortion conviction and could be a mayoral contender again once Frank Jackson retires. (You can read Cleveland Magazine's 1999 profile, "The Rise and Fall of Jeff Johnson," here.)

Over in Hough's Ward 7, incumbent T. J. Dow faces a crowded field, including former interim councilwoman Stephanie Howse and Basheer Jones, a former radio host, poet and motivational speaker.

That race and the Johnson-Miller race could help determine whether the controversial Sweeney can remain council president -- or, whether Sweeney can successfully hand off the presidency to his top lieutenant, Kevin J. Kelley.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cimperman, Turner to perform in marriage equality play ‘8’

How's this for dramatic timing? Just as the U.S. Supreme Court gets ready to rule on gay-marriage cases, two Cleveland political leaders and several theater groups are seizing the moment.

Joe Cimperman and Nina Turner join a cast of actors next Sunday, June 30, to perform 8, a documentary play about the trial over California’s gay-marriage ban.

The one-night show will take place a few days after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on California's Proposition 8, which is expected next week or this Thursday.

The show is a staged reading, so the actors will read from scripts. But it’s a courtroom drama, so perhaps the actors will just come off like lawyers consulting their notes. The play is based on the transcripts from the 2010 trial, interviews and observations of the arguments. It’s written by Dustin Lance Black, an Oscar-winning screenwriter who wrote Milk and J. Edgar.

Cimperman, the longtime Cleveland city councilman, and Turner, the high-profile state senator and likely candidate for secretary of state, will be part of a 21-person cast that will also include local actors and leaders of various nonprofit organizations.

No word yet on who will play key roles, including the two couples fighting for the right to marry or super-lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies, who battled in Bush vs. Gore but formed a conservative-liberal dream team to fight the law.

After the performance, City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop will moderate a debate between two gay-marriage advocates and Rev. Jimmie Hicks, who was voted off the Cleveland Heights City Council after opposing the city’s domestic partnership registry. You’ve got to give him credit for showing up. This’ll be a tough crowd for him.

8 plays at 5 pm on Sunday, June 30 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. Tickets, which benefit the Cleveland chapter of PFLAG and the pro-gay-marriage American Foundation for Equal Rights, are $25. 

Update, 6/30: Peter Lawson Jones, the actor and former Cuyahoga County commissioner, played Olson. Turner wasn't in the cast after all, though she appeared in a recorded video shown before the play. 

Cimperman played an expert witness in the case. So did state Rep. Nickie Antonio of Lakewood, Ohio's first openly gay state legislator.  Her character's dialogue with an attorney sparked laughter in the audience. The attorney asked her if gays and lesbians are under-represented in elected office. "Yes," she replied.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Will unlimited donations flood county exec race?

How much money should a single wealthy person be allowed to give candidates for Cuyahoga County executive?

$1,000? $5,000? $12,000? $25,000?

How about $100,000? $300,000? Or $400,000?

Guess what? Due to a huge gap in the law, there’s no limit to what one person can donate to a candidate for county office.

This hole is big enough to buy a government through. It should’ve been plugged when we got a new county government. But proposals to fix it have gone nowhere.

Now, there’s finally some hope for change. Cuyahoga County’s charter review commission is considering two proposals to cut off the unlimited flow of money starting in 2014. It’s set to debate both ideas at its meeting Saturday morning, the 15th.*

It’s time for someone to act. Candidates are already running to succeed Ed FitzGerald next year – and right now, millionaires are free to invest five-figure or six-figure donations in them, in hopes of getting VIP access once they’re in office.

Races for federal, state, and Cleveland offices have sensible limits on one person’s ability to influence a candidate with donations. You can only give a candidate for president or Congress $2,600 a year. In Cleveland’s mayor and city council races, it’s $1,000. Ohio has much higher limits on donations to candidates for state office -- $12,300 this year – but that’s better than nothing.

The framers of the new county charter should have established limits on donations in 2009. But they didn’t. They unwisely punted the decision to the very elected leaders who stand to benefit from big donations.

During the transition to the new government, an advisory group suggested limits of $750 per election cycle to county council candidates and $1,000 to candidates for executive and prosecutor.

But the new county council failed to act. It debated whether to adopt the statewide limits of $12,300 as its own, or lower limits, but did neither.

Now, the charter review commission -- which has until July 1 to propose amendments to the county charter -- is considering two campaign finance reform ideas.

One proposed amendment would explicitly give the county council the power or duty to enact campaign finance laws, including limits on donations. That would prod the council to act.

The other comes from charter commission member William Tarter. He proposes amending the county charter to establish the same limit per donor in county races as in state races, $12,300.

Tarter says limits on huge contributions help empower smaller donors. “This is an opportunity for people to feel their contribution has a greater impact on the candidates,” he says.

Bruce Akers, chairman of the charter review commission, says the panel is “very divided” on the subject of campaign finance. Some members support Tarter’s idea. Others support new charter language that would nudge the council to act. One member is opposed to taking any action about campaign finance at all.

Citizens who want to limit big money’s influence on our local politics ought to get involved in this debate right away. But they face a dilemma. Should they back Tarter’s more specific proposal to link county donor limits to the state’s high limits? Or back an amendment that would put the issue back before the county council -- which might enact lower limits, but might enact none at all?

Tarter’s proposal would, at least, stop the biggest checks from flowing. And the last race for county executive proves it’s time to make a change.

In 2010, candidate Matt Dolan got contributions of $400,000 from his uncle, Charles Dolan of Cablevision, and $300,000 from his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan. The next six-figure donations may not be a family affair.

Big checks flowed to the old county government too. Before the late developer Dick Jacobs sold the Ameritrust complex to Cuyahoga County in 2005, he had a five-figure donor relationship with commissioners Jimmy Dimora and Peter Lawson Jones. Jacobs seeded their first campaigns for commission seats, giving Dimora $36,000 in 1998 and Jones in 2002.

Maybe Jacobs’ donations had nothing to do with the county’s unwise purchase of the Ameritrust complex, which led to an $18 million loss for taxpayers. But it’s a spectacular example of why no single donor should dominate an elected leader’s campaign fund -- and why campaign finance limits are the Cuyahoga County reform effort's biggest unfinished business.

*Update, 6/10: I originally wrote that the charter commission would discuss campaign finance "this Saturday," meaning the 8th. The commission ended up not tackling it on the 8th.  It'll take up the question on the 15th.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

32 Years of Roldo’s Point of View now online

You can’t tell Cleveland’s story of the last five decades without a word from Roldo Bartimole.

He’s the city’s original alternative journalist, icon-smasher, press critic and radical muckraker. Whether you think the white-haired, reedy-voiced reporter is Cleveland’s conscience or the town crank, he’s a necessary corrective to 45 years of boosterism and power-elite conventional wisdom.

“I don’t have a lot of heroes. Roldo Bartimole is one,” Esquire writer and Cleveland native Scott Raab tweeted last month, when his hero turned 80.

Now, Roldo's life's work has been liberated from library shelves. The Cleveland Memory website has recently scanned and posted the entire 32-year print run of Roldo's Cleveland politics newsletter, Point of View.

The generation of Clevelanders who know Roldo through his Cool Cleveland columns can read him as he takes on his great nemeses of the '70s, ’80s and ’90s: George Forbes and George Voinovich, The Plain Dealer and Alex Machaskee, Forest City and Dick Jacobs, sports team owners and their sweetheart deals.

My quick dig in Cleveland Memory's Roldo archive turned up gems:

“Buying Peace the Private Way,” June 26, 1968 – Roldo breaks the news that businessmen paid black militants $40,000 in summer 1967 to help prevent a repeat of the Hough riots.

“Resign Now,” April 26, 1980 – One of Roldo’s many screeds against George Forbes.

“Sohio Forbes/Shoves,” April 4, 1981 – The story behind the legendary photo (above) of Forbes physically throwing Roldo out of a meeting of city councilmen at the Bond Court Hotel.

“On to the 90s: White, Westbrook break old guard,” Nov. 25, 1989 – Roldo captures the moment when new political characters stepped up to replace Forbes and Voinovich: Mike White, Jay Westbrook, Jim Rokakis, Pat O’Malley, Mike Polensek, Jeff Johnson.

“Saying Goodbye,” December 2000 – In Point of View’s last issue, Roldo looks back on 32 years of combat against Cleveland’s political and economic powers. 

I’ve blogged about Roldo before – here’s a post about how downtown looks through his eyes, and one about his emergence as a critic of Mayor Frank Jackson. I’ve just posted two articles about him from Cleveland Magazine’s archives:

“Knight Errant,” May 1972 – In which Roldo describes his journalistic vows of poverty and comes close to calling himself a socialist and anarchist.
       (shortlink: j.mp/Roldo-KnightErrant)

“Last of the Great Muckrakers,” September 2000 – Michael D. Roberts’ profile of Roldo, which explores his single-minded devotion to his work and reveals the origin of his unusual first name (“the hero of… a cheap Italian novel”).
       (shortlink: j.mp/Roldo-Muckraker)

(photo by Timothy Culek, Cleveland Press, from clevelandmemory.org)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Angry Lanci says mayor has “consistently failed”

Ken Lanci was mad. Really mad. Breathing heavily into the overamped mike mad.

“Let’s be honest: the quality of the residents’ lives is declining,” Lanci said. “Things are getting worse, not better.”

The hot-tempered millionaire announced he’s running for mayor against Frank Jackson today. His event, at his printing company building in AsiaTown, had a very different vibe than his 2010 campaign for Cuyahoga County executive. Then he was the turnaround specialist; now he’s the angry challenger.

“The voters of Cleveland will have a very stark choice,” Lanci said. “They can vote for mayor who has not delivered and consistently failed, or they can vote for a new direction, a new approach, a new day.”

Anyone who thinks real mayors use the bully pulpit to lead have their man in Lanci. He’s the big-stick podium-pounder personified. Those tired of Jackson’s introverted demeanor will get what they ask for in the fall election. Lanci runs as hot as Jackson runs cold.

Today, Lanci delivered the most overly intense political speech I’ve seen in town in more than a decade. He stalked through it, mad as hell at the state of Cleveland, then choked up as he thanked his late mother for being “the first woman to ever love me,” then swung back to anger.

Cleveland residents’ current quality of life “is unacceptable to me,” he said. “It is absolutely unacceptable.

Sometimes the speech was effective. Lanci tore into Jackson’s record by quoting his pledges about education, safety and jobs from his 2006 State of the City address. He cited statistics to argue Jackson hasn't delivered.

Lanci went at Jackson especially hard on the Cleveland schools. The mayor is sure to run on the promise of his twin victories on school reform and the school levy last year. But Lanci is running on the results of the last eight years: the district met none of the state’s 26 standards in 2012.

Inevitably, Lanci used the mayor’s most underwhelming catch phrase against him.

“I think Frank Jackson is a good man. I also feel that he has done his best. However I feel that being involved in city politics for 30 years has given him a sense of, ‘It is what it is.’”

Ooh, some in the audience responded.

Lanci spoke from a stage in the middle of his Consolidated Graphics’ printing room. Several employees in work shirts sat atop the big Heidelberg Speedmaster presses for a better view, while dozens of people wearing Lanci stickers, dressed in everything from suits to business casual to working-class plaids, milled about between the rows of machinery.

African hand-drumming announced Lanci’s impending arrival onstage. The event seemed planned with acute awareness of the challenges facing a white challenger to a black mayor in a black-majority city.

But the invite list, while diverse, seemed filled out with a motley crew of gadflies. Black on Black Crime’s Art McKoy and black-trades activist Norman Edwards topped the list of recognizable figures. A guy sporting a New Black Panther Party jacket and pin managed to plant himself right behind Lanci during the candidate’s post-announcement press conference.

There, reporters asked for specifics lacking in Lanci’s speech. How would he bring more jobs to Cleveland? How would he change the schools reform plan?

“I can create more jobs by seeking out companies to come to Cleveland,” Lanci said, repeating the mantra of most businessmen-turned-candidates.

He didn’t critique the mayor’s plan for the schools. Instead, he said, “I can create a culture in the schools about caring, love, and opportunity. I’ve been in the schools 18 years. I’ve funded programs that do work.” (His campaign flyer mentions Project Love and Purple American, for at-risk teens.)

What makes Lanci run?

A lot of people wondered that when the orange-tanned businessman ran for county exec as an independent, spent $1 million of his own cash, covered the county with roving bus ads, and won 11 percent of the vote. A lot of people, especially Jackson supporters, will surely ask why he’s running now and why he moved from Brecksville to an East 12th Street apartment to do it.

A young Fox 8 reporter provoked Lanci: “To anyone who would say that you’re a guy who just has a lot of money and likes the attention, what would you say?”

Lanci responded by talking about his 2007 heart attack. “At 57 years old, I died. Through the grace of God, he brought me back. What did I need to come back for?” His answer: to use his talents to give back to the city.

Jackson should be able to dispatch this challenge by running on a few favorite themes: Others talk, I work. I have a plan; what’s his plan? He didn’t live here; why’s he a candidate? But if you want an aggressive challenger to the mayor, you’ve got him in Lanci, a temperamental opposite with drive and funds and fight to spare.