Friday, February 22, 2013

My new Frank Jackson profile, out now

It’s time to stop underestimating Frank Jackson — that’s the headline of my new profile of Cleveland’s mayor, in the March issue of Cleveland Magazine and online now.

For years, people have dismissed Jackson with clichés. He's not a cheerleader for Cleveland. He doesn't use the bully pulpit to champion causes. He's not inspirational. Not a visionary. Those clichés persist because Jackson belongs to that rarest of species, the introverted politician. We’re used to being governed by glad-handing extroverts.

But seven years into Jackson’s time as mayor, it’s time to judge him by different standards. After his unlikely political victories for school reform and the school levy, it’s time to acknowledge his successes and understand his talents. That will actually help us demand more of him.

My profile explores how Jackson used his shrewd understanding of people’s motivations to get the school reforms and levy passed. It follows him from Glenville to the Cleveland Clinic to City Hall and catches him dropping witty side comments, near-riddles and risky, blunt comments that provoke nervous laughter in audiences. It examines his surprising, up and down relationship with Gov. John Kasich. It explores how his belief in equity and fairness and his instincts for consistency and patience play out in how he governs.

The story also probes the most consistent and illuminating criticism of Jackson in political circles, that he has a small circle of trust, yet can be overly loyal to those he does trust. And it looks at how all those habits and beliefs affect how he’s handling some of his biggest challenges of 2013, including the investigation into the November police chase and shooting and his latest efforts to develop the waterfront.

Meanwhile, 40 pages away in the March issue, our columnist, Michael D. Roberts, offers a different perspective on the mayor. Less impressed with Jackson’s school victories than I am, Roberts argues that the mayor’s record is disappointing and ought to invite a strong challenger when he runs for re-election this fall. Roberts’ column in our Talking Points commentary section, “Inaction Jackson,” is online here.

I’ve often written about the mayor on this blog, but the March profile is my first magazine-length look at Jackson since he took office in 2006. If the conventional wisdom is right and Jackson coasts to a third term this November, he’ll be mayor through 2017. So now’s the time to ask, what more do we expect of him?

If you’d like to link to my profile, please use this shortcut:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

FitzGerald the reformer, FitzGerald the loyal Democrat

Ed FitzGerald, scourge of patronage machines and ally of public employee unions -– the Cuyahoga County executive will have to lay claim to both reputations if he’s going to run for governor. He tried to do that in one key part of his State of the County address yesterday, but if you slow it down for the replay, you can hear the strain.

First, he cited some figures that, if you weren’t listening carefully, might’ve led you to think he’s cut county government by 30 percent.

Personnel costs are our number one expenditure, and that was our number one focus for reducing costs. There is a frequently repeated myth about government that it always gets larger, it can never become more efficient, and we have proven that wrong. In 2007, there were 6,374 county employees, and at the end of 2012 we were down to 4,507, a reduction of over 1,800 positions.

Today, that last line made it to the front page of The Plain Dealer, without anyone asking, hey, how much of that reduction is FitzGerald responsible for? The answer, according to county budget documents I looked at, is somewhere around 280 to 433 positions. FitzGerald took office in January 2011. Before that, the old county commissioners actually shed roughly 1,500 employees because declining tax revenues forced them to.

FitzGerald did take on the harder work of cutting union employees. He’s eliminated at least 350 unionized positions, county records show -- about as many as the county commissioners cut in 3½ years. But of course he can’t brag about that if he’s going to run for governor. Public employee unions, still enraged at Gov. John Kasich for signing Senate Bill 5, will provide a lot of the fervor, volunteers and cash for Kasich’s challenger next year.

So FitzGerald executed this quick reverse-twirl in his speech, a move from reformer to union-friendly liberal.

We have 31 separate bargaining units we negotiate with, and we have asked all of them to work with us to contain costs, and they have responded. Now, I know there are some who believe the road to good government runs right over the government worker. But I don’t believe that you can serve the people by attacking the people’s employees. In this process, our unions agreed to unprecedented concessions. County employees were part of the solution.

That, of course, is a dig at Kasich -- FitzGerald’s biggest one-eye-on-Columbus line of the day.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

FitzGerald burnishes reformer credentials, floats new Great Lakes Expo in State of County speech

Ed FitzGerald tackled a political challenge of his own making today. How could he deliver a State of the County address without sounding like he’s running for governor? His answer: a pair of headline-making announcements and the latest hard sell of his reformer credentials.

First, FitzGerald announced that the Medical Mart has a new name, more vague, less blatantly commercial, more aspirational: the Global Center for Health Innovation. The name change seems inspired by the Cleveland Clinic’s Medical Innovation Summit, which will open in the Mart Center in October. It could also be borrowed from the latest announced tenant. FitzGerald announced that the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society will locate its Innovation Center here. It’s another win for the ever-strengthening project. The HIMSS center, which will take up most of a floor, was going to be an anchor in the failed Nashville medical mart.

Next, FitzGerald called for Cleveland to host a sequel to the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936-1937 in three years. Indulging a bit of history geekiness, he talked about how FDR pressed a button on the White House desk to open the Expo gate and later visited the grounds. Maybe, he speculated in the Q and A, a new expo could be based on medicine and music, like the 1930s expo was based on Cleveland’s industries of the time. Or it could be based on music and performing arts, entrepreneurship and local food. Or “it could be all those things or none of those things,” he said, trying to leave room for others in town to add their ideas.

Ever since the Great Lakes Expo lit up our waterfront with its carnival midway, its exotic Streets of the World and its towering art deco architecture, reviving it has been a recurring civic dream. Dennis Kucinich floated the idea in the 1970s. But world’s fairs, or almost-world’s-fairs, have a tougher go of it today than in those Depression years before the Travel Channel and frequent-flier flights to Europe. My advice to FitzGerald: think less about a sequel to the Romance of Iron and Steel and more about recruiting great characters who can stir up a bit of scandal. Who’ll be our Billy Rose, our Eleanor Holm, our Toto Laverne?

Near the start of the speech, you could learn a lot about FitzGerald by listening to him execute a pair of moves. First, he gave thanks for the federal corruption investigation, singling out U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach in the audience and issuing him a “long overdue thank you for your zealous pursuit of corruption and support for integrity.” (The corruption probe started before Dettelbach took the job, and he’s had to recuse himself from it, but minor point, I guess.)

Then FitzGerald called the corruption probe Phase One of the effort to clean up Cuyahoga County government and called his administration’s efforts Phase Two. “We dismantled the political patronage machine which was choking county government,” he said. FitzGerald’s opposition to patronage seems genuine and proven. But he’s still executing a clever pirouette, dancing past the real Phase Two, the Issue 6 campaign that created a new county government system. FitzGerald, awkwardly, opposed the charter he now governs under, a fact that still complicates his reformer persona.

FitzGerald made one other revealing move. It was the one moment when you could hear his gubernatorial ambitions loud and clear. I'll post about it tomorrow.