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.