Wednesday, November 5, 2014

After an easy win, will Armond Budish keep his promise?

Today, at Armond Budish’s first press conference after his victory in the Cuyahoga County executive race, I asked him to name the most difficult moment in his campaign.

He had to think.

“Waking up this morning at 5 a.m. to do a television interview,” Budish said finally, “after [being up] last night and being at the polls all day yesterday.”

Before Election Day, I doubt the guy lost much sleep. Budish was the race’s front-runner from start to finish, ever since Ed FitzGerald and other key Democrats anointed him as FitzGerald’s successor in May 2013.

Jack Schron, Budish’s Republican opponent, was well-qualified and ran a visible, pretty assertive race. That won Schron 41 percent of the vote -- the best performance in 10 years by a Republican sacrificial lamb in a countywide election.

Now Budish and Schron will have to co-exist. Schron ran for executive from a safe seat on the county council, and he chairs its economic development committee. Today, Budish suggested Schron could help with a goal both men share: matching county job training programs with available local jobs.

“[Schron] talked a lot about a business he created to train workers for the jobs that exist,” Budish said. “That’s certainly an area we need to focus on. I look forward to working with him.”

Continuity, not change, was the mood of the day. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” I heard a guy, probably a county employee, say just before the press conference.

Budish’s agenda sounds similar to FitzGerald’s. Today he announced he’s forming his transition team, with three panels to take on his major goals.

An economic growth team will work on attracting new businesses to the region, supporting small businesses, aligning jobs and training, and creating “pathways out of poverty for people who want to work hard.” A regional team will explore ways to make college more affordable, advance clean energy, and deal with foreclosed homes, infant mortality and the health of Lake Erie. A third team will aim to make the government more cost-effective and responsive.

Budish said it’s too early to talk about his cabinet. But it doesn’t sound like he’ll clean house.

“We’ll look at everybody. We'll look at people who are here. We'll look at others,” Budish said. “There’s no plan at this point for making changes. We’ll make changes as needed.”

On hiring, Budish faces a test. He’s a loyal, partisan Democrat with a lot of connections.

He’s taking over five years after voters’ revulsion at patronage and cronyism convinced them to create a new county government. Now, many voters have moved on to new concerns. It’d be easier today to stack a cabinet with party loyalists.

This spring, I asked Budish if he’d root out patronage as aggressively as FitzGerald.

“Absolutely,” he said.

I asked how he’d deal with job requests from political allies.

“Nobody has been promised anything, nor will anyone be promised anything, during this campaign,” Budish said. “Anybody who is hired for any job will only be hired if they are the most qualified person for that job.”

Many people who worked hard to break up the Democratic patronage machine five years ago are nervous about Budish's election. Now that he’s hiring, it’s time for the public and press to hold him to his promise.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

FitzGerald loses even his home county in epic defeat

He could’ve run the town for as long as he wanted.

Ed FitzGerald had a job with no term limits. He could’ve run for reelection this year as the guy who restored confidence in Cuyahoga County government after the Jimmy Dimora era.

Instead, FitzGerald let hubris guide him. He thought he could pull off a leap as daring as his jump from Lakewood mayor to Cuyahoga County executive. So he ran for governor, taking the long odds any Democrat faced this year, despite the scandal he should’ve known awaited.

So FitzGerald lost, by an embarrassing, almost two-to-one margin, to Gov. John Kasich. Voters’ repudiation of him is complete: He even lost here, in the county where he’s executive.

Four years ago, as executive-elect, FitzGerald was talking about how the story of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign reminded him to advocate for the poor. His ambition was obvious to everyone.

Now, if FitzGerald is remembered outside Cleveland, it’ll be as a minor character in the story of Kasich’s likely imminent presidential campaign. He’ll be sort-of known as the other guy in the infamously missing video, the one who asked Kasich about rape crisis centers and got snubbed.

I think FitzGerald could’ve saved his career, not just by spending a Saturday at the BMV getting a license, or calling a cab for the lovely Irish trade delegate, but by knowing he’d pressed his luck. When the cops handed him back his years-old learner’s permit that early morning in 2012 and told him he was free to go, wasn’t that a sign to start playing it safe?

If FitzGerald had run for executive again, he might’ve dodged his car trouble. Perhaps the Republicans’ opposition research wouldn’t have dug that deep. Or, if a local opponent had used it against him, I think he would’ve survived it, thanks to Democrats’ 20-year winning streak in countywide races and his record as executive.

Though it’s deeply unfashionable to mention this right now, FitzGerald has a compiled a pretty long list of accomplishments: a smaller payroll, an under-budget convention center project, progress on regional cooperation, a $100 million economic development fund and a $50 million blight demolition fund – and, last but not least, his signature anti-corruption idea, an inspector general so independent that she was even free to scold him for his car trouble a week before the election.

But recklessly plunging into the governor’s race? Taking the Democratic ticket down with him? That, the voters who elected him four years ago couldn’t forgive.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Will Cleveland voters shut down traffic cameras?

It’s the election’s sleeper issue: Cleveland’s traffic cameras. For nine years they’ve watched over major intersections and avenues, snapping photos of drivers’ license plates when they detect a speeder or a red-light-runner.

Tomorrow, Cleveland residents will decide whether to shut them off.

To supporters of Issue 35, which would effectively end the city’s traffic camera program, Election Day is the citizen’s chance to fight back against an unfair system and a government trying to raise cash. An anti-camera Facebook page has posted a picture of Mayor Frank Jackson, altered to show glowing dollar signs in his eyes. Jackson has warned that he’ll have to cut $6 million from the city budget if the cameras are shut down.

“If the mayor and council was concerned about safety rather than revenue, they probably would have looked at safety data sometime in last nine years while the cameras have been up,” argues petition drive organizer Jason Sonenshein. “They haven’t compiled that data.”

Issue 35’s backers spent four years gathering petition signatures for their proposed charter amendment. A yes vote would ban photo traffic enforcement in Cleveland unless a police officer is on the scene and personally issues the ticket. (That would reduce the cameras to expensive alternatives to radar guns.) A no vote on Issue 35 would preserve the camera program.

“I’m mostly concerned about the lack of due process with camera tickets,” says Sonenshein. “They ticket the owner, not necessarily the driver. If you weren’t driving, it’s up to you to prove your innocence, rather than up to the government to prove you’re guilty.”

Camera tickets can be appealed, and Cleveland Magazine recently found that about half of appeals result in a dismissal or reduced fine. But Sonenshein says only four percent of ticketed motorists appeal. "A lot of people can’t afford to take off work," he says. Hearing officers aren’t neutral, he complains, because they’re employed by the city, not a court.

The mayor and various city councilpeople, including council president Kevin Kelley, oppose Issue 35. Councilman Brian Cummins has posted arguments for keeping the cameras on his website. He and others argue that the cameras deter residents from speeding, that most of them are deployed in high-crash areas, and that they free police officers to combat violent crime. Bike Cleveland, the cycling advocacy group, also opposes Issue 35, arguing that the cameras help keep cyclists and pedestrians safe by slowing down car traffic.

I asked Sonenshein to answer the safety arguments, including the point on Cummins' website that pedestrians are likely to survive a collision with a car driving 20 mph, but likely to die if hit by a car going 40.

“There are lots of ways to improve the safety of the streets without raising the risk of punishing innocent people,” Sonenshein says, suggesting narrower traffic lanes and longer yellow lights. He also says the city hasn’t done a thorough study of the camera’s effects, and that a national study that claims traffic cameras reduce fatal crashes by 24 percent is flawed.

The camera debate cuts across the usual political divides. Sonenshein and several other petition organizers have a libertarian bent.  (Sonenshein's anti-camera PAC is called Liberate Ohio. He says it's spent about $1,300.) Councilmen Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, usually allies, are on opposite sides of this issue. Johnson has defended the cameras, saying neighborhood groups often request them. Reed says he's become convinced the camera program is really about revenue, not safety. Most of council has long supported the cameras, but Joe Cimperman has voted against them, arguing they lead to rear-end collisions.