Political Newcomer Annette Butler Takes On The Most Powerful Incumbent In The County

Chasin' Mason 

Political Newcomer Annette Butler Takes On The Most Powerful Incumbent In The County

Annette Butler is running for Cuyahoga County prosecutor. If this is news to you, don't blame yourself. The Plain Dealer hasn't written about her. You haven't seen much in the way of campaign literature or yard signs because Butler can't afford them; she's raised about 1 percent of the amount that her opponent, Democratic incumbent Bill Mason, has at his disposal. Even some Republicans don't know who she is.

"Everybody thinks I've lost my mind," says Butler, smiling. In an East Side coffee shop, she talks about picking a fight with possibly the most powerful man in the county.

"Mason will run me out of town if I don't win," she says. "I won't be able to get a job anywhere in town."

Butler grew up in Hough in the '60s, a time when Cleveland was at war with itself. "I remember watching the [National Guard] tanks roll by," she says. "They pointed guns in my face. They hated us."

At East High, Butler was one of four valedictorians. She was the first woman sports editor at her high-school paper and still loves baseball. She worked three jobs to put herself through college, enrolling at Case Western Reserve University and then Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

In 1982, she wanted a job as an assistant county prosecutor, but there were few opportunities for a black woman in that office at the time. She applied to be an assistant U.S. Attorney instead and spent the next 24 years working for the federal government, arguing everything from public housing to employment discrimination to tax collection in the civil division. Scene requested her personnel file weeks ago; at press time, it still had not been made available.

Butler was "smart, aggressive and well-prepared," says Marcia Johnson, the chief of the civil division in the U.S. Attorney's Office and Butler's direct supervisor for 16 years.

In the late 1980s, Butler found herself in the middle of a case involving forfeiture - when the government tries to seize private property to recoup money it's owed - that would test her abilities as both a litigator and mediator.

A decade earlier, Norbert Dennerll had opened two private neighborhood schools (similar to modern charter schools); they served students whose parents didn't want their children bussed far from home by the Cleveland school district, which was under court order to desegregate.Dennerll's schools enrolled 600 Cleveland students and gained support of local parents.

All that came under threat in 1989, when the IRS accused Dennerll of collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal taxes from employees but not forwarding the money to the government. The IRS sued Dennerll; the U.S. Attorney assigned to the case was Butler. Even today, there is an edge to Butler's voice when she recalls the case. "I wanted to close the schools down and [seize] the property," she says.

But parents didn't see it that way and were furious when a judge ordered the two schools padlocked. They picketed the U.S. Attorney's Office; Butler remembers walking through the crowd of name-calling protestors. At trial, Butler had to convince a federal judge who was known for his resistance to government forfeiture. And Butler had to sit down with the community's parents and explain why Dennerll was in court. She won them over, she says, and won the case.

Johnson, her supervisor, recalls a case shortly before Butler retired in 2006. Butler had to represent the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a suit brought by one of its own employees. "It was emotionally charged," Johnson says. "The way [Butler] handled it was impressive. It wasn't just about whether the government prevailed, but if the plaintiff felt her grievances were heard and got her day in court." Butler was the Cleveland City Club's first woman president. She was also vice-chair of Cleveland State University's board of trustees.

The U.S. Attorney's Office forbids staffers from engaging in political activity. On two occasions, Butler considered leaving for public office. In 1993, county Republicans put her name forward as one of five for then-Gov. George Voinovich to consider for a vacant county Common Pleas Court judgeship. Butler didn't get it. Then, in 2003, Butler threw her name into a crowded field of almost 40 candidates vying to serve on the Cleveland school board. She didn't get that either.

Butler took a buyout offered by the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2006 and has since spent her time teaching classes on the Constitution and criminal law at the Academy of Court Reporting. She also volunteers as a tutor at Collinwood and Glenville public schools.

Working against Butler in her bid for the prosecutor's office is her lack of management experience and only recent schooling in Ohio's criminal laws. The county prosecutor's office employs more than 300 people and works in concert with myriad elected offices and county agencies. A 2005 justice reform study cited this interlocking maze, as well as a lack of coordination and efficiency, as one of the toughest challenges facing the county's criminal justice system.

Butler emphasizes her differences with Mason on certain issues, such as the handling of crack pipe cases.

By Ohio law, a person found with a crack pipe can be charged with a misdemeanor, for possessing a drug-related instrument, or a felony, if testing reveals crack residue. In Cuyahoga County, a disproportionate number of crack pipe cases charged as felonies come out of Cleveland; similar cases in suburban cities are usually treated as misdemeanors ("Disparate Times," Scene, July 30, 2008).

The difference is significant. A misdemeanor conviction means fines. A felony conviction is a lifelong stigma that makes finding employment and housing far more difficult.

Butler says the county prosecutor needs to take the lead on rectifying this imbalance. "I talked to the parents of a young man recently," says Butler. "They're scared. They know if he gets picked up with a crack pipe - no drugs, just a pipe - they know that he will be charged with a felony and can never work again. If we catch a kid with a crack pipe, couldn't we send him to rehab instead?"

Also, making these cases misdemeanors, either at the municipal or county level, could save thousands in taxpayer dollars when it comes to court and jail costs.

Butler is also in favor of open discovery. In Cuyahoga County, prosecutors are in almost total control of what information is turned over to defense lawyers before trial (a process known as discovery).

Mason, who has long claimed that open discovery could put victims and witnesses at risk, has only recently agreed that some restrictions could be lifted. But he still favors a system geared toward prosecutorial discretion.

Butler also promises to act aggressively against public corruption. In July, the FBI raided the homes and offices of two top county politicians. Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and Auditor Frank Russo were suddenly in the spotlight for possibly trading thousands in county contracts and jobs for free upgrades and renovations to their homes. Mason's office apparently was out of the loop.

Earlier this year, Cathy Luks, a Republican challenger to then-County Recorder Pat O'Malley, accused him of bribing her to get out of the race. O'Malley, who has since been sentenced to 15 months in jail on federal obscenity trafficking charges, was Mason's college roommate. The two rose to power in Cuyahoga County together. When Luks went public, Mason did nothing.

"He isn't interested in prosecuting criminals when they are his friends," says Butler. "I'm going to win this race because people are tired of this. I'm only running for this because if someone doesn't, this man will continue running his fiefdom." Winning the county pros-ecutor's seat will be a formidable challenge. Mason has wide name recognition, and Butler has almost none. Two Republicans that Scene spoke to recently - former county Common Pleas Court Judge Peggy Foley Jones and current Common Pleas Court Judge Richard McMonagle - had no idea that their party was fielding a challenger to Mason.

As of April, Butler had raised just over $5,000 in campaign contributions. Mason's war chest totals nearly half a million. Butler says potential contributors tell her they're afraid of retaliation by Bill Mason. The names of donors and the amount they give to political campaigns are public record.

"Every time I give a speech, everyone agrees with me," says Butler. "And then they sit there with their checkbooks in their pockets because they don't dare - they know they'll be found out. I just have never met so many cowards in my life."

Mason declined Scene's requests to discuss his opponent or his upcoming bid for reelection. As of press time, he also hadn't responded to the Cleveland City Club's request to debate Butler on October 20.

news@clevescene.com

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