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How A Bill Becomes A Law (maker) 

By James Renner

Overcast skies hang stagnant over Chagrin Falls, contrasting with the festive scene outside the old Town Hall. Red, white and blue bunting droops from the walls. A quartet of middle-aged women stands on the steps, singing patriotic songs in four-part harmony. Cardboard cutouts of President Bill and Senator Hillary Clinton greet visitors. Only the red eyes and strangely sneering smile on the papier-maché donkey seem out of sync with the excitement that's in the air as local Democrats gather inside.

About 60 people sit on foldout metal chairs, murmuring to each other about who might show up at the rally - Peter Lawson Jones? Bill Mason? - and about who will serve as "surrogate" for the Obama campaign to deliver a presidential pep talk. (not to kill the manufactured suspense, but it was actor Ed O'Neill from Married … With Children. Seriously.) The audience is old and not-so-old. Some wear jackets that identify their unions. Behind them is a buffet of chips and soda and apple cider and candy corn. Three young men hover there, looking out of place and nervous.

This room is full of history. It clings to the walls like a layer of invisible dust, impressing upon the place a certain reverence. President James A. Garfield debated here - a marathon of a debate that lasted five days. Susan B. Anthony spoke here. And now this guy, a shortish man with the face of a scoutmaster or the father character from some Nick at Nite sitcom.

"I want to tell you a little bit about myself," he says. His voice is emotive and deep, slightly nasal. It's the voice of a good dentist, someone used to convincing people it won't hurt. And though his voice engages, the man stands there in his suit, ramrod-straight. Is it nerves? Is it a physical manifestation of his inner coldness? Really, who is this guy? "Fifteen years ago my wife was killed in a car accident," he continues. "I was left with four children to take care of. I know how to make four lunches with five minutes to spare before the bus comes. I know how to shop for prom dresses off the sales rack. I know how to make a $100 car look like new for a 16-year-old son. My son Shawn went to Iraq and has come home. And I'll tell you what I don't need. I don't ever need advice about the war from some draft-dodging oil merchant like Dick Cheney."

Applause echoes off the old walls. In the back, a young man with a beard pumps his fist.

"The war in Iraq costs us $10 million a month, while the Iraqi government enjoys an $80 million surplus. Why are we paying for it? That doesn't make any sense."

The applause continues.

"We need to fix the health-care system in America. When a person can't pay for surgery, the taxpayer gets the bill. We won't pay for a $50 doctor's visit that might catch the problem early, but we'll pay for a quarter-of-a-million-dollar surgery? That doesn't make sense. We need universal health care for everyone. It will save us money."

More applause, louder and building. The young man in the beard turns to the other young man standing next to him and smiles. This is their guy, after all. And the people, in this room at least, will remember who he is come November 4.

"My name is Bill O'Neill," shouts the man behind the podium. "And I'm running for Congress!"

In 1967, O'Neill was a sophomore at Ohio University facing the draft after graduation. His father knew he'd be sent overseas sooner or later, into an escalating war zone. "You're going to Vietnam," he told him. "Count on it. And you really need to be an officer when you do."

O'Neill tried to enlist in the university's Air Force ROTC program - his father had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross in World War II - but was informed that his poor eyesight would keep him from earning his wings. So he joined the Army ROTC and spent the summer of '67 at Fort Benning, Georgia, hoofing it through basic.

After graduating in '69, O'Neill spent a year at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, learning how to launch Nike nuclear missiles, an education that would be of no use when he was shipped to Vietnam. He arrived in Long Binh in 1971 and, in a moment that later would seem like a bit of divine intervention, he found himself inside a bar, getting drunk with a colonel who was on his way home. Sometime that night, the colonel suggested, "Why don't you take care of the media for a year." O'Neill thought that sounded better than his other options. An hour later, he was heading upriver toward Da Nang, and the rest of his time in Vietnam consisted of accompanying journalists to the war zone.

When he returned home, O'Neill went to work for the other side, taking a job as a newspaper reporter for the Sandusky Register for three months before going to work for Channel 4 in Columbus. In 1974, he became a PR flack for the unions at a time when truckers were shooting at scabs from highway overpasses. He helped organize the first union at Lucasville's penitentiary. When he and a dozen other consultants crashed a convention being held by a breakaway union whose members didn't want to join up with the AFL-CIO, someone called in a SWAT team to restore order. O'Neill was arrested. He eventually pleaded to disorderly conduct.

"I make no apologies," he says, smiling as he recalls the adventure. At 26, O'Neill made a Hail Mary run for lieutenant governor. He borrowed his sister's Winnebago and toured the state, delivering stump speeches in 55 counties, but ultimately finished in third place.

He went to law school at Cleveland State, graduating in 1979, and later opened a storefront law firm in Geneva with a buddy from his 'Nam days. In 1980, he married a young artist with a knack for graphic design; she created the NCB logo for National City Bank's tower in downtown Cleveland. Later she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.

And then, one day in 1982, the father of a man named Pooch Cunningham came into his office and changed the course of his career.

Pooch, an accounting major at Bowling Green State University, was in jail, the father explained. Pooch had worked as a caterer at a hillbilly wedding reception in Western Pennsylvania, where someone had tried to bash in the groom's skull with a fence post. Pooch, who was the only black person present, was charged with attempted murder. Pooch's dad knew O'Neill by reputation and wanted him to help his son.

O'Neill wasn't licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania and had to hire co-counsel. But he spent long days in Meadville deposing witnesses and preparing for trial. He and his wife had one car, so she would drive him there in the morning and spend the day in the park next door to the courthouse with the twins, before driving them home at night while O'Neill sat in the passenger's seat, poring over documents.

"It was my To Kill a Mockingbird case," says O'Neill. "Everyone wanted to blame the only black man who was there. But I caught them in so many lies. It was obvious Pooch's son didn't do it." Luckily, his case turned out better than Atticus Finch's. It took the jury 20 minutes to acquit. The victory earned O'Neill a reputation. A civil case he won a year later, involving a trucker who flipped his vehicle in front of a Bob Evans in Solon, netted a six-figure settlement and secured a future for his business and his family. On the night of the verdict, his wife gave birth to their third child.

Over time, the O'Neill home was taken over by even more children - neighborhood kids who came over for dinner and were always there on the weekends. Brandon, an African-American orphan who was living with a distant relative in town, became a fixture. One night, in the middle of a cold winter about 12 years ago, O'Neill drove Brandon back to his house and watched from the car as the boy let himself in and turned on a series of lights in the empty home, trailing up to his makeshift bedroom in the attic. The next day, O'Neill began making plans to legally adopt him. In 1995, he was planning to run for a seat on the 11th District Court of Appeals when he and his wife separated. "A troubled time in our relationship," he recalls. Then, she was killed in a car accident in South Carolina. When he told his children at the dinner table that he wasn't going to run because he wanted to be with them, they convinced him to get back in the game. He won the seat.

During his tenure as appellate judge from 1997 to 2007, O'Neill was often a welcome liberal voice on a conservative bench - most notably in the case of Randy Resh and Bob Gondor, who were convicted of rape and murder in Portage County in 1990. A Common Pleas Court judge threw out their convictions in 2002, because the original verdict was "not worthy of confidence." When the prosecutor appealed, the case was sent to the court of appeals, where the judges overturned the ruling, keeping Resh and Gondor behind bars. O'Neill, however, wrote a scathing dissent, arguing that the jury had been shown what appeared to be bloodstains in the bed of Gondor's truck but were never informed "that the substance in the bedliner WAS NOT BLOOD." He went on to state, "Had such evidence been disclosed to the juries that decided these cases, there is a reasonable probability that the result of the proceedings would have been different." The Ohio Supreme Court ultimately agreed with O'Neill and ordered new trials. The men are free today.

O'Neill ran for the Supreme Court of Ohio twice while he was an appellate judge, both times against Terrence O'Donnell (in a special election in 2004 and again in '06). When he began to organize his campaign in 2004, O'Neill contacted the journalism department at his alma mater, Ohio University. "I called a professor I trusted and told him that I wanted their best press agent," says O'Neill. "The man didn't hesitate. He said, 'You'll be hearing from Toby Fallsgraff.'"

In the years since, Fallsgraff has become as much a part of O'Neill's family as the neighborhood kids who would never leave his home. So when O'Neill decided to resign from the appeals court in 2007 and run for Congress against Republican incumbent Steve LaTourette, he didn't hesitate to call Fallsgraff back to run the biggest campaign of his life. The war room looks and smells a lot like a frat house living room the morning after a kegger. Coffee brews on a card table beside a grimy microwave, surrounded by condiments that should be in the fridge. The walls are primer white, the color of temporary hangouts. Against one wall is a foldout banquet table that serves as both a computer station and an assembly line for mailers. Tacked to another wall is a laminated map of Congressional District 14. A handmade wooden box stuffed with CDs - Bob Dylan, Kitty Hawk, the New Pornographers - sits on the floor. A handwritten note taped to the wall beside the front door alludes to some past mistake: Remember: Turn off the coffee.

The headquarters of O'Neill's congressional campaign is actually a converted house and former video store and dentist's office on Euclid Avenue in Wickliffe. These days, the only visitors are local Democrats asking for yard signs and a contingency of loyal high-schoolers and community-college students who volunteer for extra credit and experience. One such regular is Pablo Villa, a post-secondary student with a tangle of dark hair who spends at least 30 hours every week organizing O'Neill's schedule of events and appearances. "My mind has been fried by trigonometry," he says as he walks in. He slumps into a chair behind a laptop and begins to type out a letter to the editor in support of O'Neill, which he hopes to have published in the Ashtabula Star-Beacon.

A little while later, Mike Gwin joins him. Gwin is a student at Hawken School who works as a field coordinator for O'Neill at night and on weekends. He too immediately goes to work without being instructed, hanging a list of District 14's precincts on the wall next to his chair.

Behind foldaway doors in what was once a Florida room is an office shared by two paid staffers: campaign manager Toby Fallsgraff and Justin Barasky.

Fallsgraff is 26, a guitarist for a rock band called Daddy's Gonna Kill Ralphie, when he's not trying to get O'Neill elected. He talks like he's always five minutes late for an important meeting but never fails to engage the listener, even when he's so revved up that he's tripping over his own words. Barasky is the more laid-back of the pair, a former employee of the Raben Group, a legislative consulting firm based out of D.C. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (if you call it the "D-triple-C," they'll let you in the club) asked Barasky to go to Ohio this cycle to get more Dems in the House. He picked O'Neill's campaign because he's from Solon, and because he knew Fallsgraff from Ohio University. The two kept in touch after moving to D.C., catching Browns games at a bar. Barasky's brother, Ben, also works for the campaign, taking a break from college to drive O'Neill to events in the campaign's hybrid can.

Fallsgraff writes the speeches, or drafts of speeches that O'Neill finishes. Barasky co-writes press releases that he sends to his local and national media contacts. Together, they make sure O'Neill is at his most advantageous location at any given moment; when he's not giving speeches to Rotary clubs and unions, he is in front of a phone, calling friends, business associates and strangers, asking them for more money. They do a million other things too - from researching the backgrounds of donors (O'Neill is not taking money from people who may be caught up in the ongoing federal probe into corruption in Cuyahoga County) to rounding up more volunteers to stuff letters (the girl who works at the deli across the street comes over between shifts sometimes).

"This case is a daily grind," says Fallsgraff, who averages about five hours of sleep a night.

"Your mind is always working," says Barasky. "There's a certain manic excitement to a campaign."

This campaign has been more exciting than others, with more dramatic twists than a sweeps-month episode of The West Wing. Take, for instance, the revelation that O'Neill's son Brandon was involved in a fight at an OU frat house in which a man was stabbed, and that after O'Neill called the police, no charges were filed against Brandon. That story appeared in The Plain Dealer four days before the primary election last spring. Aware of Congressman LaTourette's friendships with PD editors, Fallsgraff wondered whether the timing of the article was meant to harm O'Neill's chances of winning the primary. After all, the fight had taken place more than a year before, witness statements had suggested a white assailant and the article ran with a picture of O'Neill, not Brandon.

A week later, doctors discovered blockage in three of O'Neill's arteries. He underwent emergency bypass surgery and couldn't campaign for almost a month.

Also complicating matters is O'Neill's seemingly eccentric decision to become a pediatric nurse at the age of 61. He works nights at Hillcrest Hospital, in the kids' ER. He has to make up that sleep sometime, and occasionally it's to the detriment of his fundraising efforts. But with the help of his staff, O'Neill managed to raise over $500,000, more than anyone has raised to fight LaTourette before.

A large portion of that money has been spent on radio ads cooked up by Toby and consultants from Main Street Communications. The ads play up LaTourette's ties to financial deregulation and support of Big Oil, which has donated heavily to his campaign. Just how much he's been given by oil companies is the subject of debate between the two campaigns. O'Neill's camp says the figure is around $275,000. LaTourette's people say it's more like $55,000. But maybe having that discussion was Fallsgraff's plan all along.

"We can argue all day long about how much money LaTourette has taken from Big Oil," says Fallsgraff. "We want to talk about that."

The guy who doesn't want to talk about that is Dino Disanto, LaTourette's deputy chief of staff and the communication director for his reelection campaign. "Their campaign is filled with lies," says Disanto, who is particularly fired up about the allegation that LaTourette had anything to do with the financial mess. "He'll say anything to get elected. He says we've accepted over $1 million from fat-cat financial executives. What he forgets to tell you is that also includes people in the real-estate business, insurance agents and investment brokers. He throws out these big numbers but doesn't tell you what they really mean."

There are other ways, more personal, in which opponents suggest O'Neill has bent the truth a little. One operative pointed Scene toward the divorce filing between O'Neill and his wife - the first time, in 1989. Dinner at O'Neill's home still starts promptly at 6.

Brandon makes spaghetti while O'Neill's daughter Kate sorts flyers for an upcoming day of canvassing. O'Neill's other son, Shawn, arrives, holding a computer design for his new wheelchair, which he wants to show his father (he was injured in a motorcycle accident shortly after returning from his tour in the Middle East). Lucky, a short little cocker spaniel O'Neill adopted during a campaign stop, runs around the kitchen, sniffing at visitors. Ben Barasky sits by Brandon at the kitchen table.

"I'll tell you one story about my dad," says Brandon. "Anytime I wanted to stay over at someone's house, there had to be a parent there too. I tried to trick him one time. I called from a friend's house at the end of the night, and when he asked to talk to the parent, I put another kid on. When I took the phone back, he just said, 'I'll be there in five minutes to pick you up.'"

The one thing LaTourette's staff cannot say that O'Neill exaggerates is his commitment to his family. It's also surprising that the campaign of a congressman who left his wife for a lobbyist is shopping around the personal history of another candidate. O'Neill says he's honored that it's the worst thing they've managed to find.

"She filed for divorce more than once," he says, smiling. "There was a time when she bought a house and I bought a condo two blocks away. We'd get back together and then separate. So the little woman didn't like me for a while in 1989. We had a lot of good years after that. And I loved her until the day she died."

jrenner@clevescene.com

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