It's the drinking hour, 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, but Robert Triozzi doesn't want a shot. You eye him suspiciously; he's obviously not your normal judge.
We're at the Union Club, the manly joint at 26th and St. Clair, not to be confused with the daintier place of the same name, where you usually find people of his stature.
Beefy men wearing thick arms and Tribe shirts stop by to announce their support. They're not used to seeing a would-be mayor on their turf. They like what they see.
Triozzi smiles back. He's a professorial-looking man -- fastidiously trimmed beard, graying hair -- though lacking the detachment of academia. His eyes are weirdly radiant, his face illuminated. When he says things like "I've just had a wonderful time talking about this city's future," you actually believe him. He has yet to embrace the weariness, the paint-by-numbers demeanor of politics.
What we have here is a true believer.
Which makes him the most interesting candidate in the mayor's race. And which makes voters distrustful that he can win.
Prevailing wisdom goes like this: Jane Campbell has been an awful mayor. Frank Jackson would trump that awfulness -- and raise her with a bet of show-stopping incompetence. James Draper, though a very nice man, would deliver a delightful bouquet of mind-numbing inertia.
Still, we will elect one of the above. To believe we could actually have a good mayor, who will neither suck nor steal, is like believing that 70 virgins await us in heaven, and that the bars will serve free Jim Beam and wings.
Or so the logic goes.
Triozzi, by contrast, is a father of four who relinquished a safe judgeship to wade into the very unsafe waters of the mayor's race. "I'm willing to take risks most politicians won't," he says.
For evidence, he points to a case he presided over. A young black girl wandered into the street. A white college girl ran over the kid, killing her.
When tragedy arrives, it's human nature to seek revenge. The largely black neighborhood wanted blood. "There was a lot of pressure to bring charges against the woman," Triozzi says.
Many judges would have gone along -- especially liberal whites. In these parts, when justice is weighed against scoring with voters, you know which gets sacrificed. But Triozzi resisted. The woman wasn't drunk, he reasoned. She wasn't driving recklessly. "All the evidence in this case pointed that she was under the speed limit. It was just a terrible accident." He let her walk.
Then there was the woman on disability. She had a $1,500 Discover card debt. She stopped using the card, but still made payments. They just weren't enough. The interest and fees ballooned. "She ran up a huge debt," says Triozzi. Discover sued.
Most judges would have felt sympathy for the woman, then promptly served her up. In Cleveland, politicians talk pretty about fighting for the poor. But they rarely do. That entails actual work, a concept too horrible to fathom.
Yet Triozzi again resisted. He asked Discover for the woman's records, a stack of paper the size of an egomaniac's autobiography. Over seven years, the woman had paid $3,600 on her $1,500 debt, "and they were still suing her. I said, 'Not in my court.'"
(Memo to self: Send al-Qaeda blueprints of Discover headquarters.)
Triozzi plans to bring the same activism to City Hall. Though he's surprisingly hesitant to spray bullets at the front-runners, he, like the rest of Cleveland, is clearly unimpressed with the mopes we euphemistically call our leaders.
"What this town needs is someone to act on the ideas," he says. "I can't tell you how many commissions I've sat on, and how many plans that continue to sit on the shelf without anyone acting on them."
In his first days as mayor, he would appoint an inspector general to investigate corruption and the wretched delivery of services. He'd realign the police department, using crime data to redeploy safety forces -- and hold commanders responsible -- a technique pioneered, with much success, by New York City. And he'd force cops, ambulance services, courts, schools, and probation officers to work together on juvenile crime. At the moment, each works blind of the others.
Perhaps most important, he'd attack education. The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled four times that our school funding system is unconstitutional. Yet the governor and legislature, who play by Third World rules, have given it the Heisman. What? We have a constitution? Nobody told me.
Campbell and Jackson have been content to point fingers. To do otherwise involves real work. That ain't happening. But Triozzi promises to get in Columbus' face. If it won't listen, he'll fight via referendum, building a coalition of cities and the countryside -- the two most screwed parties -- to force the issue.
Of course, four years ago, Campbell had ideas too. She seemed smarter, more learned than her peers, willing to introduce the 21st century to City Hall. Carefully hidden was a major character flaw: her aversion to battle. She's like the boss at work who, when confronted with a problem, calls for more meetings, more paperwork -- the medicine of the weak.
Who knows if Triozzi is tougher? He emits genuine optimism -- not the village-idiot brand practiced by the president, a luxury of the trust-fund set, but the kind born from believing he has the strength and inventiveness to overpower a greater beast.
Four years of Jackson and Campbell have proved them capable of overpowering nothing but our patience. As safety director, Draper was considered by colleagues to be lazy, a guy who threatened to quit whenever he didn't get his way. The rest of the field is loaded with people seeking greater self-aggrandizement, or those who just badly need a job.
Which leaves only Triozzi. "They know I'm for real," he says of voters.
We hope so. He's probably the one chance Cleveland has.
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