Angry words boomed from across the hall as Mike Gallagher quietly sat and waited. The Cuyahoga County councilman was stuck in a downtown Columbus high-rise, sidelined alone in a conference room, still shaking the two-hour drive from Cleveland out of his legs.
Down the hall, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted, the fresh-faced rising star in Gallagher's own Republican Party, was having it out with Ed FitzGerald, Cuyahoga County's first elected executive. From the sound of things, it was Husted's lungs that were getting the workout.
The sit-down was requested by FitzGerald, who wanted to hash out his differences with Husted over absentee voting ballots — a standoff that had been getting ugly in the media. Because it involved the two great white hypes of their respective parties, the match-up was billed statewide as a preview of a future senate or gubernatorial race. FitzGerald had asked Gallagher to come along to show this wasn't just the usual partisan dust-up.
The clash began in August, when Husted, citing a desire to get Ohio's 88 counties on the same page, banned all boards of election from mailing absentee ballots to registered voters. To FitzGerald, the gesture smelled like a move to suppress the vote among left-leaning urban slices of the public like Cleveland. He said Cuyahoga would pay for and mail the ballots anyway, and the county council backed his plan. Husted threatened to order Cuyahoga's board to toss out the unapproved paper, and so the course was set for a legal fight.
But when the Cuyahoga leaders showed up in Columbus that day in September, Husted's staff balked at Gallagher's presence. FitzGerald threatened to walk. They agreed to let the councilman in after Husted had some time alone with the executive.
When they finally threw open the door of Husted's corner office, Gallagher could have pick-axed through the ice in the room.
"Well," he said, trying to cut the tension, "is it a boy or a girl?"
Despite the contentious start, FitzGerald and Husted quickly edged toward the middle ground. In exchange for shelving Cuyahoga's plan, Husted agreed to use state money to mail ballots to all voters in 2012. Their pact will change the way Ohio votes moving forward.
"I was happy with what we got out of it," Gallagher says of the meeting and FitzGerald. "He seems willing to reach across not just political, but personal aisles to move forward. When we were sitting in that room, I got a sense of real leadership."
For FitzGerald, it was his first big cameo on a larger stage after winning a seat many see as second in power only to the governor in Ohio. Most of his first year has been spent pushing the gears of the new government into motion and re-engineering the county's innards. With 5,000 anxious employees, a billion-dollar budget, a tradition of incompetence, and the whole mess hog-tied with legal red tape, FitzGerald faced a daunting to-do list. But throughout his first year, the executive has kept his cool, steadily bagging politics-as-usual in favor of results.
"THE RIGHT GUY AT THE RIGHT TIME"
In the 2010 election, FitzGerald was voted in by a public still bleeding from the ears after endless reports of Cuyahoga's corruption, waste, and institutional idiocy — ego-tripping nabobs who turned the government into their personal piggy banks. In pedigree and personality, FitzGerald seems a 180-degree turnaround from the leadership left behind.
He is a self-professed nerd whose squeaky-clean reputation is well-earned. Growing up, FitzGerald diligently crafted a list of 100 things he wanted to do with his life, then he set about the task of knocking them off. Chief among those goals was a career in public service.
As he recently told a roomful of high school students, his motivation was unabashedly pure:
"Even though politics has a bad reputation, and there are some people involved in it who aren't as honest as they should be — and we've certainly had that problem in this county in the last few years — if you're good at it, and you study it and you work at it, you can change results very quickly."
FitzGerald originally opposed the new charter that reorganized Cuyahoga County under an executive and 11-member council; to him, the organizing principles of the government lacked sufficient financial controls. But once voters set the county's course, he was the first candidate to declare interest in the top job.
At campaign stops, he cut a welcome image: a youngish West Side family man of average build and height, with a gawky, high-watt smile and a neat, cresting wave of light hair holding its color against his 43 years. He was friendly, but without leaving a smarmy residue in his wake.
Voters also heard a lot about FitzGerald's track record in public service: the bullet points that ran from U.S. congressional staffer to law school to stints in the FBI and the county prosecutor's office. His tenure in politics had included a term on Lakewood's city council, followed by three years at the mayor's desk, where he successfully wrestled massive budget woes.
Considering the county's recent history, the fireproof résumé played well with many.
"I liked the fact that he had the FBI background," says Cleveland Heights Mayor Ed Kelley, who endorsed FitzGerald during the campaign. "To me, he looked to be the law-and-order candidate — and obviously, with what went on and what's going to happen with trials, he was the right guy at the right time for the right job."
But FitzGerald was also outfitted with less tangible qualities that bode well for high office. Growing up in a large family in Indianapolis, he found himself constantly buried in the pages of history books. His passion was politics, and over time he built up an inner database on elections and congressional sessions long past. It eventually geared him for an office with wider impact. It also made FitzGerald a keen observer of the game: someone who could wrap his head around a situation and parse the pieces with clinical distance.
That strategic style was on display almost immediately after voters handed FitzGerald the keys to the new government, following a decisive victory over Republican challenger Matt Dolan. In the initial weeks after the election, FitzGerald publicly told members of the county's scandal-logged boards of revision to resign or feel the boot drop on January 1. To the outgoing county commissioners, he demanded a hold on hirings, firings, pay tweaks, and promotions. Finally, he announced an "integrity audit": a fine combing of the county in search of illegal behavior. It would be conducted by a former FBI agent.
The early flexing was a harbinger of what would become FitzGerald's MO. History had taught him that dead-air time between regimes is high season for shenanigans. The hasty moves also gave the new boss a tactical advantage: By acting fast, his team captured upfront a series of candid snapshots of the crippled system he inherited.
And that was the question weighing down the early days of FitzGerald's administration. Outside of what oozed from the stacks of federal indictments and newspaper accounts, there was little real sense of how deep a vein of corruption former Auditor Frank Russo, former Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, and others had spiked into the county's side. The FBI was mum about ongoing investigations. For all FitzGerald knew, the county hallways might be filled all hours of the day with the musical whirl of paper shredders.
"I was afraid that there were going to be huge categories of things that I was going to find out in the first week or so that might even include things up to obstruction of justice," FitzGerald recalls today. "Those things didn't come to pass, but I think that's partly because we had a very engaged transition. We had staff on the ground immediately."
By the time FitzGerald took the oath, his administration had begun to tease out the full scope of its newly adopted mess. In February, the integrity audit came back without spotlighting any criminal offenses. But the news cut both ways: Blatant criminality would be an easy firable offense; the lingering issues inside the county government proved to be more subtle — and harder to stamp out.
"AS BAD AS IT GETS"
It's all in the tapes. If you push past the endless tough-guy chest-thumping, what's most striking about the FBI wiretaps that sealed the deal on corruption charges against Dimora and Russo is that these guys weren't masterminding grand schemes or scores. More often, the county's most recognized villains were dealing at the nickel-ante table: trying to get this guy here a county job, that guy there more take-home.
Although the major figures tied to the scandal were gone by the time FitzGerald showed up, that buddy system was still in play in some corners of the government. Instead of a monolithic slab of corruption, the county was a balkanized scatter of departments in various stages of disrepair: Some shops were effective and professionally run; others were disasters. Unsurprisingly, Frank Russo's former domain was ground zero. As FitzGerald would later reflect: "The auditor's office was as bad as it gets. There was not a type of dysfunction that you could come up with that they didn't have there."
After a decade under Russo, the office was waterlogged with political hires and strung together with favors handed out for work on campaigns, for knowing the right friends, or for simple payoffs. A scan of the office's roster coughed up names that were common currency in the county political realm. And the pay sheets were overloaded with disproportionate salaries, including office assistants making as much as $20,000 more than their own supervisors.
Piling on to the mound of dysfunction was the news that employees throughout the county had been misinformed about their work status for years. Under Ohio law, public workers fall into one of three categories: classified employees, who are subject to hiring and firing according to state law; union employees, who are chained to the terms of their contracts; and at-will workers, who can be fired for any non-discriminatory reason.
In the auditor's office under Russo, the entire staff had been told they were at-will employees, when in fact they were all classified. The mistake wasn't likely a paperwork slip-up. Russo and company had the leeway to hire and pay at-will workers as they liked. The scrambled status proved frustrating to the new regime's efforts to unknot a generation of cronyism.
FIXING THE PROCESS
FitzGerald often talks about the breakdown of democracy. If it's not exactly a bumper sticker he's affixed to his career, the phrase usually creeps into random conversation without much forethought — and it often seems to clunk against the forehead of whomever FitzGerald's talking to with minimal impact.
But he says it. Chatting with high school administrators about the controversy over Senate Bill 5, he notes that the system isn't working when every piece of legislation ends up in a voter referendum. When FitzGerald tells a story from his FBI days about the mafia's influence on Chicago politics, he couches it in terms of the voters being deprived of the electoral process. He sees voting-rights restrictions as a failure of basic government. He's never forced or preachy, just highly attuned to government that fails to deliver like it's supposed to.
"I try to be process-oriented about whether something works as it's intended to work," he says one afternoon in his office, after the tendency is brought to his attention. "I do think democracy is kind of fragile. If the building blocks aren't there or things get twisted, it's not just that the outcome isn't good: The process doesn't have integrity to it."
After bouncing it around for a while, he circles back: "I'm probably more focused on it than I used to be, because the last two political jobs I've had — as a mayor and this job — have been trying to fix a process."
A process with integrity was exactly what Cuyahoga County was missing when FitzGerald walked in, and the problems weren't limited to those orbiting the FBI probe. Everything from how departments evaluated employees (many didn't at all) to how real estate was valued (often incorrectly, if at all) to how ethics codes were applied to government contracts (what ethics codes?) were all problem spots.
With the initial integrity audit completed, FitzGerald rolled the responsibility for reviewing the government to his newly appointed inspector general, a former U.S. Attorney. An ethics policy was introduced, accompanied by training.
The county's basic hardware also went through a dramatic rewiring. The new charter took what formerly had been the offices of 13 county administrators and poured the pieces into four branches. The County Stat program was introduced to track performance, a setup that specifically leans on the data-based results and accountability FitzGerald associates with proper process.
The reorganization also meant likely duplication of services within the ranks. In order to shuffle through the deck, the county under FitzGerald contracted with a South Carolina consulting firm to launch an 18-week study that, through evaluations and interviews, sought to learn exactly who did what and for how much.
All of it was groundwork for layoffs. Although streamlining had always been part of the plan, the pressure for cuts ballooned beyond the usual good-government penny saving when FitzGerald got word early in the year that the state would slash the county's funding more than originally expected — three times more. But rather than simply cut a uniform percentage of the workforce, he decided to march through each branch and eliminate overlapping positions.
"We had to take a system that was really inwardly focused and have a culture change where we look at national best practices and try to figure out the best possible way to do things for the least amount of money," he explains, his voice dipping into the clinical phrasing of a surgeon discussing a bypass.
But trimming labor has proved to be a more nuanced procedure than FitzGerald had originally bargained for. Common sense — or righteous indignation grown fat on a steady diet of headlines about county corruption — says that if positions are going to go, why not put the people who secured their jobs for the wrong reasons at the top of the list? FitzGerald figured early on that he'd be able to walk through the county offices, tossing pink slips to employees known to have rubbed against the wrong shoulders. But legally speaking, that was a no-go. Often, when new administrations fire holdovers, those ex-staffers sue and win their jobs back over procedural technicalities.
"Just because an employee was hired because they worked on someone's campaign or they were related to the right person, it doesn't mean the employee doesn't have rights," he says, his voice chaffing from the frustration of knowing his hands are legally bound. "You can't go to a labor arbitrator and say, 'Oh, this guy just knows somebody, that's why we fired him.' That's not good enough."
Still, he knows there's poison to be extracted.
"Anybody that obtained their jobs through an illegal act, I want to fire," he says. "We know there are people that paid for their jobs, and we don't know who they are. The federal government hasn't told us."
STAVING OFF CONTROVERSY
In early November, FitzGerald took to a podium at the county administration building and solemnly explained that 33 jobs had been carved from the fiscal office, the latest round in a steady stream of layoffs. Since January 1, the county has lost a net total of 365 employees, among them workers who have been laid off or fired for cause, as well as those who retired or quit. In all, the reductions save the county more than $21 million in annual pay.
TV newscasts played up the notion that FitzGerald was taking an ax to the county government, and a triumphant note entered some of the coverage when it turned out three of the layoffs were politically linked.
FitzGerald acknowledges that there's a bit of a misperception about the layoffs — that they are about cleaning house more than tightening belts.
"Most of the people who have lost their jobs this year didn't do anything wrong," he says. "For some of them, it's been absolutely devastating."
Through it all, FitzGerald's decisions have been met with steady nods of approval from the spectator seats. Among fellow politicians, he has earned widespread approval — most notably for gritting his teeth and making tough decisions they believe better the course of the county.
"I think he came in there with a lot bigger challenges than any of us even really thought," says Euclid Mayor Bill Cervenik, who chairs the Northeast Ohio First Suburbs Consortium. "He's systematically tackled most of them and has strategic plans to finish."
Many among the county's new 11-member council say they have a good working relationship with the executive. No major issues have chipped away their courtesy or pitted the branches against one another — though that could have more to do with their lingering grace period, as both administration and council come to grips with their respective roles.
"I think Ed is doing a very good job under the circumstances, trying to right a ship that clearly was going in the wrong direction in terms of serving the residents of the county," says Councilman David Greenspan. "At the same time, I think council has expanded our role."
Council President C. Ellen Connally would like to see more "give and take" with FitzGerald moving into the next year. "I think that's fair," she says.
Just last week, the council and executive arrived at a budget compromise that headed off looming conflict. FitzGerald agreed to allow $4.4 million in additions; council held back on a request to hire 12 new county workers.
In year one on the job, FitzGerald has largely stepped clear of mistakes that translate into damning headlines — though there have been exceptions.
In October, The Plain Dealer reported the county's failure to publicly post a job opening that went to a former colleague of fiscal officer Wade Steen. FitzGerald explained it as a simple mistake, but for a new administration riding in on a mandate of transparency, it was an embarrassing instance of the message not matching the move.
Earlier in the year, FitzGerald went head-to-head with County Prosecutor and Democratic Party heavyweight Bill Mason over whether the new county law director should handle the county's legal business or if the work should remain in the prosecutor's office. The Ohio Attorney General ruled in favor of Mason, rendering FitzGerald's law director little more than an advisor.
"It sucked the soul out of you when you walked in every morning."
So says one former county employee, describing the last year living through the regime change, the review process, and the steady stream of layoffs.
Inside the halls of county government, FitzGerald's cutbacks haven't played well. Another former employee labels the county "Terror City" under the new administration, with constant rumors telephoning from cubicle to cubicle about who's next out the door and who has slipped through the cracks.
County staffers recently departed and remaining say there are still a lot of pigs wearing lipstick these days — particularly in the realm once lorded over by Russo. "Every management person in the auditor's office was connected to Frank, and they got their jobs somehow, and they're all still there," says one person no longer with the county. "And they're all making fantastic money."
For employees, it's a mash-up of anger and anxiety: anger because they're tired of watching good folks escorted out the door while mid-range workers who got their jobs the wrong way straighten their dress-code-mandated ties and march off to ethics training; anxiety because they don't know what's coming down the line next.
Fueling their ire: Those who were tight with the old guard are still drawing the largest salaries — sometimes ten to twenty grand more than the colleague one cubicle over.
"The taxpayers hate us, businesses don't know who they're talking to, the leftover administrators don't trust us — they think we're going to rat them out. And FitzGerald's administration — they think we're all crooks because we're left over from the old regime."
But the person who best sympathizes with honest employees is probably Ed FitzGerald.
"There is a longer process that people are going to have to be patient with," he says. "Some of these people will be weeded out with time." He adds that since he took office, a number of former political hires have quit, realizing they would otherwise have to start showing up for work like everyone else.
"If someone is being compensated at a level that their position does not justify, that's a big problem. And I think a lot of that is going to be corrected by the end of the year."
LEVELING THE FIELD
Morning is closing in on lunch hour, and FitzGerald is front and center before an audience for the second time today. Following a visit to Lutheran West High School, he now faces a crowd that's packed into a low-ceilinged, fluorescence-soaked room on the first floor of the county medical examiner's building, a midrise cube south of University Circle. About 100 employees fill the seats, attentively drinking down FitzGerald's comments about the ongoing budget process and appraisal of the county branches. He speaks clearly from memory, probably because it's a riff he's given often; each month, FitzGerald meets with groups of county employees to keep them up to date. After 20 minutes, he opens the floor to questions. And then silence.
"I'm not leaving until we get at least one question," he deadpans. After a few in the crowd speak up, a woman near the front raises her hand. Point-blank, she brings up the past administration's habit of stocking the coroner's office with unqualified pals who brought home larger paychecks than others. It was unfair, she says, and it still hasn't been corrected.
"It's not fair," FitzGerald repeats before launching into a complex answer that touches on the points of law that have hampered the administration's effort to match pay with experience and jettison political hires from the ranks.
His reply whittles more than five minutes off the clock, and it's characteristic of the executive. When most politicians address tough questions with long answers, it's circuitousness in the service of evasion — a defense aimed at losing the original thread in a wonky thicket. But when FitzGerald embarks on a long-winded reply — and he often does — he seems earnest about getting his point across. He's more comfortable working on a large canvas, loading up with details, and footnoting his explanation with historical and local examples.
"There's people that are very politically connected that have been terminated, that are getting their salaries lowered, and everything else," he says, tying off his answer. "I'm letting all the chips fall where they may. I'll take care of politics some other day, when it's time for me to run for reelection."
If the layoffs are a high-profile piece of cost-trimming, the pay alterations due before the new year are the most dramatic step FitzGerald has taken to rip up the infrastructure of influence linked to the past.
As part of the evaluation of county employees, new classifications were created for each position. Specific pay ranges are tied to those classifications, and by the end of the year, the administration plans to corral county workers within the new rubric. That means a lot of inflated salaries will drop — a first for county government — and some underpaid positions will see a bump. Although the process will likely save the county only around $1 million, the message carries symbolic weight.
"The political infrastructure that supported those people and gave them a special status isn't just diminished — it's gone entirely," FitzGerald says. "These people, they have to sink or swim totally on their own."
THE NEXT STEP
As Cuyahoga County's first executive, Ed FitzGerald is not simply laying groundwork for his own political career. The future strength of the new office as a regional player is locked into whether the county can shrug off its reputation and present itself as a professional shop. That means minting the success of year one into tangible political capital for year two — basically proving to the region that the county finally has its game together.
And county-wide efforts have been a tough spot in FitzGerald's first year. He's been surprised by cities that pay lip service to the concept of regionalism but are wary of letting the county play quarterback.
"I thought they'd be more reasonable about it," he says flatly. "We are not on a path to regionalism. The people that are against it should be encouraged, because the conversations are not particularly serious in terms of doing anything sweeping."
Most mayors hugging the core give FitzGerald high marks. They say he's receptive to their concerns, and they seem warm to joint efforts.
"He's working effectively and reducing costs and dealing with the new government structure," says Shaker Heights Mayor Earl Leiken. "I think he's really tried to develop collaborative efforts, particularly working toward economic development that will benefit everyone. He's tried to be open and is effective at reaching out to people and giving them a sense of involvement."
Others in suburbia are less sanguine.
"I think they're responsive to listening to us. I can't say at this point they're responsive to our needs. There aren't any tangible results yet," says Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough, who was critical of FitzGerald's anti-poaching proposal last summer. After a revision, 15 communities signed on. It was an exercise in pulling teeth, but with a typically clear-eyed look at his own position, FitzGerald gets it.
"If we didn't address these [county issues] and we then started to try to lead other communities, I think they rightly would have said, 'Why don't you get your own house in order before you start giving us advice on how we should partner with you and other cities,'" he explains.
"We have a whole next stage after the clean-up, and that's really picking a few key issues and being the driving force behind making things happen, whether it's regionalism or economic development or human-services reform."
FitzGerald believes the county could offer services — he throws out IT support as an example — to its communities. He has already expanded the use of county sheriff's deputies to bolster regions that are thin in law enforcement.
The charter gives the county a significant carrot in the form of a $100 million economic-development fund. That might be the key to getting everyone around the campfire. FitzGerald plans to announce a proposal in February that will represent a "dramatic step forward" for regional collaboration.
"It's always going to have to be the choice of the city," he is careful to add. "You can't force it on the cities."
ONE JOB TO WORRY ABOUT
Before speaking to employees at the coroner's office, FitzGerald had been treated to a tour of the facility by Dr. Thomas Gilson, the Connecticut medical examiner FitzGerald hired. An elevator taking them to the meeting was packed full of high-schoolers also touring the office that day.
"Do you know who this is?" Gilson playfully ribbed the students, nodding toward FitzGerald. "Do you know?"
As the kids nervously bug-eyed the wall, FitzGerald shook his head, his grin spreading to a bashful expanse.
"Noooooo," he said. "They don't know."
His name and his face may not yet register within teen headspace, but FitzGerald is already on heavy rotation in statewide political circles. A couple months after his showdown with Husted, reporters drove up from Columbus to quiz him on whether a run at the governor's office is on deck. His answer was characteristically careful but honest: It depends.
For now, FitzGerald seems content to focus on the job at hand. Ambitions aside, the county executive position nicely links up to his own textbook definition of effective government: putting working results into play.
"If you can just tell people, 'Here's what I'm going to do,' and I do it, you don't have to give a great speech or be charismatic or eloquent," he says. "That inspires confidence in people and shows that the system works."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.