Thanks a lot, Jimmy 

Dimora's arrogance has left the county and his party vulnerable to GOP advances

Jimmy Dimora breathes deep as he steps into the hallway outside Cleveland council chambers. He wipes some sweat from the sideburns that flank his thick beard and clicks the giant timeworn door closed, his fat lineman's build dwarfed by the old architecture of City Hall. He and commissioner Tim Hagan just got done telling council members all the reasons they'd be crazy to buck the Medical Mart deal now, just hours before its predestined approval.

On this clear day in May, it's been almost a year since a few hundred feds raided dozens of offices and homes connected to an alleged web of county corruption. He's had little to say to reporters since then, but today, after maneuvering through a small succession of back slaps in the hallway, Dimora agrees to stop and talk about something that's really bothering him — this "county-reform crap" he's unwittingly ushered in.

He starts by correcting the record, though. In February, Scene published a cover story about Cleveland council president Marty Sweeney that noted his membership in "the Group" — an exclusive klatch of old-establishment party insiders that Dimora and friend/county auditor Frank Russo are alleged to have cultivated. The story quoted an unnamed source, who said the Group sometimes met in the Erie Islands to celebrate their reign. "I haven't been to the islands in years," insists Dimora.

But, like Sweeney, he doesn't deny the Group's existence.

"And Sheriff McFaul?" adds Dimora. "I'm not hanging out with Sheriff McFaul. These are all friends."

Many of these "friends" — in equal measure politicians and moneyed interests — are named in search warrants and, in some cases, indictments filed by prosecutors, alleging that Dimora and his Group underlings used even the party hall to wash money exchanged with them for government contracts worth millions.

"What do you want me to say?" he asks, looking around to see if anybody else is listening. "That's politics, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican. I don't think the Democratic Party has anything to do with any of this. That's been The Plain Dealer's spin on things. 'We'll make the perception that the Democratic Party has ruined county government,' which is totally ridiculous. Just because I'm party chairman and a county commissioner?"

Well, yeah.

"It's just a shame now that if you have a relationship with somebody, and if your government is doing business with that person or that person's business, that there's automatically supposed to be suspicion or cynicism about that now, like there was automatically underhandedness. But you're always going to have relationships, and people are always going to be doing business with the county. It's not any different in Cuyahoga County than it is anywhere else. All we can do is report contributions and gifts and move on, until the public financing of elections can take place. What other way is there? There is no other way."

Dimora, likely in line for an indictment fight of his own, says something more is at play than the usual "business as usual" excuse. Why did the PD — a champion of the plan to reform away the three county commissioners and most other elected positions in favor of a county executive and an 11-member county council — just complete an analysis of county government's effectiveness and leave out any comparisons to neighboring Summit County, the only place in Ohio where this new form of government is in use?

"I'll tell you why," he says, now in a booming voice meant for an audience. "Because the PD is only reporting what it thinks will be effective in getting the county-reform thing through. No matter what the topic is, that's always the main theme. Listen, there's 88 counties that have always had the authority to go to that [form of government], and just one did. Now why is that?"

Maybe it's because Summit's form of government hasn't proven to be any cheaper or resistant to cronyism and corruption. But it is known to help Republicans find more chairs in county government.

JAMES MCCARTHY IS almost 70 now, kicking back with the wife at the beach house in Ft. Lauderdale after seven years as Summit County's chief executive officer. He retired two summers ago after 34 years of government service, and he sounds like he misses the job dearly and wishes he could have retired even sooner. He thinks Cuyahoga County is a much better candidate for party reform and a shift to solid regional cooperation than it is for a switch to Summit County's form of doling out the dough — no matter how corrupt things are revealed to be.

"You don't change the government for the hell of it," he says. "People are resistant to change, so if they" — reform-minded planners and their PD cheerleaders — "can say all this is happening because of the structure, then therefore the structure must be more corrupt. But I don't think that's true at all. A lot of it is content. Who the hell's there? We've had our own issues, problems in Summit County with corruption, before the charter and after. And it's not going to lower taxes or be cheaper to run."

But he does believe Summit has taken a short step closer to making everyone work a little better as a team, like it or not. By centralizing decision-making under a single executive, who then must curry favor with the council and implement operations with a staff of loyal appointed department heads, McCarthy says some wheels can roll on slightly smoother paths. For instance, over time, Summit was able to choose a single IT provider and a single communications device for several of its operations, eliminating duplication and spurring regional cooperation.

So businesses have just one boss to woo come contract time? Not necessarily, he says.

In Summit, voters still elect a prosecutor, a sheriff, an engineer, a clerk of courts and a fiscal officer, so it's a long way from letting the executive run almost everything, as the current petition to change Cuyahoga's structure would clearly do.

Every place is different, says McCarthy. He thinks Summit's model would actually work best for counties like Medina, where a starker division exists between rural and urban communities, affluent and poor citizens, zoned and unzoned land.

McCarthy envisions a blend of the two systems working pretty well, though. He would have preferred to hire an engineer to keep him closer, and thinks it'd be a good idea for Cuyahoga officials not to get their legal advice and criminal watchdogging from the same elected county prosecutor. And the whole council thing gets pretty tricky too, he admits. At the beginning of his time as CEO, says McCarthy, the pace of every project seemed to drip. "I had a council I couldn't work with after a while," he says, "just to show that they could fuck with me." The council was set up to review every contract involving more than $500; a standard wait for any purchase was six weeks. "So if you put too much check on executive authority, you could have a worse situation than what you have in Cuyahoga County right now."

If we go the route of reform, he says, we should go all the way, and risk a mighty power grab away from the central city — or go halfway and risk a bleaker reality: "You're going to have people running around saying that power corrupts, but if you don't [concentrate power somewhere], the government will be at a standstill."

And of course, there's politics.

In Summit, Republicans are represented countywide by a slew of judges, a sheriff, an engineer and a county councilwoman. In Cuyahoga, Republicans are lucky if they can even speak at the dais during public meetings. Anywhere you go, says McCarthy, echoing Dimora, politicians are going to be oriented toward home communities — whether that's out in Pepper Pike or downtown in St. Clair-Superior — out of fear that regionalism is just a ploy to dilute their votes.

"I always laugh when people say government should be run like a business," says McCarthy. "A lot of businesses fail. A lot of companies. And right now, it seems like there's very little incentive to invest in the future."

DIMORA HAS HIS PEOPLE call his people, and a few weeks after his appearance at City Hall, a coterie of the county's top underdogs are anxious to meet with Scene. We use the boardroom where all those executive sessions of the county commissioners take place. Sadly, the walls can't talk, and Big Jimmy is nowhere to be seen. At least the blinds are open.

Five of the top county administrators take turns shedding light, almost recreationally, on how they read the whole county-reform radar. They're not here to bash Summit County, they say, but to show how the PD ain't plain-dealing all the time. A recent article compared Cuyahoga's efficiency to several counties, but inexplicably left Summit out. No one at the table sees the need to explain why.

They all hit on something similar to what budget director Sandy Turk, a 23-year vet of county number-crunching, says: Summit County's structure has been in place since the reform effort that followed a string of scandals in 1981, and in all that time, no other county in Ohio has emulated the model.

The per capita income in both counties is virtually the same — a non-living wage of $22,000 — but Turk says Cuyahoga County spends more money on a lot more citizens ($1140 per person in Cuyahoga County, $1,063 in Summit). Cuyahoga has Cleveland, one of the nation's hardest-hit regions in the history of military-industrial capitalism gone global.

She rattles off details, like how Cleveland is close to leading the nation in home-value loss; how only half of Cleveland's kids finish high school, compared to Akron's 84 percent; how Cuyahoga spends $40 million a year on MetroHealth Medical Center and Summit doesn't even have such a facility; how Cuyahoga has a 24/7/365 hotline with paid social workers to field calls. And don't even get them started on all the people who come from around the state to tap into Cuyahoga's rumored wealth of hobo hospitality. Despite all this, they say, the county maintains the second-highest bond rating, the same as Summit County's.

"[Summit has] excellent people and we have excellent people," notes county administrator Jim McCafferty. "Cuyahoga County may be a Democratic stronghold, but it wears that as a badge of honor."

Switching to a single executive, with a council majority to control or despise, won't change the mission of stretching out the safety net and building a better Greater Cleveland, says development director Paul Oyaski (Editor's Note: This is a correction. These quotes had been attributed, erroneously, to Paul Alsenas, the director the county planning commission.) "The county exists to do things that cities don't want to do or cannot do themselves," says Oyaski, who used to be a Euclid mayor and councilman. He is among those who dream of a regional approach, regardless of how many public officials will oversee its implementation: "Eaton is moving from Cleveland to Beachwood. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Eaton wins. Beachwood wins. Cleveland loses. How much intra-county competition is there in Summit County? That matters just as much as if you have one executive or three commissioners."

And the "one executive instead of three commissioners" claim is misleading. Current reform proposals call for 11 county districts, whose reps would make up the council. "You're overlaying 11 district council members," says Oyaski. "And they're going to want more control and more structured decision-making with all these parochial interests piled up on top of more parochial interests."

"Instead of three politicians in that realm," notes Turks, "we're going to be dealing with 12."

Maybe even a few Republicans. Jim Corrigan, the commissioners' government-relations officer, claims not to care. He does care that this reform plan is being pushed here and nowhere else.

"There's 23 counties with one-party rule, and 19 of 23 are Republican," he says. "But the largest county is Cuyahoga County, so they say, 'Let's target them to do this government reform.' But changing just for the sake of change, that's what led to term limits in the statehouse, which is universally seen as a mistake. None of these proposals, whether at the statehouse or one of these that some officials are proposing now have been well thought-out or considerate."

"I would ask," adds deputy county administrator Lee Trotter, "what specific programs or services have the suburbs pushed for or asked for that have not been acquiesced to by the county?" And then, he adds pointedly, "And what's in it for people who are supposed to approve this?"

All these directors think the county already does a good job of balancing all these spheres of interest. "It's our agenda," says Trotter. What's unspoken: Jimmy's been performing a fat chunk of that task jovially for as long as some can remember. It's been a long and difficult intervention. His professions of ignorance of any corruption started sounding especially disingenuous on June 12, when the latest indictments revealed the sad depth and complex dimensions of the county's old ways.

County-reform proponents recently held a forum at Cleveland State's Levin College of Urban Affairs. Anti-reformers met at Antioch Baptist Church, along the tired desperation of Cleveland's Cedar Avenue. Both events were attended sparsely.

Over the last 80 years, instances of the exposure of corruption have led to several efforts by parochial interests to cash in, noted Harriet Applegate, leader of the Northcoast Federation of Labor, at Antioch. She and East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer told attendees that they and most other Democrats were brought in very late to the planning for the most recent reform missile. They admit to deep fears that the plan will further tip the region's meticulous racial balance long cultivated by Dimora.

"This is not a black thing or a white thing," said Brewer, ticking off a list of the mob-like activity making news and suggesting that the reform plan would create still more. "This is a people thing. This is an organized crime takeover of Cleveland. If successful, it would usher in a level of political thuggery the likes of which you've never seen."

The reform plan making its way to the ballot now, noted Brewer, is "a reconstructed version of a 13-year-old plan that didn't work then and won't work now."

In 1996, after the investment scandal du jour scathed the county's top officials, John Carroll University political science professor Kathleen Barber was appointed chairwoman of a "bipartisan" commission tasked by then-commissioners Tim Hagan, Jim Petro and Mary Boyle to recommend ways to reform county government. They went with an executive/council form, with six of the currently elected posts to be appointed by the executive. It didn't fly then, so here Barber is again, as the moderator of the CSU forum, stacked four-to-one in favor of the new reform plan that's almost identical to the old. ("We're very lucky we have the scandal," Barber told the PD a year ago.)

Panelist Eugene Kramer, for five decades a local government attorney, quoted a book put out in 1917 by the Citizens League that called for a "time to change the county structure before the problems of the urban city engulf us." He said he supported the reform for its streamlined economic development and operations. Panelist Kevin O'Brien, director of Cleveland State's Center for Public Management, told the audience how his early testing grounds of New York City taught him what efficiency was all about. Run it like a business, urged Parma Heights mayor Martin Zanotti, who says he won't run for re-election this year in order to serve as the voice of the reform movement. The fact that Dimora booted him from the Democratic party's executive committee for supporting Republican Deborah Sutherland last year in her campaign against sitting commissioner Peter Lawson Jones had nothing to do with it, he claims.

"These reforms are key to achieving a competitive advantage," insisted Zanotti, until recently the leader of the county's Mayors and City Managers Association.

But an advantage for whom? A nine-member bipartisan panel commissioned by the state more than a year ago was stymied when retired Congressman Louis Stokes called the executive/council plan — crafted mostly by suburban white people — a power grab at the expense of pretty much everyone else.

Retired county judge Lillian Greene, who stepped in to clean up the county recorder's office when Pat O'Malley was taken to prison, waited her turn as the only voice chosen by the college against changing the county structure. Greene, one of only two black non-judicial officials holding countywide elected office, pointed to a map of the proposed council districts and shook her head. Would Cuyahoga elect a black person to be its only executive? No, she said.

WITH AN EASY SMILE and some blue-eyed charisma, Lakewood councilman Tom Bullock carries himself like he knows he's on the way up. He's only been in Greater Cleveland for about five years, a transplant from South Bend, Indiana, but already he's running a ward, serving on the party's executive committee and aiming this year to represent District 13 in Columbus.

He likes to get a little poetic about the area's problems. After attending American University, he spent a year at the University of London, where he studied classics and continued his support of environmentalist causes. (Check out his story this month on excessive animal antibiotics in EcoWatch Ohio!) His literature highlights his push for a new political establishment in Cuyahoga County, one that transcends the factions surrounding Boss Dimora, prosecutor Bill Mason and mayor Frank Jackson: "The change begins with us." What he means: green jobs, party reform and cleaner consciences all around. You'd think he'd be keeping his mouth shut about Dimora — the necessary fundraising and all — but no.

"The realm is ill when the king is ill," he says over coffee. "How do you renew the realm? You need a new king."

Just days before, Dimora had announced his intention to step aside (not down) as party chairman to focus on the probe. But he'll stay on as county commissioner, approving millions monthly in contracts and payments — some to companies also mentioned in the indictments. On this day, the PD's front page claims that party insiders are allegedly picking Tom Day — a friend of Dimora's from Bedford, whistling distance from Dimora's Bedford Heights stronghold — to replace the distracted boss. Bullock says it's time to rethink where the party's center should be.

The region is moving past the worn-out model of a white ethnically quarantined West Side and a black East Side, beyond the idea that industrial waste is a natural byproduct of progress, above the once-stark divisions between pro-war crew cuts and hippie long hairs. "That economy's gone, and that civilization is gone," he attests. "We need to think of a new thing."

Young black leaders are just as critical of their old establishment leaders, and many are getting together with Bullock in Democrats for Reform. In early July, Bullock is pulling together supporters across the region in an effort to itemize the party policies that need changing. By August, Bullock hopes to have a list of bylaw reforms to present for a formal vote.

"Where we are in this county as Democrats is fresh off many years of clogging our arteries, of having very little open discussion about anything," says Bullock. "It's healthy for the party to have primaries and work things out. But we've had too many people who don't even have to run. It sets up this mechanics of favors, where people don't question the authority of those above them. The point is that Democrats are not that. That's a tiny circle. That's the tail wagging the dog."

AT LAST WEEK'S commissioners meeting, Dimora was ready to take a stand — at least against his arch-nemesis, county Republican leader Rob Frost. But he let his colleague Hagan browbeat a kid first.

"My name is Charles Thomas, and I am going to be a senior at Solon High School," said the Sunday-suited boy during a short discussion on an agenda item involving yet another Dimora-connected contract. "I am clearly no expert in the Cuyahoga County government or in the ways its taxpayers' money is used; however, something that appears very simple to me clearly doesn't appear that simple to some of our elected leaders. If men like [former county IT manager and alleged Dimora bagman] Kevin Kelly in a roundabout manner force contractors to give bribes, such as trips to Las Vegas, expensive meals and expensive gifts, is it even possible for honest businessmen and women to get those high valued government contracts. It undoubtedly is not ..."

Hagan shut him up. This is not the justice system. Does he have a question? Charles skipped to the end of his spiel and started to ask, "What procedure has been instituted that ensures government officials cannot accept bribes such as agenda item 3 ... ?"

You're done, Hagan told him. The boy sat back down. Later, he claimed not to be a Republican, just "a little conservative."

"Are you a little more conservative today?" He nodded and raised his brow.

At the end of the meeting, the main event: Frost asked Dimora yet again to just go. And Jimmy unleashed, with counsel's blessing and all. For 30 minutes. A county judge had just granted Frost's request for a bipartisan committee to investigate the records of auditor Russo, but Dimora wants Frost to remember that a succession of Republican state auditors have repeatedly audited the county's books, coming away with nothing but routine suggestions — or referrals to Republican-supportive law firms. Frost himself has gained financially from lucrative, no-bid referrals at the disposal of Ohio's Republican officeholders. And Dimora wanted to know: What exactly does Frost do for his $110,000 salary?

"And I want you to understand something else," boomed Dimora theatrically. "Three-to-zero is usually the vote on this board. Maybe one or two times since I've been on the board has it been 2-1. And if you look at my record, my vote always has been to follow staff and the director's recommendation. I've never deviated from that in my 11 years."

Then Dimora turns on Republicans in general. For sucking so bad at county races. For how GOP members allegedly solicit donations from businesses who do work for the Board of Elections and even from the BoE's employees. For how former county (and state) Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett, in his role as county BoE chairman, approved the purchase of $30 million in Diebold elections machines that had to be replaced after a mere two years.

He rattles off examples of Republicans, as well as reform-supporter and Democratic pariah Zanotti, reaping the benefits from contract-seekers, before finally addressing reform itself. And that's where his rebuttal/history lesson veered into self-serving tirade.

He recalled seeing Bennett and PD editors lunching early last year, and that, he insisted, turned into a full-blown conspiracy against the party.

"You think county reform popped up in conversation?" asked Dimora. "You think it went something like this? 'I know, let's destroy Jimmy Dimora and the county Democratic Party. Let's link the Democratic Party to Cuyahoga Cuyahoga County government. Even if it's not true, let's do it anyway. It'll be easy. We'll target Russo and Dimora. Dimora's easy: He's chairman of the party. It'll be an easy conflict. Dimora's a loudmouth. He's got no college education. He's overweight. He has Italian heritage in him. You get my drift. But we gotta get a couple of Democrats or it's just going to look like Republicans are once again trying to change government because none of them can get elected countywide. I know, we'll get Marty Zanotti.'"

Note that, while impassioned, none of this can really be called a denial of the charges against him.

"The facts are the facts, and the truth is the truth," said Dimora. "So why doesn't this ever get out in the media? I try to figure that out. Look at all these media organizations, these corporate offices. They're all Republican-owned; they're led by Republican CEOs. Now, how is a Democrat going to get his word out and message out, especially when he's down and everybody's kicking him?"

He keeps going for Frost's jugular, like he can't stop stabbing. "Frankly, nobody knows who you are or what you do," said Dimora. "You got your opportunity today, but I thought it only right that I give at leasta little bit back to you. And if you wanna come each week, I'll have a whole new diatribe to go over with you, so that I can educate you on some of the Republicans in Cuyahoga County."

Some in the crowd beamed prideful smiles; others grimaced. Both sides, it seems, have a whole lot of explaining to do.


More by Dan Harkins


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