The Cain Mutiny 

Arrogance, not gay-bashing, cost Lakewood's mayor her job.

Cain blames her defeat on an anti-gay backlash. - Naah. - THOM  ZAHLER
  • Thom Zahler
  • Cain blames her defeat on an anti-gay backlash. Naah.
Mayor Madeline Cain is a martyr. Just ask her.

Only a few weeks ago, she was captain of a prosperous suburb. Lakewood's tax receipts had grown faster than inflation for two decades. Home values rose 62 percent between 1990 and 2000. And when the county reassessed property values, Lakewood's were jacked by 14.5 percent -- outpacing affluent Westlake, Rocky River, and Bay Village.

All this, in a "graying, blue-collar suburb," as the Chicago Tribune recently put it. All this, in a place where the newest homes were built in 1930. Where rental units surpass owner-occupied. They are the ingredients of ruin. (See nearly every other first-ring 'burb at a hospice near you.) But Cain, a remarkable bureaucrat, defied them all.

It's hard to lose with a record like this. So it stands to reason that only nefarious forces could defeat her. Today's martyrdom of choice: gay-bashing.

In the wake of her November 4 loss to Tom George, Cain is attributing her overthrow to the flying of the Gay Pride flag over City Hall. She heard the comments, felt the hostility, saw the changes in "some senior citizens who had been supportive of her, but had a lot cooler reception when she was going door-to-door," says her aide, Nickie Antonio.

Surely there's some truth to this. When City Council approved the gay-flag measure, it did so on the same night it was honoring veterans. Smart politics it wasn't. Though aging military men fought for freedom, they aren't particularly in favor of it -- especially the sexual kind. So they naturally raised all kinds of hell.

"People found it to be a big deal and made it a big deal," says John Farina, one of two openly gay candidates who lost council races.

Then again, this is a town where every council member who voted for the gay flag issue got reelected. A town where pro-gay forces are likely to equal -- if not outnumber -- the enemies of freedom. A town where, given its bedrock Democratic sensibilities, Farina might well have been jilted for committing a greater sin: He's a Republican.

Still, it comes as no surprise that Cain would play the martyr. Politicians are genetically engineered to repel blame. "I think it's easier for her to sleep at night, thinking the entire community turned against her because of a flag flying over City Hall," says Ellen Hughes, a West End activist.

The truth is much simpler. This is not a tale of martyrdom; it's one of arrogance, serial bungling, and a painful misreading of peasant politics.

Let's begin with the obvious: Cain's West End development. She planned to seize people's homes, then hand the land to a developer, who would build "upscale" condos and shops. Had she sought to build something useful -- say, a Target, a wholesale lumberyard, or better yet, a Ford plant -- people might have understood. But normal folks have a hard time seeing value in anything called "upscale."

"Lakewood has a very strong blue-collar aspect to it," said George, who also backed the plan. "Going to dainty restaurants with fruits and sprouts isn't perceived as a workingman's meal."

Then there was the infamous "blight" designation. Every politician runs this scam. You have a plan, so you pay a consultant top dollar to produce a pseudo-scientific report telling you everything you want to hear. Then you foist it on the public as evidence that your plan is sound.

But Cain hired what may be the dumbest consultant in America. So eager was he to please the mayor that he came up with a blight designation that fit 93 percent of the city's homes. Message to residents: "Nice shack, pal. We'll let you know if you get to keep it."

These were just the obvious follies. Superior bungling was on the way.

Cain claimed that the project would produce 1,000 new jobs. But they were upscale retail jobs, which meant only that you had to dress up for your minimum wage and no bennies.

She claimed she was standing up to outside forces -- lawyers, Libertarians, city workers who lived elsewhere. Yet everyone knew that the West End fight was a popular uprising. And union guys and Libertarians -- generally nice people with strange views who still live with their mom -- don't make compelling villains.

Yet her worst mistake was running down the city she ran so well. If the West End initiative fails, said one flier, "Lakewood will not die overnight, but it will begin a painful and steady decay." The drumbeat was relentless: You're looking at the new East Cleveland. There is only one way to prevent it. Cain's way.

You didn't need a doctorate to read between the lines. The mayor thought her constituents were idiots. She didn't even grant them the courtesy of quality bullshit.

After all, these were people who had watched their neighbors' homes sell for $15,000 more than they would have three years before. They had watched flocks of young families and Kent State grads move in; these did not look like carriers of blight. Most of all, they understood peasant economics -- that the big score is always too good to be true, and if second place is a new IHOP and a fancy Irish joint, well, that's a pretty good thing.

But Cain knew none of this. She was serious and severe, a technocrat versed in the ways of finance and codes, but not the ways of humans. She could be abrasive and intimidating. Her unwillingness to return constituents' calls was legend (she didn't call us back either). Stand her next to George, the affable everyman, and there was no comparison. The merchants and money might side with the technocrat, but regular people want a human being.

George also voted for the Gay Pride flag. But there's a difference here. "George -- you can talk to the guy," says Mark Timieski, a Lakewood activist.

It's much harder to converse with martyrs. They never come to the phone.

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