The Lightning Rod of Parma 

Councilwoman Susan Straub never backs away from a fight -- even when it hurts.

Straub admits her council battles have left her in - tears. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Straub admits her council battles have left her in tears.
With red hair and green eyes, jaws mashing gum with Mike Ditka vigor, Parma Councilwoman Susan Straub looks every bit the "tough Irish broad from the West Side" she claims to be.

She'd better look mean, because her enemies are in the audience.

This coterie of residents never misses a meeting. They sit toward the back of the Council Chambers, arms folded, eyes on Straub. They want an apology. She's not giving one.

The residents, who come from the ward of rival Councilwoman Michelle Stys, are angry over a flood of obscenity they say has poured from Straub's mouth, sometimes at them, sometimes at Stys. They are further incensed by what they see as Straub-led efforts to gag their political speech; she once summoned police to a meeting when they heckled.

Straub is not the first elected official to incur citizen harangues. It's an occupational hazard. But Straub is not a natural politician. When she's attacked, it's her nature to attack right back and use the bluntest words she can find.

As a girl in Cleveland's West Park neighborhood, Straub fought with her fists, not her mouth. Her father wanted a boy, and when Sue came into the world, she didn't have much choice in the matter. "I was my father's first-born son," she says. Of the eight children in her family, three of whom were boys, Sue was the roughest and meanest. When her brothers got picked on, she says, her father called out, "C'mon, Suse, go take care of those kids." And Sue would track down the bully to brawl on behalf of the Straub name.

Decades later, when Lou Gehrig's disease gripped her father, Straub fought the family fight again. Her father moved in, and she cared for him -- oxygen tanks, feeding tubes, and all. "I was standing there, right at the bedside, 6:30 in the morning, when he passed. I looked out the window on Detroit Road -- there were cars passing by -- and I thought, 'Nobody cares.' And that's how minute we are in this world, how infinitesimal we all are."

Straub decided right then to make her mark, and she ran for council in 1991. She lost, but entered the race again in 1993 and toppled the incumbent. Since then, her iron will and issue knowledge have won her respect, even as her unsparing candor has earned her enemies.

The price of being frank and outspoken, though, is that people are frank and outspoken right back. That's what happened March 29, when Straub's support for a proposed senior center in Stys's ward sparked a shouting match in the council parking lot. Straub says ward residents implied she was paid for her vote. Residents say she responded by spitting "fuck you" and describing Stys and Councilwoman Deborah Lime as "fucking bitches and sluts."

During a Stys presentation at another meeting, Straub is said to have mouthed the word "bitch." She's allegedly made profane gestures at audience members from her council seat. And in the strangest incident of all, Straub admits that, during a heated argument with a truck driver near her home, she told the driver her name was Deborah Lime when he asked for her identity.

In all cases, Straub denies deploying the F-word. The trucker incident, she adds, was a spur-of-the-moment decision to protect her family, not sully the name of a rival.

Through it all, Straub's temerity never waned. In early October, she used her Governmental Operations Committee to target Stys in a two-hour inquiry over the latter's liberal use of the council copy machine. As government malfeasance goes, excessive copying wouldn't seem to warrant a public probe. But in the charged atmosphere of Parma government, the insignificant can boil over quickly. As the meeting progressed, so did the grumbling from the crowd, until resident Carol Czack finally yelled out, "This is a joke." Straub adjourned the session, phoned police, and only resumed after officers stood sentry.

Cops or not, the audience wasn't shy about blasting Straub when the public comment period arrived. They compared her committee to a circus, a witch hunt, and accused her of tarnishing the good name of Parma.

Straub later called the meeting "Beat Up Sue Straub Night." But to Stys and Lime, who have landed on the wrong side of Straub's temper, this was a simple case of bad karma coming back.

"She brought that on herself," says Lime. "When you're a public official, you're fair game." Stys concurs: "Councilwoman Straub put herself in that situation through her own actions."

Even Council President Charles Germana, who has come to Straub's aid during clashes with residents, admits that she would spare herself some grief with a bit more discretion. "Sometimes you wish she'd take a breath and not say what's on her mind."

It's unfair, however, to lay blame for Parma's strife at Straub's feet alone. Though enmity between Lime and Straub is time-honored -- both say it involves a personal beef they will not reveal -- all-out warfare did not arrive until Stys came to the council.

A 28-year-old former White House intern, Stys's blend of youth, ambition, and tenacity recalls Reese Witherspoon's character in Election, a girl obsessed with winning the student council presidency. In just her first year in office, Stys has already sued Parma Community General Hospital for access to its board minutes. She's enlisted attorneys to fight the senior center. And when council members threatened to walk out if Stys didn't recuse herself from future center debate, her lawyer suggested she might sue the council for violating her civil rights.

Obviously, she and Straub might make for combustible chemistry.

For her part, Straub shows no signs of taking back her words, but there is a whisper of regret. Sitting on the sofa in her basement, Straub's voice loses the abrasive crackle that resounds in Council Chambers. Her eyes are without the same foreboding flash.

"I wonder sometimes, is it really worth it for me to sit there, hang my head out, just so somebody can come by and chop it off, even when I know I'm right and I never meant to hurt anybody?"

Straub has considered quitting after every showdown with the residents -- particularly after the October 9 battle. That meeting showed Straub at her toughest and weakest. Asked about her impulse to call police, she resorts to her tough side: "It sounds kind of bitchy, but you know what? That's the name of the game. We're going to play hardball, so let's play."

Later, she admits that, even if she appeared defiant, her hands were shaking "from the beginning of the meeting to the end." The facade crumbled shortly after.

"I went into the back room [of Council Chambers] and just bawled my eyes out. I was hurt, I was quitting my job, just everything under the sun. My mom always said, 'There's no one who can make you cry.' But I tell you, if there's anybody who can sit there and not cry through that, they've got to be hard as nails."

The walls and shelves of her home are filled with family portraits and ornamental handbells. At age 51, she confesses to feeling a "mothering instinct" toward the council. But this softer side is usually saved for family and people in her ward.

There's Milly Peck, 86, who knows a Susan Straub that confounds the public image: "She's a very loving, very good person," Peck says. "She takes care of her mother, her grandchildren. When I get sick, she calls me and asks how I am. Now who else would do that? I've got next-door neighbors who think I'm dead over here."

Spend a few more minutes with Peck, and it becomes obvious why voters believe Straub's fighting the good fight. "I told her, 'It's a wonder you didn't have a nervous breakdown at that meeting. I would,'" Peck says. "'I'd walk right over there and punch that lady [Lime] right in the face . . . I wouldn't put up with that."

It's a course of action even Straub would consider extreme. Still, it is hard to predict what will happen the next time Straub enters the fray. On one hand, she has learned how a little self-restraint can save a lot of trouble. On the other, she still seems to relish her renegade persona.

"To be very honest, as a real person and a person who doesn't plan on climbing to any higher office, it's like I can say what I feel. My residents gave me the right to be here, and they like that I'm outspoken."

More by Thomas Francis


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