The man of the hour is backlit in neon greens and blues. He grips the microphone in his right hand and gestures sturdily with his left, commanding the stage despite his wiry frame.
"Cleveland!" There's a deep pause as a fog machine spurts clouds around him. "... is the most important city in the United States!"
Several dozen people fill the room of Ace's Grille in Middleburg Heights on a snowy January night, which is exactly where you'd imagine high-minded political discussion to be taking place. The skinny guy on stage bellows jaunty calls for change and jobs, jobs, jobs. Even the '80s cover band stationed around him lowers their beers to focus on this speech, for this is a defining speech. It is the main event for Tanner Fischbach's first and only fundraising event, after all, in his race to become county executive.
Fischbach, who is 19 years old and going on 40, ambles to and fro. He opens his monologue ranting against the Plain Dealer, which poked fun at Fischbach's quirky fundraising emails and odd lapses in grammar. Grabbing the underdog flag with both hands, he next takes aim at the big ones -- Ed FitzGerald, Jack Schron, Frank Jackson. This is what he does.
Once Tanner exhausts himself and there are no more enemies to name, at least not tonight, the Breakfast Club launches back into '80s classics. "Born in the USA" is conspicuously absent.
Ace's bar is lined with mostly foamy diversions, nothing fancier than a gin and tonic sullying the dive's atmosphere. A couple of guys occupying the neighboring barstools guffaw their way through Cheap Trick's "Surrender," pausing just briefly to shake Fischbach's hand and congratulate him on being here and giving the Old Guard some overdue and absolute hell.
Fischbach, now flitting across the bar, broadcasts a mile-wide smile and greets late-comers shuffling in off icy Pearl Road. He's moving briskly and stopping only occasionally to cast a smirk or a nod toward the band onstage, though the soundtrack to the night's festivities was chosen carefully by the candidate.
"I'm a big '80s music fan," Fischbach says. "I love Meat Loaf and all that, and a lot of people think that's crazy."
Well, that's just the start of it.***
Tanner Fischbach vaulted onto the local political scene last October out of nowhere.
"I'm 20 years old and running for this position, and people think I'm crazy for doing so," he told The Plain Dealer. (A background check by the PD showed Fischbach was actually 19. Auspicious beginnings for a political candidate.)
He was the first Republican to enter the county exec fray, launching a Facebook campaign page and gathering petitions from the Board of Elections. It was a surprise to just about everyone outside of Fischbach's small circle, and a total surprise to Cuyahoga County Republican Party Chairman Rob Frost. Responses to his announcement alternated between bemusement and abject insults.
"He is not anybody we know or worked with," Frost told the PD at the time. "I appreciate his enthusiasm, but I expect a strong, established Republican candidate." (With sad trombone melodies whomp-whomping in the background, the party eventually landed Jack Schron.)
Who was this young crusader? If he was a mystery within political circles, he was a complete nobody outside of them. What little could be gleaned from Fischbach's Internet footprint wasn't much -- he worked at Southwest Golf Center in Berea and had volunteered for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. He said he admired Rush Limbaugh and Ken Lanci and that he attended something called the Limbaugh Institute in West Palm Beach, Fla. His grammar was dubious, though he confirmed a deep love for '80s music.
Fischbach was ready to start talking now, ready to flesh out the candidate for public view. This is what a campaign's all about, after all. And so it began with this: "I don't really have a [political] background, nothing much," he told the PD. "I'm just here to let the people have a voice."
Here, then, was your conduit to the highest political office in the county, dear voters. The man who wanted to hand the microphone back to you, if only for a Journey sing-a-long.***
Fischbach's voice is rough when we talk to him in mid-December. He details a nasty bout of illness that has plagued him for a couple weeks now and apologizes for missing an interview. This would become a hallmark going forward - his penchant for missing interviews, that is, not necessarily the illness.
Eventually, he agrees to meet up at a McDonald's on the southern hemline of Parma. He's wearing the same purple shirt and tie combo that he wears in his Facebook profile photo for his campaign. It's as if he wriggled right out of the computer already in character.
"You know what? I'm feeling much better now." Fischbach says in between slurps of Coke. "Everyone's texting me: 'I'm sorry you're sick, but stay away from me,' you know? The only thing I've got now is a cough, so I promise I won't get you sick or anything." His voice carries the quick lilt of his native Boston.
He leans back in his chair and, with a wistful smile, begins explaining his intentions, delving into his time at Berea High School - ground zero of his political awakening, as it were. The whole district mirrors the deep blue hues of the county, so the slightly younger Fischbach saw ample opportunity to engage in healthy debate around the halls. This was back when Gov. John Kasich was championing Senate Bill 5 (Issue 2) across the state, prior to Fischbach's 2013 graduation.
"When you have a young Republican punk coming through your hallways..." Fischbach starts off with a laugh. "I remember they put a couple posters in the school. You know, 'No on Senate Bill 5' and all that. I went up to the administration and, well, 'Am I allowed to put up posters for Senate Bill 5? Is this how it's gonna go?' I think it was like an hour later that they took them down, because I would do it. I would do it!"
He pursues this tangent: "I would love to see a push for another Senate Bill 5 if we could for the whole state. But if we could push something countywide, that'd be great. And a lot of people probably aren't going to vote for me for saying that."
Whether it's naivete, balls, or the comfort of being an absolute outsider with no chance at winning, Fischbach's budding campaign hinges largely on calling out anyone, whether fellow GOPers or not. He spouts antipathy at length and shakes his head at mentions of Ed FitzGerald, Jack Schron and Frank Jackson before riding out a rant against the Good Old Boys Club of local politics. Distant chumps, all.
He's been gunning to take them down for years now, especially after watching some of his Republican heroes (the Rick Perrys, Mitt Romneys, and Ken Lancis of the world) fall to Democratic victors. It's not been an easy thing to watch his more established counterparts fall.
In April 2013, Fischbach's mother died, which added profound shock to his tiers of adult stress. The loss also tore him from plans to run for the mayor of Berea (he never pulled petitions, just told everyone that he was running). The next year, of course, buoyed by whatever was stirring inside him, he aimed higher than mayor of the small Cleveland suburb.
Among his family and friends and co-workers, support for Fischbach's run is essentially universal. There's genuine support for his efforts throughout the night of his Middleburg Heights fundraiser, so much as one can gauge from a crowd of a few dozen. Elsewhere, in rooms across the county populated by those with, say, more established resumes and ties to the political scene, support is nowhere to be found.
There's an old joke around here that even Jesus Christ Himself couldn't get elected as a Republican in Cuyahoga County. Tanner Fischbach - let the record show - is not Jesus.***
Rob Frost avoids the subject as best he can and at all costs. Rob Frost doesn't want to talk about Tanner. Rob Frost flatly says he has no comment on Tanner Fischbach whatsoever.
The chairman of the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County has other things on his mind, probably the least of which is discussing that kid out in Berea hoisting GOP colors and embarrassing the local GOP machine that Frost is tasked with preventing from becoming (any more of) an embarrassment or afterthought. (Ed FitzGerald bested Republican lawyer Matt Dolan in the first county exec race by a 45-31 tally.)
None of that really surprises Fischbach; Frost wouldn't even return the kid's calls. Ever.
"The Republican Party is in the gutter. It is. It's in the gutter. There's no Republican Party in Cuyahoga County. No one even shows up to their meetings," Fischbach says. "Look at the Democrat side: They're having meetings at golf courses. They can give their candidates half a million dollars. Then you look at us, and we're just looking at our toes. We need to work this out!"
The Republican Party of Cuyahoga County boasts an odd claim to the Denny's on West 150th Street. It is, in short, the party's social headquarters. It is also one place where Tanner Fischbach has felt wholly unwelcome since first announcing his intention to run last fall.
He leapt into the election spotlight months before County Councilman Jack Schron took up the sacrificial mantle of the GOP and announced his own county executive campaign. Fischbach, to be clear, has been the hardest-working local candidate for nearly half a year now. To wit: Schron has not booked any cover bands - 80s or otherwise - for his official events.
"The party doesn't like to do meetings," he says. Fischbach is talking about getting actual facetime with the taxpayers of Cuyahoga County through the party. He's saying the GOP maintains a fairly insular existence, even as he, a candidate, expresses desires to take the crest of the party to the people and talk policy. "If you want to do a meeting, you've got to go to Denny's for five minutes where they'll trash talk you and they'll trash talk everybody else. That's nice, but I'm not here for that. Mind you, that's all the party does is trash talk." (Our attempt to attend one of these semi-regular Republican powwows at Denny's was scuttled by the Cleveland winter morass. When we do make it, we'll let you know what everyone orders.)
The problems he mentions are ones mirrored nationally by the Republican Party. He rants ad nauseum about the problems with the local outfit, but this is the nut of what Fischbach is trying to get across in his campaign. Out with the old, in with the revolutionary new.
Before it's over, this story is going to get very strange, but for now, Fischbach is talking more sense than what official party elders would ever let on. And he wants you to know as much.
The storyline, particularly in this post-Romney world, is that the GOP is having image issues with respect to, you know, women, money, energy, race, war, history, legislation and so on. Fischbach is the foil, of course.
He is pushing a seven-point plan to change that and galvanize... something - anything - in Cuyahoga County. His platform breaks down thusly:
- Tax cuts and tax breaks to businesses bringing jobs to Cuyahoga County
- Monthly meetings with the mayors of the county
- Institution of a five-person team to develop new job creation tactics
- Restoration of the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds
- Restoration of the lakefront
- Decrease in salaries for public-sector workers
- More effective regional marketing
Pretty boilerplate stuff, really. But it's here, in the early machinations of Fischbach's political efforts, that something now dubbed by the fringe punditry as the "Tanner Fischbach Effect" becomes apparent.
Despite talk and media narratives to the contrary, prevailing attitudes continue to prevail. County leadership these days still looks eerily similar to county leadership pre-reform. In his Feb. 5 speech at the Shaker Heights Democratic Club meeting, Democratic county exec candidate Armond Budish followed in the rhetorical footsteps made by County Executive Ed FitzGerald right before him. He prefaced nearly every point by saying, "Like Ed said" or "As Ed mentioned..." Fischbach sure as hell isn't running his mouth like that.
"I'm not here to please you guys; I'm here to please the taxpayers," Fischbach says, relaying his brief encounters with local GOP brass. "They got pissed off by that."
And that's not surprising. What Fischbach is saying - pardon the specifics of his policy for a moment - is that everyone in public office right now has to go. The cheesy-puff imprints of Jimmy Dimora's fatty fat fingers are still riddled across county government. The big guy's behind bars, but members of his sprawling network still line the payroll sheets.
The Tanner Fischbach Effect is the natural counter to the Republican Party's national woes. It's the natural counter to the political hamster wheel here.
"The party is a joke in this county, and they don't want to do anything about it," he says. "I try to stay away from the party. They are next to my name, but it doesn't mean I'm sipping tea with them every other Wednesday or anything like that."
In fact, Fischbach isn't even a registered Republican voter.
"I'm doing my own thing," he says, kicking back another gulp of Coke.***
Fischbach carves his own niche in this world with pride. He's in charge. His story, quite clearly, is one of sustained iconoclasm.
The kid started working at 14, both out of necessity and a drive to be an active participant in this world, to enjoy the burden of working-class callouses on his hands. He is not an idle young man. By 16, he claims he was racking up 60 hours a week at Southwest Golf Center (that was on top of his conservative shenanigans on the clock at Berea High).
Toward the end of his time in school, Fischbach enrolled at Polaris Career Center, pursuing study in criminal justice. The plan, then and now, was ultimately to become a police officer. He says he lives with a plan on the table at all times. His campaign for the county seat kept him on the trail this year, but he'll be heading to Cuyahoga Community College for continued education next year.
On a more macro level, though, Fischbach couldn't resist the urge to shake things up. The police beat is one thing; tackling the muck and mire of Cuyahoga is quite another.
Fischbach describes his political aspirations much like he does his golf game. He's an avid duffer, a regular at Mallard Creek Golf Club. And brashness is his singular characteristic. He brings orange balls, yellow balls, glow-in-the-dark balls, all because he ends up in the sticks so often that he needs something - anything - to help him out. He plays with abandon.
"I'm the worst golfer," he says. "I'm one of those guys who throws his clubs. I don't even have a full set anymore. I'll get so pissed." He'll often toss around a few fiery opinions on the current events of the day while chipping shots too. Now and then, his buddies indulge him. Other times, his rants carry into the woods, lost to the game.
And in golf, politics, or other arenas, Fischbach lends no quarter to those who defy his sense of style.
"If you don't have brats at your golf course, I don't go there," he says. "I went to Coppertop, and I'll tell you, the course was good. But they had, like, chicken wraps. I never went back there. You gotta have brats, I'll tell you."***
Three Democratic candidates for county executive are spouting party lines about all sorts of topics - the sin tax extension, Opportunity Corridor, how they'll continue building stuff and how they totally won't hand over jobs to their friends. This public forum, held Jan. 26, basically underscored the Democratic and media elite decision to back candidate Budish fully. The powers that be have already decided Dems like Shirley Smith or Bob Reid and GOP names like Jack Schron and, yes, Tanner Fischbach don't matter. And that goes quadruple for Democratic outliers like Tim Russo and Walter Allen Rogers Jr.
Armond Budish, former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives and current District 8 representative from Beachwood, is the vaunted favorite among the field. Precedent says he'll win the whole thing. He's fine enough, which is the sort of high bar set in Cleveland these days.
The Shaker Heights Democratic Club met Feb. 5 to considerable fanfare (the meeting is pulling in politicians and friends thereof). There was a fantastic spread of fresh vegetables, warm baked goods and chunky guacamole.
"We've had a change in our program tonight, so we are really excited to have two excellent speakers tonight," club director Jane Buder Shapiro tells the crowd. She is referring to the fact that the night's program had originally been planned as a multi-pronged debate among Democratic candidates. Contenders Bob Reid (former county sheriff) and Shirley Smith (state senator) pulled out; Tim Russo (self-described "exploding inevitable") did not. In fact, he insisted on fairness and equal participation, party-wide, in the debate. The club responded by splashing fan-favorite Budish (Ohio House rep) across the marquee. Budish would be speaking; Ed FitzGerald would open the show. Somewhere between the seats and the podium, they'd exchange a sly handshake and Fitz would hand over a set of keys to the executive bathroom.
More of the same, really. Russo, the one Democratic challenger who's actually putting forth contrarian and original ideas, sits through the event wearing a stunning smirk. And it was apparent from the campaign fluff peddled by FitzGerald and Budish that in no part of the county has the Tanner Fischbach Effect yet taken root.
"I think since we pushed the charter change, I feel like it turned this county around," the young Fischbach says. "We're still in the gutter, but it turned us in the right direction. But then we just turned it right back around, because we've got these same old politicians coming into office.
"I feel like if I do get in, a lot of people aren't going to like me. I'm not the typical 'I know Jack and Jill from Solon.' I don't know anybody," he continues. "You're all going to leave. I want to clean up. I want everybody out. I want to rebuild, get new people in office."
As you might guess, no one is going to leave except Tanner.***
Tanner Fischbach has disappeared. Vanished as quickly as he arrived, it seems.
Where once there was promise -- "Everything is going to be changed, because I'm going to be in this campaign. I'm loving it." -- there was now silence. Fischbach had been missing from the public eye since his fundraiser in late January. Messages and phone calls by the dozens went unanswered. He stood us up for an early cover shoot for this story. Old Meatloaf LPs spun in the Scene office, a last-ditch attempt to summon some good Fischbach karma.
The lone clue: An arcane Facebook status update posted on Feb. 3 that read "Bye Bye Cleveland!!"
Bye Bye Cleveland??
From the beginning, Fischbach's campaign Facebook page broadcasted his thoughts and promises and those familiar, buzzy rallying cries for jobs, jobs, jobs. But his stilted language and odd use of punctuation became a sticking point for potential followers. Few could really decipher what he meant. An example: "My campaign is making a progress in this county. We need a fresh, New, Republican mind in office. Who is here for the Taxpayers Only and Not the pay!!"
Now there was nothing at all.
And there was nothing at 4 p.m. on Feb. 5. That was the deadline for political candidates to file for the May primary in Cuyahoga County. Tanner Fischbach, the young Republican punk from Berea, did not file.
While Ed FitzGerald and Armond Budish bond over fresh-baked cookies that recent evening in Shaker Heights, we ask other attending politicians and friends about Fischbach. What happened to his unique brand of hell that would uproot the campaign? Most reply simply, "Who is Tanner Fischbach?" But a precious few shake their heads and lament: "It's a damn shame."
Perhaps a write-in campaign is Fischbach's next step? With the race essentially settled and the big umbrella issues too dull and pervasive to really engender any response from the public, who wouldn't want Fischbach to stir things up? After all, he promised us, and you, that exact outcome. "The shit will hit the fan when I go in there," he says. "I have so many ideas."***
It happened sometime on side B of Bat Out of Hell. A text. We confirmed the lopey grammar against writing we had on file. It was him. Fischbach wanted to meet.
Of all places, he chooses the empty food court amid the shuttered storefronts of Parmatown Mall. The imagery of the place is too goddam vivid, too perfect a metaphor for what had become of the Fischbach campaign.
Party pressure had him up against the ropes, he says. He had people telling him to pursue other offices, to stay away from the Big Time. An hour before the filing deadline, with required signatures in hand, Fischbach debated this quandary silently.
"They're really telling me there's no chance," he explains. "At that point, there were two sides: On one hand, fuck it, let's go for it. On the other hand, am I really gonna waste all this time and not even get close?"
Fischbach explained how Tim Russo, the exploding inevitable, called him after the filing deadline had passed: "What the hell, man?" We were all asking the same question.
"I just didn't know what to do," he says.
Then, a bombshell: "I'm 250-percent sure I'm running for the mayor of Berea."
And with that, we're right back to the beginning -- an odd sense of promise and the kid's boisterous, ever-loving charm. He smiles. The "Would-Be Baron of Berea"? Who knows. But Tanner Fischbach is not ready to drop the microphone yet.
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