Richard Hackerd is walking Cleveland's Brooklyn Avenue, looking for votes. A man sitting on a porch eyes him warily. Though Hackerd is dressed casually, the gleaming gold nametag pinned to his tan jacket flags him as a salesman. But Hackerd is selling only himself.
He strides up the porch steps, offers a flier, and says he's running for city council.
"Are you a Republican or a Democrat?" asks the man, who has a scorpion tattooed on his arm.
"I'm a Republican."
Hackerd knows those three words can be enough to turn off voters. After all, he's a candidate in heavily Democratic Cleveland, which hasn't had a Republican city councilman since 1977. So he quickly adds that he's running in a nonpartisan race. And he waits to see if the man, Paul Bresler, is one of those "yellow-dog Democrats" who'd rather vote for a dog than a Republican.
"You know what I'm for?" asks Bresler. "I'm for honesty and no bullshit."
That's the kind of opening Hackerd wants. He says he doesn't think party affiliation matters in local races. Then he slides into his usual spiel: Foreclosed houses shouldn't be boarded up; police should crack down on speeders in residential neighborhoods. He mixes in a few Republican themes, criticizing city council for voting 21-0 "on anything that counts" and decrying a restaurant sales tax hike to pay for a new convention center.
Impressed, Bresler signs Hackerd's petition to get on the ballot, and Hackerd leaves for the next house on his uphill trail to convince Old Brooklyn voters to elect a Republican councilman.
Hackerd may be his party's best hope for ending its decades-long losing streak in Cleveland. The city and its inner-ring suburbs have steadily become more Democratic over the years, even as Ohio becomes more Republican. Only 4 of Cuyahoga County's 18 state legislators are Republicans. Democrats control every county-wide office.
In Cleveland, Al Gore got five times as many votes as George W. Bush. There were 11 precincts where Bush didn't get a single vote. The last Republican in Cleveland government was George Voinovich, mayor in the '80s, who was elected on a platform of fiscal responsibility after the city defaulted. In 1997's city council elections, Republicans endorsed candidates in 8 of the 21 wards; only two won more than 20 percent of the vote.
"It's tough in Cleveland," says Therese Poulos-Pohorence, who lost, 68 to 32 percent, to Councilman Jay Westbrook four years ago. She plans to run again this year. "It's good that it's a nonpartisan race, with Jay and other people standing up at meetings, screaming, 'That Republican!' as if I should have horns and a tail."
LaVerne Jones-Gore took three shots at an East Side council seat, in 1993, 1995, and 1997. At a debate, when it came out that she was a Republican, shocked audience members asked, "Are you?"
"They didn't boo," recalls Councilwoman Pat Britt, who defeated her, "but they just sort of dismissed the whole idea that a Republican could get their support."
Out of three candidates in the 1997 primary, Jones-Gore came in last. Over and over, she says, people told her, "If you weren't a Republican, I would vote for you." And they'd ask, "You're black -- why are you a Republican?"
She ran for county commission last year, losing to Democrat Tim McCormack by a 4-1 margin, and now consoles herself with the compliments of West Side Market merchants who have watched reruns of their debate on cable access. "Man, you had him sweating!" she says they tell her. "I like what you had to say!"
She isn't sure she'll run again. "Being a Republican in Cuyahoga County, you're a fish out of water," she says. Another long-shot run may not be worth the time spent away from her family.
The odds are so daunting that the local GOP sometimes looks like a third party. Tickets fill up with perennial losers and ideological mavericks.
James Sykora says he's lost track of the number of times he's tried for office. Since 1971, he's run about 16 times -- for city council, U.S. Congress, Ohio House, school board, and other posts -- all unsuccessfully. "Long shot is better than no shot," he says.
To Democrats, their huge local advantage is just the natural state of things, not a subject for deep analysis.
"It's a blue-collar, industrial, manufacturing county," shrugs Jimmy Dimora, chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.
"Talking with some of my constituents, their perception of Republicans is that they aren't for people of color and they aren't for people of little means," says Britt.
Turning that perception around is the job of Jim Trakas. A state representative from Independence, he lives in two political worlds: Columbus, where he's the Republican whip, riding herd over a 59-40 statehouse majority, and Cleveland, where he's the county party chair, trying to convince motley crews of political rookies to run for office.
Trakas says voters aren't leaving the party; they're just leaving the county. Republicans have a tendency to be on the cutting edge of sprawl. "We've been able to track 100,000 Republican voters that have moved to Geauga, Lake, Medina, and Lorain and northern Summit counties."
Naturally, Trakas blames some of his party's woes on Democrats. He says they play racial politics, distorting the GOP's record to woo black voters. Republicans actually have a strong urban agenda, he insists, including enterprise zones, self-sufficiency through welfare reform, and more educational choice for urban parents.
So why don't Clevelanders vote Republican? "Maybe they didn't have the right alternatives before," Trakas says. He admits the party deserves some blame for its poor showing. "You can't beat something with nothing. Some of our candidate selection was not what it could have been." He says the few successful local Republicans -- Cleveland mayors Ralph Perk in the '70s and Voinovich in the '80s, County Commissioner Jim Petro in the '90s -- didn't do much to develop potential successors. And he admits the party hasn't worked hard enough to court black voters.
But he hopes Clevelanders reexamine their allegiances. "The loyalty to the Democratic Party has to be questioned [if people] keep always getting what they always got," he says. Though much of the city still lives in poverty, "Voters vote overwhelmingly Democratic in every election. Maybe it's time to make a change."
Last fall, the optimistic Trakas set a goal of electing a Republican to council this year. This spring, he announced that the party will lead petition drives to end council's automatic pay raises and establish term limits both for council and the mayor.
"We want to challenge people based on issues. If we challenge people based on party registration [in Cleveland], we'll lose every time."
Trakas says he wants to field challengers in five wards (which he won't name yet) where incumbents seem vulnerable. But so far, he has only a few candidates lined up. He's asked around among rank-and-file Republicans, but the party's network has a lot of holes -- especially in East Side neighborhoods like Ward 5, where Gore beat Bush in November, 4,253 to 87.
Many aspiring candidates have approached him, but he says he's had to separate the wheat from the chaff. Many are too busy with their jobs to run a good campaign. Some have already run and done badly. One man, in the midst of a messy divorce, was living with a woman who was not his wife. Others are not exactly models of Republican self-sufficiency. "Some you say, 'Let's keep in touch.' Some you say, 'You should probably get your employment situation in order before you run.'"
The party will support candidates financially, if they make a serious effort and raise some money on their own. "This is a Republican [campaign]," he says. "No handouts."
Dimora, Trakas's Democratic counterpart, is not quaking with fear. "They got a candidate running? I didn't know they had any Republicans in Cleveland!" he jokes. Dimora can't think of a Republican hopeful who has posed a threat in a city- or county-wide race recently, save a few judges.
Hackerd, who's running against incumbent Michael O'Malley, looks as if he has a decent chance of breaking the Republicans' curse. His Ward 16 is the second most Republican in the city: Gore beat Bush by only a 2-1 margin there.
Confident and articulate, Hackerd seems genuinely interested in talking to Brooklyn Avenue voters. They're an independent lot. Some Democrats and unaffiliated voters say they'll consider voting for him.
Ted Loizos, a registered Democrat and nephew of Democratic County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, says he was impressed by Hackerd's involvement in local organizations and a neighborhood church. "He's been here awhile. He's a homeowner here. [He has an] idea of what the community needs."
That's exactly the impression Hackerd tries to make. He'd rather talk about neighborhood issues than partisan politics. Party labels won't appear on the ballot, and his campaign literature makes no mention of his affiliation. "I'm not going to run as the Republican candidate," he says.
Still, his late-May fund-raiser at a German-American club on State Road attracted some of Greater Cleveland's lonely Republicans, gathered with the hope that he's the guy who can finally beat the odds. The crowd included Gordon Short, a 26-year-old accountant who lost last fall's race for county treasurer by more than a 3-1 margin, and Mike Maleski, who lost to Democratic State Representative Dale Miller.
"Rich is working his tail off," Maleski says with enthusiasm. Come fall, he predicts, Hackerd's victory will be the biggest political surprise in Cleveland.
Sitting at one table is the heart of Ward 16's Republican ward club: five friends, all elderly. They, too, are optimistic about Hackerd. "He's young and energetic," says Toni Sawyers. "He's done a lot of research. He's not afraid."
If he wins, it'll be quite a change for them. When did they last have a Republican councilman? They search their memories. Sometime in the '70s, one thinks. "I don't remember," Sawyers says.
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