Being Played

Cleveland tires of funding thieves, morons, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Byrd-Bennett repeatedly called for sacrifice, yet - showed no interest in sacrificing herself. - Walter  Novak
Byrd-Bennett repeatedly called for sacrifice, yet showed no interest in sacrificing herself.
In June, Council President Frank Jackson invited the leading mayoral candidates to a photo-op, where they would profess their support for the $46 million school levy. Somehow, the sight of these distinguished leaders, united as one, was supposed to convince America's poorest city to dig the last coins from its purse.

Delusion would play the host, and she would script a fine comedy.

Cue laugh track 1: Two of the three people present -- Jackson and Mayor Jane Campbell -- were the most ineffectual politicians in the city. It was like trotting out Ashlee Simpson and Carrot Top to build support for the war effort.

Cue laugh track 2: Campbell turned the photo-op into an amateur power play, urging the other candidates to pledge not to campaign until the vote passed. Forget schoolkids. This was a shameless move to protect her incumbency. She didn't think we'd notice.

Cue laugh track 3: No one even remembered to bring a camera.

Circus midgets could have delivered a better sales pitch.

Former safety director and mayoral candidate James Draper was invited as well. But when he spoke of voters' distrust of school leaders, saying the levy would never pass, he was ceremoniously disinvited. The Plain Dealer dogged him for being uninformed. Opponents implied that he'd abandoned the kids. "I got taken to the woodshed," he says.

In Cleveland, this is your punishment for being right.

Last week, Draper's predictions proved true: The city hammered the levy by a landslide. Three days later, schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett resigned.

Before and after the vote, the city's leading minds wondered how it could even be close.

They pointed to rising test scores. A graduation rate that had jumped from 28 to 50 percent. The fact that nearly three-quarters of all graduates were now heading to college.

If you believed them, these were the impressive digits of progress. To vote no would surely pound them backward. Who could possibly want that?

Besides, the money would be given to the sainted Byrd-Bennett. Though she'd become widely unpopular in the neighborhoods, she remained the darling of the civic elite. In these parts, a government official with an IQ above room temperature is so rare, she's instantly called a messiah.

What they didn't understand was that Cleveland was looking for a bigger fight. So many people had stolen their money for so many years, they wanted revenge. City leaders were too arrogant to spot the ambush.

Their stupidity was evident from the start. Taking a move from the Ken Blackwell playbook, they publicly announced they would suppress the vote. Consider it classic Cleveland politics: Why argue the merits when there's an unoriginal scam to run? It was akin to deciding to mug an old lady, then sending a telegram telling her where and when it would happen.

"It added significantly to the mistrust," says Draper. "That's a terrible strategy."

After all, residents already harbored deep distrust for Campbell and Jackson. Their faith in Byrd-Bennett was even less.

She'd repeatedly called for sacrifice, yet flew first class and grubbed her way to $300,000 a year, showing no interest in sacrificing herself. She'd been caught overcounting busing numbers. Taking attendance late so tardiness would be underreported. Mismanaging the district's investment portfolio. Condoning rampant violence, because to deal with it would mean expulsions, and those would damage her precious graduation rates.

You'd only trust her numbers if they were audited by St. Francis.

Then there was the FBI's investigation of former Mayor Mike White. Bag man Nate Gray was taped by the FBI casually swapping school contracts for bribes, as if he were peddling sausage at the West Side Market ("City for Sale," July 20). Yet Campbell, Jackson, and Byrd-Bennett all remained silent. There were no calls for investigation, no inquiries to see if the district had once again become a reservoir for mutts and sponges to wet their beaks.

We were supposed to believe that Byrd-Bennett, a legendary micromanager, knew nothing of corruption. We were just supposed to forget about it -- and give her more money.

They even said it with a straight face.

But voters had already paid for Campbell and Jackson's breathtaking ineptitude. They funded Joe Jones' personal extortion racket. They paid for Mike White's shakedown scheme.

They subsidized crooked building inspectors and water department employees. They paid for juvenile-court judges to sue us, just because they don't want to move to the East Side.

They paid George Voinovich, Bob Taft, and Joe Deters to sell investment contracts. They paid Larry Householder to sell legislation. They paid for Brian Hicks to scam discount vacations. They even gave Tom Noe $50 million to blow on autographed baseballs, wine, and steak.

The children, it seemed, had a history of misspending their allowance. Mr. and Mrs. Cleveland were pissed.

"Anger best expresses what I felt out there," Draper says of campaigning door-to-door. The prevailing sentiment: "We're not going to turn over any money."

Perhaps the school vote was the wrong place to pick a fight. In many respects, we have cut off our nose to spite our face. Then again, this was a fight long past due.

For one glorious day, the people of Cleveland said they would be stolen from no more. A fine day it was.