Lessons from the county elections

The most celebrated political moment I've witnessed in Cleveland was the night Carl Stokes was elected mayor in November 1967. Last week the passage of Issue 6, which creates a new county government, had its historical significance as well. But instead of celebration, there was only exhausted triumph.

The fight to pull the county from the political dark ages had been waged for more than a half-century, mostly against a tradition of myopic and self-serving politicos who reigned over the demise of a once great city. It's hard to celebrate when you know the world passed you by. Yet, despite the overwhelming countywide vote of 66 percent, the issue passed as much on circumstance than any farsighted vision on the part of the electorate. These circumstances created a perfect storm of voter anger.

"To tell you the truth, I was shocked," says Bruce Akers, mayor of Pepper Pike, and a co-chair of the Issue 6 committee. "If you told me beforehand that all 57 communities in the county would carry the issue, I would not have believed it."

The circumstances at work were substantial and came together perfectly. First, the county Democratic Party had become a self-sustaining cabal, devoted to greed and deceit, its energies employed against the good of the community, some of its leaders morally and ethically corrupt. Shame and guilt were brushed aside like lint on a lapel.

"I'm not doing anything that anyone else is doing," embattled county commissioner Jimmy Dimora once said in an epithet that could well characterize political lifestyle in Cleveland.

Another important circumstance was the awakening of the media, particularly The Plain Dealer.

In recent decades, the media here became preoccupied with themselves. They seemed to shun their traditional role as watchdogs, idly mesmerized as a corrupt Mike White administration plundered the town in the 1990s. A philosophy of passive objectivity was embraced in covering government. That meant that reporters accepted public officials at their word, a fatal mistake. When I was a young reporter, a city editor would greet those of us coming back from city hall, asking: "Well boys, what lies did they tell you today?"

It is the kind of cynicism that politicians hate, but there is more truth to it than anyone wants to admit.

As time passed, politicians like county com-missioner Tim Hagan seized on this passive nature. With growing arrogance, Hagan would explain he was a public official and answered only to the voters, and if you did not like what he was doing, run for office yourself. His ramroding of the sales tax for the convention center/medical mart and his skillful guiding of the project to MMPI — a company owned by members of the Kennedy family, whom Hagan boastfully proclaims as good friends — was blatant. These friends are so good that the county sends them $333,333 month to build the $425 million center. While MMPI was challenged by competitors for the project, the mainstream media never engaged in a serious evaluation of the situation until it was too late.

Two events changed the circumstances at the county administration building.

In a moment ofsupreme frustration, Dimora ordered two Plain Dealer reporters ushered out of a public meeting. It was like shooting a cop, and the newspaper responded with all cars. This, coupled with the federal investigation into county corruption, resulted in frequent headlines of the size generally reserved for a major war. And in a way, it was a war. Hagan complained that The Plain Dealer reporting of Issue 6 was biased. He was right. What he didn't understand was the rules of the game had changed to meet the arrogance generated by him and others.

The headlines were played out like Chinese water torture — a steady, agonizing drip that permeated the soul of the community and left the deep impression that we were being governed by the sinister and incompetent. My favorite story was the revelation that city clerk of courts Earle Turner worked four hours a month. Think of how that resonated among those who suffered layoffs and mortgage foreclosures.

The news coverage of the county corruption was driven like no other story here since the halcyon days of the late Cleveland Press when it virtually ruled the city. This kind of journalism is on the edge, but it is dangerous and can come back to haunt a newspaper in the manner that the Sam Sheppard case did to the Press when the U.S Supreme Court ruled his first trial unfair. Already defense attorneys complain bitterly about the fairness of news coverage involving their clients as they peer into their drinks at Johnny's and speak of the inability to get fair trials, even though most will plea bargain.

One of the more disappointing players in what turned out to be the theater of the absurd was county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, who cast his lot with Hagan in promoting Issue 5, a commission to study government change, a sham designed to disrupt real reform. Peter Lawson Jones is a product of the post-civil-rights era. Harvard-educated and blessed with an engaging personality, he is the kind of figure one hoped would emerge in future generations to lead a city that suffered from racial rift.

It turned out Jones lacked one ingredient: political courage. When he joined Hagan in the thinly veiled effort to throw the community into further chaos, he revealed himself to be a hollow man, Harvard and all.

Interestingly, the future of the old-guard black political leadership could well represent another historic watershed. Often criticized as living in the past glories of the civil rights days, men like George Forbes, Lou Stokes and Arnold Pickney were sometimes accused by young blacks as being unyielding of their power. Stokes was adamant in his opposition to change while Forbes said that the only way he could join in a reform effort was if the school systems were included. That was a deal breaker — suburban voters would never agree.

Mayor Frank Jackson, fabled for lethargy in a declining city, opposed the future as well. He ended up on the "it is what it is" side of the issue while the rest of the community wrung its hands over the stench of death on Imperial Avenue.

Of the 41 co-chairmen who made up the Issue 6 organization, nine were African Americans. State senator Nina Turner played a key supporting role and told the group that if you were interested in civil rights, the place to be was in making change. Turner had been ridiculed by the Call & Post as "carrying water for the white man" in supporting Issue 6. It was the fading race card at play. The President's Council, an organization of black businessmen, offered signal support.

It's likely that blacks will occupy four of the 11 county council seats, perhaps five. Black representation was never the issue that some made of it.

But the question is where do we go from here? For the first time in 200 years, the county has a government of checks and balances. This means there will be more debate over issues and hopefully an end to failures like the Ameritrust Building and the suspect convention center/medical mart project.

The move may give businesses more confidence in local government, a much-needed ingredient if a partnership is to be forged between the two to resurrect the area and region.

Will the same old political hacks who are not in prison bid for seats on the council? Maybe. Or will this new beginning beckon others to step forward and provide a bright destiny rather than more darkness?

When pressed for conjecture, Mayor Akers says there is only one sure thing that victory at the polls brought to the people of Cuyahoga County: "At least we have hope now," he said.

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