Democratic Candidates for County Executive Square Off at City Club

With the right eyes and a tough squint, you could just barely make it out: a small table waaayy off on the other side of the room that was open to those without ties to Democratic campaigns or labor unions or other spoken-for groups. Everything else? Bought outright by the "Friends of Somebody" and such ilk.

Which is to say that the general public was unquestionably not in attendance at today's City Club debate - the only real debate among all six Democratic candidates (read: candidates) for county executive. (One could tune in to the proceedings via 90.3 FM, which was carrying the thing on a 15-second delay [sparks were anticipated].)

The crowd of campaign insiders listened fairly intently to what turned out to be a real revelation of an event: There are actually other candidates in this race who aren't Armond Budish! When people like Bob Reid, Shirley Smith, and Thomas O'Grady began offering sound opinions on the present and future states of the county, the effect of the Grand Reveal was shocking. Kudos are indeed due to the City Club for the optics.

Tim Russo, probably the most outspoken candidate, was seen prior to the debate at the corner of East 9th and Euclid, flagging down pedestrians and not infrequently discussing a) Bernie Kosar, b) the sin tax, c) a Bernie Kosar jersey one of his volunteers was wearing, and/or d) Budish's "Golden Opportunties" racket, which currently nets his production company $160,000 annually in county tax dollars via MetroHealth Medical Center's advertising contract with the show and WKYC.

"You may hear some personal attacks and some tall tales aimed at tearing down fellow Democrats," Budish told the crowd early in the debate, well before anyone Russo specifically launched any grenades his way. The preemptive defense was visibly awkward, though most of the room comprised to some degree the Budish bloc, so whatever. Russo aimed and fired plenty later on, most often returning to his new favorite riff: "The game is rigged."

O'Grady, for his part, not only dished up the strongest and most valid rhetoric of the day, but also agreed with Russo that, yes, the whole political and social churn of Cuyahoga County is coiled up in itself, rigged so thoroughly by the Powers That Be that there's no hope for any real progress as long we continue down the path we're on. Like a snake consuming its own tail, the Cuyahoga machine has done a terrific job so far of silencing those sorts of voices. Both in the halls of the Justice Center (read: makeshift County HQ for now) and in the pages of what used to be our daily newspaper, the red carpet is laid out so thickly for future County Executive Armond Budish that one can't help but trip on it while otherwise dodging potholes.

Here's a quick breakdown of the topics covered today:

- The county population exodus: This question was basically a moment of platform regurgitation for each candidate. Two pols, in fact, mentioned "four-point plans." The gist of each answer had to do with connecting education to job creation. Basically, a rewording of this question ("How might we make the county better?") is the sort of thing that illuminates little about a candidate, save for mannerisms and facial tics.

- Voting rights: This was almost a waste of question, as nearly every candidate toed the same Democratic line about Republican-led voter suppression. And, yeah, they've all got a point there, but the discussion was so clearly driven by party lines that it made little sense in a one-party forum like this. Reid, however, did counter the standard argument by saying that it's "borderline insulting" to suggest that voters need more than 30 days of voting. His dissent on the matter was a refreshing rhetorical moment.

- County's role in education: This didn't go very far, since most public school districts are their own governmental entities. Reid again shined here by getting into community college subsidy programs and scholarship funding. All else: ZZzzz...

- Attracting the RNC (via at least $5 million in public cash): Most candidates expressed either skepticism or quiet support buoyed by curiosities about how the convention would really impact the local economy. Meanwhile, Budish: "I'm a strong supporter."

- Filling out our workforce: Russo opened this discussion with "Well, you're gonna be surprised to hear me say that the game is rigged and that's why no one's getting any jobs." The crowd really yukked it up with that one. The rest of the conversation was boilerplate.

Walter Allen Rogers Jr., who laudably gave the poorest neighborhoods of the county some air time, actually got an audible laugh from the crowd when he capped his closing statement with a requisite "Don't forget to vote for me" line.


The bottom line? O'Grady showed to play, though it's unclear how he'll pick up lost ground re: name recognition and grassroots campaigning between now and May 6. Smith leveraged her State Senate experience and garnered 5,000 points for guaranteeing the Old Boys Club contends with at least one woman this go-around. Budish lifted his chin so high that at one point Rogers, who was inexplicably photographing people in the audience during the debate, pointed his camera aloft and had to stand on his seat to get a good shot. Rogers pushed concerns most important to the streets, which didn't get him far with the City Club crowd, though everything he said rang viscerally true to anyone who spends time in the underserved regions of our county. Reid threw down the most complete and coherent statements throughout the event; his experience in county government shined. Russo ran through the fundamentals of political corruption (flaunting grassroots organizational experience in the former Soviet Union), though it's tough to say which of his opponents took the hint.

The City Club's meal options included barbecue chicken or salad, though they ran out of chicken dishes pretty quickly, according to kitchen sources.