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How bad press at the worst possible time turned Ed Fitzgerald from a favorite into a dark horse

In the polite atmosphere of the League of Women Voters' forum for county executive candidates, the only person to directly address the county corruption scandal was Democrat Ed FitzGerald. And he did it with a joke.

How would the losing candidates continue their efforts to better the county after the election? a voter asked at the gathering in early October.

Looking at ease with the other candidates, FitzGerald responded that they all have good ideas, and that he hopes some of the losing candidates' ideas will still get used. "It'd be refreshing to have someone steal ideas versus some of the things that have been stolen in the county lately," he said to a round of laughter.

Questions ran the usual gamut from unemployment benefits to job creation to dealing with the housing crisis. But nobody in attendance asked about the fact that FitzGerald is the lone candidate directly linked to the party that's going up in smoke amid the federal investigation.

By all appearances, it seemed the lingering stench of corruption was the furthest thing from their minds. But one look at the way the campaign is playing out in the media offers a very different impression.

FitzGerald entered election season as the odds-on favorite to become Cuyahoga's first county executive. He's the well-liked mayor of Lakewood, a family man with four kids. He's built a reputation as a fiscal conservative, cutting jobs to balance the budget. Stints as an FBI special agent and an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor — when the office was run by Stephanie Tubbs Jones — earned him a reputation as a law-and-order guy.

But on the same September day that Jimmy Dimora was arrested and the FBI finally revealed the commissioner's identity as Public Employee No. 1, Ed FitzGerald announced a preemptive revelation of his own: He is Public Employee No. 14.

It's standard practice for the Bureau to assign numbers rather than identify anyone involved in a case until they are charged. But in addition to protecting the innocent, the system saddles those "numbers" with the same stigma as those who are indicted, regardless of their guilt — or even their involvement.

What we know so far is that FitzGerald earned his number by taking a call from then-Democratic Party chair Dimora, who was in the company of his buddy William Neiheiser, head of the heating and cooling business Reliance Mechanical, which had already been raided by the FBI.

"I was sittin' here with a friend of mine who has been tryin' to get a hold of you and talk to you about your ice rink," Dimora told FitzGerald, according to FBI accounts. "He wants to make a proposal to you, uh, that he thinks will be advantageous to the city and you if, uh, you wanted to talk to him."

FitzGerald agreed to phone Neiheiser the following day. Another company owned by Neiheiser was then added to the list of three solicited for proposals to run Lakewood's Winterhurst rink. Neiheiser's company was one of two that responded, and FitzGerald deemed it the hands-down winner. Theirs was the only proposal he took to city council, which unanimously approved it.

The same day Dimora was arrested, FitzGerald plastered his campaign website with documents intended to demonstrate that he hadn't done anything wrong. Winterhurst was draining Lakewood's finances, after all, and it needed repairs the city couldn't afford. Neiheiser offered to repair the rink and pay the city $75,000 a year for the privilege of running it.

But the deal sounded better before Neiheiser was indicted this summer for bribing county officials in exchange for contracts — charges he denies.

Almost immediately after the FitzGerald-Neiheiser connection surfaced, opponent Matt Dolan responded with an ad campaign asking what FitzGerald has in common with public officials charged in the scandal. Dolan's answer: FitzGerald will be forever stained by doubt over what role he might have played; if voters hope a new county government clears the slate of corruption, electing this guy would seem a bad way to get started. A series of salacious ads by Dolan have continued to hammer the point home, complete with FitzGerald sporting the garb of a Russian dictator.

"My heart did stop for about five seconds when I first heard the news," says Stuart Garson, head of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party. "But then I thought what did he do? Tell us, what did he do? And do you have any evidence? If we manufacture doubt in the voters' minds, is that supposed to be enough to eliminate a person from public office?"

Dolan has a ready answer. "He has some level of involvement with these people in a criminal investigation," he says. "This is about removing a dark cloud from the county, and it cannot happen with Ed. That's how voters should see it."

But isn't "some level of involvement" a little like saying "Ed FitzGerald has cooties"?

"We won't know that until he takes the stand in a federal criminal trial," Dolan says. "Is that how we want to start? Let's move beyond that and make people believe they can reinvest in this community again."

Of the connection to Neiheiser, FitzGerald says, "It's been used by the Dolan campaign in the way you would expect — trying to blur lines as if we are under investigation or a target of the investigation. My being called [Public Employee] 14 has allowed them to take what would have been a very nasty and cheap political tack and make it a little nastier and a little cheaper."

But a second campaign-trail revelation also could stick in voters' minds: Though FitzGerald had said he would not take campaign money from those implicated in the scandal, he did accept $3,000 from Plumbers Local 55. The check was signed by the union's financial secretary, Robert Rybak, who faces charges for allegedly bribing Dimora.

"OK, so they're going to criticize me because I took a contribution from a union and someone in the union did something wrong?" FitzGerald asks rhetorically. "The contribution came from working people who belong to that union. I'm not going to treat it like it's dirty money, like it's Rybak's personal money."

In an election where restoring public trust and the promise of a new dawn are more urgent than ever, simply being a Democrat might be the costliest bit of identity politics in Cuyahoga County this year.

FitzGerald says he's different. "I'm lucky, in a way. My bio is so much the polar opposite of the guys who got in trouble. I don't talk like those guys. I don't sound like those guys or act like those guys. And the more they actually look into it, there just isn't anything there."

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