Boss From the 'Burbs

As the battle heats up between the county commissioners and City Hall, Jimmy Dimora is throwing his weight around the old-fashioned way -- with favors, charm, and an occasional kick in the teeth.

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It's 7:55 a.m. and Jimmy Dimora is 35 minutes late--unconscionable for most people, but not terrible by his unique standards. The Cleveland Convention Center is buzzing as a choir of grade-school students belts out gospel songs with the potency of a double espresso.

Eight hundred people have assembled to celebrate the seventh annual Unity Day, Mayor Michael White's brainchild for gathering people from all over town to eat breakfast while public officials talk about the need for us all to just get along. As one might expect, the place is teeming with politicians.

White enters with a coterie of advisors and guests. It is, after all, his show. Nearly everyone is seated by the time Dimora enters as an entourage of one. The newest Cuyahoga County commissioner stops at every table on the short walk to his seat, dispensing a hug here, a back slap there, a handshake everywhere.

He's seated for all of about thirty seconds before he's off again to meet and greet, making his way through a table of students ("Summer's almost here."), middle-aged executives ("How's your father?"), and seniors ("It's so nice to see you!"). He hugs Lavonne Sheffield-McClain, White's notorious chief of staff. Young and old, black and white, important and anonymous, Dimora greets them all in the same measured and genial tone.

He carries his guy-at-the-next-barstool manner onto the dais, where White sits with his wife Jo Ann. Word around town is that White and Dimora can't stand each other personally, but there's only a hint of that this morning. Dimora extends his hand to the mayor and gets off the tiniest jab. "It's appropriate we're here on Unity Day," he quips, alluding to their well-known animosity.

The two men could not be more different. White is a small black man, Dimora a large white man. White is intense and a bit stiff, Dimora is an easygoing guy who loves the spotlight. There is one similarity, though: both wield unmistakable power. They talk amiably about finding a site for a new juvenile detention center, as if it's not an issue that, just four days later, would play a role in yet another public feud between them.

By the time Dimora is done schmoozing White, all the mayor can say is, "Thank you very much for coming today, commissioner."

Dimora walks away with a broad grin on his face--and why not? Over the past year, Dimora has had a lot to smile about. In a race that few thought he could win last year, Dimora scored a bellwether victory over State Sen. Patrick Sweeney in the Democratic primary, setting himself up to replace retiring Commissioner Tim Hagan.

And as chairman of the Cuyahoga County Demo-cratic Party, Dimora has presided over a seismic shift in local politics. He helped his allies--people like County Prosecutor Bill Mason and County Recorder Patrick O'Malley--ascend to power, while taking on longtime power brokers such as U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, with whom he had an ugly and very public feud. But as Stokes faded into retirement and White barricaded himself in City Hall, Dimora quietly and steadily built a base of supporters--both for himself and the party--the old-fashioned way. He went out and pressed the flesh, hitting every pancake breakfast, community fair, and rubber-chicken dinner on the circuit. Now Dimora is the unquestioned power in the party.

"It's a changing of the guard," says Mason, the former Parma law director appointed to replace Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, who took over Stokes's Congressional seat. The new power structure is also a reflection of changing demographics. Nearly 70 percent of Cuyahoga County's population now lives in the suburbs, whereas thirty years ago 70 percent lived in the city.

"It does have a more suburban flavor," Mason acknowledges. "Traditionally, the politicians came out of Cleveland exclusively. That's not the case anymore."

No one represents that shift better than Dimora, who, despite spending half of his 43 years in elected office, still represents an unlikely heir to the throne of local kingmaker. He's a nuts-and-bolts guy rather than a visionary, a former sewer worker with no education beyond high school. He's been a target for racial politics--unfairly or not, depending on who's talking. But using a canny combination of political instincts, hard work, unflappable personality, and almost embarrassing honesty, Dimora has transcended the racial politics that played so well in Cleveland in the past.

Dimora's ascension has undeniably changed the dynamic in one of the most volatile relationships around: between the mayor and the three members of the county commission. The mayor still dictates the political agenda, but the commissioners are no longer afraid to take him on. With virtually every Democrat in this one-party town now dependent on a good relationship with him, Dimora occupies an enviable position: He's the new political Godfather.

"He Died in a Vat of Shit"
Spend some time with Dimora, and it's quickly apparent that he's unlike any politician in town. For one thing, he's not programmed. The guy says what he thinks, for better or worse, usually with a wink or self-deprecating chuckle and the occasional malapropism. He speaks in an everyman, pseudo-Stallone patois, where "picture" comes out "pitcher" and "you" is always "ya."

A visit later on Unity Day to Jane Addams High School, where Dimora hands out certificates to Cleveland public school students who participated in a "Get Out the Vote" poster contest, is instructive. When he sees a framed photo of White with a group of Jane Addams students, Dimora jokes, "He was all right today. But then again, it was Unity Day, so he had no choice."

Dimora personally introduces himself to nearly every student at the event. When he meets Carol T. Young, a history and government teacher at John Marshall, who happens to be young and attractive, Dimora asks, "Are you a student or a teacher?" Young laughs and Dimora continues, "When I was a student, we had all these old teachers. Now they have these good-looking chicks."

It's tough to imagine any other politician in the county talking about "chicks." But his exchange with Young, like most of Dimora's comments, isn't malicious. It's just Dimora being Dimora.

A few minutes later, when he learns that some of the students' names on the certificates are misspelled, Dimora patiently takes down their names and addresses and promises to mail corrected certificates, as if the mistakes are his personal responsibility. He then goes around to other students, making sure their names are spelled correctly.

Among the group is a seventeen-year-old boy from James F. Rhodes High School, who is wearing eyeliner and a dog collar around his neck. A burly Italian guy from Bedford Heights and a skinny punk-rocker from Cleveland would seem to have nothing in common, but Dimora gleans from the kid that he'll be working at a lumberyard this summer. Within minutes they're swapping summer job stories, talking about hard work and how quickly the kid got a raise. Dimora wins another convert.

On the way out he even lets a hyperactive student use his cell phone to call for a ride home. It's tough to imagine any politician doing that, either. But Dimora thrives on it, lives for it. No area politician so thoroughly enjoys meeting with the masses. Then again, no other area politician is so thoroughly a part of the masses. Dimora lives every day--and for him, there is no separation between the political and the nonpolitical--as though he were engaged in an eight-way tooth-and-nail dogfight. One year after beating Sweeney, Dimora acts like he's still on the campaign trail, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

"You never stop campaigning," he says. It's a common refrain for a man who literally fell into his career in politics.

The story of how Dimora became involved in Bedford Heights politics is like many of his tales and jokes--well-worn, endlessly retold with a familiar punch line, but in Dimora's capable hands, still able to draw a laugh.

Dimora worked for the city on weekends and in the summer, starting at the age of fifteen. Instead of going to college when he graduated from Bedford High School in 1973, the eighteen-year-old with long hair and a beard accepted a full-time job at the Bedford Heights Wastewater Treatment Plant. Dimora did the job for a few years, but his life changed in 1977, at the height of the energy crisis.

"To save energy, we worked with the lights off outside. So we're walking around with flashlights over a catwalk that was over a vat of raw sewage," he says. "Somebody hadn't fastened the catwalk, and the catwalk tipped, and I went into the raw sewage.

"Luckily I caught myself, and I'm hanging on, about up to my knees in raw sewage," he says. "I'm thinking how my parents at my funeral are going to explain how their son died: 'He died in a vat of shit.'"

Dimora went in to see longtime Mayor Lucille Reed, complaining that his spill and banged-up knee were the result of her energy-saving policy. "She throws a tirade," he says. "She says, 'If you don't like it, you run for mayor.' So I cut my hair, shaved my beard, and ran for council."

His campaign strategy was simple and provided the blueprint for every campaign to follow. Dimora went out and knocked on every door in the city. He talked with people, listened to them, and let his personality do the rest. At the tender age of 22, Dimora was elected to city council.

Two years later he ran for mayor against Reed. "I was single at the time, living with my parents. It was the time of Kucinich," he says, referring to Cleveland's boy mayor, who was booted from office that year. "They said, 'Do you want that kind of leadership? He doesn't own a house, he doesn't pay taxes.'" Dimora lost by six hundred votes.

But in 1981, Reed decided not to seek reelection. Dimora bought a house, married his high school sweetheart, Lori, and was elected mayor by six hundred votes.

Over the next sixteen years, Dimora was easily reelected to another three terms, even as Bedford Heights--a city of just 12,000--went from a predominantly white suburb to a predominantly black one.

Dimora began getting involved in the county Democratic Party, which was run by Brooklyn Mayor John Coyne and heavily influenced by people like Stokes and then-U.S. Rep. Mary Rose Oakar. Power was still centered in Cleveland and a handful of inner-ring suburbs.

"It used to be there was only city politics, that city politics was county politics," says John Myers, a longtime Democratic activist.

But there was a growing frustration among a group of young activists who were mostly white, mostly male, and mostly from the suburbs. In the early 1990s they began meeting informally once a month. After a while the group--which numbered about 75 and included current officeholders like Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne, Mason, and O'Malley--began developing policies and strategies that would help them get elected. They set the year 2000 as their goal for rising to power and unofficially named their group D2000.

"We wanted to break the chain of ascension within the party, where you had to be a son or a nephew to get somewhere," O'Malley says. "We were a bunch of working- class kids who knew nothing was going to be handed to us. So we had to take it."

John Coyne sent Dimora, another working-class kid, to keep tabs on the insurgent D2000 group. But Dimora found himself agreeing with much of what the group had to say and forging alliances. "Initially, when I ran across him at Democratic Party functions, he was hooked in with the old John Coyne faction, so he was distrusted by many," O'Malley says. "But over the last six years, he's won me over."

In 1992, while still mayor, Dimora ran for county commissioner. He was defeated in the primary by then-state Sen. Jeffrey Johnson, who in turn lost to Republican Jim Petro. If anything, the loss seemed to energize Dimora. He became a tireless worker for the party and hit as many campaign events and fund-raisers as possible, making friends and building a network of supporters along the way. Two years later, with the help of the surging D2000 group, he was made chairman of the county Democratic Party. (Dimora was reelected to another four-year term as party chairman last June.)

The position was crucial, not only because of the titular power, but because it gave Di-mora entree to every Democrat in the county when he ran for commissioner again last year.

"He successfully used moving up in the party to gain friends and increase his visibility," says one Democratic operative. "He's the tortoise rather than the hare."

Dimora looked like nothing but a loser last year, when he took on Sweeney in a five-person Democratic primary. Sweeney had a recognizable name and a thirty-year track record of delivering money from Columbus to help build Cleveland State University and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and refurbish Playhouse Square. He also had the endorsements of White and Stokes, the two most powerful politicians, black or white, in town.

Dimora had the backing of the Democratic Party and organized labor, but the general consensus was that he didn't have a prayer. Sweeney campaigned listlessly, using the more than $550,000 he raised from the business community to buy television ads. Dimora, with a significantly smaller war chest, pounded the pavement.

Then he caught a break. Cleveland City Councilman Bill Patmon and Cleveland school board member Shirley Hawk, both blacks from the East Side, remained in the primary, garnering 32,000 votes between them that most likely would have gone to Sweeney. The result was a 12,000-vote upset victory for Dimora.

He officially won the seat in November with a landslide victory over hapless Republican James Sykora, who was so outgunned that Dimora supporters often drove Sykora home after debates. The unlikely chain of events still has party regulars scratching their heads.

"How in the world does he beat this guy [Sweeney], who for the past twenty years had a great name, great reputation, with a base of one-eighth of one district on the East Side of Cleveland?" one Democratic activist asks rhetorically. "He obviously put together a tremendous coalition of labor. And he does have a relationship with the Mason-O'Malley coalition.

"One year ago I would have bet pretty substantively that he would lose, and he would have been done," he adds. "Instead, he's a titan."

Loyal Dem or Plantation Boss?
Dimora has had some great successes as party chairman, though his tenure has also been marred by controversy. First, there's the ascension of the D2000 group--of which Dimora is not an official member. But, according to Mason, "He's in great standing with all of us. He's one of us young aggressive officeholders who wants to make a difference." The party has also strengthened its hold on Cuyahoga County, with Demo-crats in all eleven non-judicial county offices and 44 of 61 county judicial offices.

But there have been setbacks. It was a political mistake not to endorse White in his reelection bid, adding to the friction between the party chairman and the mayor. And Dimora has generated some very public controversy.

One of Dimora's first acts after his primary victory was to strike back at a Cleveland councilman who, as vice chairman of the party, had criticized him. By orchestrating the ouster of Stokes ally Roosevelt Coats from party leadership, Dimora sent a clear message that he was not afraid to cross the most prominent black politician in Ohio history.

Dimora engineered the move by recruiting Pat Britt, who like Coats is a black member of Cleveland City Council, to run against Coats for vice chairman of the party. It was viewed as a proxy battle between Stokes--who refused to comment for this story--and Dimora, with whom he had been engaged in a power struggle since 1992, when Dimora beat another Stokes ally for a seat on the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

Britt won, furthering Dimora's efforts to remake the party in his image, with his people. But Stokes did not go quietly. Last June, as he was retiring from a thirty-year career in Congress, Stokes took out a scathing full-page ad in the Call and Post, blasting Dimora and scolding black politicians allied with him for abandoning the black community to, as Stokes saw it, be accepted by the white establishment.

"In my opinion Jimmy Dimora does not possess the qualifications, nor deserve election, as a Cuyahoga County commissioner. Additionally, while his plantation boss mentality of picking our leaders may be acceptable to some other black officials, it is totally unacceptable to me," read one paragraph.

Stokes complained that Dimora had not done enough to advance the candidacy of several black politicians. Dimora offered a muted response, noting that in his commissioner race, Stokes endorsed Sweeney over two qualified black candidates.

Now that he's settled in and Stokes has retired, Dimora is more expansive on the subject.

"I've overcome that," Dimora says of Stokes's criticism. "I represented a community [Bedford Heights] that is predominantly African American. I had a good relationship with people of all ethnicities, nationalities, and races. I think I've been very fair and open-minded. I'm very sensitive to the issues of the African American community."

Dimora shakes his head over Stokes's charges. "To just throw out this race-card issue, I think people know that it was totally ridiculous," he says.

But others say Stokes's complaint has at least some validity, pointing to the lack of black elected officials in the area.

"There are some outstanding issues between the African American community and Jimmy, but I don't think the divide is so great it can't be repaired," O'Malley says. "African Americans have been intensely loyal to the Democratic Party over the years, and Lou Stokes was a black guy who got whites elected. He needed Jimmy to be the white guy who got blacks elected.

"So now, what the party was doing for the black community was put on [Dimora's] lap, and he didn't deliver what was expected of him," O'Malley continues, noting that only four of 72 county-wide elected officials are black, all of them judges. "So the complaint is real. But putting the complaint completely on Jimmy is unfair."

County Commissioner Tim McCormack agrees.
"There's a great deal of history and, in the words of Congressman Stokes, disappointment," he says. "But I've sat at the knee of Congressman Stokes, and when he talks about forty years of disappointments and broken promises, it's not just Jimmy Dimora. It's the continuum of disappointment within his community."

Meeting of the Motherfuckers
If Dimora remains refreshingly approachable in his job, he's also downsized the scope of his position considerably. Whereas Sweeney campaigned for the job by saying the county needed a visionary to plot its future, Dimora promised he'd be an administrator. Hagan, Dimora's predecessor, frequently quoted French existentialist Albert Camus and schmoozed with the Kennedys. McCormack gives the impression that he wakes up every day on a personal mission to overhaul the beleaguered Department of Children and Family Services. But with Dimora, there is no overarching platform or agenda.

"This isn't exactly a change for me," Dimora says from his fourth-floor office in the County Administration Building, which is decorated with framed photos of Dimora with the likes of President Clinton, Vice President Gore, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and retired Cleveland Police Chief Rocco Pollutro. "I bring a different perspective: being a suburban mayor, being an administrator. Certainly you have to have vision. But you're at this day in, day out."

When pressed, Dimora says he specializes in serving senior citizens and hopes to expand a program providing county vans to transport seniors to the store or the beauty salon.

Maybe, though, with his attention to detail and always-pragmatic outlook, Dimora is what Cuyahoga County needs right now. The county commissioners have always played second fiddle to Cleveland's mayor and the area's Congressional delegation in terms of attention and influence. But probably no branch of government directly impacts lives in Northeast Ohio more than Cuyahoga County government.

Cuyahoga County operates with a $1 billion annual budget and nearly 10,000 employees. The commissioners oversee a laundry list of responsibilities, many of them pedestrian, some of them life-and-death. County government issues dog and marriage licenses, enforces restaurant and public swimming pool sanitary standards, determines property values and taxes. But it also runs the county jail and courts, cares for the mentally ill and retarded, and is responsible for ensuring the safety of neglected children and moving 27,000 welfare recipients into the workforce.

"These are issues nobody else wants to deal with," Dimora says.
The county also has the difficult task of selecting a site to build a new jail for nonviolent offenders. The commissioners thought they had found a site at the old Richman Bros. Building on East 55th Street, but were met by harsh resistance from White, Councilman Joe Cimperman, and area residents.

The commissioners responded by temporarily holding up a crucial vote needed to secure federal aid for a $325 million Euclid Avenue transit project. In the end, they blinked; after a flurry of accusations, counteraccusations, and negotiations between City Hall and the county, the Euclid Corridor project is going forward. Meanwhile, the commissioners are still looking for a place to put the jail.

But the fact that there was any dispute at all is significant. White always enjoyed a close relationship with Hagan, who would probably have settled the dispute with one punch on his speed dial. This time, the commissioners were sending the mayor a message--they're willing to defy him. That point was made again in mid-May, when Dimora tabled the city's request for $650,000 to help build a garbage collection center.

Democratic activist John Myers is among many who have noted the change.
"Tim [Hagan] and the mayor had a closer personal relationship. Things would have been massaged," Myers says. "[White] doesn't have that kind of relationship with the current commissioners, so that by its very nature alters the relationship between City Hall and the County Administration Building."

Dimora dismisses suggestions that relations between the commissioners and White are strained, though it's common knowledge Dimora and White began a private conciliatory meeting last year by calling each other "motherfuckers."

"We talk. We have to have dealings," says Dimora, who nonetheless sees the mayor at a disadvantage. "He has a lot to gain by keeping a relationship with the board." When pressed about his personal relationship with White--who refused to comment for this article--Dimora replies with a grin: "Since we're such good friends, I don't want to query the relationship now."

Favors From the Godfather
It's 12:45 p.m. when Dimora stops for his first meal of the day, at the YWCA's Greater Cleveland Women of Achievement awards luncheon at the Renaissance Hotel. This is his fourth public event today, but he's still going strong.

Dimora quickly takes a seat at a table of six women who are already nibbling on their dessert. He introduces himself, then demonstrates that he's been late to lunches before. "You can't let the grass grow under you," Dimora says, grabbing a prepared meal from a nearby table and serving himself. Dimora is introduced with the other public officials, then listens intently to the honorees as he puts away his chicken and green beans, but ignores the pasta.

It was a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that helped him shed a hundred pounds in the last year. Dimora's waist size dropped from a 57 to a 46, and he no longer has to buy suits at big-and-tall stores. "I can go to regular stores like regular people," he says.

It shows. Dimora is always attired in a sharp suit now. His hair is perfectly coiffed and his beard neatly trimmed. He actually comes across as roguishly handsome. "He used to look like Bluto," says O'Malley. "Now he looks like Pavarotti."

After lunch, Dimora shakes a few hundred more hands on the way out the door and seems satisfied. "It was a good thing I went. There were at least seven or eight hundred people there. It was good for a male county commissioner to be there," he says, though it's not clear if it was a good opportunity to send a message that the county commissioners care about the awards, or simply another chance for Dimora to raise his visibility.

Ultimately, Dimora lives for visibility. When he's not busy with commission business, Dimora is working as party chairman, hitting the fund-raising circuit, giving pep talks to aspiring officeholders, and screening candidates during twelve- to fourteen-hour days. He's always expanding his network of friends and allies.

"He's blessed with something you can't develop--a genuine affection for being around people," McCormack says. "He is open to everyone in every setting. He absorbs and absorbs and absorbs."

At his next stop, Dimora is absorbing congratulations and complaints at a fund-raiser for Michael Pokorny, who is running for city council in Parma Heights, a land of square green yards and one-story houses.

Dimora comes with a check for $50 written out of his campaign treasury, which was not significantly depleted by his run against Sykora. In fact, after beating Sweeney, Dimora continued to raise money for his campaign, even though his victory in the general election was all but certain.

While fund-raising for state and federal offices is highly regulated--albeit full of loopholes--county and local fund-raising still has a Wild West feel to it, where just about anything goes. Government employees regularly contribute to their boss's campaign, while developers and industry big shots pour thousands of dollars into races, free of limits on individual contributions. Developer and Indians owner Richard Jacobs, for example, contributed more than $35,000 to Sweeney's campaign, then gave Dimora $35,000 after his primary victory.

But Dimora didn't spend the bulk of Jacobs's or anyone else's money on his campaign; instead, he doled it out, and continues to do so, in $50 and $100 chunks to Democratic candidates throughout the area--in Euclid, in East Cleveland, in Lakewood. It's perfectly legal and the kind of political gesture that builds goodwill for a party chairman, even as he clashes with the biggest names in his party. Cynics would say it buys support.

After Dimora drops off the $50 check, he ignores the table full of party trays, sheet pizzas, and coolers full of beer. Instead, he greets old friends and introduces himself to new ones. More than one person hugs Dimora and calls him "Godfather," a dual reference to both his Italian heritage and role as party kingmaker. He certainly seems like an old party boss, offering a little something for everyone.

After he's done shaking hands and saying hello to every single person in the basement of the community center--and there are at least sixty people there--Dimora turns conspiratorially and says, "Let's go." But instead of heading straight for the door, Dimora works his way back through every single person to say goodbye. He talks to elderly women ("Stay healthy."), twentysomething guys ("Call me if you need anything."), and Pokorny's young son ("You've got good parents. You're very lucky.").

Driving back downtown and fighting his way through Indians traffic, Dimora explains why he hasn't stopped campaigning and probably never will.

"They're kinda happy to see you; it gives you a sense that you're liked. It's nice to have that display of affection and friendship," he says. "You're with people at the high points of their life and their low points. I've been doing this for a long time, and I like talking to people. I like to look into their eyes, talk about their kids, their grandkids, their arthritis, whatever."

And what would Dimora, who says he regrets daily never going to college, do if he could no longer be a politician?

"I like sales, I think," he says with a smile, as the evening sun lights up the downtown skyline. "Maybe insurance, cars, real estate. Those careers are all up there with politicians."

He seems to be joking. But with Dimora, you can never be sure.

Mike Tobin may be reached at [email protected].

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