The subject is corruption. Or more to the point, Democrats' diminishing skills in this traditional area of strength.
Alas, there was a day when the party wasn't filled with over-educated candy-asses, pretty-boy lawyers, screaming elves, Ivy Leaguers, free-range pellet eaters, and Hollywood guys, like, totally concerned about something in Tibet.
We had LBJ, who used wads of cash to help tepid senators see things his way. We had Dan Rostenkowski, who needed air-traffic control to schedule incoming bribes. We had Louisiana governors, Teamsters officials/Mafia capos, and, of course, the vaunted Cleveland School Board.
It was the party of the people. As such, it was mean, petty, and corrupt, traits naturally suited for winning elections. And so we prospered.
But somewhere along the line, the party was hijacked. It's now run by a guy who claims to be a hockey player, but suspiciously still has all his teeth. Try bribing John Kerry, and he'd fend you off with a windy dissertation on Sino-American grain policy.
Here in Cleveland, our last truly enterprising criminal was state Senator Jeffrey Johnson, who was caught extorting grocers -- in 1998.
At times it seems only one brave man, County Recorder Pat O'Malley, is upholding Democratic tradition by occasionally brawling in Chagrin Falls, just to keep up appearances.
Among Republicans, however, there is rejoice in prosperity.
Once upon a time, the best these guys could do was take money in exchange for blocking minimum-wage hikes. But as Councilman Joe Cimperman acknowledges, Republicans now "lead the way with growth industries."
Witness East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor. When he turned Republican, it was thought to be simply a smart political play. In exchange for more state aid to his impoverished city, he would appear in photo ops so Republicans could say, "Look, we have Negroes!" Little did we know that he was actually trading up to the more advanced criminal organization. He has since been arrested for bribery.
And when embezzler Frank Gruttadauria went on a shopping spree, he didn't turn to hometown Democrats. A man capable of swindling clients out of $125 million does not choose his servants from the reserve squad. It takes a certain felonious je ne sais quoi to win the Gruttadauria Seal of Approval. So he bribed henchmen for Ohio Treasurer Joe Deters in exchange for state investment business.
Then there's the gangstas of the legislature. Speaker Larry Householder and the Senate's No. 2 leader, Jeff Jacobson, are both being investigated by the feds for "financial irregularities," which, for those of you who don't speak sphincter, is more commonly known as "money-laundering."
And let us not forget County Commissioner Tim Hagan, who last week sued the entire state GOP for racketeering. Can you say "professional jealousy," boys and girls?
It's not like Republicans are getting wisdom from above. "Taft, he needs testosterone injections," says Polensek of the governor. "He's a very nice man, just short on the cojones." In fact, Taft's best scam to date was blowing half a million in tourism money to make a campaign commercial for himself. It's a respectable con, but nothing you can buy a Lamborghini with.
No, this budding criminal enterprise was born from mid-level management, a sense of initiative that now pervades the ranks. "What we're really talking about here is crime family values," says Cimperman.
Old-time Democrats like Polensek are at a loss to explain it, but he believes Republicans have a cultural advantage. Dems control Ohio's cities, he notes, which are overflowing with media wretches. "You scratch your butt, and you got the I-team on you."
Not so in the countryside, where the media usually consists of a guy named Jed, who's too busy covering the new scale at the feed mill to scrutinize city fathers at play. It's a culture where you can be married to both your cousin and your sister, yet still be named grand marshal of the annual Varmint Days Parade.
"The folks running the state these days, they come out of these backwater villages," says Polensek. "They've had a blank check and a free run at these things. And when they come into state government, it's business as usual. The Dukes of Hazzard have taken over Columbus. Next thing you know, we'll be installing outhouses with a toll booth on them."
There's merit to Polensek's arguments. By underfunding schools and maintaining a closely held gene pool, Republicans have created a master race. Yet one can't help but notice the envy in Polensek's voice. He's the dean of the all-Democrat City Council, but his record shows a glaring absence of felonies. And when pressed for ideas on bridging the corruption gap, he offers no concrete plans. "I don't have any suggestions in that category," he responds lamely.
Cimperman believes Democrats should form a commission, which would produce a study, at which time another commission would be appointed. But he admits the party's become content to rest on its laurels. "We've taken a little bit of time off crime. It's another weak spot, something we should look at in 2004. I'm going to ask for high-level meetings with the chairman. I watched the whole convention, and I didn't hear anything about this. These guys are beating us hands down."