High Roller

How has sports bar impresario Tony George become a political player? Ego, ambition, and loads of money

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Anyone involved in Cleveland politics knows the same three things about local restaurant developer Tony George: He raises heaps of money for politicians. He launched the chain of once ubiquitous Slam Jams sports bars. And he's feuding with County Recorder Pat O'Malley, once his close friend.

What they think they know about George is this: His wife was a Baywatch actress. He's somehow related to former Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar. And he was once arrested -- for something.

In the storied world of West Side politics, facts easily become muddled with fiction. What is certain is that this 43-year-old Arab American has become an important local and national political player. He will likely play a major fund-raising role in Ohio in the presidential race, which kicks into high gear this summer, and may host a fund-raiser for U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Clinton. Both parties are interested in tapping his skill at raising money; by his own accounting, the Fairview Park resident has raised more than $1.8 million for local, state, and national politicians. George considers many to be his friends, like former Congresswoman Oakar (also Arab American, but no relation), Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and President Bill Clinton.

He also has many enemies. Some are angry that he crosses party lines to support politicians he likes. Others disapprove of his aggressive business practices. Some in the Arab American community just don't like his politics. When asked about George, they gladly whisper about him, but refuse to be quoted, because they work with him or hope to work with him someday.

In broad strokes painted by his friends and enemies, George is loyal, demanding, combative, volatile, proud, shrewd, successful, politically and privately generous, and -- above all -- a family man.

Still, there are other, perhaps less-known aspects to George that speak to his political and personal motivations. He cut class at St. Edward High School to work second shift in a railyard to support his mother and five younger sisters. He speaks Arabic and jumps at the chance to discuss Middle East politics with national leaders. He once had breakfast with Yassir Arafat. He's a Teamster.

There are other things, too, that add to George's colorful image. The concrete under his living room floor once housed a safe, which he later fought for during a divorce. (He got the safe, but had to repair the floor.) He traded 1995 World Series tickets for a Baywatch cameo appearance for his second wife, Kristine.

George and Kristine sued a Westlake veterinarian for failing to remedy the health problems of their cat, Mr. Honey Brown. Before giving a deposition in the case that he filed, George -- who doesn't like to be questioned or told what to do -- told opposing counsel he would discuss only issues he deemed directly relevant to the litigation. During the short deposition, he proclaimed, "I wasted enough time on this cat. And for every minute of my time you waste, believe me, I'm going to waste hours of your time." (The suit was dismissed at the Georges' expense.)

While George enjoys the attention that comes with being a political bon vivant -- and having hosted the President at his house -- he avoids the media. It's a peculiar stance, considering his high-profile political and social activities. "I don't trust reporters," he offers as explanation.

Another explanation lies in the rumor that is so freely offered by his enemies -- that he's had trouble with the law. This rumor has taken on mythical and sometimes comical proportions, portraying George -- in his words -- as "a friggin' gangster."

While hardly that, Tony George is a convicted felon -- a label that haunts him politically and personally. He tried to soften the image in 1994, when he was building a name for himself in political circles. It was then that he sought a federal pardon. About the crime he committed when he was 19, he says, "I've regretted this every day since then."

Fighter and Family Man

Tony George works out of a modest brick building on West 117th Street that he shares with a chiropractor. This is headquarters for The George Group -- the company that oversees his business interests, which include managing properties he owns in the Flats and elsewhere, developing bars and restaurants, and running a small billboard company, among other ventures.

George's business is best known for the Slam Jams sports bars that he created and then licensed to others as a franchise, at one time totaling eight Northeast Ohio locations. He also created the Parma club Dance.com and is partial owner of Ferris Steak House at Gateway. He leases space to Bar Cleveland and other nightspots on Old River Road. Over the years, he's had a hand in creating or owning other popular restaurants and clubs, such as Tags and Splash.

Just outside the entrance to his office hangs a framed letter from the White House, priming visitors for what's to come. Inside is a shrine to business, politics, and family. On one wall are "Best Sports Bar" plaques, photos of ex-Browns hero Bernie Kosar at George's clubs, and commendations from the Jaycees and other groups. Opposite are expensively framed photos -- mostly gifts -- showing George with national leaders. Of course, there's Bill Clinton: Clinton at George's house and George at the White House. A shot of George and his wife at Vice President Al Gore's residence. Breakfast with Jesse Jackson. A photo with Larry King. Also making the wall: Bob Taft, George Voinovich, and other state and local pols. Nearby, encased in glass, is the robe worn by gritty boxer Carmen Basilio on the night of a light-heavyweight championship bout.

George is a fighter, too. As a youth, he boxed in police leagues, and he still has the fit shape and demeanor of a fighter. He can throw a mean stare. Now when he fights, the bouts are tactical and verbal, like his feud with County Recorder O'Malley. During the March primary, George financially backed one candidate and encouraged several others to run against O'Malley, whom he supported in the last election. The latter put out fliers accusing George of dirty politics. At issue was George's wife, Kristine. O'Malley gave her a job when he was first elected in 1998, but the two have had a falling-out. Neither side will publicly discuss the details.

He's also sparred with members of Cleveland's Arab American community. While he is active in national Arab organizations, George is no longer a part of two of its most prominent groups, the Northeast Ohio Arab American Business Association (NAABA) and Cleveland American Mideast Organization (CAMEO). He ran several times to be president of CAMEO. He's left the groups, he says, because "I'm not happy with the leadership of either organization."

George may maintain a stiff upper lip about his public life, but he loosens up when the subject turns to his family. His pride is evident in the family snapshots, kids' sports photos, and scholastic merit awards crowding the office walls. There are plenty of photographs of Kristine "Krissy" George, a recently elected Fairview Park councilwoman who works for the County. His extended family is well-represented, as well.

One photo, sitting atop a large filing cabinet, stands out -- an enlarged passport photo of his father, who appears to be looking over George.

A Man of Conviction

Tony George was born and raised in Lakewood and, like many West Siders, came from a large family that was supported by a hardworking father with a modest income. His parents, both Syrian, raised him Catholic and sent him to parochial schools. Between his junior and senior years at St. Edward, George's father, a self-employed machine-shop owner, died, and George was forced to find work to support his family.

With the help of his father's brother, George found a job with Penn Central, which later became Conrail. Each day after school, he traveled across town to the Collinwood railyards, where he stayed until 11 p.m. But to make the 3 p.m. start time, he had to cut his last class. George needed his last-period class to graduate, so the teacher allowed him to keep working as long as he kept up with the classwork from home. He did.

George continued working in the railyard for about six years after graduation. It was there that he became a union man -- an association he remains proud of today.

His paycheck, though, went straight to his mother, leaving him feeling frustrated by his burden. "I hated the world," he says about the time just out of school.

For extra money of his own, he took another job -- cleaning up at the Century Lounge on Denison Avenue, a rough bar where union guys cashed paychecks and got loaded. George became close to the owner, Tony Gallo Sr., who eventually brought him into the business.

In 1978, George became a father with his first wife, after whom he later named his bar Candy Lees. (They would have two more children before filing for divorce in 1989.)

In March of 1981, just a couple of months before George's second son was born, the then 24-year-old George was indicted on one federal charge for possession of equipment "which had been stolen while moving in interstate commerce." (George says he had taken some construction tools when he was 19.)

George, represented by top defense lawyer Elmer Giuliani, eventually pleaded guilty. He was fined $1,000 and put on probation for three years.

"I learned from that lesson, and I've never repeated it. I haven't had any problems since then, except a couple of traffic violations," he says. "You have to look at my state of mind when I was 19. I lost my father two years earlier. I made mistakes."

Indicted on the same day was Tony Gallo Sr.

Gallo was indicted for distribution of a controlled substance. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

George's enemies use his association with Gallo to imply he was involved with drugs. He says he was not. (Nothing in the court records suggest their cases were linked.)

"Tony [Gallo] taught me the bar business, and I love him for that," he says. "There is a perception that no one could make it in the business without doing something wrong. That's bullshit. I made it by working hard, 18 hours a day."

His enemies also bring up his family members and friends who have had drug convictions.

"Frankly, I resent the fact that someone is trying to use my family to smear me," he says. "I came up the hard way. I have a colorful family and colorful bunch of friends. I'm not going to distance myself from people who are related to me or who are my friends because they have done something wrong.

"Everybody tries to make more of something than what there is -- whether it is an uncle or a cousin or a friend, anybody that had difficulties with the law. I'm going to answer it this way: I'm going to quote Mario Cuomo. He said, "If you look long and hard, I'm sure that somewhere back in my family tree there was an Uncle Luigi who was involved in crime.'"

George says his arrest is old news, but is still used against him in political circles. "The issue gets recycled all the time. I'm tired of it."

George says he's tried to stay out of the media spotlight, in part, for this reason. He says he felt alternately angry and relieved after discussing it with a reporter. "I told my wife I feel like a ton of bricks have been lifted off my shoulders." At the same time, he asks, "Do you really think it is fair to write about stuff that happened so long ago and destroy a man's reputation?"

Presidential Slam Dunk

George tried to improve his reputation in 1994. That's when he applied to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which processes clemency requests for the President. His request was rejected in 1996. "My pardon was denied, because I couldn't show how having this on my record was an extreme hardship for me," he says.

George says that his helping Clinton had nothing to do with his pardon attempt. He says his pardon was denied before he'd even met Clinton.

Politicians who have benefited from George's support say they are not bothered by his criminal past.

"Tony is old school. He is an American success story," says his friend, Brook Park Mayor Coyne. "He had tough knocks, lost his dad, and had to raise a family. Some of his family members had difficulties, and here is a guy who has a great heart, but a tough exterior, because nothing was handed to him. That's why he's a success."

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, who has received contributions and fund-raising support from George, issued this statement: "I was not aware of his conviction. If it is true, every man is entitled to redemption."

George believes he's long since achieved redemption, which he found in working hard and being a good father. "[The indictment] has grounded me. I'm trying to implement in my kids the lessons I learned. I know it changed my life for the good."

Congressman Kucinich agrees. "I'm proud to call him my friend," he says. "He is a good person. He's paid his debt. He is doing more now. He is really living a life of service to the community, to the city, state, and nation. He is involved on all levels. He is very civic-minded. I think he is a decent person. He has always been very honorable."

Longtime friend Oakar has played a large part in George's civic life. She introduced him to many of the politicians he supports today.

"[I] always supported her and admired her, that she was Arab American and was able to obtain the level of congresswoman," George says.

The first time he assumed the mantle of fund-raiser was for Oakar, during her 1992 congressional reelection bid, which she lost to Republican Martin Hoke. But "we really stepped up the fund-raising after she lost," George says. The money was needed to help her fight the federal charges brought against her for election law violations and in her libel suit against The Plain Dealer, which she eventually won.

More recently, he supported her financially during her successful primary campaign for state representative in District 13, which includes much of Cleveland's West Side. (He initially backed newcomer Democrat Kevin Kelley, hosting a fund-raiser for him, but when Oakar announced her interest in the race, he switched his support to her.) And George will certainly play a major role in next year's mayoral run if she chooses to take on Mike White.

"I don't know where she's headed right now," he says. "I think she needs to get her feet wet with state rep. If she decides to run for mayor, I'm sure she will talk to me, and we'll sit down and make a decision."

George also helped Kucinich, whom he first met during the latter's 1994 run for state Senate.

"He's been a strong supporter of mine, and I consider him a friend," says Kucinich. "What makes him an effective supporter is that he is a hard-working person who does what he says he is going to do. He always follows up, and he is diligent."

George sealed his reputation as a major political player by pulling off one of the West Side's most successful political events -- a 1996 fund-raiser for President Clinton.

The event was considered a success for several reasons: George was untested as a fund-raiser for an event of this magnitude, and party leaders initially scoffed at the proposed site -- George's now defunct Slam Jams sports bar in Lakewood, which featured a dozen televisions and Pop-a-Shot arcade games.

"People laughed and said we couldn't bring people there," George says. "The rest is history."

While the $1,000-per-ticket event was well-attended by the usual Democratic politicians and frequent contributors to the party, the event also drew people from the Arab community, George's restaurant customers, and other entrepreneurs like George, often overlooked by political fund-raisers.

"I got the normal Joe Blow, working blue-collar guys to come in," George boasts. "I had customers of mine that would come up to me and ask if it were possible to see the President. I'd say, "Yeah, it's possible. But tickets are a thousand dollars.' And these people went and emptied their savings account and came back with a check. First time they participated in the political process. They still talk about it like it is the highlight of their lives."

George says he wanted to help Clinton because "I liked where the economy was going, and I liked where he stood on some of the Middle East issues." He says the opportunity to help arose after he contacted the Democratic National Committee.

But the event was almost sidetracked just weeks before Clinton was to arrive. A cancellation would have been a devastating blow to George's growing political reputation.

The problem went back to those whispers and rumors about George.

According to Oakar, someone called the White House alleging that Slam Jams was a place where drugs could be bought and sold.

"Someone was doing a real number on him," she says.

The Georges were devastated. "He and Kris came over. They were very upset," says Oakar. "He told me about it and said, "I sold all these tickets, and now I'm going to be humiliated.'"

Oakar says she called the White House, vouched for the event, and encouraged the DNC to reevaluate the site.

The event ended up raising several hundred thousand dollars for Clinton and the Democratic Party.

Clinton, who loves to campaign, was impressed by the crowd -- both inside the club and out -- spending extra time shaking hands in the parking lot with people who couldn't get in.

Cabin Fever

While some Democrats put George, a registered Democrat, on their A-list, he's no party loyalist. "Hey, I'm going with the best candidate," he says.

His most controversial defection was his backing of Republican Bob Taft over Lee Fisher in the 1998 governor's race. (George had supported Fisher when he ran for attorney general as well as Taft when he was secretary of state.) Despite pressure from friends like Oakar, George stayed with Taft.

"I met with both candidates, and I was very impressed with Bob Taft. What tilted me toward Taft was when my Teamster local endorsed him," says George, a member of Teamster Local 293. "Since he's been in office, he has not done one thing that has made me regret my choice."

Fisher supporters, who refused to speak on the record, claim Fisher wasn't willing to meet George's demands of hiring a specific number of Arab Americans for specific positions.

Fisher declined to comment on his discussions with George. Taft spokeswoman Mary Anne Sharkey said, "We are not going to comment on issues raised about Tony George. That is a campaign issue, and that doesn't involve us."

"What I want [a candidate for governor] to do is pay attention to Arab American issues," George says. "Those are things I'm concerned with. If the way to get them to pay attention to Arab American issues is to help them politically, then hey, I think it helps the community."

"I wish he spent all his efforts on Democrats," says Brook Park Mayor Coyne. "But as a businessman and a person who is trying to further the cause of peace in the Middle East, it is prudent and smart politics to have friends on both sides of the aisle."

To insulate himself from some of the criticism, George wraps himself in a well-developed self-confidence -- which some people call arrogance. Take the incident that occurred at the Fairview Democratic ward club's candidates' night in 1998. Typically mundane affairs, where elected officials and political hopefuls introduce themselves to people who already know them, this candidates' night was more entertaining than usual -- thanks to an appearance by Tony George.

About 50 or so Democrats were seated in folding chairs in Fairview's Bain Cabin, a small community center, when George and his wife arrived. They stood in the back of the room.

Although the Georges were residents of Fairview Park and politically active, they were not welcome here. At issue was George's support of Taft.

Noting the Georges' arrival, ward club president John Berichon , a union plumber, took the microphone and calmly addressed George.

"I'm not trying to embarrass you, but it is inappropriate for a person who is raising money for Bob Taft to be here," announced Berichon, who had been campaigning actively for Fisher. "I want to ask you to please leave."

George was offended. How could he, the man who'd raised tens of thousands of dollars for Democrats, be treated with such disrespect? Hell, he'd been a guest at the White House, so he wasn't going to let himself get booted from a small ward club meeting in his hometown.

At least not without a fight.

Repeating a line familiar to many people who have crossed him, George, according to several people present, shouted, "Do you know who I am? I'm the number-one Democratic fund-raiser in the state!"

Berichon was unmoved. He thanked George for his Democratic contributions, but asked an off-duty Fairview police officer who was present to escort him and his wife outside.

George demanded that at least his wife stay.

"No. I'm not going to split hairs," said Berichon.

"You don't have any hairs to split," George shot back, making fun of Berichon's bald head. "You haven't heard the last of me."

George and his wife were ushered outside, where George continued to fume.

A bemused crowd inside the cabin watched through a window as George, noticing he was surrounded by yard signs for Chris Hagan, a candidate for county recorder whom he didn't back, began ripping signs out of the ground.

For his part, Berichon received a loud round of applause.

"Some people are staunch Democrats," explains George. "John Berichon is one of those people. I can see where my views differ than his when I endorse a candidate that is non-Democratic. And it can be offensive to him. I hope we can do one thing: that he and I agree to disagree. Whatever he did at that meeting was on him."

Democrats also made an issue of George's support of Taft later that year, when George agreed to host an October fund-raiser for Democratic Senate hopeful Mary O. Boyle at his home, which overlooks the Rocky River Reservation. What irked Democrats was that President Clinton had agreed to make an appearance, which was viewed as a snub to his friend Lee Fisher, who was Clinton's Ohio campaign chairman in 1992 and Vice President Gore's state leader when Gore ran for president in 1988. Despite requests from the Fisher campaign, Clinton appeared with George.

Kathy Boyle, Mary's daughter and a campaign consultant, downplays the controversy, crediting George with supporting her mother when other Democrats were reluctant to help her try to beat Governor George Voinovich.

Besides, there were not that many people willing to host the President at their home. The Starr Report detailing Clinton's sexual exploits had just been released before the event, but George called the Boyle campaign the day after the report to reaffirm his interest in hosting Clinton.

"It's tough to find people to fund-raise, especially in the last election cycle, because so many people were running statewide," says Kathy Boyle. "It is a long process to get [George] on board. He takes his time and is very thoughtful. He has established himself. He's up front. Knows what he wants and tells you. Once he knows you, he is loyal."

Kathy Boyle says the event was a financial success for both her mother's campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Missing from the event -- Lee Fisher.

Caught in the Act

Politics appears to always be on George's mind, even in the most unlikely places -- like on the beach. In the summer of 1996, for instance, he and Kristine flew to California to collect on a deal they made the previous fall. They had traded 1995 World Series tickets for a cameo role on the world's number-one television show -- Baywatch.

In October 1995, they had responded to a newspaper ad claiming a Baywatch producer would trade a speaking part for tickets.

That producer was David Braff, a Cleveland native, whose friend placed the ad on his behalf.

"He and Kris thought I was a con man," says Braff about his first exchange with George and his wife. "It was a great scene."

Braff made good on the offer, writing a small part for George's wife and Cleveland veterinarian Carol Rapisarda (who also gave up tickets). The scene, he says, was a lifeguard auction for charity. The top prize was Mitch Buchannon, the Baywatch head lifeguard played by David Hasselhoff. Kristine George and Rapisarda were part of a small group bidding on Hasselhoff.

Shot in Marina Del Rey, the scene took hours. But George wasn't lying around in the sun. Instead, he was politicking.

"He was making a deal while his wife was on the set," says Braff, who is now shopping a screenplay about a road trip to the 1995 World Series. (He's hoping George will invest in it.)

Off camera, explains Braff, George was trying (unsuccessfully) to get Hasselhoff to agree to host a birthday party/fund-raiser -- perhaps at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The guest of honor and beneficiary -- Bill Clinton.

How has sports bar impresario Tony George become a political player? Ego, ambition, and loads of money.

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