Musical Chairs

Who will emerge from the shadow of Jimmy Dimora? Nobody knows for sure

Back in June of 2006, the newly elected Cuyahoga County Democratic Central Committee gathered at Euclid High School to select its party chair. County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, who had been chairman since January 1994, presided over the meeting in his typically jovial, back-slapping manner. He spiced up the agenda with wisecracks about food — an indirect and, to some, endearingly self-deprecating ploy by the party's hefty godfather.

But when it came to reelecting himself, Dimora was all business. He read the slate of candidates decided upon by party insiders, then a motion to elect them was put on the floor and seconded. "All in favor say 'aye,'" he announced, and a chorus of ayes followed.

"All opposed say 'nay' motion carried," Dimora then intoned without a moment of hesitation. Anyone inclined to vote nay didn't even have a chance to open their mouth. Back then, there probably weren't a lot of party foot soldiers — many specifically recruited for their support of a certain candidate — inclined to oppose the likable Dimora.

But four years later, Dimora is damaged goods, thanks to a highly publicized FBI investigation. Though he has yet to be charged, for more than a year Dimora's presence has been a drag on the party; last July, he stepped away from active duty in favor of vice chair Pat Britt. When the election for the new chair takes place June 5, Dimora won't be in contention — nor will Britt, who has said she doesn't want the job.

But the question of who will rise to assume the unpaid but endlessly influential post has had party loyalists scratching their heads for most of the past year. With less than two weeks before the vote of the central committee, made up of the elected precinct captains from across the county, most still don't know what their options are.

The May 4 primaries came and went, with new central committee members elected — and no clear word on who was interested in the chair. An informal coalition of party leaders called Cuyahoga Democrats for Principled Leadership scheduled a pair of forums for May 27 and 28 inviting potential candidates to speak to the rank-and-file. Even the event's organizers aren't sure who might show up at the podium.

"We'll do our best to get notice to anyone who is interested, but they should reach out to us," says Rocky River Law Director Mike O'Shea. "The idea is to create a transparent process by which the new chair will be chosen." 

For months, attempts at transparency seemed only to muddy the picture. Cuyahoga Democrats for Principled Leadership formed in November and began holding a series of meetings about the party's future. Attendees included everyone from Cleveland city councilmen to state legislators to local labor leaders.

Some participants demanded Dimora's immediate resignation, in advance of what O'Shea thought at the time would be a pre-holiday indictment. "We'll lose all the swing voters for good if that happens," he said at the time.

Others, including state Senator Dale Miller and North Shore Federation of Labor Executive Director Harriet Applegate, warned that doing so could open the party to a hasty election that most weren't prepared for — but that some blocs of the central committee might be. 

Though they didn't say it, they were referring to Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, the lone remaining county official with a political base since the adoption of the new county charter. Deposing Dimora, they believed, would open the door to Mason installing the candidate of his choice — and thus solidifying his power.

That candidate was widely rumored to be Bedford Clerk of Courts Tom Day, a politically connected insider with ties to Dimora as well; his company, Qwestcom Graphics, handles printing and mailing of political materials for many Democratic candidates. And with both camps attracting media insinuations of corruption, those ties trumped any assets he might bring to the chair. 

Names surfaced and vanished throughout the winter. At one point, Cleveland councilwoman Dona Brady briefly expressed interest. Party treasurer Rudy Stralka was said to be considering it. Day's name kept cropping up. But none seemed capable of reuniting the fractured party. In March, another name surfaced: former North Shore AFL-CIO Executive Director John Ryan, now Senator Sherrod Brown's state director. Supporters, including Applegate, saw him as the ideal interim chair while the party identified its long-term leader. 

But Ryan himself sees a better option, albeit one few voters are likely to know, since he's never run for office: attorney and behind-the-scenes activist Stuart Garson.

"I said upfront that if Stu Garson is willing to do it, that he was my candidate," says Ryan. "He's this incredibly bright, hard-working, clean guy who is willing to do it for all the right reasons. My sense is that with the wide range of support people are gathering for him, he is beyond the frontrunner. I think it would be really terrific if we were able to show a rare degree of solidarity or unity, and we're so fortunate to have someone like Stuart willing to take on the role."  

Garson has shown an aptitude for making money, says party Executive Director Mary Devring. He headed up fund-raising for Sherrod Brown and did the same for Congresswoman Marcia Fudge. "And he has no skeletons in his closet," says Devring, adding that Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones are among those united in support of Garson.

But Garson isn't talking. "No comment at this time," says an assistant. "He's not campaigning. He's just as interested as anyone else to see what happens June 5." 

Garson, who has worked on behalf of Democratic candidates but has never held office and apparently has no interest in doing so, could be good news for a party that has long been led by politicians more committed to protecting turf and doling out jobs to family and friends than in growing the party or helping to rebuild an increasingly troubled region. Prior to Dimora's reign, former Cleveland councilman Roosevelt Coats held the post briefly from December 1993 to January 1994; before that, Brooklyn Mayor John Coyne had done it since 1982. Coyne succeeded Tim Hagan, who used the post as a launching pad for his own political career with his election to the county board of commissioners in 1982.

If a chairman like Coyne — who had served as Brooklyn's mayor from 1948 until 1999 — didn't exactly burst with fresh energy or forward thinking, the incoming chairman will be relied upon for exactly that.

"We obviously need a change," says Mark Griffin, an area lawyer who has worked on the Obama, Kerry, and Strickland campaigns. His name has also surfaced as a candidate for party chair.

"We have a new governmental structure coming in, and we need new ideas," he says. "Some of the most energetic people have been Democrats who are outside the process. I was born and raised in Cleveland, went away to law school, and came back in 1991. I tried to get involved, but it wasn't open. So I got involved in campaigns for candidates because there was no place in the party for people like me." 

For Griffin — and for many of the other local Democratic toilers not aligned with current power brokers — there may suddenly be a place again.

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