The War at Home

Ed Herman used to match wits with al-Qaeda. That might prove easier than dethroning Kucinich.

Share on Nextdoor
The Last Samurai
Ed Herman, a Reagan Democrat, without the Democrat. - Walter  Novak
Ed Herman, a Reagan Democrat, without the Democrat.
When Ed Herman sat across the interrogation tent from al-Qaeda fighters and told them about the September 11 attacks, most did not believe him. He had to explain that there once were two towers, more than 100 stories tall, filled with civilians. Then he would play the videotape of the planes crashing in, of the smoke and the flames and the suffocating clouds of dust. He would prove that al-Qaeda had murdered thousands of innocent people. And when the men finally believed, their eyes filled with horror.

"Most of these guys were from tiny little villages in Saudi Arabia, where the idea of a 100-story building is a fairy tale, a fantasy," Herman says. "They had signed on to attack American embassies and military bases, not innocent civilians. But when they were confronted with what really happened, a lot of them came to the conclusion that they were in prison because they had been betrayed."

Herman spent eight months interrogating al-Qaeda members at U.S. Army facilities in Afghanistan. His job was to outsmart them in their own language, catch them lying about their identities or why they were there. When he gained the advantage, he used it to pry loose information -- phone numbers, addresses, aliases -- that could expose terrorist cells around the world.

"We knew that somewhere in the detention facility were men who had the plans for the next attack," he says.

In return, some al-Qaeda members wanted to know how Ohio State was playing. "They were Buckeyes fans," he says. "Really. A lot of the senior leadership had been educated in the United States. They went to OSU."

Herman learned two important things in Afghanistan. First, he saw that human beings, even radical fundamentalists, are essentially reasonable and can be swayed by logic and proof. Second, he gained an unshakable conviction that America's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were just. "There was no moral equivocation there," he says. "There was no 'What are we doing here?' At all. Ever."

But when he returned home to Cleveland, he watched Dennis Kucinich, one of the most vocal opponents of the Iraq war, win reelection by a landslide. To Herman, Kucinich's call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq seemed like a personal attack.

"I said to myself, never, never again is Dennis Kucinich going to just walk away with an election."

The Harbor Inn in the Flats is a good place to pound beers, but the smoke and blaring Tom Petty make for a strange place to hold a Republican campaign party. The second-floor bar is packed five deep with men whose young bellies are just beginning to push against their polo shirts. It feels like a frat reunion party. Ed Herman walks from one cluster of friends to another, with a bottle of Bud and an endearing smile that manages to look both innocent and sly at the same time.

"If you asked the people here tonight whether they were Democrat or Republican, probably 50 percent of them would say they're Democrats," Herman shouts over the music. Almost all are old friends from St. Ignatius.

Herman grew up in the rigorous Jesuit schools on the West Side. His mother Diane sold real estate for 26 years. His father is a casting director's dream of a retired cop -- proud jaw, laughing eyes, thick muscles padded by a layer of flab. Ed Sr. rose through the ranks of the Cleveland Police Department, making captain by age 34, at a time when Dennis Kucinich and Cleveland became synonymous with urban crisis.

By the time Ed Jr. was old enough to sit still, he was already watching the evening news. Ronald Reagan had recently squeaked by Jimmy Carter, and the boy was enthralled by the new, telegenic president. Diane and Ed Sr. were prototypical West Side Democrats -- pro-union, but conservative on issues such as welfare and abortion. Their son became a Reagan Democrat, minus the Democrat.

Herman would go on to win a scholarship to Fordham University, a Jesuit school in the Bronx, where he studied philosophy and became president of the rugby club. Just before he graduated from college, he joined the Army. "My dad put on a uniform and went to work every day," Herman says. "That has an effect on you. I always knew it was something I ought to go through."

The Army sent him to language school to learn Arabic. He and his fellow trainees groaned at the assignment -- it seemed as if they were being trained for the Persian Gulf war, which had ended five years before. "We all thought we should be learning Chinese," he says.

When his training was through, the Army allowed Herman to take a teaching job in the United Arab Emirates to improve his Arabic. He spent his days teaching English to 17-year-old boys. At night, he stayed up late, sitting outside storefronts with friends, drinking coffee, watching TV, and discussing world events. "I got to work on my Arabic, and I got to know the culture a lot better," Herman says. "I made friends of a lifetime there."

When Herman's contract ended, he moved to New York to work in public relations. He was lucky -- he happened to be visiting Cleveland on September 11. But even before the second plane hit, he knew that, as a reservist, he would soon be back in uniform. "I knew that there's only one group crazy enough and clever enough to do something like this."

Seven weeks after the attacks, Herman was back at Fort Bragg, learning how to interrogate fighters who had no leaders, no uniforms, and no orders. "You go to Kandahar, and they don't have an army at all. You'd ask them, 'Who's your commander? What was your mission when you were captured?' And they'd look at us like 'Are you serious?'"

Herman's unit was assigned to a six-week stint in Kandahar. It turned into eight months. He returned to Cleveland in October 2002, just in time to watch Kucinich pummel Jon Heben, a Republican newcomer.

"The Republican Party isn't putting up any institutional candidates to run against Kucinich, people with political experience, like city council members or mayors," Herman says. "If there were an institutional candidate, I would just support them. But there's not. So I'm running."

Republican leaders know what they're up against. The West Side district is heavily Democratic, and Republicans have yet to make even modest inroads into Cuyahoga County. Besides, 95 percent of incumbent House members won reelection in 2002. Even Brad Lamb, executive director of the county GOP, admits that "Dennis has wonderful name recognition."

So it seems likely that a 30-year-old with no political experience will meet the same fate as Heben. The only question is how embarrassing the margin of defeat will be.

Yet Herman sees the congressman as vulnerable. For one, Kucinich's presidential campaign has won as much ridicule as support. It has also exposed many of his New Age views, which he long managed to keep secret from his meat-and-potatoes constituency. Add Kucinich's flip-flop on abortion, and Herman can paint himself as the good Catholic boy who worked the front lines against terrorism, while his opponent railed against the war at Hollywood fund-raisers.

"Kucinich has some pacifist leanings that place him on the margins of his district politically, and this man Herman seems to be in a perfect position to take advantage of that," says Frances Lee, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Herman, in turn, promises to be a pragmatist. A congressman's main responsibilities are to shmooze companies into moving to Cleveland and to grab as much federal money for Northeast Ohio as possible, he says.

But it's an interesting position, since he criticizes Kucinich for doing more to protect his political turf than to promote the common good. "Kucinich comes from the cauldron of divide-and-conquer politics," Herman says. "The mentality has been 'There's a limited number of resources, so I'm going to see that my group gets more.'"

He's even more critical of Kucinich's views on Iraq. The congressman believes that President Bush launched the war under false pretenses, and he has called for immediate withdrawal. Herman, who lost close friends in the September 11 attacks and in Iraq, adamantly supports the invasion as a necessary step in the fight against terrorism. "That's our choice," he says. "Are we going to fight this war overseas, or are we going to wait for the war to come here?"

Yet his kinship with Army buddies seems to blur his judgment, since working as an interrogator taught him better than most that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were enemies, not collaborators. "Well, [terrorist] bomber Abu Nidal was found living in Iraq," Herman responds.

The first big night of Ed Herman's political career is about to take place in Strongsville's Old Town Hall. The suburb's Republican Club is holding its first meeting since it helped Tom Perciak, a political novice, win a write-in mayoral campaign. The victory solidified the group's position as the best-organized club in the county, so the night begins with a prolonged round of backslapping.

Herman moves through the crowd, smiling and offering congratulations. The candidate who wins the club's endorsement will gain access to crucial donors and volunteers, but Herman wants to play it cool. "At this stage in the game, all you have to do is be nice and not piss anybody off," he says.

Unfortunately, the competition beat him here. Bruce Cobbeldick, a Bay Village mortgage salesman who started campaigning in May, is making his third visit to the club. He is the caffeine to Herman's nicotine. Cobbeldick's uniform is double-breasted, pointy, and pin-striped; Herman wears a frumpy suit with rounded lapels.

Herman ambles up to people with a relaxed "How ya doin'?" The 40-year-old Cobbeldick leads with his résumé in a verbal barrage: "I was an honor graduate of the U.S. Marine Corps. Now I belong to Northeast Ohio Citizens for Soldiers, and I'm chairman of American Legion Post 385. I've worked with Fortune 50 companies as a consultant for Ernst & Young, one of the largest consulting firms in the country. I've founded my own software company. I've got business-leadership experience that Ed doesn't."

As the meeting comes to order, Cobbeldick is the first to speak. He looks like a young George W., and like the president, he doesn't come off as the brightest bulb on the tree. "When I grew up, we used to have these signs by the airport that said, 'Cleveland, the best location in the nation.' Remember those?" The words come so fast they blur together. "Now people call Cleveland an eyesore. Well, Dennis Kucinich is part of that eyesore. I'm usually not a vulgar man, but I will say this: Kucinich has got leadership that's weaker than a drink in a $2 strip joint. We need to show Dennis Kucinich the door in 2004."

The room is silent, but for one snorting laugh and a restrained groan. When Cobbeldick finishes, there is polite applause.

Herman takes the floor. His words come slower, but he seems uncomfortable, his hands straight and motionless at his sides. "There's no doubt that Dennis Kucinich will lead a powerful campaign, but I believe he's vulnerable. He's vulnerable on the war, and he's vulnerable on social issues. Dennis Kucinich was not elected by an extreme left-wing mob. This is a conservative Democrat district. I'm not a right-winger, I'm not anti-union. I believe I can beat Dennis Kucinich."

After the speeches, members make their announcements. President Ed Oliveros assesses the club's finances. Shannon Burns, director of community outreach, describes the sophisticated computer program he used to target likely Republican voters. Herman and Cobbeldick listen attentively.

The meeting draws to a close, and the members stand and stretch. Cobbeldick has his eyes fixed on Burns. "Give one of these to Shannon," he whispers to his assistant, Stephen Fry, as he slips Fry a business card. The aide walks over and touches Burns's arm. The men smile and start chatting.

Herman stands by himself. He piles campaign fliers into a leather briefcase before pulling on his coat.

Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.