The Zanotti Way

Capitalists' tool or good-government visionary? Either way, Marty Zanotti may be the most powerful unelected politician in Cuyahoga County

Marty Zanotti relinquished his mayoral seat in Parma Heights on New Year's Day, ending a nine-year run at the top of the tiny suburb. At Zanotti's final council meeting days earlier, officials took turns thanking Zanotti for his service; one councilman appeared on the verge of tears. Zanotti lowered his head. When they finished, he rose from his seat and said he was "touched by the emotion of tonight." A small audience treated him to a standing ovation.

An outsider might have wondered at this loving display, given the state of Parma Heights. The suburb of 20,000 has its charms, like the swath of scenic parkland that cuts through it. But its main drag, Pearl Road, is a commercial ghost town; many of the squat, outdated storefronts sit vacant. Things worsened last year after auto dealer Integrity Chevrolet closed its doors.  The suburb levies the highest income tax in the region, but Zanotti leaves behind a $1 million-plus budget deficit that worries the incoming mayor. 

It's not like Zanotti didn't try. In 2003, he championed an economic development project dubbed Cornerstone, a Crocker Park-style mix of housing, shopping, eating and entertainment. The city recruited private developers and spent $3 million to build public roads. Today, it remains an empty lot, and some call the failed project "Tombstone" — dark humor at a time when the coffers are so depleted, city leaders and residents get excited about the construction of a new Dunkin' Donuts.

Zanotti, who some contend would not have won re-election, leaves all this behind for bigger and better things. As one of the architects of Issue 6, the successful ballot measure that radically reorganizes Cuyahoga County government, he now gets to influence its implementation. And he relishes his newfound role as a behind-the-scenes government policymaker in Ohio's most populous county. Forgive him if he sounds self-assured: The man who was almost political dead meat in his own tiny suburb now has Cuyahoga County doing things the Zanotti Way.

"We were somebody different and not part of the political system as people knew it," says Zanotti of Issue 6's popularity, during one of his last interviews in his office at Parma Heights City Hall. "I think that's what people were looking for, and we have to honor that commitment."

Of course, two of Zanotti's key partners in the campaign were prosecutor Bill Mason, arguably the county's most powerful politician, and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the business collective whose root organization, Cleveland Tomorrow, pushed Gateway. Neither is remotely different nor detached from "the political system." But if Zanotti is aware of the irony in his not-business-as-usual pitch, he covers it well, and remains focused on the moment and his new role. "I've been able to become more influential in our region," he says, "at a time when I think we need people who are able to lead."

Zanotti cut his teeth politically in Parma Heights, a speck of a town (4.1 square miles). Zanotti has lived in the city for most of his life and has been on the scene for more than 20 years as a planning commissioner, councilman and mayor. When Paul Cassidy, the city's mayor for 43 years, stepped down in 2000, he appointed Zanotti, then council president, to his post.

Zanotti enjoyed enough popularity to win reelection in 2001 and 2005, embedding himself in the spot that last year paid $61,000 despite its part-time designation. (Zanotti is also the CEO of a Strongsville-based family business, Republic Anode Fabricators, a metal fabricating company.)

When asked what he'd reflect on most about his time as mayor, he doesn't point to one specific achievement. "As a mayor, I always stuck to my principles," says Zanotti. "Principles came first and politics came second. That's the kind of relationship that I had with my residents."

Sometimes those relationships turned nasty, but passion is part of the Zanotti Way.

When Zanotti closed the city's ice rink in 2003, disgruntled parents threatened to recall him. Gerald Phillips, a lawyer for the parents, called Zanotti a "dictator." Things came to a head at a Memorial Day parade when residents Diane Sadowski and Peter Buca accused Zanotti of bullying them as they distributed flyers for a rally at the closed rink.

At the same parade, would-be mayoral candidate Zoltan Zoltai complained that city workers kept him from displaying a campaign sign during the parade. Sadowski, Buca and Zoltai, backed by the ACLU, sued in federal court. The judge dismissed most of the arguments against the city but said Parma Heights could not trample on Zoltai's right to campaign freely.

"The whole thing was much ado about nothing," says Zanotti. "The court ruling — I was fine with it. We didn't have to go to court. I think Mr. Zoltai did that to gain some steam for his mayoral campaign."

Sadowski (who declined to comment for this story) especially painted Zanotti as a hothead. When asked if he really shouted at the woman, as she claimed at the time, Zanotti laughs.

"I am Italian, so I suppose I have a bit of a temper," he says. "I became agitated with her. It was almost a juvenile discussion. ... The infamous statement I made — which I've been harassed about by my employees ever since — is, 'You're not going to have [your event], Diane. I'm the mayor and you're not."

Zanotti couldn't stare down a much bigger, meaner problem: the city's increasing financial woes. The city literally has no room for industry, and Pearl Road remains dismally devoid of storefront businesses. Struggling for revenue, the city raised its income tax to three percent under Zanotti. Still, the city now finds itself in a deficit of more than $1 million, says Mike Byrne, the city's new mayor.

Byrne realizes the city needs an influx of cash and ideas — now. The city's population continues to age (one out of four residents was 65 or older in 2000). "It's going to take everything we can to encourage new residents," says Byrne while giving me a tour of the town. "We're looking at attracting new families. One of the major stumbling blocks is that we don't have diverse tax base. It's an old residential community at the crossroads."

Zanotti's highest-profile effort to stop the bleeding was the Cornerstone project. City leaders promoted the estimated $85 million project as a revenue-generating bonanza and recruited a private developer to buy 34 acres of land at West 130th Street and Pearl Road. To move the project forward, the city invested $3 million to build the site's infrastructure.

"The city was really pushing it," says Jim Wohl, a close watcher of Parma Heights politics and a one-time council candidate. "It seemed like a wonderful thing. Of course, you would think [city leaders] would have looked into it."

He is referring to the wife-husband development team of Joanne and Alan Schneider.

With tax-increment financing set up by the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority and blessed by the city and Parma schools, the Schneiders jumped into the project in 2003 and began building an 80,000-square-foot entertainment venue, which they planned to call "Claire's Folley."

Folly is a better word. During construction, the Schneiders were accused (and eventually convicted of) securities fraud. The partially built venue and parking deck were later demolished. A second developer, John McGill, bought the land for $7.9 million and promised to continue on. But McGill — also the developer of the environmentally troubled City View shopping center in Garfield Heights — has since filed for bankruptcy.

The Cornerstone site remains a suburban wasteland of leveled ground, rock piles and grass-covered mounds. Residents of nearby Maplewood Road bemoan their situation.

"Look at it! This is our view," says one angry neighbor who declined to give his name, sweeping his hand out toward the empty field that borders his backyard.

Fred and Rose Marie Fulcher say brutal west winds beat against their house, because a wetland that once protected them is now gone. "If we wanted to sell our house, we wouldn't get our price," says Fred.

The Fulchers, regulars at council meetings, are diplomatic in their assessment of Zanotti. "I don't think Mayor Zanotti is all that guilty," says Fred. "It was the circumstances [with the developers] and it's a sign of the times. His hands are tied." Rose adds: "You can't blame this entirely on Zanotti; there was a council too."

Other observers share that sentiment: that it would be unfair to blame Zanotti for Cornerstone's failure. It was the city's leadership as a whole that failed to see any red flags. "Unfortunately, Marty's legacy will be the failed Cornerstone project, and it didn't work, no fault of his," says Rick Schwachenwald, president of the Parma Heights Democratic Club and a formal mayoral hopeful. "If you say the city failed, then the banks failed, the port authority failed — everyone failed."

"My biggest frustration with Cornerstone," says Zanotti, "was that despite the thousands of hours we spent trying to impact what happened there, we never owned the property." Ownership would have given the city more control, he says. He continues: "It doesn't matter that it wasn't the city's fault. I recognize clearly that people's frustration with it will be directed at me. There's nothing I can do about it — it's part of the job and comes with the territory."

Outside of Parma Heights, the personable Zanotti gained a reputation as a networker. He served as president of the Cuyahoga County Mayors and City Managers Association and emerged as a vocal proponent of cooperation between suburban cities. In 2008, he revealed a bold plan: a seven-city fire district that Zanotti says would have saved millions of dollars and put more firefighters and EMTs on the streets. But he could not muster enough political muscle to convince officials in neighboring cities to move forward.

In early 2009, with county officials under siege by a federal corruption investigation, Zanotti set out to build a coalition of local leaders to help push a plan for new county government. In June, Zanotti announced that he would not seek reelection against a challenger Byrne, the Parma Heights council president who had lined up the backing a majority of council, the county and state Democratic parties, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

Zanotti says he wanted to put his energy on the reform campaign, but some wonder if he could have overcome the opposition mounted against him.

The amiable Byrne is modest, saying only that a campaign against Zanotti would have been a "good fight." But Peter Lawson Jones, a county commissioner whom Zanotti did not support for re-election in 2008, views it differently: Jones and other supporters "got out early and frequently in support of Mike Byrne and we think that probably drove Marty from the race."

Election Day '09, however, transformed Zanotti into a curious political beast: an election winner without an office — or, arguably, a constituency. He is an advocate of effective government, but until last fall, he had few notches in his belt despite his ambitions and efforts. While he speaks of reform and opportunities for new faces in power, he lashes out at potential office holders he deems unworthy of the new government he helped create.

Considering this, should we trust his ideas about the future of Cuyahoga County leadership? Was he really looking out solely for taxpayers when he pushed reform? Are you ready to do things the Zanotti Way?

Zanotti's harshest critics would say no. They've called him an impotent politician and just another good ol' boy. While the floundering regional economy compounded the Parma Heights's financial woes, critics bashed Zanotti as a bad manager. During the Issue 6 campaign this past fall, Former East Cleveland mayor and journalist Eric Brewer stated such in a scathing blog post: "He's on his way out the door [in Parma Heights] because he's a poor public manager, but The Plain Dealer thinks he's a genius."

Zanotti scoffs at his detractors and shows the charm that is also part of the Zanotti Way. "I think they take themselves way too seriously," says Zanotti. "I'm an independent thinker." He says he never "worshiped at the altar" of Jimmy Dimora, the former Cuyahoga County Democratic Party boss who has attacked Zanotti in the press. (Zanotti, a Democrat, became a target for Dimora after Zanotti backed a relatively inexperienced, unknown Republican mayor, Debbie Sutherland, in her unsuccessful bid to oust Commissioner Jones in 2008.)

Some Democrats remain incensed with Zanotti's involvement in the county restructuring campaign, seen by the party as an effort to break up Cuyahoga County's labor-Democrat stronghold. One Democratic public official told Scene that Zanotti was either a "wolf in sheep's clothing" (i.e. a Republican) or that he'd unwittingly helped the GOP pull off one of its best covert operations ever. (The fact that Zanotti's brother David is involved in the Christian conservative policy group the Ohio Roundtable adds to the fervor.)

Sutherland, who is still mayor of Bay Village, says Zanotti proved his mettle by taking such a risky political stand. "I think he's got the strength, the guts, the integrity and the vision to move this region forward," says Sutherland. "I can't think of anybody better to be involved in transitioning us from our archaic form of government through the reform process."

Zanotti believes he has impressed people with his leadership and says he has no other political goals at the moment, other than the promotion of good government. Yet he seems willing to test the limits of his influence and has used the Issue 6-backing Plain Dealer to bash the county's political establishment, as well as those who opposed his reform campaign.

Just days after the election, Zanotti told the PD that it would be the "ultimate hypocrisy" if Democrats Ed FitzGerald, Peter Lawson Jones and Jim Rokakis ran for the new county executive job, because they had opposed Issue 6. The indignant quote prompted local blogger Bill Callahan to note: "116,000 people voted against Issue 6. Think Zanotti will let us vote next November?"

FitzGerald, the ambitious mayor of Lakewood who has announced his candidacy for county executive, seems to especially draw the ire of Zanotti. In a testy radio debate, FitzGerald argued that the government restructuring process should have been more public and inclusive, and accused Zanotti of drafting the new county charter in secret meetings with insiders from Zanotti's "e-mail list." Zanotti became indignant and a screaming match ensued. "Let's cut the Marty e-mail list [comment]," said Zanotti. "That's insulting and it's more importantly — it's pure and simple not true, and you know it."

Zanotti — who was vague during the campaign about who was involved in the drafting of the new charter — feels redeemed by the voter approval and reiterated his "ultimate hypocrisy" stance to Scene.

"There are people who are going to run for the county executive position who thought Issue 6 was the worst thing in the world and it wouldn't be successful, but within 24 hours of its passage, those people were already eliciting support," says Zanotti. "That's the kind of political leadership that has made people so skeptical — it's the 'what's in it for me [attitude]'."

If stubbornness is part of the Zanotti Way, how will he work with the team of bureaucrats charged with transitioning county government?

The transition called for the county commissioners to appoint three standing county administrators to lead it. However, the commissioners have opened the door for Zanotti and his victorious campaign group, New Cuyahoga Now, to stay involved in the process. Zanotti is now co-chair of the transition advisory group.

"We feel we have a contract with the voters that the principles of the charter get implemented by this new government," says Zanotti. "New Cuyahoga Now was prepared to take that path on its own, but when the [county commissioners] offered to build a coalition to really do this transition right, we welcomed the opportunity to do it."

One of the biggest issues is — or at least should be — campaign-finance reform. There, Zanotti has seemed content to play the game.

A scan through his campaign-finance reports reveals a political DNA not unlike others in Cuyahoga County, with support from other politicians (including J. Kevin Kelley, the now-convicted former Parma Heights school board member), unions, law firms and developers like Ferris Kleem and Steve Pumper; the latter's name has popped up in the county-corruption scandal. (Zanotti says he has no relationship with either developer, who were known to spread campaign money around. Zanotti says he only had a "business relationship" with Kelley, despite accusations by Dimora that the tandem took gambling trips together).

Zanotti regularly accepted hundreds of dollars in campaign contributions from his employees — peanuts in comparison to the thousands collected by Bill Mason from his workers. Mason came under attack during the Issue 6 campaign for taking these types of contributions and agreed to return thousands of dollars, but Zanotti avoided criticism. He called the attack on Mason disingenuous.

"You would have to indict, in the broad sense of the word, every mayor and every single councilperson if you suggested [the practice of accepting employee contributions] was improper," says Zanotti. "If you draw me into [the employee contribution] argument, you have to draw in 45 or 50 mayors into it."

But those mayors aren't now guiding the future of county government.

He vows that campaign finance will be addressed in the county's new government, but skeptics continue to harp about the issue and say it will be much harder for the county to make changes once politicians are entrenched in office. Catherine Turcer, of the good-government group Ohio Citizens Action, says this is the perfect opportunity for Cuyahoga County to reform campaign finance and create "real transparency."

While it's not illegal on the county level to take employee contributions, Turcer says, "Employees can feel extorted and the public officials can feel like they owe the employees something — they may feel like they owe their friends or family jobs. It's kind of a cornerstone of nepotism and setting up an old boys' and old girls' club. It's really time to stop, not just in Cuyahoga County, but all over the state."

The county has asked volunteers to take part in the process, and, as of last week, about 300 people had asked to participate. All of those volunteers will be assembled into smaller committees that will begin work in February.

Zanotti says the transition team will represent a new breed, with new thinking and ideas, and not just be the "same ol' people doing the same ol' thing."

"Some great, qualified individuals are going to be involved in this process," says Zanotti. It remains to be seen just how different the new bosses are.

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