Winner-Takes-All Brawl

Pat O'Malley's grudge match with the Democratic Party

Antiseen, with Stepsister and Silver Tongued Devil Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road Saturday, January 26



He's the only white man in the room, a jumpy little Irishman with an American flag pin on his lapel and tassels on his loafers. His voice, mimicked to perfection by former employees, is high-pitched and unpolished, the streets of Brooklyn flaring in its nasal A's. Standing next to his tall, smooth, black opponent, Patrick O'Malley wouldn't seem the favorite to win over this room of Democratic Central Committee members in Glenville.

In the battle for Jane Campbell's vacated county commission seat, County Recorder O'Malley is the underdog. His opponent, state Representative Peter Lawson Jones, has the endorsement of Democratic Party Chairman Jimmy Dimora and almost every other county official. O'Malley has the endorsement of former Cleveland Mayor Mike White, and that's about it.

Yet the room O'Malley faces is a room of underdogs. This is Glenville, a place where committee members lived through poll taxes, Jim Crow, and the civil rights struggle. They are a distrustful lot, even when it comes to their own party.

O'Malley, the outsider, believes in his heart that this is his constituency.

He comes out swinging. One minute he's talking about growing up poor, the next minute he launches into a blistering attack on Gateway and the jobs it was supposed to create. "How many brothers do you see down there watching the games? Sure, you see 'em playing baseball, and you see 'em vending hot dogs, but you don't see brothers watching the game! We can't afford it!"

O'Malley's inclusion of himself among the "brothers" doesn't raise an eye, and the crowd, mostly aging black women with perky hats and costume jewelry, murmurs its assent.

"The same day we voted on a new Browns stadium, they closed 12 schools in Cleveland. They can't fix the schools, and I'm supposed to vote on a stadium?" The crowd nods. "That's true," one woman says. "He's right," says another.

"Corporate Cleveland," O'Malley announces, his voice building, now wants a $400 million convention center while kids go without schoolbooks and breakfast. He pauses, then asks who in the room wants a convention center. "Raise your hand," he commands.

Only one goes up. It belongs to Jones. Though Jones will explain his thinking, the crowd is O'Malley's for the rest of the meeting.

He's become the populist to Jones's intellectual; he has divided the room by class rather than race. Suddenly, he's not the only white man in the room; he's the working stiff next to Jones, the only Harvard grad.

The battle for Campbell's seat is an inside fight on small turf. The officials on Jones's endorsement list won't decide who fills the seat. That call belongs to the party faithful -- approximately 1,600 Democratic Central Committee members, who will appoint a commissioner to hold the seat until the November election. And no matter how much party big shots hate O'Malley, no matter how much baggage he carries, no matter that he's even sued his own party, the 43-year-old speaks the language of the faithful.

O'Malley, unlike most everyone else, is convinced he can win.

Pat O'Malley's boyhood home sits at West 62nd Street and Bucyrus Drive in Brooklyn, a stone's throw from the Cleveland border and a slightly longer toss from the bar that inspired Drew Carey's Warsaw Tavern.

Eleven O'Malley siblings grew up in a house that's no more than 800 square feet. Like its 599 equally tiny neighbors, the postwar, straw-colored box was originally public housing and looks it. Brooklyn Acres has since become a co-op, the only housing project to make that leap in Cuyahoga County.

O'Malley makes sure to point out the home to a reporter; anecdotes about growing up here are a constant part of his patter. Besides, nothing speaks better to his achievements in life, or the populist image he carefully cultivates, than this modest home.

O'Malley's father was a plasterer for the county. The kids doubled up in bedrooms: seven girls in one room, four boys in another. O'Malley shined shoes and cut grass; he had a Plain Dealer route and shoveled snow. Thanks to his father's work, he and his siblings also campaigned for a fleet of Corrigans and Pokornys and Sweeneys. "It was built into having a county job -- 'Get your kids out, drop this literature, hang up these signs.'"

Despite the early exposure, O'Malley might have avoided politics if not for wrestling. "That's the only thing I had going for me as a kid," he says. "Everybody else I'd grown up with, the guys who had the dream jobs, worked in the steel mills and the auto plants."

O'Malley joined the wrestling team in his freshman year at Brooklyn High, registering an unimpressive 2-18 record. "I quit about seven times," he admits. He always came back. After a summer of intense training, he finished his sophomore year as state runner-up; two years later, a scholarship to Kent State was his reward. At Kent, he roomed with high school wrestling rival William Mason -- who's now the county prosecutor -- and majored in political science.

After college, he held a series of jobs and earned his master's before deciding on law school. His youngest brother, Mike, announced his enrollment in Cleveland State's program in 1987, and "I never let my baby brother beat me in anything." The brothers studied together in night school, graduating in 1992.

But O'Malley began his political career before that. He campaigned for officials like Old Brooklyn Councilman Joe Cannon and Cleveland Municipal Court Clerk Benny Bonanno, a friend of Mason's. O'Malley was later hired by Bonanno as an aide while he worked his way through law school.

O'Malley didn't decide to run himself until one snowy Friday night soon after Cannon's reelection. He was in a long line of cars on Fulton Road that ran into a nasty, unmarked bit of road construction. Car after car didn't see a missing section of pavement and drove forward, snapping tie rods and mangling rims.

O'Malley called Cannon for help, but Cannon wanted none of it. "He used to call me all the time," Cannon says wearily.

O'Malley claims the councilman screamed at him to get lost. When O'Malley protested that he was a constituent, Cannon snapped back, "If you don't like what I'm doing, why don't you try this goddamn job?"

"I made a word to myself that he'd regret doing that," O'Malley says. "It was a challenge."

Three years later, O'Malley beat Cannon, and his career in politics began.

O'Malley represented Old Brooklyn for nine years. He fought City Hall by day and fielded constituent calls by night. "The job consumed my life," he says. "It destroyed my marriage and my family. Meetings, every night. If you're there, it's no big thing. If you're not, you're a son of a bitch."

O'Malley was one of Mayor White's earliest and most outspoken critics. He opposed Gateway and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He railed about tending to neighborhood needs long before it was fashionable. In those days, before trouble erupted between White and council, votes often went 19-2 in White's favor. The only "nays" were O'Malley and the equally combative Fannie Lewis.

"He wasn't afraid to stand up for what was right, even if it was politically unpopular," says Erin Sullivan, a state representative from Strongsville who got her start as O'Malley's assistant. "I think people respected that, but they were also frustrated by that, too."

"He was a good councilman who worked hard for his neighborhood," Councilman Mike Polensek says. "Maybe he didn't get along with everyone down here, but the majority of us supported him."

O'Malley attacked housing code violations with gusto and started a program to pay half of poor residents' repairs. "He followed through on things," says David Mondock Jr., an Alvin Avenue resident who helped O'Malley with neighborhood disputes.

Yet colleagues and competitors at times felt that O'Malley picked fights simply for the joy of fighting. "I ran against 20-some guys in my time," Cannon says. "They all were gentlemen, except him."

County Treasurer James Rokakis, then a councilman, says he helped O'Malley get elected and quickly regretted it. "It got to a point where nothing he did surprised me," Rokakis says. "The only time I was surprised was when he showed civility."

O'Malley could be volatile. An EMS worker charged in 1992 that O'Malley assaulted her; he apologized, but admitted no fault. In 1994, he sued the Cleveland public schools for cutting bus service for private school students. In 1996, he made headlines when Water Commissioner Julius Ciaccia accused him of threatening to put a bullet in White's head. O'Malley insisted that he merely said the mayor would be committing "political suicide" if he fired O'Malley's brother, who worked for the water department.

"There's no doubt he can be a very charming individual when he chooses to be," Rokakis says. "But I've seen the other side, where he becomes angry and violent. This guy is a brawler, and I don't think that's the way you want to go through life."

Even friends like former Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne compare O'Malley to the "Fighting Irish" caricature on Notre Dame apparel -- an angry little leprechaun, his dukes always up. "You can love him, but sometimes you want to pull your hair out over him."

O'Malley says he was burned out and planning to retire from politics at the end of his term in 1997. Then the county recorder's seat became vacant, and O'Malley launched a bid to wrest it away from Councilman Roosevelt Coats, the favored candidate of then-Congressman Louis Stokes.

Coats won the endorsement of every major county official, but the Democratic Central Committee appointed O'Malley to the vacant seat by 64 votes. Coats complained that the party had again deserted the black community, but he didn't challenge O'Malley in the next primary.

Still, O'Malley had made enough enemies that six other Democrats did take up the fight, including two O'Malleys. Though the female "Pat O'Malley" dropped out before the vote, "Brian O'Malley" stayed in, and the recorder complained bitterly that Brian had been recruited to steal his votes.

Another challenger, Kathleen Coyne, suggests that O'Malley knew the strategy well; she says that a cousin of Tom Coyne, 19-year-old Michelle Coyne, entered the race to steal votes from her.

In the end, O'Malley was victorious. And though The Plain Dealer deemed him "temperamentally unfit to hold elected office," he won the general election handily.

The battle was bigger than the recorder's job itself. At the time, it paid just $52,000. The office's sole responsibility is filing and preserving deeds.

None of that seemed to matter. Ambitious as ever, Pat O'Malley was on his way.

Emily Lipovan Holan has never officially met O'Malley. She knows who he is from her days as a City Hall intern. He knows who she is, too, and calls her a liar.

Holan, executive director of the Tremont West Development Corporation, was only a little surprised to see O'Malley at a Tremont candidate forum before last November's election. She knew of O'Malley's friendship with Councilman Nelson Cintron and assumed O'Malley had come to support him.

That evening, Samir Mahammad asked to speak to Holan in the parking lot. They had worked together at City Hall before Mahammad left to work in O'Malley's office.

"We're chit-chatting, and then his tone completely changes, and he confronts me and starts all this threatening stuff," Holan says. She claims that Mahammad told her to get two of Cintron's challengers to drop out of the race. "You brought my boss into this now," she says Mahammad told her. If she didn't cooperate, she was "going down," and so was Tremont West.

Holan says she was shaking and turned to flee. Standing 15 feet behind her, staring at her with his arms crossed, was O'Malley, she says.

Holan filed a complaint with the Board of Elections. The board suggested she go to the county prosecutor's office. Holan declined. "I just wanted it in the public record." She also wanted an apology. "If Pat or Nelson had just said, 'Samir overstepped,' that would have been it," she says. She heard nothing in response.

Mahammad did not return phone calls from Scene, but O'Malley says he was at least 50 feet away from Holan and that Mahammad is considering suing her for defamation. "I seen him talking to her, and she had her arm around him," he says. "She's lying."

Still, Holan has her believers. As much as he resists it, O'Malley has never been able to shed his reputation as a party heavy. "There's no list of people in local hospitals that I've beaten up over the last few years," he says. "I am not the person they're trying to make me out to be."

But O'Malley has had his share of confrontations. In 1985 he sued a fellow Brooklyn Acres resident for grabbing him and pushing him. O'Malley claimed the incident cost him $9,000 in medical bills; he later dropped the suit. That same year, Brooklyn resident Guy Dickey sued him, claiming O'Malley bashed him in the head at a bar and knocked out several teeth. Dickey also accused Mason, who was with O'Malley, of threatening to kill him if he called the cops. Mason backed up O'Malley's charge that Dickey attacked without provocation; arbiters eventually threw out both claims.

In 1989, bar owner Anthony Vanadia accosted O'Malley with a beer mug at a fund-raiser; Vanadia was found guilty and put on probation. Two years later, O'Malley and Dickey got into another fight. This time Dickey was found guilty of assault; in a separate civil claim, O'Malley received $2,700 for his injuries.

The ugliest allegations came from O'Malley's ex-wife, Deborah Davtovich. The couple first filed for divorce in 1990, then reunited. In 1997, Davtovich filed again. The matter concluded swiftly. Then, two months after the divorce was final, she asked for more money and a reconsideration of child-custody arrangements. That's when things got messy.

The motions and counter-motions fill an entire banker's box. He accused her of being a manic-depressive and threatening to blackmail him. She accused him of letting someone identified only as "Nicky, a Jaegermeister Girl" watch the kids. And she alleged in an affidavit that he choked her, kicked her, beat her with a belt, and raped her on the basement floor.

O'Malley categorically denies the charges. Davtovich later withdrew the affidavit, he says. Almost two years after Davtovich's first filing, the judge ruled in O'Malley's favor and again awarded him primary custody.

Nonetheless, critics still point to Davtovich's claims as proof of O'Malley's brutality. To Democratic insiders, the recorder has a Jekyll-&-Hyde persona. On one hand, they say, his office runs efficiently and under budget, and O'Malley, if blustery, can be charming and funny.

Yet they also say he is easily angered and fully capable of battery. Whispers are rampant that O'Malley assisted terrorists in Northern Ireland, although no one can provide proof. Democrats also say he drives a car licensed to a dealer in his old council ward and that he uses his staff as a political machine.

O'Malley shrugs off the Ireland question. He is a member of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, but he doesn't see it as something to hide. A picture of the party's leader, Gerry Adams, hangs in his county office. "The Irish American community here would agree that they want a lasting peace in Ireland free from violence, and the best way to achieve that is for the British to leave the country."

As for the dealer plates, yes, O'Malley does drive cars licensed to Bob Morris Kia in Old Brooklyn. And yes, while councilman, he supported Morris's request to rezone the property for a car dealership. Today, as his ethics report notes, he serves as a part-time dealership employee. In exchange for handling lemon-law claims, he gets a monthly retainer and use of cars.

Allegations of office politics draw an equally quick retort, but the paper trail supporting them is longer. It goes all the way back to O'Malley's first council race, when he worked in Bonanno's municipal court office. Bonanno was sentenced to a year in prison in 1996 for using computers and employees for political purposes. A pre-sentence report listed O'Malley among five politicians who benefited from Bonanno's activity. Another employee directly accused O'Malley of running his council campaign out of the office.

Neither O'Malley nor any assistants were formally charged, but the recorder's office has faced similar allegations. Former employee Constance Wells filed suit last year, saying she was demoted after telling employees that job security should be based on performance, not political work for O'Malley. When a judge refused to throw out the charges, the county appealed the decision, which is still pending, says Steven Shafron, Wells's attorney.

Another former staffer, Rich Coreno, said he quit after producing O'Malley campaign literature at the office. Coreno declined to discuss the allegations with Scene, but said he stands by his story.

O'Malley's employees have become fixtures in political circles. Some distributed fliers and railed against Rokakis's plan to turn over delinquent tax accounts to a county collection agency. Six employees ran for various city councils in 2001, though only one was successful. Others formed a group called Blacks United in Local Democracy, or BUILD, and campaigned in several Cleveland City Council races, including the successful effort to topple Councilman Bill Patmon.

O'Malley has been careful to publicly separate himself from the activity. He protests that, in every case, his employees acted alone. After he took some heat for their actions, however, he issued directives dramatically limiting their involvement.

Not everyone believes him. Polensek says he considered O'Malley a friend until BUILD supported his challenger. "Pat kept saying he wasn't involved, but he had BUILD running right out of his office," he says bitterly. "He would tell me one thing, but everyone else would tell me something else."

"This is a guy who, wherever he goes, there's trouble," adds Rokakis. "He's like Pigpen in the cartoon -- there's always dirt kicking up around him."

O'Malley's supporters see it differently. "Anytime people see a threat from another politician, they talk bad about that politician and try to whack them out of the box," says Cintron. "When the media or another politician goes after Pat O'Malley, he knows he's doing his job the way he should be."

When Jane Campbell won the mayoral primary in September, O'Malley smelled opportunity.

He claims party chief Dimora called him to County Auditor Frank Russo's office. There, Dimora and Russo told him that Russo planned to run for Campbell's commission seat; would O'Malley like to be auditor? O'Malley agreed to take the job, extolling its virtues. Then Russo changed his mind. "He says, 'Wait a minute, you're right, I want to keep that seat,'" O'Malley insists. "'Why don't you run for commissioner?' So I said OK, and Jimmy said they'd back me."

Dimora called again two weeks later, O'Malley says, this time to talk about a problem. "The blacks are demanding this seat," O'Malley says he was told. A week later, O'Malley learned that Dimora -- and the rest of the party's leadership, including Russo -- was backing Peter Lawson Jones.

Russo could not be reached for comment, but Dimora disputes almost everything about the story. He says O'Malley sought him out to pitch a plan to take the commissioner's seat. Dimora told him to check with the party's black leaders; he felt the next appointment needed their blessing. "We've appointed five white males in a row, and there are no black males anywhere in county government," he says.

Irrespective of who said what, O'Malley was in the race for good. "If Jimmy wanted to set up the game, for him to use the race card to end it was wrong," he says. "I am not a guy who's going to roll over and be bullied out of a seat."

On December 31, O'Malley sued the party, claiming Dimora illegally stocked the Central Committee in Jones's favor, and got a court order to stop the vote. Though the order has since been lifted, O'Malley boasts that his lawyers have knocked 54 names off the rolls, with another dozen still in discussion. (Dimora disputes this as well.)

Yet the suit damaged O'Malley's already shaky party relations. "It seemed extreme to me," says Dimora, who publicly blasted O'Malley as unstable. "He's being a pig about it. He got an appointment in 1997, and now he wants another one?"

Dimora also claims O'Malley filed the suit only after realizing he was incapable of winning over newer committee members. "He was working to get their support, and when he saw it wasn't working, he decided he'd block them from voting."

As O'Malley and Dimora have escalated their rhetoric, Jones has stayed above the fray. He speaks almost serenely at ward club meetings, while O'Malley shouts like a revivalist preacher. He blithely distributes his long list of endorsements, while O'Malley denounces party bigwigs for their undue influence on the rank and file. And while O'Malley insinuates that the committee has been sold out, Jones looks at his watch.

A magna cum laude Harvard graduate, Jones is every bit as smooth as O'Malley is rough, as gracious as his opponent is nervy. A rising star in the party for years, Jones worked as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and ran for lieutenant governor in Robert Burch Jr.'s ill-fated attempt to topple George Voinovich. He followed Campbell through Shaker Heights City Council and the Ohio House, earning respect from both parties.

Despite his success, he's found Columbus frustrating. "I'm driving two hours to be put in a position where the only thing I do is give eloquent speeches that persuade no one, because they're being told what to do by the Republican leadership," he says. "When I get the chance to do something constructive, why not take that over the partisan stalemate at the Statehouse?"

Jones's only flaw may be that he's too smart and too accomplished. O'Malley claims that Jones lacks support from urban blacks, so he's launched a strategy seemingly based on winning as many blue-collar suburbs as possible, then fighting a class war in poor black neighborhoods.

He's had some success. While addressing committee members at a Glenville McDonald's on a recent Saturday, O'Malley manages to take everything that makes Jones superior and use it against him. He stresses that powerful people want to turn poor whites and blacks against each other. The implication: Despite his whiteness, O'Malley is on their side.

After his speech, Richard Wilson, a wrinkled 73-year-old precinct chief, stands up. "I never trusted the Democratic Party," he says. "They just like the FBI and everybody else." Then he turns to O'Malley. "You the sacrificial lamb for being an honest man."

When an O'Malley supporter lobs a softball question about how race plays into the competition, O'Malley is ready. He tells of how the Democratic Party tried to turn the contest into a "race war." He speaks of how some white politicians support Jones simply because he is black.

"The people, unfortunately, who have made these comments have done a great disservice to this man," he shouts, then lowers his voice. "If only I could have been fortunate enough to go to Harvard."

The committee members are silent. All eyes are on him.

"Do not belittle this man by saying he should have this seat because he is black," O'Malley bellows. "If you don't want people voting against you because of race, don't vote for him because of his race! Vote for him because he is qualified, because he could serve you well, but don't vote for him because of his race! Because that is an insult to him!"

The audience applauds. When Jones gets the floor, he's almost apologetic about his well-heeled background. He does not mention that O'Malley now lives in a $376,500 house in Chagrin Falls.

If O'Malley can manage to win February 9, it's Dimora, not Jones, who will be in trouble. Not only will he have to deal with a pugnacious O'Malley on the county commission, but he must somehow clean up the fallout of an ugly race. Dimora has called O'Malley both crazy and a pig, and O'Malley is not one to laugh off an insult.

O'Malley is already saying the party is too small for both of them. "He's put himself out on a limb, and the limb can't hold him," O'Malley says. "I feel bad for him. He's a nice guy, a funny guy. But when things don't go his way, he becomes a mean, nasty schoolyard bully with a bad shave and a cheap suit."

Yet if O'Malley loses, the trouble will be his. Some longtime supporters, including Coyne, are backing Jones; even Prosecutor Mason has remained officially neutral. "Pat just seems to be burning so many frickin' bridges," Polensek says. "If he does not reassess what he's doing and the bridges he's burned, he's going to have a major political problem on his hands."

"This has definitely left a bad taste in my mouth," Dimora admits.

Regardless of who goes down, Democrats worry that the growing antagonism could fracture the party. Both men have enough support that a civil war would mean major casualties, Polensek says.

Republicans, meanwhile, are smelling blood. State Representative Jim Trakas, the county's Republican chairman, says the GOP has two potential candidates for the seat: former commissioner Lee Weingart and James Pilla, nephew of the bishop.

"It's always great when there's dissension in the other party," Trakas says. "And we see weaknesses in both O'Malley and Jones." The GOP ran a poll to measure its candidates against O'Malley and Jones, and while O'Malley does slightly better, neither candidate is unbeatable, Trakas says.

Republicans aren't exactly popular in Cuyahoga County. They hold no major county office and not a single Cleveland City Council seat. Like Democrats in Columbus, their only prayer may be for the majority party to self-destruct. "We have an edge, but if the battle is too polarizing, we're going to lose it," warns state Senator Dan Brady, a West Side Democrat. "A lot of people are saying things they should be regretting."

O'Malley isn't worried about that. He sits behind his desk, Gerry Adams beaming beatifically from one wall. Pictures of his four children, including four-month-old Patrick Jr., the progeny of his second marriage to a Republican lobbyist, line another. In his hand is a list of Central Committee members. Many have notes next to their names, reminding O'Malley to ask about a pet issue. He is a master at finding common ground.

Even now, in the fight of his political life, it all goes back to wrestling and the lessons O'Malley learned as a poor kid trying to make good. "For the most part, I'm your classic overachiever," he says. "I wasn't exceptionally fast or strong, but I did well. I know I come off rough around the edges, but hard work and persistence -- that pays off."

He just needs the formula to work one more time. Dimora is working just as hard to see that it doesn't.

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