A battered region watched in disbelief as one of its slimiest career politicians weaseled his way back into elected office this weekend. Martin Sweeney, the former double-dipping Cleveland city councilman and Ohio state rep with a sordid history of sexual harassment accusations and corruption-adjacent behavior, beat two other candidates in a vote among Cuyahoga County Democratic Party precinct committee members in District 3. Sweeney will now serve the remainder of retiring Councilman Dan Brady's term.
Both the result of Saturday's vote and the mechanisms by which it was achieved should be considered nothing less than travesties. They are the latest and among the most explicit answers to a series of questions which have lately befuddled local leaders: Why is voter turnout so low? Why is there a dearth of up-and-coming political talent in Northeast Ohio? Why is the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party such a laughingstock statewide?
That Sweeney is an embarrassing candidate needs not be belabored. His history of misconduct should be disqualifying on its own, but apart from that, he is a thumb-twiddling insider who is skilled at manipulating the levers of Party machinery but utterly unconcerned with the region's most urgent problems. He didn't even bother coming up with a platform before the vote. In an interview, he told local reporter Richard Andrews
that he "greatly missed public service" and that he planned to "dedicate himself to constituent service." And in brief introductory remarks Saturday, after he was nominated by his own sister, he told CCDP electors that he was running on one promise: to answer the phone.
People should take Sweeney at his word. His return to public life is mostly because he misses getting phone calls. He misses the Godfather-
ish thrill of being the kind of guy who bestows and calls in favors.
"Constituent service," for the record, is the unfortunate cross to bear of city
councilpeople, not county councilpeople. And that's mostly because Cleveland has been so bad at basic municipal functions for so long. It's a situation which redounds to the advantage of Cleveland lawmakers, because they can keep winning elections by cutting grass instead of crafting policies that support the wellbeing of residents citywide. It also redounds to the advantage of local developers, lawyers and accountants for big business, because they can craft policies that support their clients' wellbeing
, knowing that council members are far too busy with constituent phone calls to think critically about their votes. Sweeney either doesn't know or doesn't care that county council's duties are more focused on budget oversight.
County councilmembers' salary of $53,000 per year is a substantial haul for their part-time work. But for Sweeney, it's not (or at least not entirely)
about the cushiness. It's about the power, about his vision of himself as a power player.
Sweeney's aura is more or less that of a dime-store Irish mobster, and the elected leaders in town who regard him as an insufferable buffoon are correct to a point. But his buffoonishness belies his political acumen. Like other old-school machine politicians, Sweeney conceives of politics as sport, as gamesmanship, entirely removed from the needs of constituents. To him, the work of a politician is transactional: back-slapping, glad-handing, quid pro quo-ing, etc. And he's very good at it.
That helps explain why every election he's involved in has absolutely nothing to do with substantive issues and tends to be mired in controversy. In 2018, after he'd voluntarily surrendered his state rep seat to pave the way for his daughter, Bride Rose Sweeney, he faced Nickie Antonio in a State Senate race. He doled out payments
to pivotal CCDP sources to ensure that he'd win the party's endorsement. As journalists, we're not allowed to call these payments "bribes" because the United States has largely legalized bribery via campaign finance rules, and it'd be libelous to suggest that candidates simply following those rules had engaged in criminal behavior. But for Sweeney, the effect of the payments was identical. He paid people for "consulting" that magically led them to change their votes, resulting in his party endorsement. Antonio still won the race, thanks to her huge margin of victory in Lakewood.
More concerning than Sweeney as a candidate, though, is the degree to which the Party bent over backwards to help him secure Brady's seat. (Imagine wondering why there's a dearth of up-and-coming political talent in Cuyahoga County. Imagine!)
Prior to Saturday's vote, there were procedural decisions from Party leadership that led many to believe Sweeney was up to his old tricks. For starters, he'd only recently registered an address in the county's third district. Unlike the city charter, where residency is immaterial for council members, the county charter mandates that a councilperson must reside in the district for at least 30 days before their appointment. No one believes for a moment that Sweeney actually lives at this newly registered address on Governor Avenue. He still owns his home in Cleveland's Jefferson neighborhood in Ward 16 — just across the border of the county's 2nd District, represented by Dale Miller — which is where his and his daughter's campaign committees are both headquartered, according to campaign finance filings. Still, the Party was content to look the other way and treat Sweeney's candidacy as legitimate.
Even more problematic, from the perspective of those who participated in the process and spoke to Scene on background, was the Party's insistence on filling vacancies on its central committee prior to Saturday's vote. The County Charter dictates that when a vacancy occurs on county council, the replacement shall be selected by precinct committee members of the same political party from the same district as the vacating member. Sweeney, who is regarded as a master vote-whipper and vote-counter, evidently recognized that he didn't have enough votes to guarantee a victory.
Sweeney's main opponent was 33-year-old lawyer Brendan Heil, a ward leader in Cleveland's Ward 15. He had gained the support of a number of political leaders in the district, including Cleveland Councilwoman Jenny Spencer, Councilman Kerry McCormack and State Sen. Nickie Antonio. He was nominated Saturday by former City Councilman Matt Zone.
There are a total of 85 available precinct seats in District 3, (which includes the cities of Brooklyn, Linndale, and chunks of Cleveland's Wards 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11 and 3.) As of December, roughly a third of those seats were vacant.
Sniffing an opportunity, Sweeney allies began lobbying CCDP leadership to fill these vacant seats prior to the vote. Cleveland Councilman Brian Kazy, whom Sweeney had appointed when he left city council, was said to have led this charge, though there was only one eligible vacancy in Kazy's ward. There was nothing mysterious about the strategy. The Sweeney camp simply wanted to stack the committee with new supporters to help tip the scales.
Party Chairwoman (and newly minted U.S. congressional candidate) Shontel Brown didn't seem to mind. Or at any rate she agreed with Sweeney allies that as many of the vacant seats as possible should be filled. Her thinking may have been influenced by Party Vice Chair Kevin Kelley, who is also the President of Cleveland City Council. Richard Andrews reported that it was former County Executive Ed FitzGerald who alerted Sweeney to Dan Brady's retirement in the first place. FitzGerald has long been a Kelley ally and now serves as a key member of Kelley's mayoral campaign team.
Regardless, getting additional votes was crucial for Sweeney. CCDP lawyer Sandy McNair sent a memo on Dec. 15 (attached below) saying that the Party planned to call a special meeting of the Executive Committee to name these new precinct committee members. They would be appointed at a meeting Jan. 9, per the memo, exactly one week before the vote on Brady's replacement.
Well, that didn't sit well with a number of Party members who reached out to Scene after the memo. They were distressed that the Party appeared to be violating its own bylaws. A rule is in place, after all, which says that appointees to the Central Committee may not vote until 60 days after their appointment. McNair anticipated that objection in his memo, noting that the Ohio Democratic Party had advised them that that rule was unenforceable.
Those who reached out to Scene said the rule was nevertheless a good one. Its being technically unenforceable should not be interpreted as license to break it, they felt. In fact, it seemed designed to prevent exactly the sort of scheme Sweeney was attempting to orchestrate. If Shontel Brown sincerely cared about filling these vacancies, they suggested, why not wait until after the Brady replacement vote so that city and ward leaders could assemble precinct committee members based on credentials other than allegiance to a particular candidate?
No such luck. More than 20 vacancies were filled on Jan. 9, meaning that 74 of the 85 total precincts seats were then occupied. Three of the new appointees came from Ward 15 (Brendan Heil's strongest base of support), and several came from Brooklyn, Kevin Kelley's Ward 13, and Dona Brady's Ward 11, all of which ultimately meaningfully contributed to Sweeney's victory.
The Saturday vote was a disaster logistically. It took two rounds of voting, and every manner of Zoom snafu, for Sweeney to obtain a majority. Sixty-five of the 74 electors were present on the call. In the second round, Sweeney won 35 out of 65. Brendan Heil got 27. Ryan Ross, a third candidate who billed himself as a "man of the people," got one vote, down from five in the first round. There was one abstention. Sweeney won all seven votes from precinct leaders in Brooklyn and took all but two of the 15 available in Ward 11.
Party insiders told Scene that the Ward 11 votes were likely what sealed Sweeney's victory. Sweeney is thought to have made a pact with Dona Brady — the Ward leader and former councilwoman there, not to mention the wife of the retiring Dan Brady — not to run for city council in Ward 11 in exchange for her support.
Both Dan and Dona Brady have long-standing antipathy toward Sweeney, but Dona was reportedly happy to steer her ward's votes in his direction to ensure that he wouldn't infringe on city council territory she still regards as her fiefdom, potentially wresting control from her personal appointee, Brian Mooney. (Some have even speculated that Dan Brady's retirement, which was announced shortly after Scene reported that Sweeney was laying the groundwork for a council run in Ward 11
, was a defensive maneuver, the Bradys' attempt to coordinate a sinecure for Sweeney in exchange for his butting out.)
The appearance of questionable activity during the roll call vote cast additional doubt on Sweeney's behavior. Not only did he have multiple precinct committee members voting out of his home, and at least one using his own Zoom account, his daughter Bride Rose was also assisting a committee member who never visibly appeared on the call.
The whole thing was a mess, in which the messiness sure seemed like a coefficient of the shadiness. One precinct committee member told Scene that they hesitated to come down too harshly on Sweeney for providing technical assistance. It's possible other voters may have been doing similar things. And one person who cast a vote for Heil did so via phone, without appearing on the Zoom call either. A number of participants Saturday told Scene that the voting process was never clear to them ahead of time and that the Zoom proceedings were chaotic, time-consuming and a challenge for those with unreliable internet connections. One participant said they never even received the Zoom link.
But the result of the chaos was exactly as party leadership drew it up: a Marty Sweeney victory. Now, the son of the Honorable Gerald Sweeney and father of State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney gets to believe once again that local elected office is his birthright.
Brendan Heil may or may not seek the same seat via election next year. He has every right to throw up his hands after this dispiriting episode. He is the President of the Cuyahoga County Young Democrats, and while he didn't say so to Scene explicitly, he must be discouraged by what Sweeney's return to elected office communicates to party members in their twenties and thirties, especially those considering runs of their own: basically, don't bother.
Sweeney's victory was met with instant shrieks of horror and gasps of exhaustion on social media. Several party insiders said that while the local party's reputation was already in the toilet, the Sweeney machinations would damage it further still. Cuyahoga County represents the largest potential bloc of Democratic voters in the state of Ohio, and yet the party is viewed to have no serious voter engagement, no bench of rising political talent, and no charismatic elected leaders pounding the pavement for national Democrats. Where were Armond, Frank and Marcia through the summer and fall, many have wondered, as Joe Biden got demolished in Ohio?
And where will Marty be?
In all likelihood, he'll be exactly where he said he'd be: on his phone, hashing out deals to advance or preserve his own interests.
One of the foulest odors in this whole repulsive bouquet emanates from the Bradys, veteran city politicians who still feel compelled to make deals on Sweeney's terms. Quick question: Why? Was the threat of Sweeney's last name and his single mailer about the U.S. census so terrifying that the only available recourse was to find him some cushy elected part-time gig? Is Brian Mooney that
vulnerable, that the gentlest whiff of competition from Sweeney was enough to force Dan Brady into retirement? (If so, that should embolden other potential candidates in Ward 11.)
The obvious alternative would have been to call Sweeney's bluff. Force him to run a campaign in Ward 11 from his home in Ward 16. Call him out for not living there, for not giving a shit, for his florid resume of misconduct. Prove to voters by asking him the most basic factual or issue-based questions that he has no idea what he's talking about.
Well, Brendan Heil attempted to do something similar. He was diplomatic about it, but his supporters certainly weren't shy about sharing that Sweeney was not technically living in the District, as required by county charter. Heil was proactive with the media, and presented a platform to precinct committee members. He stressed the idea of putting people first, focusing on health and human services as the pandemic raged. He said things voters might hope to hear from a conscientious candidate about the county jail scandal and his long-term goals. It's not that Heil was himself an overwhelming candidate. It's that by comparison, Sweeney looked like a total clown. At the Our Revolution candidates' forum earlier this month, he was literally miming answering phones.
Heil's defeat, then, tells us nothing about the candidates themselves and everything about the rot within the party machinery. The levers Sweeney pulled, and the levers CCDP leadership were only to eager to pull on his behalf, demonstrates the inequality of the playing field and the partiality of the referees. It shows how rules can be bent and conveniently re-interpreted without technically being broken
, but only for a select few.
In the same way I couldn't call Sweeney's consulting payments "bribes" in 2018, I can't say that he "cheated" here in 2021. But now, as then, the effect is the same.
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