Cleveland Magazine November 1994
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Her charming openness and irreverence similarly pose at least a subliminal challenge to conspiracy theorists: Why would such a place as formidable as you imagine the PD to be
ever invite someone so full of the dickens as Mary Anne Sharkey to the table of senior management?It was an excellent question at the time, and all the more appropriate today. But the answer remains as elusive as Sharkey’s complicated internal role at the paper. After raising hell in Ohio politics for more than two decades — putting misogynist pols on the record to disastrous (for them) effect, helping install an improbable former street kid in Cleveland City Hall, and even helping snuff out an Ohio governor’s Oval Office ambition — Sharkey now finds herself in something of a state of internal limbo at “Ohio’s largest.” According to sources at the PD and among political communications people, she’s been stripped of her role as politics editor in all but name (a deve opment she’s not eager to discuss, but she doesn’t dispute). She’s an editor to whom no one answers. But she’s vowed to win the internal test of wills.
She’s prominent in nationa jiournalism circles: Village Voiceand Washington Post columnist Nat Henthoff singled her out for praise recently, and she serves on the board of the International Women’s Media Foundation, which is populated with nationally known media heavyweights. Because of her institutional memory and her wide name recognition throughout the state, “A Sharkey column mailed to 50 people around the state is a very, very powerful thing,” says Cleveland political consultant Bill Burges. “I mean, that is a Scud missile, or at least a
Patriot missile.” All of this surely provides her some internal leverage.
A MILD WORKAHOLIC whose schedule calls for frequent after-hours events and public appearances (including an occasional panel show on WVIZ-TV Channel 25), Sharkey does all her writing in her cramped office just off the newsroom. She shares a secretary with Metro editor Ted Diadiun and often has the television tuned to CNN. Colleagues with a weakness for practical jokes find her an easy mark: They have been known to hide her Rolodex and even her office sofa, waiting to see how long their absence will go unnoticed. She has a fiery temper that quickly blows over, and an impulsiveness that manifests itself in manic fits of shopping: She once bought a used Cadillac on a whim.
In early August, Sharkey arrives for an interview after attending a stormy press conference at Cleveland City Hall in which all of Mike White’s shortcomings finally broke into full public view. The woman who proved so instrumental to his election by engineering the PD’s endorsement must admit she’s concerned about White’s unsteady behavior: abrupt staff changes, almost comic micromanagement, and reports about general emotional instability following his effortless re-election last year.
“I’m starting to have my doubts,” she says about the mayor, which seems remarkably restrained after the months of mounting reports. Weeks later, after being pressed some more about her indulgent attitude toward White, Sharkey gets to the crux of her affection for the mayor: “I like overachievers,” she says, sitting in her brick, Lakewood home with one leg slung over her sofa arm. “And I think of myself as an overachiever. When I look at White, I just laugh. Other people think he’s arrogant, but he just amuses me. I see him as a ghetto kid … whose mother died at an early age.”
At a time in which many journalists — intimidated by their low public regard or perhaps by the doleful state of American libel law — have sought refuge in the euphemism, Sharkey continues to go for the political jugular. She can be delightfully caustic, at least if you’re not on the receiving end. She has referred to the prim members of the League of Women Voters as “the Democratic wives of Republican businessmen” and once likened a pair of arguing state representatives to a couple of skunks in a spraying match. “I never seemed to have learned the art of subtlety,” she once observed of herself in a column.
“[Sharkey] has the keenest news sense I’ve ever seen,” says former PD publisher Tom Vail. Even the people she criticizes, if not her more serious targets, voice genuine admiration. Ohio state Rep. and majority whip Jane Campbell says that Sharkey “has enough hope about the process to really make a difference.” U.S. Rep. Eric Fingerhut, who has also been batted around mildly but who on the whole has been well-treated in Sharkey’s columns, offers: “There’s no question that she’s sharp and caustic, but she doesn’t just go for the cheap shot; she puts it in context. Even though it always stings to be on the receiving end, I always get a sense that it’s coming from somebody with a little bigger picture, so it’s a little easier to take.”
Sharkey was raised in a reasonably prosperous Dayton family, the only daughter of a serially published Catholic writer who inhaled books until the day he died — writing at least two dozen himself (Norman Sharkey’s personal bestseller was a 1944 book about the papalselection process, “White Smoke Over the Vatican.”) Sharkey’s mother prayed to the Virgin Mary that she might deliver a girl after the first four attempts yielded all boys. She signaled her thanks by dressing Mary Anne in blue and white (the colors of the Virgin) until the age of 7.
The family was steeped in their father’s work: It became second nature for the older kids to issue opinions on the piles of manuscripts authors sent for his consideration while he was still on staff at a Catholic youth magazine. Most members of the family were even familiar with the symbols used in editing.
Though she’s had asthma all her life, Sharkey grew up a happy, energetic child who eagerly plunged into dance and piano lessons. Growing up second-youngest in a family with all brothers (one of her six brothers died recently; another, born with Down’s Syndrome, died before she was born), Mary Anne learned early how to get along amicably with the opposite sex. “I’ve never found men much of a mystery,” she says. It’s been a boon ever since to her formidable reporting skills, allowing her to coax information from male officials and propelling her into formerly all-male environments.
Her older brother Nick remembers that 3-year-old Mary Anne would walk around the house during Eisenhower’s first campaign saying, “I like Ike, I like Ike” (she even repeated it at her grandmother’s funeral). Her occasional child-modeling assignments through her Aunt Norma’s agency turned into more substantial teenage appearances in print and television ads for the Bob Evans restaurant chain.
Sharkey admits to having been “a very bad student” through her 16 years of Catholic schooling, terminating with an English degree from the University of Dayton. “I got out of college by the skin of my teeth,” she says. “That’s why I love newspapers, because you don’t need an attention span.”
Many years later, however, she learned that she suffered from dyslexia, a mild learning disability. “I sometimes reverse numbers, I mix metaphors, I could never learn foreign languages, and I absolutely don’t have any sense of direction. And I can’t do computers. Other than that, it hasn’t handicapped me.”
Yet it did leave her with a deep sense of having beaten the odds. “I was always in trouble for being an underachiever, and no one could understand why, including me.” Experts on the malady note that while dyslcxics do have trouble performing certain tasks, in other ways they often process information better, sorting through individual facts to identify patterns not readily apparent to others.
While still in college, she began her professional career as a copydesk clerk at Dayton’s old Journal Herald, an overachieving paper, largely Republican in editorial outlook though quite liberal in spirit, staffed by young journalists who were encouraged to report aggressively. Colleagues from her Dayton days uniformly remember Sharkey as a “live wire.”
“She had a phenomenal knack for getting politicians and policemen and judges to talk to her,” says Bill Flanagan, an editor who was perhaps her earliest mentor. Sharkey was so taken with the job that her brother Nick had to almost force her to complete school. At 24, she married Bill Worth, eight years her senior, twice previously married, and the paper’s city editor at the time. The pair tooled around town in a black Studebaker, which colleagues remember as being halfway between classic and junker. After four years, however, the couple divorced.
“Believe it or not, I was a tad naive in those days,” Sharkey says. “I was totally sheltered … I was the only one in my entire family to go through a divorce — cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers.”
Sharkey’s first taste of prominence grew out of an extraordinary event in the fall of 1974. She was covering the Dayton court system when two federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms got into a shootout in the Federal courthouse, killing one of the men. The following February, after having interviewed court sources and federal officials, Sharkey wrote a frontpage article describing how the suriving agent had refused his now-dead colleague’s offer to participate in an illegal chain-letter scheme and in selling confiscated guns, which led to their deadly encounter.
Separately, Sharkey’s Freedom of Information request had produced a court transcript in which the surviving agent described the events in chilling detail, full of rough language not ordinarily seen in any family newspaper, much less those in conservative, Southern Ohio towns. It included the key words: “Gibson, God damn it, you are fucking with my family. You are fucking with my future. I am not going to let you do it. I’ll kill you first.”
Unknown to Journal Herald editor Charles Alexander, the paper’s promotions department had arranged to distribute free copies of the paper that day to Dayton schoolchildren. In the ensuing uproar, Alexander was fired by the Cox chain, and his managing editor quit in protest. “That’s the story that people around here “I remember [Sharkey] for,” says former colleague Mickey Davis. “She proved her mettle.”
If the story inflicted collateral damage upon her superiors, Sharkey’s own career received quite a boost. The unique controversy became fodder for national journalism trade journals, and by 1977 she had been made an investigative reporter. A year later, with an opening in the paper’s one-person Columbus bureau, she moved to the capital, where her energy and charm quickly won her admission to the mostly male “Capital Square Gang,” a collection of politicians, journalists and lobbyists who would often gather at the Galleria, a bar a across from the Statehouse.
“TheJournal Herald clearly got a lot of stories because she would go to where these people did business,” says one PDreporter. “And to a [House Speaker] Vern Riffe, cutting part of the deal at the Galleria was just as important as finishing the deal at the Statehouse.”
In 1980, she remarried, to Joe Dirck, who today is a PDcolumnist himself At the time, he was a fellow Daytonian who’d played rock ‘n’ roll in area nightclubs. Sharkey and Dirck shared an obsession for politics and, one colleague jokes, questionable fashion sense. Old photos from the Dayton newspaper archives show Sharkey dressed in blouses with enormous period-piece
lapels, her hair worn in cascading bluffs framing her face. One office intern from that time remembers the effect her appearance left from their initial meeting. “Here I was this scared
college student, and she was wearing purple gaucho pants and a puffy cap. I thought I was about to be employed by Petula Clark.” Dirck still had in his possession a pair of skin-tight, leopard spot pants from his days as a rocker.
Characteristically, they met during the heat of a reporting battle: It was the mid-’70s. Dirck was reporting for a small daily in Springfield. He and another reporter were investigating a bookkeeper for a federal, anti-poverty agency who had a gambling problem. When the case landed in a federal grand jury, Dirck thought he’d go down to wait outside the closed session to see who came and went. “This assistant U.S. attorney — who I don’t know — they called him Crimefighter, [he was a] spit and polish, kind of hard-nosed type — started giving me a hard time, told me I couldn’t stand in the hallway,” Dirck recalls. “I said, ‘Well, this is a public building.’ He said, ‘Well, you can’t stand here, you have to go down in the lobby.'”
So Dirck went downstairs to a pay phone and called Sharkey, whom he knew only by reputation. “She was kind of a legend in Dayton at the time I said, ‘hey, this guy told me I couldn’t stand in the hallway.’ And she said, ‘WHAT? I’ll be right over.'”
Sharkey showed up after having scooped up a handful of other print reporters and a couple of television crews. “The Crimefighter came out, and he knew he couldn’t buffalo them,” says Dirck. “So he just went back in the room.”
During the early years of their marriage, Sharkey was continuing to produce powerful reporting. But as the Reagan era dawned, it was her role as feminist pathbreaker that was gaining the most attention. In 1981, she was sitting in the Secretary of State’s office after an election when an official of the Ohio Democratic Party, Pat Leahy, began to brag about beating Issue 2 and its proponent, Joan Lawrence (then head of the state League of Women Voters and now a state representative from Galena) and “her fat, ugly tits.” When Sharkey reported the comment (“I didn’t get the word tits in, but I think readers could tell what I meant,” she says), Leahy was fired, and Sharkey became something of an instant feminist poster girl.
“That was sort of a watershed for me,” Sharkey says. “I sort of once in a while feel like there is something to this diversity. There were six guys sitting around laughing. And it didn’t occur to any of them to report it.”
“She’s the one who said, ‘Now wait a minute: there’s this loudmouth with the Democratic Party, and nobody’s doing anything about it. I’m going to do something about it,'” recalls Gerry Austin, who cut his political teeth in George McGovern’s 1972 Ohio campaign and later ran campaigns for Dick Celeste, George Forbes and Jesse Jackson.
Curiously, she became a lightning rod for feminists even when she didn’t intend to. During the ’82 gubernatorial election, Sharkey arrived for an interview with Republican Clarence J. “Bud” Brown and was greeted with the suggestion that she “step into my parlor and take off your clothes.” Having grown up with plenty of verbal abuse from her brothers, she says, she never took it seriously and wrote it off as a grossly awkward attempt at humor by a normally buttoned-down man. She later mentioned it in passing to press colleagues, and a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter used it as a small item. “And Lord, it started from there,” recalls Dirck.
The New York Times picked up on it, which led a biting press release from the National Organization for Women, which prompted feminist picketing of Brown. The libertarian candidate seized on the remark, demanding an apology on behalf of women, and the Celeste campaign privately enjoyed the problems it was causing its rival. Brown later asked if he should apologize to Sharkey’s husband.
At the center of it all was Sharkey, the congenitally amiable Catholic girl with impeccable manners tempered by a bawdy sense of humor — highlighted by her endearing “horsey laugh,” as one friend puts it — who once again was thrust into the role of “feminist hero.” “Everyone assumes I’m going to come from this liberal-Democrat, feminist point of view,” she says today. In truth, she contends, she’s a feminist “when I need to be.”
In 1983, partly as a result of the attention from the controversy but also due to her warm conviviality with friend and foe alike, she was elected president of the Ohio Legislative Correspondents’ Association, the first woman so named in the group’s nearly 100 years of existence.
That same year, she was hired by the PD to join the paper’s Columbus bureau. Her days of real prominence were at hand. By one account, it was a 1981 series where she wrote about racial tensions at the Lucasville prison that got her noticed in Cleveland and later hired at the Plain Dealer.
Richard F Celeste, the 64th governor of Ohio, and Mary Anne Sharkey, then-Plain Dealer reporter and later Columbus bureau chief, began on friendly enough terms. Like many reporters who covered Celeste in his early years, Sharkey was filled with high expectations formed by the candidate’s own soaring campaign rhetoric as well as the fact that he was following eight years of antics by boorish Jim Rhodes. After that, much of the capital press pool was easy prey for the jarring contrast provided by the earnest Yalie governor with ethnic roots and an Oxford pedigree. The stage seemed set for a four-year run of Camelot By the Scioto. What developed followed quite another script.
Eventually the Celeste administration came under a steady and perhaps well-deserved working-over by the PD bureau. Sharkey’s tips, reporter Gary Webb’s bulldog tenacity and the PD’s willingness to print the results were turning up a Niagara of administration sleaze that cried out for coverage, especially considering the rest of the state’s papers were so timid about taking on a sitting governor. “Once people know you’ll go with that stuff, it becomes self-generating. It began coming in over the transom,” one reporter explains.
Sharkey readily concedes that the PD’s Columbus bureau under her direction didn’t cover the legislature very critically. She could hardly argue otherwise. It would be up to the Akron Beacon Journal to devote resources later in the decade to document Riffe’s questionable fundraising methods in its so-called “pay~for-play” series.
In the spring of 1987, after Democratic front-runner Gary Hart was forced to drop out of the presidential race because of his extramarital affairs, Sharkey turned her attention to the rumors about Celeste’s similar activities. She pulled the personnel files of two aides he was said to be sleeping with. Two other Columbus reporters were working on the story, but Sharkey had personal knowledge of Celeste’s peccadilloes with a woman she knew.
“We just thought it was incredible that Celeste would run for president when he had the same womanizing problem as Hart,” says Jim Underwood, at the time a Columbus-based reporter for the Horvitz newspapers, who later joined the PD.
In early June ’87, Underwood entered a Celeste press conference and sat between Sharkey and the Dayton Daily News‘ Tim Miller, who was also digging around the edges of the story. ” I just kind of grinned and said, ‘One of us is gonna have to ask the question.’ And we all knew what I was talking about,” says Underwood. Miller pulled out a dollar and challenged Underwood. Sharkey added a quarter. And Underwood got up, still clinging to the $1.25, and asked the question that would soon reverberate around the country. “Governor, is
there anything in your personal life that would preclude you from being president, as it has Gary Hart?” When Celeste surprised everyone, including his aides, by choosing outright denial
over dodge, Sharkey had a hook for her story. Media people would later say that Underwood held Celeste’s jaw while Sharkey slugged it.
In a copyrighted, front-page article on June 3 written by Mary Anne Sharkey and Brent Larkin, the PD reported that Celeste had been “romantically linked to at least three women” in the last decade, and called into question his credentials to be president. Says Larkin: “We knew it wouldn’t be ignored by the national media, coming on the heels of the Gary Hart incident.”
He was right. The Celeste story quickly became national news. And even though much of the coverage was harshly critical of the PD, the damage had nevertheless been done: Celeste never quite recovered his prior stature as a regional politician at the threshold of national prominence. (Celeste’s office didn’t return calls for comment.) And the legal saber-rattling of Stan Chesley — a well-connected Cincinnati personal-injury attorney and major Celeste donor who, former Celeste aides confirm, was aggressively encouraging the governor to file a libel suit — eventually sputtered out. Sharkey’s reputation received yet another high-octane boost.
Months after the Celeste story, the Plain Dealer promoted Sharkey to the deputy editorial page director, and Sharkey moved to Cleveland. Dirck, who had spent some time working at a Columbus television station after the Columbus Citizens Journal closed, eventually followed his wife 120 miles north to write a much-coveted column, sparking more than a little internal bitterness over the perceived two-for-one deal. Sharkey’s new position seemed an unlikely fit for many who knew her, given her interests and her well-known impatience with both the nonpolitical aspects of government and with sitting behind a desk. “I thought it was strange,” says her Dayton editor Bill Flanagan. “Well, I thought she was getting older and wanted something different. But it didn’t fit the Mary Anne that I knew.”
Nevertheless, she thrived. The page, significantly enlivened under her predecessor, continued to be relatively bold and unpredictable, at least for the traditionally cautious Plain Dealer. It took several brave stabs at the polarizing issue of abortion, an issue on which Sharkey shares Mario Cuomo’s position: She is personally opposed to it, though she refuses to impose her personal beliefs on the rest of society. It also denied Lee Fisher the paper’s endorsement in his initial run for Ohio Attorney General because of his embrace of the death penalty. Internally, Sharkey employed her people skills to defuse potential ideological conflict.
But her tenure on the editorial page will be best remembered for the paper’s endorsement of Mike White during the 1989 mayoral race. Sharkey persuaded publisher Tom Vail to ignore the near-unanimous pleas of Cleveland’s establishment on behalf of George Forbes, and instead anoint a smoothly articulate black state representative and former Cleveland city councilman from Glenville, whom Sharkey had observed with some admiration while in Columbus. “Vail, in his last days, tended to defer to Mary Ann’s good judgment,” recalls one editorial board member at the time. “She was the mover in it, and Vail largely blessed it.”
The insurgent White campaign, running third at the time behind both Forbes and Benny Bonnano, learned of the endorsement the day before it ran, and immediately understood its importance. “The Plain Dealer likes to take credit for shaping the course of the city,” says White’s ’89 campaign manager Eric Fingerhut, “and that’s a case where they did.”
But at the PD, where the saying goes “The closer you are to the top, the closer you are to the edge,” no one is ever surprised by frequent management shakeups. And Sharkey’s internal stock ebbed after Vail retired. Her legendary shouting matches, during the ’89 mayoral race, with editor (and Forbes partisan) Thom Greer didn’t help. Of her high-decibel confrontations with Greer, she says: “I knew I would be hurt by that, and I was.”
The shift from Vail’s moderate, Rockefeller-style, noblesse oblige brand of Republicanism to Machaskee’s harsher, in-your-face, Pat Buchanan style demanded a less-unpredictable editorial voice for the paper. So Sharkey was replaced on the editofial page by Brent Larkin, a lawyer and a former Cleveland Press political writer with a deeper knowledge of Cleveland and a far more pleasing posture toward management.
Sharkey was given what most of the world would consider an equally prominent assignment. She was made assistant Metro editor just as the paper began its expensive and oft-chronicled move to the suburbs with the opening of several exurban news bureaus. While she was now responsible for directing nearly 100 reporters, at least one colleague calls that position a form of “internal exile,” with only modest direct impact on the news product but lots of time spent overseeing budgets and making sure that slots were covered when copy editors called in sick — hardly her strength.
At about this same time, Sharkey was dealing with a series of personal setbacks that were disrupting her emotional equilibrium. As she and Dirck (who has a college-age daughter by a previous marriage) moved into their 40s, their efforts to adopt a child met with frustration. Once, an adoption was scotched at the last moment when the pregnant woman’s boyfriend called their attorney from the delivery room. They were set to adopt a second time, this time a biracial child, but that, too, fell apart at the last minute. By 1991 Dirck had a mild stroke, which put things off again, and by the time he recovered, the couple, then nearing their mid-40s, were informed they would have to abandon their adoption plans.
“What can I say?” Sharkey says, her eyes misting. “After awhile, you just say to yourself, ‘It’s not meant to be.’ Her brother Nick calls it “the tragedy of her life. She’s told me a million times that you can have a million [newspaper] clippings over in the corner, but giving life to a child…”
Sharkey eventually asked to be replaced in the Metro editor’s position, which seemed too much to handle with all the other noise going on in her life. “Metro editor was the most miserable job I ever had in my life. It had everything to do with management and nothing to do with news.” She learned that she was born to report and write, not oversee others. Hall immediately carved out her current “politics editor” role, which defies standard organizational-chart description. Meanwhile, her personal losses have continued. After losing one brother before she was born and then her mother to brain cancer in 1976, Sharkey’s father and another brother died last year. “Those losses have been finding their way into her writing,” her husband says. Earlier this year, for instance, she wrote an emotional column about her brother’s death, briefly confessing to her own spiritual shortcomings as she described the loving community that enveloped her brother with care in the final days of his life.
Despite all the tensions, Sharkey has been given considerable breathing space and wide latitude to roam at the PD. And her “feminist” accomplishments have continued. Sharkey’s most immediate project has been encouraging more management openings for women. She and an informal assortment of female editors and managers have been gathering over occasional lunches and dinners to discuss the issue. “Immediately people became threatened by it, like we were holding a civil rights rally,” she says. And women are increasingly being added to the paper’s management ranks (one female editor of 17 years, Marge Piscola, has recently been promoted to the new position of news editor, where she’s now centrally responsible for planning Page One; and nearly everyone in a position to judge thinks PD editor David Hall has a genuine commitment to addressing documented complaints about gender inequities.)
Sharkey herself sits in editorial planning meetings when her ambitious reporting schedule allows, and she still has a place on the paper’s executive council. She also has the ear of PDeditor David Hall, according to Hall himself.
“She has unique skills and insights that were especially important for me, coming into Ohio from outside the state to edit the state’s largest newspaper,” Hall says.