Election night was sweet for Frank Jackson: Voters re-elected him mayor of Cleveland and cleared the way for a casino, hoping to deliver an economic jackpot for his financially strapped city.
But voters also handed Jackson – and all the Cleveland mayors who will come after – a political test.
Come 2011, the mayor of Cleveland may no longer be the most powerful elected official in Northeast Ohio. That job is likely to pass to the Cuyahoga County executive, a position created by Issue 6, the charter measure that voters overwhelmingly approved last week to reform county government.
Jackson, as mayor, will still represent a shrinking city of about 430,000. He’ll still be responsible for balancing the city’s budget, making sure the streets are plowed and planning Cleveland’s future.
But he’ll have to do it alongside a county executive who represents three times the population – 1.3 million people, including the mayor’s own constituents. Some say the number of people the executive represents would make that person the most powerful single elected official in the state other than the governor.
How will the relationship between the mayor and county executive work?
“There’s intense speculation on who is going to be the spokesman for the region,” said economist Edward “Ned” Hill, dean of the urban-affairs college at Cleveland State University.
That could shift over time, depending on who holds the mayor and county executive jobs, he said, and it may come down to who can get things done.
Jackson – who steadfastly opposed Issue 6 – declined to comment for this story. It will be almost another year before the county executive is chosen. Political insiders already are jockeying to see what names get on the ballot.
Whoever wins will end up tethered to Jackson in a sort of three-legged race. They don’t have a choice. Each needs the other to better the county and the city. It’s up to them to make it work.
“The recognition of that symbiosis is pivotal,” said David Abbott, executive director of the George Gund Foundation and a former county administrator.
The county executive, for example, needs to work with the mayor to accomplish large-scale projects that affect the region, like Gateway and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Abbott said.
And the mayor needs to work with the executive to receive tens of millions of local, state and federal dollars that support the city’s budget and social services, he said.
Despite Jackson’s opposition to Issue 6, many believe the mayor will work with the county executive because that’s what voters want, said Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc. and a former Cleveland planning director. Both he and Abbott have been mentioned as possibilities for the county executive slot.
But a future mayor may not cooperate with a county executive.
“Instead of a three-legged race, it could look more like two scorpions in a bottle,” CSU’s Hill said.
Allegheny County, Pittsburgh battle it out
Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, switched to a county executive form of government in 2000. And for the first time since the Great Depression, the blue-collar Pennsylvania county elected a Republican to a countywide position.
Voters picked James C. Roddey, a local businessman, to serve as their county executive.
It was awkward at first, Roddey recalled during a phone interview. “Did the Pittsburgh mayor know I had more power than he did? Probably . . . but he didn’t really accept that.”
The two didn’t get along, but it didn’t matter early on, said Joseph Sabino Mistick, a law professor at Duquesne University and a Pittsburgh political columnist. Because Roddey was a Republican, “he had no allegiance to city leadership” and could go about reforms, said Mistick, a Democrat.
Roddey said he launched the first property reassessments in 30 years and slashed the county work force from 7,000 to 5,500, turning a $36 million budget deficit into a $4 million surplus within four years.
Roddey said he lost his bid for a second term because of voter anger over higher property taxes. He maintains his time in office set the region on the right course.
Since then, Mistick said, everyone has recognized that the real power lies with the county executive.
The Pittsburgh area – which had no clout – now commands power that puts it in the same league as Philadelphia.
“And that’s good for us because we’re able to demand attention,” Mistick said.
Meanwhile, tensions between subsequent county executives and Pittsburgh mayors have emerged.
“It’s fair to say our current mayor and executive started off on better terms than previous,” Mistick said. “But a multitude of little turf battles have had a cumulative effect. While they publicly still support each other, they are estranged.”
Summit, Akron working together
Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic has spent 30 years working with Summit County executives and said he’s gotten along with most of them.
Sometimes the city/county partnership hasn’t worked – about 15 years ago, the county executive was so tied up with a self-interested County Council that he didn’t have time for the city, Plusquellic said.
But other times that partnership has made all the difference, such as when the city and county recently paired up to save 3,100 jobs at Goodyear.
Plusquellic said that when he heard the jobs were in jeopardy, he called Summit County Executive Russ Pry. Although the jobs were in Akron, Plusquellic printed out a list of home addresses showing hundreds of people in surrounding suburbs who would lose their work.
The county and the city united and saved the jobs.
The outspoken mayor, who has carved out a national reputation for innovative accomplishments, urged politicians in Cuyahoga County to put away their pettiness. He said it’s been holding back Cleveland, Akron and the region for too long. “I don’t think anybody should be looking down their noses at anyone who wants to bring progress,” he said.
“If you have someone in office who cares more about someone overshadowing him than moving forward or someone who complains about ‘that darn county executive bringing in 10,000 jobs and then taking credit’ … well, that’s a pretty sick person,” Plusquellic said. “Stop the jealousy. Stop the greed. I don’t care which side of the river you’re on up there, you have to get past this.”
News researcher Tonya Sams contributed to this report.