How Cuyahoga County Reform Effort Turned Into Political Turmoil Plain Dealer/NEOMG September 13, 2009


The threats started in May, soon after State Sen. Nina Turner publicly voiced support for Cuyahoga County reform.

Several operatives for Cleveland’s most powerful black Democrats – many of whom Turner had looked up to – telephoned the young black Democrat with this dire warning: They would ruin her if she didn’t reconsider, Turner said.

How dare she break ranks with black leaders, they admonished, according to Turner.

The Call & Post – a weekly newspaper aimed at the region’s black community – followed with an editorial against “white-led” reform. It labeled Turner the “lone black who is carrying the water for white folks.”

The battle to overhaul county government is ugly.

Political maneuvering, underhanded dealings and other shenanigans have fractured Cuyahoga County’s mighty Democratic Party, which for generations has controlled the county government’s $1.3 billion annual budget and 9,000 employees.

It has splintered along lines of race, organized labor and groups loyal to different party leaders. But the breaks aren’t clean. While many of the area’s older black leaders want to further study reform, others – particularly younger black professionals – have started lining up with Turner, who wants a county-executive form of government now.

The discord comes at a tough time for the party. A wide-ranging public-corruption investigation into county government threatens to upend the highest levels of its leadership, including County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.

Dimora, who hasn’t been charged, chaired the party for 15 years and wielded enormous power, in part because he held together competing factions at war now.

But Dimora has stepped aside. And several people have pleaded guilty to contract steering and bribery in what federal prosecutors have described as a kickback-funded political machine that exists to provide the high life to elected leaders and their supporters.

Now, voters in November must sort through competing ballot issues to reform county government and competing slates of candidates who want to control whatever change might come.

How did we get here?

In February, Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti slipped into a seat at the Hanna Deli on East 14th Street for his first meeting on county reform. Although he was sitting in the shadow of the PlayhouseSquare theaters, Zanotti could never have anticipated the drama about to unfold.

Zanotti – who chairs the Northeast Ohio Mayors and City Managers Association – is a lifelong Democrat but rarely active in the county party machine.

Some never trusted Zanotti because his brother, David, founded the Ohio Roundtable, a conservative think tank. Others, including Dimora, turned against Zanotti in 2008 after the mayor backed a Republican in the race for county commissioner.

Few politicos were surprised by Zanotti’s reform effort. He has worked on various government reform efforts since at least 2004.

Nevertheless, Zanotti knew he had to win over the party faithful – particularly black leaders – if county reform had a chance of happening. Zanotti said he purposely scheduled his first meeting with Arnold Pinkney, the shrewd, 78-year-old political operative who has turned out Cleveland’s black vote for decades.

Black voters in the county, historically, have opposed government reform because they fear it could steal power they fought generations to gain. Even now, Cuyahoga, which is about 30 percent black, has only two black nonjudicial countywide officeholders – Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones and Recorder Lillian Greene. And each was elected only after first being appointed.

Zanotti wanted Pinkney to help break through the fear. As Zanotti tells it, he told Pinkney that reform must move forward but that it couldn’t if the change was seen as racially divisive.

“I told him we needed equity for all. There’s no need for this to be racial,” Zanotti said.

He explained to Pinkney that he and some other suburban mayors were forming a group to come up with a plan. He asked Pinkney to act as a sounding board for the black community and as a catalyst to bring its leadership to the table.

When Zanotti left the deli, he was hopeful. He said Pinkney agreed to help the plan’s supporters make the needed inroads.

Pinkney, however, remembers the meeting differently. He said he never agreed to help bring black leaders into the process, and told Zanotti to reach out to officials in the black community, including Cleveland’s mayor.

From the start, Jackson refused to meet with Zanotti’s group. Jackson has long worried about how government reform – particularly regionalism – might affect the black community. About six years ago, when he was Cleveland City Council president, Jackson asked a group of CEOs from some of the largest black-owned businesses in the area to study how regionalism might affect blacks.

The group, called the Presidents” Council, came back in 2006 with a 303-page report that acknowledged the fear of change among blacks. But the report suggested black voters might embrace regionalism if it improved everything from health care and education to taxes and transportation.

This year, as Jackson declined to join reform discussions, he often brought up issues raised in the Presidents” Council document.

Essentially, Jackson believes reformers have put the cart before the horse. He wants them to first decide what they want to accomplish – an overhaul of health care, for example, since both the city and the county have facilities – and then design a government structure to attain the goal.

Instead, Jackson said, reformers decided to first streamline government, by consolidating power in a county executive.

“What I’m talking about is a systemic change,” Jackson said recently. “If you just consolidate power, all you’ll have is a more efficient way of doing the same thing over and over.”

Citing the same reason, Jackson in February also declined to meet with another group of reformers. County Prosecutor Bill Mason – a Democrat – and Ed Crawford – a Republican businessman – led this group.

Many political insiders were stunned by this pairing, and even that Mason was involved in reform at all.

The Parma native is an insider’s insider in the county Democratic Party. Why would he want to change a government he helped foster?

Mason has a simple answer – to save a dying region. Doubters suspect otherwise.

As the FBI snoops through the homes and offices of Cuyahoga County Democrats looking for corruption, the doubters say Mason may want to shed his party insider image and rebrand himself a reformer who crosses party lines.

Mason and Crawford met about eight years ago and became friends. They launched their movement around the same time as Zanotti by inviting a mix of local labor leaders, Democrats and wealthy Republican fund-raisers like insurance magnate Umberto Fedeli and medical equipment manufacturing tycoon Mal Mixon.

Mason, like Zanotti, recognized the importance of including black voices in the process and invited Pinkney and other black leaders.

As March began, it became clear black leadership wasn’t interested in either reform effort. And worse, many Democrats opposed to change scoffed at the reformers” ideas.

Fearing the competing efforts could stall reform, Mason and Zanotti joined forces in early April. The alliance surprised some Democrats who fretted reform was gaining momentum. Then organized labor, one of Mason’s most dependable allies, fired a warning shot.

Harriet Applegate – director of the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor – sent a memo to supporters, encouraging them to call both the state Democratic chairman and Gov. Ted Strickland to complain about Mason, who wanted Ohio’s secretary of state job.

The memo included a half-dozen points, including Mason involving Republicans in reform and the possible elimination of “elected offices in a county which is the largest and most solidly Democratic Party in Ohio.”

Applegate recently explained her memo: “Here is this guy who is supposed to be [labor’s] friend, and he has been talking to a Republican for months and not talking to me.”

Mason did talk to some labor leaders, but Applegate said she represents labor as an institution and should have been approached.

There were other feelings hurt in early April. After The Plain Dealer reported Zanotti’s disappointment over the lack of black leaders discussing reform, Recorder Greene complained to the newspaper about Zanotti: “You haven’t talked to me, so don’t represent that you have reached out to black leaders.”

Zanotti said that around this time, he met with Pinkney for a second and last time and again left convinced that Pinkney was reaching out to black leaders on the reformers” behalf.

Pinkney again said that Zanotti misunderstood. Some sort of reform is needed, Pinkney said, but he never agreed to help Zanotti. “I couldn’t participate in a plan put together by a small group of people that didn’t include African-Americans, Hispanics, the clergy,” Pinkney said recently.

Members of the reform group were worried. They had met for nearly two months without input from the black community. Several had even sidestepped Pinkney and invited Rep. Marcia Fudge and senior black leaders to join them. None had shown up.

Finally, they reached out to the younger generation and invited Nina Turner, who represents Ohio’s 25th Senate District and is a history professor at Cuyahoga Community College. Turner, viewed as a rising star in the party, joined in with new ideas.

As April passed, there was a sense that the reform movement had traction. With the Mason and Zanotti forces joined, the reformers had party insiders and outsiders, some Republicans with money to back a campaign and, more than anything, one voice and a single, evolving plan.

Then, a political grenade landed.

On May 4, Fudge called a news conference outside the county Administration Building.

She insinuated that the reformers had met in secret without inviting black leaders. “We want it to be transparent, inclusive, and we want all the stakeholders at the table,” Fudge said. Among those at her side were Jackson and Pinkney.

It was a troublesome moment for the reformers.

“I was shocked,” Zanotti said.

Fudge and Jackson – because of the jobs they hold – are considered the county’s main black leaders, and many black Democrats follow their lead.

The reformers again invited Fudge and Jackson. This time Fudge agreed to meet with the Mason-Zanotti group and bring others with her, including Greene and union leader Applegate.

Reform group members thought Fudge’s involvement was a needed breakthrough even though it has never been clear whether Fudge – who declined to comment for this story and others on reform – ever embraced the idea of changing government. Greene, a reluctant participant, said she and Fudge hoped to find common ground with the reformers.

The Mason-Zanotti group had intentionally left two parts of its proposed charter unfinished. Members said they knew the structure of government and a statement of principles about reform would be hotly debated, so they stalled on those points until more black leaders joined in.

By now it was May, and reformers not only had to hammer out the charter – the document laying out how a new government would work – but they also needed to gather more than 40,000 signatures of registered voters within two months to get reform on the November ballot.

Fudge chaired the first meeting she attended on May 18. After everyone introduced themselves, several said why county structure should be changed.

Greene was soon skeptical, particularly about any reform that could give voice to Republicans.

“As I listened to them expound on the subject, I asked, is this really about government reform or about political reform, because the structure of government should not be changed to give inroad to one party or another,” Greene wrote in a recent e-mail.

Fudge reiterated Jackson’s concern: The group needed to discuss underlying social issues like poverty and education and not just focus on structure.

The group divided in two – one to work on a statement of principles and the other on the structure of government. Both groups included black leaders.

For the principles, the group referred to the President’s Council report that Jackson had commissioned while council president.

Members zeroed in on economic development and equity.

“To ensure a sustainable future, county government must ensure that all communities and the full diversity of its people have mutual voice in the management and distribution of and equitable benefit from county resources,” part of the three pages of principles read.

The structure group debated which elected positions should be wiped away. Some, including Mason, wanted to maintain several elected offices. They argued that black voters might embrace reform if they had offices to run for.

Others wanted to erase them all, or keep only the prosecutor, an idea that prompted Greene – who would lose her job as recorder under that structure – to ask why Mason would retain his job.

Greene and Fudge also questioned the 11 proposed districts for a county council.

Reformers said the districts were designed so that four of them had a solid majority of black voters to assure that black leaders would be in county government.

Bob Dykes, a white Rocky River pollster, had drawn up the districts. In late May, after Fudge and Greene raised concerns, he sent his maps to Larry Brisker, a black Beachwood pollster, who “ballparked” the numbers and said they looked good.

“I talked to Greene and shared my opinions with her,” Brisker said recently. “She let me know those ballpark figures were not of interest to her. Not because they were ballpark, but because she didn’t seem interested in any information.”

Both reform sub-groups met several times. They came back together June 1 for a meeting that Fudge briefly chaired before excusing herself, saying she was needed in Washington, D.C. She said her schedule would probably prevent her from attending more meetings.

After Fudge left, the group went around the room and each person expressed his or her views on the final plan. When it was Greene’s turn, she said the plan would be bad for black people.

There were no guarantees any blacks would be elected, despite black majority districts. “Why would the black community go backward when never before in the more than 200-year history of the county have we had two countywide elected officials!” Greene recounted in an e-mail to The Plain Dealer, referring to herself and Peter Lawson Jones.

Greene also said recently she opposed reform because the structure was a “done deal prior to my becoming involved. The group wanted a sign-off on what they had already decided . . . not to continue debate.”

And finally, Greene said she told the reform group a story about an older black woman who had recently approached her. The woman asked Greene who she was and when Greene told her, the woman told Greene how proud she was of her being in office.

“That was the final piece that solidified my position on this “reform,” ” Greene said.

Greene left the meeting after she spoke. Several there that day said they were stunned and described Greene’s departure as angry and unexpected. That night, at least two members of the reform group – attorney Steve Kaufman and Turner – reached out to her, Greene said.

Greene said she declined when Kaufman asked her to come back to the group. Turner left a message asking if Greene was all right.

“I returned the call with a “what do you mean, am I all right?” ” Greene said. “I am just fine.”

Still, many in the group believed Fudge, Applegate and other newcomers were on board.

The next day, about 10 people who had been working on reform gathered at Parma Heights City Hall for a final marathon. They spent nine hours going over the charter line by line, hashing out final details.

When it was over, Applegate said she hadn’t expected to like the people in the Mason-Zanotti group and was surprised that she did, according to several in attendance.

On June 4, the union leader sent an e-mail to Zanotti, asking for his reaction to an attached news release she planned to send out the next day.

“The process ended up inclusive and great progress was made in arriving at consensus,” the release said. “The result is a proposal that addresses the concerns raised by critics over the years as well as the current need for better facilitation of economic development.”

Zanotti and others were thrilled. What could have fallen apart in bitter divisiveness appeared to be roaring forward with unity.

But then everything changed.

Applegate never issued the release.

“She did a complete 180 on us,” Zanotti said recently.

On June 10, local AFL-CIO leadership voted to oppose reform.

Applegate later called to explain, Zanotti said. “She basically said the unions were concerned about protecting their friends – Jimmy [Commissioner Dimora] and Frank [Auditor Russo] – and the other elected officials.”

Applegate said recently that it took some distance from the group to realize that the reform plan was wrong.

“We met people so involved, so committed, so passionate about their project that it was hard to say no to them,” she said.

Within days of Applegate’s change of heart, the Call & Post reported that Fudge also opposed changing the structure of county government.

That’s also about the time when the weekly paper ran the editorial saying that Nina Turner was “carrying water for white folks.” And the Cleveland NAACP passed a resolution opposing the plan.

It was a buzz kill for the reformers, and some started to wonder whether they could gather the needed signatures to put reform on the ballot.

If they were going to make it, they needed more money. By June 16, the group had raised about $20,000. It needed at least $100,000.

“Meaningful reform is needed if we are to compete in a rapidly changing world,” former Shaker Heights Mayor Judy Rawson wrote in an e-mail to community leaders, asking them to kick in $500 to $1,000. “The county and city, acting together, could do so much more to chart a strong, collaborative vision for our future. The time for reform is NOW.”

Within two weeks, the group had its money. Most, $100,000, came from the Greater Cleveland Partnership, a regional chamber of commerce.

Commissioner Jones, who opposes the Mason-Zanotti reform, conceded at the time that the business community’s support would help get reform onto the fall ballot. But Jones had a plan of his own.

On July 9, he announced that he and Commissioner Tim Hagan would put something on the ballot to compete with the Mason-Zanotti plan, which they considered rushed and parochial.

Unlike the Mason-Zanotti group, commissioners needn’t worry about gathering signatures. They have the authority to put issues on the ballot.

On July 10, the Mason-Zanotti group submitted nearly twice the number of signatures needed to the Board of Elections to make the ballot.

Six days later, Jones and Hagan voted their countermeasure on the ballot as well. Instead of putting forward a specific plan, the commissioners asked voters to create a 15-member charter review commission that would study reform – again.

More than a decade ago, a similar process was launched after a 1995 task force recommended wholesale restructuring of government. But commissioners at the time – including Hagan – refused to put the reform recommendation on the ballot. Hagan said there was no support for it.

Backers of the Mason-Zanotti group suspect the same thing will happen now if voters pass the Jones-Hagan plan. But Jones said that’s impossible because charter commission members would be elected. The Ohio Constitution requires that any proposal made by an elected panel gets on a ballot.

On Aug. 8, a first slate of 15 candidates running for the charter commission was announced. Applegate heads the group.

On Aug. 11, a second slate of candidates emerged, led by Tom Kelly, a Lakewood Democrat and radio host. Kelly’s group supports the Mason-Zanotti plan, but its members say they are running in case it is defeated.

It’s unclear what will happen if voters in November approve both the Mason-Zanotti reform and the Jones-Hagan study.

Regardless, the split in the party appears to be deepening. Even now, four months later, Turner declines to name who threatened her with an “anti-Nina campaign.”

“I don’t think that will help the situation,” said Turner, who is one of at least seven black co-chairs of the Mason-Zanotti reform push.

Only one is an elected official – Shaker Heights Councilman Earl Williams, a lawyer for the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. The rest are professionals, including April Miller Boise, the partner in charge of the Cleveland Thompson Hine law office.

Eddie Taylor, chairman of the Presidents” Council – the group that analyzed regionalism for Mayor Jackson a few years ago – hinted recently that his organization may take a stand on county reform.

“We don’t usually engage in political discourse, but if there is an opportunity to support economic development in a meaningful way . . . we might be compelled to support some notion that utilizes this reform plan for those purposes,” Taylor said.

Turner, meanwhile, said those who threatened her should know that she appreciates the struggles of those who came before her.

“I’m very much cognizant of that, but we are in the 21st century and we must find a different way to communicate,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist.”

Turner rejects arguments that the plan excludes blacks or was rushed. And if it is the FBI corruption probe that ultimately draws voter interest, so be it, she said.

“We have a region that is dying,” she said. “If this was the impetus that makes us come together to change the trajectory of the county, then by God, we have to do that.”

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4814

BOX 1:

Cuyahoga County reform: How we got the story

Shortly after Plain Dealer reporter Amanda Garrett began reporting on the politics of Cuyahoga County reform, it became clear that many of those involved in the process had shifted position over time.

She set about constructing a timeline that looked at the political evolution of the plan, and the opposition to it.

Much of the plan evolved in closed-door meetings. Garrett relied on recollections, notes and e-mails of more than two dozen supporters and opponents to re-create what happened.

Many of those not identified in the story spoke on condition that their names not be used. All events described are based on multiple sources.

BOX 2:

Cuyahoga County reform issues on the November ballot

Cuyahoga County voters in November can choose between two reform issues, or vote for both:

Issue 6: This is what the group led by Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti and County Prosecutor William Mason came up with. It eliminates the three county commissioners and all nonjudicial elected offices except for the prosecutor and treasurer. Running the county would be an elected county executive and 11-member council. Structure would work much like a mayoral form of government. Supporters say a county executive will bring accountability to government and spur economic development.

Issue 5: Cuyahoga County Commissioners Peter Lawson Jones and Tim Hagan support an alternative to reform. It’s not a different plan but would create a 15-member commission to further study the idea and come up with a proposed charter. The campaign is led by a heavily Democratic, labor-leaning slate. There is a complication. A bipartisan, largely Republican group calling itself the Citizens Reform Association is running its own slate of candidates to sit on the charter commission, if voters create one. This group supports the Mason-Zanotti reform, but if voters don’t pass it, this slate of candidates wants to join in the debate over an alternative.

BOX 3:

Harriet Applegate’s news release on Cuyahoga County reform plan that was never issued

The following is a news release on the Cuyahoga County reform plan that labor leader Harriet Applegate said she would put out on June 5. It was never issued:

The county reform proposal being released today represents good progress in the hammering out of a consensus document. Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the North Shore AFL-CIO, was invited by Congresswoman Marcia Fudge to join the ongoing conversation about reform and the working committee was very welcoming of new input. The process ended up inclusive and great progress was made in arriving at consensus. The result is a proposal that addresses the concerns raised by critics over the years as well as the current need for better facilitation of economic development.

“It is important to have the kind of reform that our county needs. Equally important are the issues of timing, coalitions and respect for where people are coming from,” she added. “That is why a united front of leaders is so important. All major sectors of the county, including the business community and key African-American leaders along with labor need to be supportive in order for this to pass. Passing such sweeping change will be challenging so it is critical that leaders work in tandem to educate their people about what is in this proposal and why it is needed,” she said.

Many feel that if you don’t like the way things are, you vote in people who will change things, but what this approach does not take into consideration is how much more county government could do. The argument to dramatically alter our system of government is fundamentally an economic one. “We need to increase opportunity and bring jobs to our county,” she added, “and one good way to facilitate that is to have policy, people and a plan in place to aggressively go out and seek jobs and investment. That’s what this proposal does.”


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