Monday, November 16, 2009

Building a New Ship, or Re-arranging the Deck Chairs?

Those who discounted the argument that the Issue 6 measure was at base about power and money should be a lot less certain today in the wake of the Plain Dealer’s call for a major shift in the public control of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority.

If Fox News is the communications arm of the Republican Party, our community’s daily has long played the increasingly transparent role of mouthpiece for the dominant corporate interests that have always controlled this region no matter which party has nominally controlled the reins of city and county government.

Cleveland has had only three mayors in the last sixty years who weren’t eager to do the bidding of the region’s economic oligarchy. In 1967 Carl Stokes came into office with a progressive and pro-active civil rights and economic agenda. He was supported by the business community not so much for its positive elements as for the expectation that he could keep the fuse from being lit on the stockpile of socio-economic dynamite created by a half-century of retrograde policies. Dennis Kucinich squeaked into office in 1977 on an anti-corporate agenda but had no plans and no ability to do anything, given that his administration was at war with the Establishment every day of his tenure.

The current mayor, Frank Jackson, runs an honest, prudent, and pragmatic administration, no mean achievement in a time of national and regional economic freefall. His lack of personal political ambition and greed means he can’t be bought off like so many of his predecessors who aspired either to higher political office or to personal wealth. So while he leads well by example, and works constructively behind the scenes, he has yet to field an effective voice to counter the growing assaults upon his domain.

Perhaps the crassness of the Plain Dealer’s call for Cleveland to cede two seats on the Port Authority board to what is likely to be a business-controlled county government will stir some emotion in our strong-willed but publicly dispassionate mayor. Some righteous indignation would be both good and justified.

Brent Larkin, whose PD columns should be set in faint type, italicized, and boxed to show their kinship to commercial speech, gratuitously slurs both current and former Port Authority trustees by suggesting they represent a “generally pathetic” crop of public appointees. The recent sudden departure of the port’s chief executive, Adam Wasserman, has provided a convenient excuse to set up this latest power grab. His board-requested resignation is wholly unrelated to a discussion about how board members are selected.

A majority of the current board had no role in Wasserman’s hiring. The Nov. 10 PD editorial suggestion that current directors owe their selections largely to their political clout is ludicrous. The disdain for their expertise is rooted perhaps more in the fact that three of them are African American and one is Hispanic. Collectively, these four have less political clout than the weakest city councilman. All were appointed by Jackson, though the Port’s chair, Steven J. Williams, was originally appointed in 2002 by Jane Campbell, Jackson’s predecessor. It seems that their main shortcoming in the Plain Dealer’s eyes is that they are NOT inside players in the region’s shadow government.

Cleveland enjoyed phenomenal growth from mid-nineteenth century commercial town to world-class industrial behemoth during the roughly hundred-year period ending around 1950. This growth was largely built on the backs of immigrants, initially from central and southern Europe and later from the black farmlands of Alabama and Georgia. The social and infrastructure strains these newcomers placed on the city were manageable in an era of nearly unbridled growth. Congestion, pollution, and other public challenges could be and were personally resolved for industry leaders by relocation to newly minted suburbs.

Direct control of city government was relinquished by the city’s industrial captains as a consequence of the suburban migration, and replaced by informal methods devised to protect commercial and class interests.

Meanwhile, first white and then black ethnics, each in turn fearing loss of hard-fought political clout, rebuffed repeated attempts by good-government types to reform county government. Excepting the goo-goo types, nobody seemed much disturbed by the culture of corruption and inefficiency that infested county government, going back decades before mid-20th century party boss Albert Porter and extending forth decades to the present era. Winner-take-all, zero-sum game politics has been the name of our political game.

This didn’t seem to matter much fifty years ago. Hey, we had world-class institutions! We had more Fortune 500 companies than anywhere outside of New York or Chicago. We had the world-class Cleveland Browns! We had the Cleveland Indians, better than any team not the Yankees! We were the greatest location in the nation!!!

Anybody check the standings lately?

The fading of the industrial age, a transition to service- and knowledge-based economies, urban sprawl, and globalization, finally combined to force a renewed focus on the consequences of our inefficient and corrupt ways of doing public business. Unfortunately, we didn’t police ourselves but needed federal prosecutors to do it for us.

Embedded in the new county charter are mechanisms for the old forces to control valuable public resources in the name of economic development that never seems to trickle down in ways useful to those at the very broad bottom of our community. It is now incumbent on those who insisted that a new charter was about efficiency and progress to ensure that they are not out-maneuvered by those for whom Issue 6 was always about money and power.

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