Friday, June 04, 2010

Party Chair a Done Deal

Last night’s meeting in Shaker Heights of assorted eastside Democratic clubs and affinity-based caucuses was designed to ratify the selection by county party brass of Stuart Garson as the next chairman and to offer him a platform to articulate his vision of the future of the party. Mission Accomplished. Mostly.

Stuart Garson will be elected chairman of the party when the newly elected precinct leaders convene as the party’s 800-plus central committee on June 16 at John Carroll University. The party’s new crew chief brings an old-fashioned roll up your sleeves and outwork the other fella attitude to the task of electing Democrats and defeating Republicans. He projects a rough-and-tumble attitude that may be borne of his workers’ comp practice.

Garson will bring a strong array of assets to the party, the most obvious being his strong rapport with soon-to-be senior Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Congresswoman Marcia Fudge. Gov. Strickland is very much on board with Garson’s designation, as his spokesperson Anne Hill said at last night’s meeting. Garson’s manner exuded self-confidence without suggesting arrogance, and a glimpse of his sense of humor occasionally broke free of his straight-ahead approach.

Last night Garson offered his view of the party. He said there would be a zero-tolerance policy for self-dealing by party leaders. He wants to find, recruit, elect and support the best Democratic candidates for public office.

Garson deplored the stagnant vista from his 16th floor Rockefeller Building office, which he said for 21 years has offered up only surface parking lots on the Public Square. He sees this as representative of a collective community failure to create opportunities for young people in this region. Acknowledging that he has reached the stage of life where he is planting trees under whose shade he will never sit, he acknowledged a personal resonance to the city’s decline: all three of his daughters have moved so far away that he can see them only by flying cross-country. He decried the cost of this brain drain, observing the investment Clevelanders make in raising and educating our young who then spend their productive energies building other communities.

The analysis, both heartfelt and keen, did not mask the new leader’s potential problems with the “vision thing”. He seems not to appreciate the “soft skills” of communication and cultural sensitivity that make for successful people management in today’s complex society. He seems more a Woody Hayes disciple of the “three yards and a cloud of dust” football approach than to the fluid, evolving triangle offense of basketball’s Phil Jackson. Thus, he wants to defer party reform until some future day, without giving much thought to how the top-down, behind closed methodology contributed to the atmosphere in which malfeasance thrived. During the Q & A that followed his prepared remarks, he suggested without a shred of hubris that the party’s image had changed, because he was now heir apparent.

Voters, along with many rank-and-file, will more likely demand a transplant in operations instead of a makeover before agreeing to renew a courtship that ended in betrayal.

• • •

Mark Griffin made a concise and eloquent plea for the party to take responsibility for its past mistakes and to take ownership of its future by committing to achieving excellence in all endeavors. He played a difficult hand throughout the process with grace and intelligence and loyalty. What place if any Garson finds for the younger and energetic Griffin will send a clear signal about the substance and style of the Garson administration.

• • •

Michael Jackson, president of the Shaker Heights Dems, did a fine job of running the meeting on a timed agenda. He also deserves kudos for his quiet suggestion to Garson at meeting’s close that the party rank and file want reform and that if Garson seeks to extract a commitment from them to work hard through November, he should offer a reciprocal formal commitment to serious reform.

• • •

One of the brightest lights on the local Democratic landscape this past year has been Michael Ruff’s work with local political parties all across the county. Ruff was director of regional field operations for the Cuyahoga region for the state party. Party executive director Doug Kelly seems to have grossly under-appreciated Ruff’s effectiveness in healing much intra-party discord and tamping down simmering turf battles by reminding folks to keep their eyes on the greater good.

Terri Hamilton Brown wasted no time in outracing the competition for Ruff’s services. He debuted as her campaign manager this past Monday. His countywide contacts are sure to be an important boost to Brown’s field operations.

The kickoff itself was a successful affair, as more than 125 people walked through the door at Massima de Milano’s on West 25 Street, many with checks in hand. Brown, who has never run for political office, has assembled a top-drawer political team that has Burges & Burges for political strategy and the veteran Tom Andrzejewski as media adviser and spokesman.

• • •

A tidbit for the loyal reader who has continued to the end:

Shaker mayor Earl Leiken introduced Garson last night and said that Garson had never run for office. Not exactly. Garson was on the countywide ballot only last November. He came in 28th of 29 candidates for one of 15 seats on the charter review commission. Issue 5 did not win passage and thus the commission was not established.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Psst: Wanna Be Party Chair?

Local Democrats have operated for the last 40+ years with a focus on
1970s issues, a 1950s outlook, and a 1930s ideology. The party leadership
has been provincial, ham-handed, and shortsighted. Conceited but
lacking in self-respect or ambition, they have been content to win
electoral victories based on overwhelming numerical advantage.
Essentially they claimed success that was due largely to demographics.
Since their professional horizons stopped at the county line, it
didn’t occur to them to grow or consolidate their enormous potential political power statewide. Had not their leaders run into legal trouble and public disgrace, there is no telling how long the party’s sorry state would have continued.

A changing of the guard is now underway in the Cuyahoga Democratic
Party, driven by that external force known as a U.S. prosecutor. The
federal investigation appears focused on the public misfeasance of
elected officials, but the public is right to make no distinction
between a party chief and a public official. Both are positions of
public trust. In fact, the public officials known as precinct
committee persons elect the party chiefs in Ohio. Leading Democrats
have finally come to grips with the fact that the head of the party
should not simultaneously be an elected official.

So who will be the new party chair? It’s a pretty thankless job,
apparently, because no one is seeking it openly. The job pays zero if
you are honest. No salaries, no perks. Just thousands of demands from
people who want jobs, favors, endorsements, assistance, advice,
direction, encouragement. You have to raise your budget while enduring slurs, assaults, and subversion, usually but not always coming from the other side. You are kind of like the Daddy of a humongous family with
legions of always hungry and perpetually ill behaved children. Your job is to organize this crew around noble political objectives and win victories that make your community a better place to live. Good luck with that!

So who are the candidates? Well in this corner is a brilliant labor
lawyer who fights by any ethical means necessary to achieve justice
for his injured clients. He’s wealthy and he’s earned it. His friends
see him as compassionate. He raises money for political causes and he
donates money to a variety of candidates, some even outside his party
who hold views contrary to his own. He doesn’t suffer foolishness, which means he has little patience for retail politics. He’s sixty but looks older. You wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t kiss his own grandchildren. Don’t expect him to be patient with questions from the party faithful, who may work 12 hours at the polls in November rain. Nuance is not his thing.

In the other corner is another brilliant trial lawyer. He’s expert in election law, has a passion for public policy, is open and refreshing,and is so transparently candid in a 21st century kind of way that in the smoky atmosphere of county politics people can’t figure out that he too says what he means. He’s 46, looks younger and probably rolls in the grass with his kids. He comes from a family of respected and honored public servants; his father and grandfather served roughly half a century between them as county trial judges. He was honored with fellow team members as Ohio Democrat of 2009.

The choice only seems clear. The candidate first described — Stuart Garson — doesn’t want the job but is willing to serve because party leaders have importuned him. He knows strong leadership is needed to avoid disaster in this fall’s elections. He wants to put any talk of openness and transparency and reform and communication and party reorganization aside until after the next election cycle or two. His will be a top-down, command and control administration. That’s the way it’s always been in the Party, so why change? Get busy and grind out victories at the polls.

The second candidate — Mark Griffin — wants the job but won't exactly say so, because he is willing to stand aside because if senior party leaders actually have command of their troops, it would be detrimental to the party to have a division over party leadership. His manner and style would clearly be effective in helping the party distance itself from its scandal-ridden image. And he is clearly more appealing to the scores of newly-elected and energetic precinct committee people, but they have yet to be
consulted, courted, or even welcomed into the leadership in any coherent, healthy or affirming manner. And, without a champion to lead them, they may not be organized in time to have any impact before the party chair vote looming on June 16.

Tonight, both the reluctant candidate and the reticent non-candidate
are expected to be at what promises to be a lively evening at the
Stephanie Tubbs Jones Community Building, 3450 Lee Road in Shaker Heights. The fun will start at 7pm. Come early for a ringside seat. Expect jabs, some crosses, perhaps a few uppercuts, and certainly a few haymakers. But be prepared to duck, because most punches are likely to be thrown from the audience.