Monday, October 5, 2009

A moral compass won't lead you to Cleveland

AFTER PLEADING guilty to bribery last week, Santina Klimkowski, an upper-tier bureaucrat in Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo's office, told the Plain Dealer that her "moral compass" had failed her. That should explain everything.

There seem to be a lot of failed compasses going around in Cleveland these days as corrupt public employes and their enablers literally have been lining up to take a number to appear before the crowded court. There are enough people who have been either charged or convicted on the public payroll that a single indictment against the entire political culture would seem to be a modest beginning in cleaning up the mess.

Instead, there will be a couple of "reform" measures on the November ballot to change the structure of county government to make it more responsible for an honest day's work for a day's pay. But even those two issues bear the trademark of the city-county's eternal rivalries. One issue, supported by the mayor and county commissioners, is confusing enough in its wording that calls for a charter review commission to study the issue even more. In effect, it would give everybody on the cusp more time to find a good lawyer. The other ballot issue is supported by the "reformers" who figure you've got to start somewhere.

Taken together, the two measures represent how every political action causes a reaction by those who fear any change in the status quo would ill-serve their interests. Still, even if the second and most upheaving issue passes, where is the guarantee that a new cast of characters will bring new honor and light to Cleveland's political culture? Judging by tradition alone, Cleveland and Cuyahoga County politics (indistinguishable one from the other) have shown little willingness to subjugate individual interests to the public interest.

A bit of enlivening history:

Cleveland politics have long been battered by ethnic, racial, partisan, corporate and religious issues that have been passed down genetically from one generation to the next. Democrats have largely presided over this stricken scene, although they have often rivaled each other and crossed party lines to be joined by Republicans in sharing whatever largesse was available.

During Dennis Kucinich's mayor campaigns, it was not uncommon to hear Eastern Europeans complaining about the throngs of (x#&%*&!!) Irish in public office and running things "downtown." When Democrat Jack Gilligan was challenged by Republican Jim Rhodes in 1974, George Forbes, the powerful black Democratic councilman and Rhodes ally, was hardly seen in the campaign for Gilligan. Although the late Carl Stokes opposed Kucinich, his brother Lou, a congressman was at Kucinich's side.

Need more? Although Rhodes and pseudo Democrat Frank Lausche, had run one of the bloodiest campaigns against each other in the 1954 gubernatorial race, it was Lausche who was standing shoulder to shoulder with Rhodes in denouncing Gilligan in their match. And when I once reminded Ralph Perk that his mayoral campaign opponent, Kucinich, called himself the city's premiere ethnic candidate, Perk hastily offered the profound political insight for his city: "There are ethnics," he said sharply, "and there are ethnics!" Just to prove it, he allowed me to join him that evening to a Slavic event where he was hailed as The Ethnic Mayor.

The media's record has only served to emphasize the detente with powerful politicians and their corporate allies which, on one famous occasion, threw together a Forbes legal defense fund when he was charged with graft involving the church sponsors of street fairs. A nun then testified that Mr. Forbes was a wonderful person. On another occasion the Plain Dealer endorsed all three mayoral candidates, two in the primary without a single mention of the third and evenutal winning candidate in the general election, Kucinich. But after the primary, Publisher Tom Vail, who never saw a winner's circle that he didn't like, endorsed Kucinich, ushering him into the PD news room on election night with beaming compliments. Vail told me that the paper had learned more about Kucinich's street smarts after the primary and decided he was the one to lead the city into a progressive future.

We haven't even mentioned Art Modell's desertion to Baltimore by the light of the moon , later explaining that the city's movers and shakers hadn't been nice to him.

A little history can shed a bit more light on the horrendous corruption that has beset a slowly abandoned city that has long been at distrustful sixes and sevens with itself . I hope the reform issue on the ballot passes, but it is fair to wonder what would happen next to change a way of life that has dominated the city for many decades through a broadly defined political fraternity with so many moving parts that has enriched itself at public expense,

A headline in the Plain Dealer Monday reported: Cleveland seeing 14 pct. spike in home burglaries over '08. But with all of the failing moral compasses, that's only part of the story.

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