In 2010 Ed FitzGerald defeated Matt Dolan by a measure of two to one to win the race to be County Executive of Cuyahoga County. Or, as I like to view it, FitzGerald won the high risk, low reward opportunity to clean up the mess that a bunch of knuckleheads who thought they were gangsters left behind for him. Even though FitzGerald was one of the only bright spots on election night in 2010, I still thought he probably had an up-hill climb that was littered with political landmines just waiting to explode.
In the last year and five months Ed FitzGerald has proven me, and anyone doubting his political will, wrong. His administration has been a case study in reform and a fascinating contrast to the divisive policies that radical republicans have been pushing in Columbus.
Now, with a little over two years before we get to elect a new Governor and FitzGerald is considering throwing his hat into the ring. FitzGerald sat down with Plunderbund to discuss what he thought his story would be if he decides to run, the reform efforts in Cuyahoga County, and why he knows firsthand you can’t trust John Kasich as far as you can throw him.
My family has been in Cleveland for over 100 years. My dad was in the air force and I spent my childhood in Indianapolis and then I came to Ohio when I started at Ohio State. I graduated from Ohio State in 1990. Then I worked for a Democratic Congressman who hasn’t been in office now for 20 years. He represented the Cleveland Suburbs. I worked in his office and then I went to law school at night. So I was a night law student at Cleveland Marshall. I got my law degree and practiced law for a little bit but then I joined the FBI and was an FBI agent in Chicago for three years. I worked on an organized crime task force but most of what I did was work on a political corruption.
Jumping Into Local Politics
I came back to the Cleveland area around 1998. I became the county prosecutor. I had kids along the way and then I was elected to Lakewood city council and served on the council for nine years. I continued to be active in presidential campaigns and local campaigns.
In 2007 I ran against an incumbent democratic mayor who I thought was not doing a good job. We were outspent four to one, but won two to one. When I took over as the mayor of Lakewood the city was not doing well. I think we really turned that whole situation around and I think that is what changed my whole spectrum of what I wanted to do politically. I always thought I wanted to run for congress some day; I had worked for a congressman and thought that was what I wanted to do. I got really fascinated with local government, how it works, best practices, how do you turn around a situation.
Cuyahoga County Corruption
I was toying with the idea of running against (Jimmy) Dimora or (Frank) Russo, I was going to run for Auditor, but everyone told me, “You’re crazy, you’ll never beat this guy,” but I thought I would take him on. I actually started to travel the county to get support to run against him in 2010. Most people said good luck but he is probably going to win. He has his name and picture on all the gas pumps.
But then the corruption scandal broke and it was like a bomb going off. It decimated the party but ironically I think it was the best thing that could happened to the D party up there because not only were these guys corrupt but they weren’t good democrats.
So, it sort of cleared the decks and then this position was created and I ran for it.
Managing the Reform of Cuyahoga County Government
I always tell people there are different tiers of dysfunction. The top level tier was the corruption. So, the FBI took care of a lot of it but there were still people that I felt were associated with the corruption that I fired right away. It was not necessarily that they broke the law but their departments, I felt, had become compromised.
On the other hand you had departments that were completely professional. That has been a really slow process; slow for some employees who feel up in the air about it, but we are getting there. But we are still dealing with a lot of that. It has been a year and a half and we probably won’t be done dealing with it for another year or so. But I will tell you that it is calming down. We have vastly improved the professionalism and efficiency of the whole operation and we have numbers to pack that up.
I think that by the time we are done we are going to be one of the premier county governments because we are just fanatical about wanting to improve and professionalize all this stuff and that is the advantage of taking over after a disaster.
A Possible Run for Governor?
The party has got to try to reach a consensus behind a candidate and it maybe me or someone else but the party has got to reach a consensus.
I think one thing that I have got going for me is that I have a different biography than a lot of politicians do and I have a different story, which is it’s a reform story of which we have been able to do.
I didn’t balance my budget by telling my 59 cities you guys are all screwed now and I’m going to cut my funding to you. In fact, we had big initiatives with education, law enforcement, health and wellness.
I think we are an example of that we are the second largest entity, after the state, and we are doing things, you know we are moderate on fiscal issues but we are also progressive on a lot of issues and that is very interesting contrast I think. I think I just need to tell people that story and I think that story is helpful to the Democratic Party whether I am the nominee for governor or not because it is not some theory that it could have been done differently because it has been done differently.
FitzGerald’s Views on Kasich’s Administration So Far
We are a heavily unionized area of the state, not as much as we use to be but organized labor is really strong up there and Issue Two was a huge deal and it was defeated overwhelmingly in Cuyahoga County. The county was the number one provider of votes in terms of the margin of victory. So, he has certainly alienated a huge part of the county there.
The cuts that have come have mostly hit social services up there so they have hit everything from mental health services to, you know, special education, early childhood education.
Something local officials have to do even more than we are doing it now is we need to make sure that we are reminding people what he tried to do. We have to keep up the pressure on him because what he has learned is that he’s just got to try to talk about job creation for the rest of his term. And, that is all he is basically talking about; He’s going to try and change the subject. He is going to act like the first year was all a dream, and I don’t know what happened there.
FitzGerald’s Meeting with Kasich on Collective Bargaining Reform
He even has this story that SB 5 really wasn’t his idea. Shannon Jones did it and then once it was on the ballot he felt like he had to say something. It’s not true. Matter of fact, he told me that they were planning on doing that before he was sworn in. He and I had a meeting in December of 2010, after we both got elected. He told us, me and my chief of staff, he said, “we we are going to cut the local government fund but we are going to change the rules on collective bargaining so you are going to save a bunch of money.”
He and I had it out about the whole thing and I said, “No offense Governor but when I was mayor I was able to save money by negotiating with my unions.”
So his whole story is nonsense and he is just running away from it because he knows he took a beating on it. I have no doubt that once he would be through with reelection they would cook up another version of it and give it another shot. These guys are not going to give up – this has been their dream their entire lives; this is what they were all talking about when they were all Goldwater supporters 50 years ago.