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Making Change:  Ohio’s Shrinking Political Clout

Monday, October 28, 2002 at 12:01 PM

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When voters go to the polls next week, their choice may rest on whom they think can best bring home money for local projects. Frequently, the link between who is in Washington and which initiatives get funded is closer than you might think. Often, the amount of pork a local politico can bring home comes down to connections and clout. Remember, one person's pork is another's gold. Northeast Ohio's representatives are clearly not as experienced as their predecessors. As part of Making Change: Reinventing our Economy, ideastream's Shula Neuman reports on how this area's loss of political clout in the nation's capital is affecting the region.

Shula Neuman: Time was Northeast Ohio had a slew of politicians in Washington who were strong leaders, well respected on both sides of the aisle and who were effective lawmakers. In those years, John Glenn, Howard Metzenbaum, Lou Stokes and John Kasich were recognized nationally and Northeast Ohio frequently reaped the benefit in the form of earmarked funds for special projects. In other words, those guys brought home the bacon, the goodies, the dough.

In 1995, for example, Northeast Ohio picked up about $34 million in earmarked money - which was 46% of the state’s entire kitty. Compare that to this year, when this region received only 17% of Ohio’s take, according to numbers from Citizens Against Government Waste. And getting the money does make a difference. Just ask the City of Euclid, which in 1995 received some of that pork. Thanks to Lou Stokes’ position on the Housing and Urban Development committee, the city received $1 million to build up its southern section that had suffered severe storm damage and that, coincidentally, needed a makeover.

Gary DeWine: So, in this area I can point to Palisades Car Wash, to Mullin Brother’s painting, Inger Automotive, to Cleveland Plastic Fabricators to Tizano’s Party Center.

SN: Gary DeWine is projects manager in Euclid’s community development department. He says, the city of Euclid didn’t blow the special grant all in one place. On a tour of the area around East 260th and Euclid, he points out a series of small projects such as renovating office fronts, financing for home improvement and planting trees.

GD: I think as you go through this area you’ll see where our hands on work with the private sector turns things around. They’re not big projects, they’re incremental projects over time. A lot of little projects beget a lot of success.

SN: Thanks to what Gary DeWine jokingly calls, “The Stokes Money,” where there once was blight, there are now tax-generating businesses and homeowners. The crime rate has gone down and the area is now eligible for other programs that will continue the improvements. But that initial boost for Euclid came almost 10 years ago. Lately, says University of Akron political science professor John Green, Northeast Ohio is having a tougher time winning those specially earmarked funds-and that doesn’t help at a time when the area is losing jobs, losing population and losing private investments.

John Green: In order to turn things around, there needs to investment in public things like education and infrastructure. And a lot of that is going to come from the federal government if it comes at all. But there also needs to be investment in private things in corporations, in partnerships between the business community and government and a lot of that needs to come from the federal government as well. So it is frustrating. We’re at a time when precisely when we need additional help from the federal government is when we’re losing our voice in the federal government, or our voice is declining in the federal government - so it is frustrating to people.

SN: It may be frustrating, but people aren’t helpless. Green says voters need to be extra vigilant about what their elected representatives are up to-praise them when they do well and fault them when they mess up. Green says it’s not that our current batch of congress - people are necessarily bad politicians, it’s just that it takes time, especially House members, to learn the ropes and climb the ladder. Former U.S. Senator Howard Metzenbaum says that some junior representatives do arrive with the moxy to lobby for their districts and their causes-but not everyone does.

Howard Metzenbaum: It’s possible to do that. Some members of congress sit back and go along to get along. I never quite had that attitude when I was there. I sort of thought that it paid to raise a little hell at times and make my point clear. And to bring back some of the bacon for the workers of Ohio.

SN: Another former hell-raiser on the hill, Dennis Eckart, says that even if a new representative arrives with that fire in the belly, the current situation makes it hard for anyone to be effective. Northeast Ohio is traditionally Democratic, but Republicans currently control the House. And the region has been losing population, which means the number of Representatives in congress has also dwindled. Still, Eckart says, what this region’s delegation lacks in experience, it makes up in collaboration.

Dennis Eckart: And having political leaders who recognize that the fate of the state is not linked to any one political subdivision success but to the collective success of multiple subdivisions in similarly situated regions, I think is a long-term formula for success because it doesn’t depend then on particular personalities but more on a sense of regional cooperation and entitlement.

SN: And if that fails, says political science professor John Green, do like they do in the south: elect them young and smart and keep them in office.

JG: Because there will come a time again, when Northeast Ohio has good and effective well positioned in the state legislature and the congress who can help us solve our problems. SN: In the meantime, northeast Ohioans must realize that while we wait years for political clout to take hold, we may risk losing out on fresh ideas from energetic, new up-and-comers. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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Making Change, Regional Economy/Business - Analysis and Trends, Regional Economy/Business - News

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