Remembering Former Senator George Voinovich and His Cleveland Legacy

Lt. Gov. Mike DeWine, Gov. George Voinovich, & Deputy Chief of Staff Curt Steiner in 1991 [photo: Ohio Government Television]
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Former Ohio Senator George Voinovich passed away in his sleep this weekend.  He was a month shy of his 80th birthday.  ideastream’s Annie Wu looks back on the former Cleveland mayor and his legacy.

A Cleveland native born and bred in the Collinwood neighborhood, George Voinovich was a product of his Eastern European parents.

"He was a very conservative Slovenian."

Democrat Jay Westbrook joined Cleveland city council in 1980, at the same time the Republican Voinovich took over the mayor’s office.

"People used to joke that he had his communion money still in a sock under his mattress."

It was the fiscal conservative in Voinovich that helped get him elected to city hall, where he served from 1980 until 1989. Under the previous Mayor Dennis Kucinich, Cleveland was the first major American city to default since the Great Depression.  The new Voinovich administration convinced several local banks to refinance the city’s loans.

Claire Rosacco had just graduated from college when she was hired as Voinovich’s assistant press secretary.

"That was a very tough financial time for the city when he first came in.  And I remember they didn’t know exactly how many millions the city owed in debt. When they figured it out, they realized they had to do a pretty good financial plan over 5 years to pay off debt and get the city out of default and they did that."

They did it in seven years and during that time, Voinovich also helped spur development on the lakefront.

"Some people don’t realize before we had the lakefront harbor, it was a landfill. And so he was instrumental in making sure the Army Corp dredged out the harbor.  He was a stalwart supporter of building the science museum and the Rock Hall there.  And if it was not for George Voinovich, we really would not have that facility for example."

Former Councilman Jay Westbrook credits Voinovich with improving city services.

"Whether it was street, parks -- every department of the city went under his microscope.  Greater efficiencies were gained.  Sometimes they were very controversial. Sometimes they went from parochialism to professionalism. He certainly deserves a great deal of credit for crafting a city government that met the needs of people."

Voinovich left Cleveland City Hall for the Governor’s mansion in 1990 and then the US Senate in 1999, but he continued to be concerned about his hometown.

"I think what we need today in this county is, I’d call it, 'Vision 2020.'"

In 2009, Voinovich spoke on 90.3’s The Sound of Ideas about selling the positive side of Cleveland.

"One of the problems that we had when I became mayor, people were really down on the city. And you had to get them to start to realize that we have a lot of assets here.  Let’s really concentrate on the assets, work together as a team and concentrate on the good things that are here and the others will take care of themselves."

Even after his retirement, Voinovich continued to lead an active public life.  In 2013, he helped cut the ribbon on the new Innerbelt bridge named in his honor.

"I must tell you though that Janet and I wondered if the bridge would get done during our lifetime."

During the ceremony, he reflected on his family’s heritage, steeped in Cleveland history.

"I thought about my grandparents who came here to this country as immigrants and I’m sure not in their wildest imagination would they’d have thought the Viaduct bridge across the Cuyahoga River would bear the name of their grandson. I don’t think they ever got across the Cuyahoga river.  And my dad would have been proud. He was architect on Main Avenue Bridge. And he was very proud of it."

During his 2009 appearance on 90.3, after he’d announced he would not seek re-election to the U.S. Senate, Voinovich looked back on his five decade political career.

“I’ve been blessed to have an opportunity to do something that I’ve wanted to do since I was 16 years old.  Honest to goodness.  I walk out of the Senate and I think about my grandmother who came here from Slovenia and I pinch myself and you ask yourself, “How did this happen?”

"He believed you should always serve God, family and community, and I think he lived every day of his life doing that."

Claire Rosacco remembering the life of former Ohio Senator, Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich who passed away this weekend at the age of 79.

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