Lee Weingart aims to be the first Republican elected Cuyahoga County executive
There have been three elections for Cuyahoga County executive since voters overhauled county government more than a dozen years ago.
No Republican has won. Lee Weingart is hoping to become the first. He’s been running for county executive for a year already, raising money and building connections.
He served as one of Cuyahoga County’s three commissioners in the 1990s. In 1995, the county Republican Party appointed him to replace Jim Petro, who had become state auditor.
Weingart was 28 years old. He lost reelection to Jane Campbell in 1996.
More than 25 years later, Weingart said he’s trying to make inroads in parts of the county where he performed the worst in 1996. Like the East Side of Cleveland, the most Democratic part of a very Democratic county.
“There is an openness to new ideas, to change, even from a Republican,” Weingart told Ideastream Public Media recently. “So when I talk about my urban agenda with the voters in the East Side, they understand what I'm talking about. You're bringing wealth that starts and stays in urban neighborhoods.”
Weingart isn’t hiding from the GOP party label, but he’s also not throwing out red meat to a partisan base. Instead, he’s running on a list of policy proposals.
Like building or renovating 10,000 houses to encourage homeownership. Or tightening the county’s rules requiring that minority-owned businesses get a share of county contracts.
“The county government has a unique opportunity and responsibility to help grow small business, particularly disadvantaged small businesses,” he said. “I will use county contracting to do just that.”
In 2002, Weingart founded LNE Group, a lobbying firm that has helped clients win government funding and incentives. Among the recent clients are the historic Black theater Karamu House, the city of Sandusky and the fast food chain White Castle, according to a lobbying database compiled by the news outlet ProPublica.
“We have offices in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and Berlin, Germany,” he said. “We represent nonprofit organizations, municipal governments, companies and others in front of the federal government and state government.”
Weingart announced his candidacy a year ago. This week, his campaign reported $448,339 on hand, and he said it could take $2 million to win.
With the election year of 2022 finally here, he re-launched his campaign recently with a virtual press conference. There, he added some more planks to his platform.
Weingart called for the county sheriff to become an elected position again, provided that candidates have law enforcement experience.
The last elected sheriff ended his career pleading guilty to theft in office. County government reform in 2009 turned the job into a county executive appointee. But the sheriff should have to face the voters, Weingart said.
“The problems that we had with the prior elected sheriff pale by comparison to the problems we’ve had with an appointed sheriff, which is 13 deaths in the county jail,” he said.
As for the jail itself, Weingart said he’d put a stop to the county’s current plan to build a new one. He wants to go back to square one. If the county does build a new jail, it should be smaller, he said.
“I'd much rather spend time and money investing in diversion opportunities,” he said, “so it could be the diversion center that's been set up – which, by the way, is not being used at its full capacity right now – so that people who have a drug addiction or mental health challenge don't see the front door of the jail. They are diverted immediately to a center.”
Taxes are also part of his platform. Weingart said he would not increase the county’s share of property taxes during his term. And for homeowners over 60, he proposes rolling back the taxable value of their houses to pre-2021 levels, freezing them until the house sells.
“We're going to focus on ways to help seniors who are just barely holding on right now to their houses, who are seeing the values go up, but have no intention to sell, so they don't benefit from an increased value,” he said.
Weingart faces no opposition in the Republican primary. He has nine months to raise money and make the campaign rounds before facing the Democratic candidate in November.