Door To Door: How Do You Elect An Elephant? One Vote At A Time

A Republican National Convention delegate wears a GOP-themed hat in Cleveland in 2016. Republicans may dominate Ohio politics, but they don't have many footholds in Cuyahoga County.
A Republican National Convention delegate wears a GOP-themed hat in Cleveland in 2016. Republicans may dominate Ohio politics, but they don't have many footholds in Cuyahoga County. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Analysis

When then-Cuyahoga County Commissioner Lee Weingart lost to Jane Campbell in 1996, his defeat was seen as a low water mark for the local Republican Party. 

Weingart was “a candidate who did everything right and lost,” the county’s then-GOP chairman, Jim Trakas, told The Plain Dealer in 1998.

More than 24 years after that loss, as Weingart mounts a bid for county executive, the county Republican Party’s waters haven’t risen much higher. 

Republicans are 0-for-3 in county executive races since government reform a decade ago. Thanks to partisan district boundaries, Republicans' 3-8 minority on county council has never changed.

Weingart, who went on to found the lobbying firm LNE Group, acknowledges that he faces a steep climb in 2022.

“I’m starting early, 22 months ahead of the election, so people will understand why I’m running and what I want to do as county executive,” he told me. “I hope they will look at me for what I want to do, and not what party I come from.”

Here’s what Weingart says he wants to do: launch a $100 million program for new and rehabilitated housing, focus on bail reform instead of building a new jail and extract Cuyahoga County from the hotel business.

Weingart was quick with a press release this month criticizing the county for ponying up more money to meet contractual obligations at the publicly owned Hilton Cleveland Downtown.

“I’d like to get out of that hotel as soon as we could,” Weingart said. “When the economy comes back, maybe by the time I’m county executive, I would want to look at options to sell the hotel.”

It’s a position that both libertarians and democratic socialists might support, and Weingart will need all the votes he can get.

That doesn’t mean he is completely against public spending on taxpayer-owned properties, however. As a county commissioner in 1995, Weingart helped lead the campaign to extend the “sin tax” on cigarettes and alcohol to pay for a new football stadium. (It passed; just before Election Day, Art Modell delivered the fateful news that the Browns would leave for Baltimore.)

Weingart also pledges to cut the county workforce by offering buyouts to employees on the verge of retirement. He claims that “people in the county administration building” have told him as many as 1,000 workers could be eligible for buyouts—and many want it. (Michael Gallagher, one of the three Republicans on county council, has also advocated buyouts.)

Cuyahoga County’s two-term Democratic executive, Armond Budish, has taken his share of lumps lately. The largest of them: a county jail declared “inhumane” by the U.S. Marshals Service and a state criminal investigation winding through the administration and the ranks of corrections officers.

That might offer a political opening to a diligent and well-funded opponent next year.

But if Budish is running for a third term, he isn’t announcing anything yet.

For the moment, Budish’s “sole focus is on getting through the pandemic and economic crisis and doing everything he can to help the people of Cuyahoga County get the help they need during these difficult times,” campaign spokesman Alan Melamed wrote in an email to ideastream.

The Democratic candidate – whoever that might be – will surely have a built-in advantage. On Election Night in Cuyahoga County, Republicans typically bump their heads against a 30-to-40 percent ceiling.

In 2010, Matt Dolan finished with 30 percent of the vote, losing a six-way county executive race to Ed FitzGerald. Four years later, Jack Schron did 10 points better than Dolan, only to suffer a 20-point defeat to Budish. Four years after that, with Peter Corrigan’s loss, Republicans were back down to the low 30s.

The partisan makeup of Cuyahoga County is, as Cleveland’s mayor might remind us, what it is.

Seven years ago, Budish’s ascent as county executive was so assured that Cleveland Magazine depicted him receiving a jewel-encrusted crown from outgoing chief FitzGerald

And so if Budish intends to keep his throne next year, his biggest political threat may come not from a Republican outside the castle walls, but from a usurper within the Democratic royal court.

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