Angry words boomed from across the hall as Mike Gallagher quietly sat and waited. The Cuyahoga County councilman was stuck in a downtown Columbus high-rise, sidelined alone in a conference room, still shaking the two-hour drive from Cleveland out of his legs.
Down the hall, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted, the fresh-faced rising star in Gallagher's own Republican Party, was having it out with Ed FitzGerald, Cuyahoga County's first elected executive. From the sound of things, it was Husted's lungs that were getting the workout.
The sit-down was requested by FitzGerald, who wanted to hash out his differences with Husted over absentee voting ballots — a standoff that had been getting ugly in the media. Because it involved the two great white hypes of their respective parties, the match-up was billed statewide as a preview of a future senate or gubernatorial race. FitzGerald had asked Gallagher to come along to show this wasn't just the usual partisan dust-up.
The clash began in August, when Husted, citing a desire to get Ohio's 88 counties on the same page, banned all boards of election from mailing absentee ballots to registered voters. To FitzGerald, the gesture smelled like a move to suppress the vote among left-leaning urban slices of the public like Cleveland. He said Cuyahoga would pay for and mail the ballots anyway, and the county council backed his plan. Husted threatened to order Cuyahoga's board to toss out the unapproved paper, and so the course was set for a legal fight.
But when the Cuyahoga leaders showed up in Columbus that day in September, Husted's staff balked at Gallagher's presence. FitzGerald threatened to walk. They agreed to let the councilman in after Husted had some time alone with the executive.
When they finally threw open the door of Husted's corner office, Gallagher could have pick-axed through the ice in the room.
"Well," he said, trying to cut the tension, "is it a boy or a girl?"
Despite the contentious start, FitzGerald and Husted quickly edged toward the middle ground. In exchange for shelving Cuyahoga's plan, Husted agreed to use state money to mail ballots to all voters in 2012. Their pact will change the way Ohio votes moving forward.
"I was happy with what we got out of it," Gallagher says of the meeting and FitzGerald. "He seems willing to reach across not just political, but personal aisles to move forward. When we were sitting in that room, I got a sense of real leadership."
For FitzGerald, it was his first big cameo on a larger stage after winning a seat many see as second in power only to the governor in Ohio. Most of his first year has been spent pushing the gears of the new government into motion and re-engineering the county's innards. With 5,000 anxious employees, a billion-dollar budget, a tradition of incompetence, and the whole mess hog-tied with legal red tape, FitzGerald faced a daunting to-do list. But throughout his first year, the executive has kept his cool, steadily bagging politics-as-usual in favor of results.
"THE RIGHT GUY AT THE RIGHT TIME"
In the 2010 election, FitzGerald was voted in by a public still bleeding from the ears after endless reports of Cuyahoga's corruption, waste, and institutional idiocy — ego-tripping nabobs who turned the government into their personal piggy banks. In pedigree and personality, FitzGerald seems a 180-degree turnaround from the leadership left behind.
He is a self-professed nerd whose squeaky-clean reputation is well-earned. Growing up, FitzGerald diligently crafted a list of 100 things he wanted to do with his life, then he set about the task of knocking them off. Chief among those goals was a career in public service.
As he recently told a roomful of high school students, his motivation was unabashedly pure:
"Even though politics has a bad reputation, and there are some people involved in it who aren't as honest as they should be — and we've certainly had that problem in this county in the last few years — if you're good at it, and you study it and you work at it, you can change results very quickly."
FitzGerald originally opposed the new charter that reorganized Cuyahoga County under an executive and 11-member council; to him, the organizing principles of the government lacked sufficient financial controls. But once voters set the county's course, he was the first candidate to declare interest in the top job.
At campaign stops, he cut a welcome image: a youngish West Side family man of average build and height, with a gawky, high-watt smile and a neat, cresting wave of light hair holding its color against his 43 years. He was friendly, but without leaving a smarmy residue in his wake.
Voters also heard a lot about FitzGerald's track record in public service: the bullet points that ran from U.S. congressional staffer to law school to stints in the FBI and the county prosecutor's office. His tenure in politics had included a term on Lakewood's city council, followed by three years at the mayor's desk, where he successfully wrestled massive budget woes.
Considering the county's recent history, the fireproof résumé played well with many.
"I liked the fact that he had the FBI background," says Cleveland Heights Mayor Ed Kelley, who endorsed FitzGerald during the campaign. "To me, he looked to be the law-and-order candidate — and obviously, with what went on and what's going to happen with trials, he was the right guy at the right time for the right job."
But FitzGerald was also outfitted with less tangible qualities that bode well for high office. Growing up in a large family in Indianapolis, he found himself constantly buried in the pages of history books. His passion was politics, and over time he built up an inner database on elections and congressional sessions long past. It eventually geared him for an office with wider impact. It also made FitzGerald a keen observer of the game: someone who could wrap his head around a situation and parse the pieces with clinical distance.
That strategic style was on display almost immediately after voters handed FitzGerald the keys to the new government, following a decisive victory over Republican challenger Matt Dolan. In the initial weeks after the election, FitzGerald publicly told members of the county's scandal-logged boards of revision to resign or feel the boot drop on January 1. To the outgoing county commissioners, he demanded a hold on hirings, firings, pay tweaks, and promotions. Finally, he announced an "integrity audit": a fine combing of the county in search of illegal behavior. It would be conducted by a former FBI agent.
The early flexing was a harbinger of what would become FitzGerald's MO. History had taught him that dead-air time between regimes is high season for shenanigans. The hasty moves also gave the new boss a tactical advantage: By acting fast, his team captured upfront a series of candid snapshots of the crippled system he inherited.
And that was the question weighing down the early days of FitzGerald's administration. Outside of what oozed from the stacks of federal indictments and newspaper accounts, there was little real sense of how deep a vein of corruption former Auditor Frank Russo, former Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, and others had spiked into the county's side. The FBI was mum about ongoing investigations. For all FitzGerald knew, the county hallways might be filled all hours of the day with the musical whirl of paper shredders.
"I was afraid that there were going to be huge categories of things that I was going to find out in the first week or so that might even include things up to obstruction of justice," FitzGerald recalls today. "Those things didn't come to pass, but I think that's partly because we had a very engaged transition. We had staff on the ground immediately."
By the time FitzGerald took the oath, his administration had begun to tease out the full scope of its newly adopted mess. In February, the integrity audit came back without spotlighting any criminal offenses. But the news cut both ways: Blatant criminality would be an easy firable offense; the lingering issues inside the county government proved to be more subtle — and harder to stamp out.