By Damian Guevara
Over the weekend, The Plain Dealer published a list of 20 possible Cuyahoga County executive candidates (including just three women and two minorities, blogger Jill Miller Zimon points out). But one name that caught our attention was that of Thomas Chema, president of Hiram College. The former head of Cleveland's Gateway Economic Development Corp., Chema says he'll consider running for the position unless "some good people" decide they want to take a stab at the top county seat.
We don't know what Chema's definition of "good people" is, but we like to think that "good people" don't deceive the public. That's exactly what Chema did back in the early 1990s as the number-one cheerleader for Cleveland's sports arenas, according to an eye-opening book about taxpayer-funded stadiums.
Sociology professors Kevin J. Delaney and Rick Eckstein published Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle over Building Sports Stadiums in 2003. In a chapter about Cleveland's supposed "miracle comeback" in the '90s, the scholars quoted Chema extensively and exposed how he, local politicians and Cleveland Tomorrow (an organization which later morphed into the Greater Cleveland Partnership) duped Cuyahoga County voters into supporting the Gateway project, which created Cleveland's professional baseball and basketball stadiums and ultimately, corporate welfare for Cleveland's wealthy professional team owners.
The book tells how Chema unsuccessfully tried to cast an alcohol/cigarette sin tax as a "luxury tax" to win ballot approval from working class voters in 1990. "Of course, taxing cigarettes and liquor is the antithesis of soaking the rich; and the ultimate goal of the tax was to subsidize wealthy team owners," Delaney and Eckstein write. The "luxury tax" tag never stuck in the media.
As business and political leaders campaigned hard for the tax, Chema told the public that the estimated cost of the baseball/basketball stadium construction was $344 million. But according to the book, Chema admitted that the number was a guess: "It was stupid to say [a figure] because I didn't know. I didn't have a clue what this project was going to cost because we had no money, no organization, nothing." The candid Chema added: "That wasn't a real number. I didn't want to say that number. I tried to avoid saying that number; but when you are in an election campaign, you have to put a number on it."
The tax did pass, with support from suburban voters. The project's final construction cost: $462 million. The project's impact on economic development remain highly debatable.
The book is a study on how Cleveland leaders bent to the will of corporate powers that wished to use stadiums and sports as recruiting tools for executives, at the expense of city neighborhoods and public schools. Delaney and Eckstein go on to express amazement at how local politicians have "completely internalized the ideology that 'what's good for the corporate community is good for Cleveland'."
"Direct coercion is not even necessary when ideological hegemony is this complete," they write. "Perhaps the best illustration of this relationship is a piece of art that stands just outside City Hall: a huge rubber stamp bearing the word FREE. We assume this is supposed to have something to do with political freedom, but we couldn't help notice that it is pointing directly at the nearby corporate towers. A metaphor for the ages."
Touche. And Chema's fingerprints are all over the stamp's handle. — Damian Guevara