When Michelle Stys feels her sanity slipping, she pops in a motivational tape and lets the wisdom wash over her:
"In matters of style, swim with the currents . . . In matters of principle, stand like a rock." -- Thomas Jefferson
Stys smiles blissfully as she intones the words, her voice filling the Parma City Council Chambers, empty and solemn on a Friday evening. "Isn't that great? That quote is a summation of everything that I've been through since I've been in office."
The first-term councilwoman is an outsider who appears to be swimming not with the currents but with the sharks. Nevertheless, she exudes grace and resolve. Chin high, back straight, she's a beauty-pageant contestant with a politician's problems.
A vivacious, 29-year-old bundle of blond ambition makes rich fodder for the old-fashioned, rumor-ridden Parma City Hall. Clerks, secretaries, custodians -- even the security guards -- gossip about her. Stys's aloof air, constant crusading, and distaste for compromise only add to the intrigue.
No one in recent memory has encountered more of City Hall's viciousness -- nor has anyone so brazenly invited it. Parma's most powerful figures plot her political demise, and she's alienated her only allies on council. Yet as she reflects on her term -- perhaps the most embattled, controversial first term in Parma government history -- she states unequivocally that she hasn't a single regret.
"How could you, when you know what's right?" Stys shrugs.
Stys didn't always have a passion for politics. She might have been singing on Broadway but for a botched audition at Juilliard, the elite performing arts school. Settling for Cleveland State, Stys decided to become an accountant. Before graduating, however, she accepted an internship at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., which led to an internship at the White House. Even as Monica made her visits, Stys was attending to the minute details of Clinton publicity events.
She later returned to Cleveland to finish her accounting degree. While working as an auditor for the national firm KPMG, a public issue caught her attention.
Fox 8 was proposing to build an 888-foot television tower near a Parma neighborhood. Stys didn't live near the site, and she offers no explanation for her interest in the proposal, except, "I thought it was wrong."
She attended council meetings, met people who lived in that section of town, and felt their sense of futility. When she heard that Ward 5's council seat was open, she announced her candidacy.
Parma Councilwoman Deborah Lime liked the young woman's spunk and supported her campaign. Stys won by 400 votes, a victory only slightly tainted by her opponent's accusation that Stys's volunteers chanted lies about him at the polls. The Ohio Elections Commission later dismissed the complaint.
At just 27, Stys was now representing nearly 10,000 residents and helping to form policy for Ohio's seventh-largest city. She found it hard to balance council duties and her auditing job, so she left KPMG and, with a partner, launched Black Diamond Marketing, which organizes, promotes, and hosts consumer and trade shows. But Stys admits she neglected to pay enough attention to that business, as well. There was always a neighborhood cause to attend to.
"When I get involved in a project, I throw myself into it so hard that I feel like it's the only thing I eat and drink," she says.
There was a feast awaiting her in her first month on council: the Parma Fay Care Center, a 257-bed senior housing facility that was to be built just 40 feet from the property lines of some neighbors. In all, 51 homes in Ward 5's Sassafras Estates would be affected.
Neighborhood residents adamantly opposed the project, but it had strong support elsewhere in Parma. Of the nine members on council, the six Democrats who form a consistent voting bloc also favored it.
Stys, an Independent, wasn't sure what to do. She turned to Lime, a Democrat who's outside the six-member bloc. "I told her that, if you stick with the residents, you'll always be successful," recalls Lime.
Stys took the advice to an extreme. In her first months of office, she plotted strategies around her constituents' kitchen tables and filled council chambers with ranting residents, encouraging them to continue speaking even after their attacks became personal. She dragged a council meeting to 1 a.m. by adding extra conditions to the building permit and entangled Parma Fay in lawsuits, even one filed by Stys herself as a private citizen. The project remains tied up in the courts.
These are aggressive tactics for a veteran official. For a council rookie, it's outright insolence. Stys doesn't apologize for it.
"I did not back down from that issue," she says. "I was determined to open the eyes of every councilperson --make them see what I saw." She regrets only that the issue came up so early in her tenure. "With the timing of Parma Fay, I didn't have time to build relationships" with other council members, she says.
Still, she suspects that even without Parma Fay, some of her colleagues would have shunned her. "There was bad blood because I won [the election] and I was not a Democrat," she says.
Parma's Democratic establishment is decidedly old-world, reflecting a deep-rooted blue-collar ethos. If a Democrat has ambition, it's tempered by the duty to first prove one's party loyalty. Walk the precinct, get out the vote, man the polls. That, in turn, earns respect in the party and the community support necessary to vault to office.
"You work together with people, and you forge those relationships," says Marty Vittardi, Parma Clerk of Court. "There's trust individuals have with one another, and that's how decisions are made on future races. Obviously, a person has to be qualified, but it comes down to the kind of person they are."
Vittardi is a classic example. His father was a Parma councilman. Vittardi toiled for the party's grass roots during his early 20s, gained a council seat in the mid-1980s, then served in various city offices through the next decade. This patient climb is destined to reach summit in two years, when the party makes Vittardi its candidate for mayor. It all but locks up the office.
Vittardi is a friend to that paragon of local Democratic virtue, Bill Mason, who rose from Parma law director to Cuyahoga County prosecutor. Today, candidates covet his endorsement, his fund-raising, and his sage campaign advice. He's been seen knocking on doors in particularly close Parma races.
There are whispers among some in City Hall that he, Vittardi, State Representative Dean DePiero, and other members of a tight circle exert undue influence on Parma politics.
"There definitely is a group of officials that are calling a lot of the shots, who aren't elected to call the shots," says one city official. (Mason did not return repeated calls for this story.)
Vittardi says he and his buddies simply do what they can for fellow Democrats. "We mobilize volunteers and work hard on the grassroots level for those people. But if there's a so-called machine, it's to help out Democratic candidates, and we're proud of what we've been able to do in Parma."
Still, rancor persists between those allied with the Democratic power base and outsiders who consider the party a Byzantine machine, populated by cronies with a narrow, selfish view of what's right for the city.
This enmity is rarely talked about, at least in public. City officials and employees sling mud and gossip only with the protection of anonymity. Off the record, they'll happily spin tales: about the councilman allegedly caught in bed with another councilman's wife; about the drunken councilman who fell off his motorcycle and supposedly mooned onlookers. A few council members are said to have never spoken to other members. One reportedly caused a scuffle at a fund-raiser by groping a female city worker.
Enter Michelle Stys, whose tactlessness has made her a pariah, even to many outside the Democrats' circle. When Stys came aboard, Parma government entered a golden age of gossip.
The tension is thickest between Stys and Councilwoman Sue Straub. "She's the one who'd love to get me," Stys says.
The eldest, bluntest member of council, Straub was wary of Stys from the start, partly because Stys embraced the mentorship of Lime, against whom Straub has had a long-standing grudge. And partly because she suspects that Stys, like some other young politicians, has an agenda ruled by self-promotion. "She's part of the problem," says Straub. "It started with the Parma Fay project, and it hasn't gotten any better."
Not long after Stys's crusade against the housing facility, Straub directed a thorough inquiry of Stys's use of the council copy machine. Stys typically makes twice as many copies as the rest of the members combined, and Straub thought it a cheap method of raising her profile without spending campaign money. Stys, learning that Straub was going to make an issue of the copies at council, packed the audience with her most devoted constituents.
"If Councilwoman Straub thought that she could impugn my character by going after something as trivial as copies, the residents were going to be there, because they received the newsletters and found them to be valuable," says Stys.
The residents' seething presence unnerved Straub, who even had the police brought in.
After the incident, dubbed "Copygate," Parma City Hall began keeping statistics tracking the numbers of copies made by each council member.
If copy-counting weren't enough, Stys was maligned for once parking her car in a City Hall handicapped space. Stys says she had back and neck trouble stemming from two auto accidents last winter. She did not have the requisite parking pass, though, and someone snapped a picture of her illegally parked car. Stys believes the order came from Purchasing and Personnel Director Gerianne Vanek, a friend of Straub's.
Vanek denies the accusation, though she remembers the stir. "I'd say 75 percent of City Hall was quite agitated," says Vanek. "They felt that she was a councilwoman making laws, and she shouldn't be breaking them."
Whoever snapped the photo clearly meant to provoke Stys -- and succeeded. Thinking it would be used against her in the next election, she went so far as to complain to Mayor Gerald Boldt, who appeased her only by obtaining the film and destroying it.
A tenured politician probably wouldn't have been rattled by the incident.
"It's part of the city's nature," says Lime, a 10-year veteran of council.
"It's like Northfield Park," Councilman Tim DeGeeter says of City Hall. "The place goes crazy every 19 minutes."
Lime and Councilman John Stover -- who were Stys's only council allies -- say that, while she's fiercely committed to her ward residents, she is woefully oblivious to the political consequences of her actions.
They have admonished Stys for blanketing her ward with newsletters, and they think her lawsuit against Parma Fay was ill-advised.
"Sometimes I say, 'Michelle, where did you get this idea?'" says Lime.
Then there was Stys's push to hire a full-time lobbyist in Columbus who would help acquire state funds for city projects. Her proposal didn't win any points with State Representative DePiero, who was elected to pursue state money for the city, and it did nothing to repair Stys's disintegrating relationship with the Parma Democratic Party, of which DePiero is a high-ranking member.
"I know [DePiero] took deep personal offense," Stys says. But in the next breath, she declares she plans to propose the legislation again.
DePiero, who says he has a "good working relationship with all the officials in my district," says the incident didn't bother him. Even so, such antics have eroded Stys's credibility.
And she hasn't had much success in pushing legislation through. For example, she tried to attach a penalty to a city ordinance against landing helicopters close to homes -- Fox 8 had been routinely violating the rule. She thought approval would be a mere formality and blames its defeat on Parma Fay, which was discussed at the same meeting.
In July, Councilman Roy Jech took Stys to task for putting up road signs that read "Keep Kids Alive, Drive 25." He questioned whether she was authorized to spend money for that purpose.
"You overstepped your bounds," he told her, and as their dispute escalated, Stys told Jech that, since "I'm not out of office yet," spending decisions in the ward are hers.
Shot back Jech: "You did use the right word: yet."
In mid-September, Jech and Straub teamed up to censure Stys for her comment to a reporter against hospital construction in Parma Heights. Jech, a proud member of the pipefitters' union, said Stys's opposition to the project would threaten it and endanger union jobs. Stys suggested Jech "take the time to educate yourself" about the hospital's history to understand her objections.
Straub chimed in next, suggesting that when Stys speaks publicly, she should do so "as a private citizen, not as a representative of the City of Parma, because that makes the rest of us look bad."
Two Ward 5 residents in the back row frowned and sighed. "It's horrible how they treat her," one woman whispered. "It's like this every week."
Stys's enemies want to make sure she isn't around to antagonize them for another two years. One of the rumors they're circulating -- anonymously, of course -- is that there's a romance between Stys and Parma Services Director Gary Sefl, 25 years her senior. In an intriguing twist, Sefl dated Straub several years ago.
He and Stys have been seen shopping at the farmers' market at Shaker Square and dining in Chagrin Falls. They're rumored to have attended a movie together and exchanged Christmas presents.
It doesn't have the magnitude of Monica and Bill, but such a courtship might raise eyebrows if Sefl, in his capacity as services director, is giving Stys more than her ward's fair share of city work. Pothole fillings, road pavings, and curb repairs are important to residents and can make the difference in an election. Sefl's office decides which ward deserves attention.
Councilman Jech became suspicious of their relationship when an unmarked envelope was delivered to his council mailbox by mistake. In it, he found a public records request Sefl had fetched on Stys's behalf, along with a note: "What would you do without me?" Sefl had initialed the bottom.
"Big deal. He says that to me all the time," says Stys. She denies rumors of romance. She admits they eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner together frequently, and that they did visit a farmers' market one summer Saturday, but that these weren't dates. The rumor that they attended a movie is true: Stys took Sefl there for his birthday. "I'll go to the movies with him tomorrow if I feel like it," Stys says. "I have the same relationship with him that he has with all the council members."
Straub doesn't believe that, but she professes to be unconcerned about their relationship. "I think she's a little young, and he's old enough to be her father, but it's none of my business."
Jech thinks it is his business. A gruff and grizzled union man, he has a righteousness just as fierce as Stys's. He demanded copies of Parma City Services work logs for May and June, the most coveted periods for road repair. "I found out that her ward was addressed before all others," Jech says. He says his ward, meanwhile, has received less and slower attention.
Sefl did not return calls for this story. He faxed a letter that explained how Ward 5 has the most streets and that they are more susceptible to adverse weather than those in other wards, making more frequent repair necessary. He did not mention Stys in the letter.
Stys insists Jech is embellishing and stated that she's actually "very disappointed" by how few resources were devoted to her ward.
Never known for his subtlety, Jech is the only council member who publicly suggests that Stys receives preferential treatment. Other members refuse to discuss the subject, decrying this sort of idle gossip as the scourge of good government.
Then they offer to speak off the record:
"It's common knowledge" that Stys and Sefl are dating, says one member. "She's getting more roads paved than some of us have in our entire careers, and this is a year that the City of Parma is so financially tight."
Budget constraints made it necessary, for instance, to eliminate plans for curb repair this year. So when a rumor circulated that the curbs in Stys's ward were, in fact, being repaired, council members were thunderstruck. Lime drove out to see for herself.
"I'm in Michelle's ward, and I'm watching [the city workers] right now," Lime reported from her cell phone. "They're working on the curbs. I can't believe what I'm seeing."
Stover was also shocked. "Unmistakably, there's some major curb replacement," he reported grimly.
Explanations offered by services workers at a council meeting were deemed satisfactory by Stover, but Lime remained skeptical.
If it weren't bad enough that Stys was in the council minority, now she had upset her fellow minority members.
"Michelle and I are not talking right now," says Lime. "I don't consider myself to be her mentor, because if I was her mentor, she would have listened to me on certain things."
All of this shapes up neatly for Ron Mack, Stys's Ward 5 opponent. While she has the advantage of incumbency, she's also politically stranded, clutching a campaign purse whittled away by legal bills from the Parma Fay project.
Mack, by contrast, has the highest political friends one can have in Parma.
He calls St. Anthony's Catholic Church "the best thing that ever happened to me." It's there that he came to know Mason, DePiero, Vittardi, and Councilmen Jech and Mike Louis. They've been known to tag along on Mack's visits to residents in Stys's ward.
"If a guy like Prosecutor Mason wants to offer a hand and say, 'Hey, can I walk with you on a Saturday, see the feedback you're getting?' I have no problem with that," says Mack.
The Democrats are obviously willing to bring out the big guns in their effort to oust Stys. "In my 10 years on city council and in my 10 previous years as a resident, I've never witnessed the political heavyweights teaming up like they are in her race," says Stover. "There are a number of people interested in her demise in November."
Mack says residents are "frustrated with the infighting." He talks of Stys's "rookie mistakes," the failure of her sponsored legislation, and her focus on Parma Fay above other ward issues. And he touts the wisdom that comes with his age -- 39 -- and his life experiences.
Mason had Columbus Day off, and Stys says he was spotted walking her ward. The resident who reported the sighting yelled out, "Mason, don't you have anything better to do?" The prosecutor was also seen hunched over a Parma library copy machine, printing off newspapers.
"He's probably going to get every article I'm in, take out the headlines and my quotes, then use them out of context in a hit mailer," Stys says.
At the same time, she is unabashedly flattered by the attention and believes it's proof she's a difference-maker, a force to be taken seriously.
"They can't control me, can they?" she says.
Currently, Ward 5 is awash in Ron Mack yard signs. Despite appearances, it's not conquered territory, Stys insists. "It's so funny. I've had 15 people call me, telling me that he put up signs in their yards without their permission. So I'm not worried."
The money for her reelection bid comes from modest contributions, she says. "If you look at my campaign donations, you'll see a crapload of residents." She's also borrowing from anyone who will lend her money, including her grandparents. After the election, Stys says, she will hold a fund-raiser to pay her lenders back.
Short of money, Stys spends time, her greatest resource. As before, her campaign begins at front doors, and that's where she thrives anyway. She's made the rounds enough to know a particular neighborhood's biggest concerns.
Whatever November holds, Stys can accept it. She has a seemingly limitless capacity for self-motivation and a short memory for failure. There's a maxim or a motivational tape for every one of life's challenges.
In tough times, she harks back to her most affecting parable. It's "Acres of Diamonds," the tragic tale of a farmer who sells his land and deserts his family to dig for diamonds in distant continents, only to die penniless, when all the while his original farmland was teeming with the most exquisite diamonds in the world.
"Each one of us stands on our own acres of diamonds," says Stys. "It's up to us to find them."