Local attorney Michael Wager (WAY-gur) is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. David Joyce's incumbency in the 14th District of Ohio (that'd be the far east of Cuyahoga County, among more northeastern locales). Despite some forecasters giving Joyce a "likely" upper hand, the race remains among the most competitive nationally as we head toward November. This week, we talked politics with Wager and got into the more unique elements of the Northeast Ohio district.
Eric Sandy: The last time I saw you was down in Public Square a few weeks back. You were rallying for a higher minimum wage, particularly among in-home health service workers. Is that the sort of policy that brought you into this race?
Michael Wager: Among other issues. That was a rally by some of organized labor who happen to be home health workers and who happen to not only have abysmally low hourly wages, but also have to pay for their own transportation to and from whatever homes that they are working at. And they're working for companies that, in most cases, are rather profitable. I have no issue with corporate profits, per se; I've spent most of my life actually with business. I do have a problem with historically low wage levels and the fact that there are people in the U.S. Congress who pretend that somehow raising the minimum wage is going to be a drag on the U.S. economy. Minimum wage in this country, adjusted for inflation, is at an historically low level. If you go back to 1968 when it was $1.60, that was more buying power in the 1960s than $7.25, which is the federal level today. Now, in Ohio it's $7.95. Still an awful minimum wage. $10.10 is just the beginning of the conversation, but I fervently support $10.10.
ES: You haven't run for office before this.
MW: I’ve been appointed to positions. I’ve been active with both civic organizations and charitable organizations, as well as with people who have run for office themselves: Sen. Sherrod Brown, Gov. Ted Strickland.
ES: What were the deciding factors that got you to run?
MW: Steven LaTourette announced that he was going to retire on July 31, 2012. That became somewhat of a red-letter date in my life. I started to get calls asking if I'd consider running. I was 61 at the time and really thought my time to do this sort of work had come and gone. But I started to talk to people about whether or not the district was winnable, whether there were others who might look at the race. After confirming to myself that it is a winnable district, I decided to undertake it. That was the political side.
The policy side, which is a lot more compelling to me, is that I believe there is one fundamental challenge. It's the fact that the American middle class is being hollowed out. And it's not an accident. It's because of intentional policies by the U.S. Congress and, more importantly, it's an intentional worldview by people who have lots of power, lots of influence, and lots of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Even though I come from a corporate walk of life, I see it clearly. We should be speaking up for the fact that there are inadequate job opportunities, inadequate wages, inadequate regulations in certain parts of our economy. The people with the most today, in terms of ownership, income and power, are looking to actually increase their ownership, income and power. There are people speaking out against that, and I just want to be one of them.
ES: What's unique or notable about the investment and infrastructure opportunities in the 14th District?
MW: You have to look at it beyond those limited boundaries. The 14th District touches seven counties; infrastructure is a regional and state and national challenge. The 14th District would benefit immediately if we were to talk about investing in roads, wastewater systems. Those algal blooms out on the lake — if you started talking about the kind of investments in wastewater systems and didn't have the kind of storm runoff that we have of raw sewage running into our lake, you'd address that and you could put people to work fixing that. As a candidate, I haven't had the opportunity to sit down and create policy for the whole region, but I know the questions to ask. I'm sure there are people here in Northeast Ohio who can help forge the answers, but not enough people are asking the questions.
ES: In what ways can 14th District voters hold the representative accountable, regardless of who wins the office in this election?
MW: I like that question. It's a really big challenge in a world where incumbents have such an enormous advantage. They can simply hide when they get elected. How do you call them out? Well, it used to be that the Fourth Estate called them out. It’s interesting: We’re in an environment where there are a lot more outlets, but there’s no group of people in a city the size of Cleveland that has the resources to do the kind of investigative journalism or following political races where those questions get asked repeatedly and then answers are eventually received by reporters and the public. What we do as a candidacy, because we're committed to a policy discussion — and I'm sure you've picked up that I like talking about policy — is try to engage. I turn it back to you: To get real answers, it’s going to require reporters to get real answers. You know, ‘You’re running for reelection. Where do you stand on x, y and z?’ We've drawn him out on a few issues, and he's had the vote. There have been precious few votes in the 113th Congress, but he did vote twice for the Ryan Budget, and that tells you a lot about this man. Either he's just a follower and he didn't know what he was voting for, or he knew what he was voting for and he's against a lot of things I've spent my adult life advocating for.
ES: Lately you've tried to draw out issues like corporate tax evasion.
MW: I've been aware of what are called corporate aversions for a long time. It's just another one of the enormous loopholes in the way the tax code is set up in the U.S. They're largely taken advantage of by large companies, corporations and very wealthy people who have tax planners. What they're doing is not illegal. It's just wrong. Eaton Corp. is the example I use, because they're local. And they're not fond of me using them. In a sense, I don't blame Eaton Corp. They did what was in their interest to maximize their profits. Do I believe it was wrong and inconsistent with the notion of being an American company? Of course I do. And I understand why they did it. What I don't accept is that the U.S. Congress knows they're doing it and that dozens of other large companies are doing it — and the list is growing as we sit here.
I've tried to draw David Joyce out on this. And it's more than just, 'He's a Republican in Congress and he hasn't acted on it.' He is the single largest recipient of PAC money from Eaton Corp. When I mentioned that to him in a side-by-side debate last Friday, he didn't respond. He just said it's a big loophole and something should be done about it.
ES: Eaton Corp., of course, was considering setting up shop in the Flats a few years back. Now they’re in Beachwood via bonds issued by the port. Were you involved with those negotiations?
MW: The bonds issued in connection with their building of their headquarters out in the Chagrin Highlands was long after I had left the board. And let me say: I’m not here to demonize Eaton Corp. I’ve been at law firms that have done work for them. I’m not suggesting it isn’t a great benefit to Northeastern Ohio to have Eaton Corp., a great integrated manufacturer, employing thousands of people here. It’s terrific. I take issue with them on several issues, but I don’t begrudge them the fact that they can do whatever they want legally.
Going back to when I was on the board of the port authority and when I became chairman, they had an interest in moving off of Superior Avenue and building a new headquarters on the lakefront. They wanted some of the land on our port. I was actually open to it. If you go back to my history as board chair, I thought that we should vacate downtown completely and give that all up to a better use of development and build a new port -- three times the size of this one, by the way, 200 acres -- off of East 55th Street. That was doable through technology, which I was starting to investigate, and financing through private as well as public money. That’s where things stood in mid-2008. Because Eaton wanted us to start to cease operations of the port if they were going to build their headquarters there, I said, well, no, it’s a working port. If you want to build your headquarters now, we can probably find the land for you. But you’re going to have to tolerate a working port for some number of years. It takes a long time to relocate port operations.
ES: Outside of a successful campaign, what are your hopes between now and November?
MW: I’d like to see if others can draw out the important questions earlier. Ask the questions that voters would want to ask and deserve to know the answers to. If it includes aspects of policy, that’s great. If it includes aspects of politics, well, I understand it will. We can even get into campaign finance issues: who’s funding each candidate and why. There’s such a broad spectrum of issues we could talk about. When you get to the one thing people do see about campaigns, paid advertising commercials, those are really narrow issues. That’s not how you inform voters.