The man of the hour is backlit in neon greens and blues. He grips the microphone in his right hand and gestures sturdily with his left, commanding the stage despite his wiry frame.
"Cleveland!" There's a deep pause as a fog machine spurts clouds around him. "... is the most important city in the United States!"
Several dozen people fill the room of Ace's Grille in Middleburg Heights on a snowy January night, which is exactly where you'd imagine high-minded political discussion to be taking place. The skinny guy on stage bellows jaunty calls for change and jobs, jobs, jobs. Even the '80s cover band stationed around him lowers their beers to focus on this speech, for this is a defining speech. It is the main event for Tanner Fischbach's first and only fundraising event, after all, in his race to become county executive.
Fischbach, who is 19 years old and going on 40, ambles to and fro. He opens his monologue ranting against the Plain Dealer, which poked fun at Fischbach's quirky fundraising emails and odd lapses in grammar. Grabbing the underdog flag with both hands, he next takes aim at the big ones -- Ed FitzGerald, Jack Schron, Frank Jackson. This is what he does.
Once Tanner exhausts himself and there are no more enemies to name, at least not tonight, the Breakfast Club launches back into '80s classics. "Born in the USA" is conspicuously absent.
Ace's bar is lined with mostly foamy diversions, nothing fancier than a gin and tonic sullying the dive's atmosphere. A couple of guys occupying the neighboring barstools guffaw their way through Cheap Trick's "Surrender," pausing just briefly to shake Fischbach's hand and congratulate him on being here and giving the Old Guard some overdue and absolute hell.
Fischbach, now flitting across the bar, broadcasts a mile-wide smile and greets late-comers shuffling in off icy Pearl Road. He's moving briskly and stopping only occasionally to cast a smirk or a nod toward the band onstage, though the soundtrack to the night's festivities was chosen carefully by the candidate.
"I'm a big '80s music fan," Fischbach says. "I love Meat Loaf and all that, and a lot of people think that's crazy."
Well, that's just the start of it.***
Tanner Fischbach vaulted onto the local political scene last October out of nowhere.
"I'm 20 years old and running for this position, and people think I'm crazy for doing so," he told The Plain Dealer. (A background check by the PD showed Fischbach was actually 19. Auspicious beginnings for a political candidate.)
He was the first Republican to enter the county exec fray, launching a Facebook campaign page and gathering petitions from the Board of Elections. It was a surprise to just about everyone outside of Fischbach's small circle, and a total surprise to Cuyahoga County Republican Party Chairman Rob Frost. Responses to his announcement alternated between bemusement and abject insults.
"He is not anybody we know or worked with," Frost told the PD at the time. "I appreciate his enthusiasm, but I expect a strong, established Republican candidate." (With sad trombone melodies whomp-whomping in the background, the party eventually landed Jack Schron.)
Who was this young crusader? If he was a mystery within political circles, he was a complete nobody outside of them. What little could be gleaned from Fischbach's Internet footprint wasn't much -- he worked at Southwest Golf Center in Berea and had volunteered for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. He said he admired Rush Limbaugh and Ken Lanci and that he attended something called the Limbaugh Institute in West Palm Beach, Fla. His grammar was dubious, though he confirmed a deep love for '80s music.
Fischbach was ready to start talking now, ready to flesh out the candidate for public view. This is what a campaign's all about, after all. And so it began with this: "I don't really have a [political] background, nothing much," he told the PD. "I'm just here to let the people have a voice."
Here, then, was your conduit to the highest political office in the county, dear voters. The man who wanted to hand the microphone back to you, if only for a Journey sing-a-long.***
Fischbach's voice is rough when we talk to him in mid-December. He details a nasty bout of illness that has plagued him for a couple weeks now and apologizes for missing an interview. This would become a hallmark going forward - his penchant for missing interviews, that is, not necessarily the illness.
Eventually, he agrees to meet up at a McDonald's on the southern hemline of Parma. He's wearing the same purple shirt and tie combo that he wears in his Facebook profile photo for his campaign. It's as if he wriggled right out of the computer already in character.
"You know what? I'm feeling much better now." Fischbach says in between slurps of Coke. "Everyone's texting me: 'I'm sorry you're sick, but stay away from me,' you know? The only thing I've got now is a cough, so I promise I won't get you sick or anything." His voice carries the quick lilt of his native Boston.
He leans back in his chair and, with a wistful smile, begins explaining his intentions, delving into his time at Berea High School - ground zero of his political awakening, as it were. The whole district mirrors the deep blue hues of the county, so the slightly younger Fischbach saw ample opportunity to engage in healthy debate around the halls. This was back when Gov. John Kasich was championing Senate Bill 5 (Issue 2) across the state, prior to Fischbach's 2013 graduation.
"When you have a young Republican punk coming through your hallways..." Fischbach starts off with a laugh. "I remember they put a couple posters in the school. You know, 'No on Senate Bill 5' and all that. I went up to the administration and, well, 'Am I allowed to put up posters for Senate Bill 5? Is this how it's gonna go?' I think it was like an hour later that they took them down, because I would do it. I would do it!"
He pursues this tangent: "I would love to see a push for another Senate Bill 5 if we could for the whole state. But if we could push something countywide, that'd be great. And a lot of people probably aren't going to vote for me for saying that."
Whether it's naivete, balls, or the comfort of being an absolute outsider with no chance at winning, Fischbach's budding campaign hinges largely on calling out anyone, whether fellow GOPers or not. He spouts antipathy at length and shakes his head at mentions of Ed FitzGerald, Jack Schron and Frank Jackson before riding out a rant against the Good Old Boys Club of local politics. Distant chumps, all.
He's been gunning to take them down for years now, especially after watching some of his Republican heroes (the Rick Perrys, Mitt Romneys, and Ken Lancis of the world) fall to Democratic victors. It's not been an easy thing to watch his more established counterparts fall.
In April 2013, Fischbach's mother died, which added profound shock to his tiers of adult stress. The loss also tore him from plans to run for the mayor of Berea (he never pulled petitions, just told everyone that he was running). The next year, of course, buoyed by whatever was stirring inside him, he aimed higher than mayor of the small Cleveland suburb.