by Frank Lewis
There’s a new sheriff in town. Nobody be alarmed.
Last Saturday morning, county Dems huddled up by precinct inside the soon-to-be-spruced Cleveland Public Hall to choose the second sheriff in nearly two generations that will maybe — who knows? — care about little things like, well, enforcing the law. With two candidates whittled down from 13 — one tall and black from Central Cleveland’s projects, the other short and not-black or once-poor from Bedford Heights — no better view could be had region-wide to witness the precarious balance that still exists between city and suburbs.
Word came in before the big day that ex-Bedford Police Chief Robert Reid, current Bedford city manager and all-around mayors and managers association schmoozer, was the party pick over Clayton Harris, chief of Tri-C’s police, as well as its police academy, and all-around can of whoop-ass as a former Cleveland police commander with a master’s degree in business administration just to hang it in your face. Leading up to the vote, everybody, black and white, was talking about why Reid was probably going to win, even though it was evident to most everyone who witnessed their resumes and speaking ability put side to side that Harris would really be the one to restore confidence after three decades of Gerald McFool. And let’s not forget about the several months of federal investigations into alleged county corruption, favoritism and rule-bending allowed under county Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, the county boss.
“Seems that a large amount of people are for Dimora’s pick,” said Cleveland Councilman Kevin Conwell, chair of Council’s Public Safety Committee, who was schmoozing around inside the front doors, past all the leafleteers and last-minute smokers. “I’m hoping [for] Harris, but who knows. The black establishment is solidly dominant in city politics, but the outlying municipalities are strongly represented in county politics.”
CoolCleveland.com columnist Mansfield Frazier was all smiles as he loudly went group to group with an observation: “Looking at the panel, I was just wondering how black people are represented around here.”
Dimora, who worked his way up from janitor to mayor to his current perch with his name on his hometown of Bedford’s recreation center, mastered the ceremony with charm and a dusting of self-deprecation. Around him on the stage is a panel of party officers, all white except Cleveland Councilwoman Mamie Mitchell, who was quickly called forward as recording secretary to read a bulletin and returned quietly to her seat at the end of a long table. Vice chair Pat Britt, a black woman, wasn’t on the stage.
The new Sheriff will serve until May 2010, when he will run (translation: win) in the Democratic primary in spring and then coast on through to November. Dimora thanked his ward leaders for nominating Reid, then started a fair-enough show of objectivity, the nominations and their rhetorically retarded speeches. Reid? “Experience, professionalism, accountability!” Harris? “A very fine public servant.” And for both it might be true.
Dimora called for more nominations. “All in favor?” Aye’s all around. “Any opposed?” and he immediately gaveled the podium before anyone could answer. “The ayes have it.” Everybody laughed. “That’s how I operate, baby.” More laughs. Yes, we know it’s all been worked out before. Har-de-frickin’-har.
And it was on. Reid came forward first, spilled his Bedford-centric resume and time spent getting to know all the right people around the county, then promised to “work hard to earn the trust of the voters across the county.” He didn’t say how.
But Harris was unequivocal. As a little boy, he’d seen a man killed and, like a superhero, became “dedicated to protecting people’s lives against others.” He called himself “the most well-rounded and best candidate,” and most everyone seems to agree … at least with the first part. “Every day I wear that badge and that uniform, I will remember each and every one of you. I will not fail to serve that office well.” The applause roared twice as loud as Reid was able to coax. A superhero? For us?
And then 487 Central Committee members — only a third of those who could have come and cast a vote — broke off into little groups.
“They’re so experienced, either one is going to be fantastic,” said ex-Broadview Heights Mayor Glenn Goodwin, who was schmoozing in the back corner of the nosebleed section with Cleveland Council President Marty Sweeney, his comfort in yard-work clothes completed by the old beat-up dock-siders. They talked about how Reid’s the one, though, with the political experience that often matters most. “It’s not just Dimora, not just one political heavy-hitter in his corner,” explained Goodwin.
The votes were stacking up predictably: strongly for Reid in the outlying ’burbs, a mixed bag for the inner ring (Shaker and Cleveland Heights coming out strong for Harris, Euclid and Parma breaking for Reid), and Harris all the way on the East Side. Mixed votes also were easily predicted in Cleveland neighborhoods starting to look diverse. Little Oakwood offered up its two votes each for Reid and Harris, and Dimora said, “Love it! A diplomatic community there!” A diplomatic way to say mixed-race, you big Charm Pop.
Reid won with 280 votes. Harris pulled away 206. Half the crowd cheered. But few wanted to talk about race as a factor. Dimora was praised by both sides of Cleveland’s aisle for “a good job” and “a well-run meeting.” And he too dismisses the color of the candidates’ skin. “They’re both well-qualified,” he says. “They both had good experience. That’s why it all lined up fairly balanced. They were looking for qualifications, then voting for the individual of their choice.” He also noted Reid’s head-start in the meet-n-greet department.
Did he worry about anyone thinking it was more than a coincidence that Reid hails from the Heights of Dimora’s hometown of Bedford? “There’s people living in both cities,” is all he would answer.
The cameras swarmed around Reid on the stage. Not a single reporter is talked to Harris, in the front row, stage left. Was this a racial thing? I asked him.
“I don’t know politics enough to give you an answer,” he said. “I just put my credentials and good name and work up against Big Power, and it didn’t work.”
“With Obama, you’d think that wouldn’t matter so much anymore,” I said, or something like that. Harris exhaled and slowly inched toward another group, lifting his eyebrow. A supporter, Gladys Harrison of Shaker Heights, got his back. “That kind of thing won’t be broken in one vote,” she said. “It has to change in everybody’s hearts.”
On the way out, Conwell chatted up his side of the aisle. He shook his head. He’d called it.
“It’s hard for an African-American to win county-wide,” he said. “Clearly you see what happened here. They want to talk about regionalism but you see right there why the African-American community is afraid of it. Because of just what we saw here today.” — Dan Harkins