Tim McGinty (L) and Mike O'Malley (R) are introduced.
In a back and forth debate at the City Club Tuesday afternoon, incumbent Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty and challenger Mike O'Malley, a former City Councilman, Assistant County Prosecutor, and Safety Director for the City of Parma, emphasized their credentials and attacked the other's credibility in front of a packed house (not to mention viewers online), as both ramp up their campaigns in preparation for the primary elections March 15.
O'Malley reiterated key talking points from prior campaign events
: He pledged to restore faith in the office of County Prosecutor by "building bridges in communities," returning to a "community-based prosecution" model and changing the way use of deadly force cases are investigated and prosecuted statewide.
He said that McGinty, basically, didn't have the right temperament for the job. He has subjected the criminal justice system to a "roller-coaster ride," O'Malley said, ever since his election.
McGinty, meanwhile, touted the advances he's made in his three-and-a-half years in office. He cited vast improvements in the number of high-level indictments, the drastic (90 percent) reduction in death penalty convictions and, moreover, the way the prosecutor's office is now run like a business. McGinty said that under his leadership, information is more readily available online and everyone is more accountable for decisions made.
The death penalty reduction percentage mentioned above references the number of times the prosecutor's office has asked
for the death penalty, not the number of convictions. McGinty's communications director Joe Frolik told Scene
that not a single person has been sent to death row since McGinty took office.
"The prior policy was to seek the death penalty on virtually every eligible case," he said.
In a searing closing statement — delivered, per McGinty's style, without much emotion — McGinty accused O'Malley of exploiting the Tamir Rice case to mobilize support.
"Voters have an important choice," McGinty said. "Is this county going to have a professional prosecutor's office, a non-political
office, or go back to the political patronage machine that failed to stop and see the corruption that so damaged our community with Dimora and Russo?"
McGinty cited a Sunday Plain Dealer
editorial that called O'Malley a "political enforcer and patronage czar."
"My opponent has no platform," McGinty went on. "It's just slander and attack and innuendo. He is a career politician attempting to exploit a tragedy — that's why he's in this race."
O'Malley, throughout the debate, repeatedly distanced himself from former County Prosecutor Bill Mason, under whom he served, reminding McGinty three times that he had never been the
"I was a
county prosecutor," O'Malley said.
Moderator Brandon Cox, a Tucker Ellis attorney, asked tough questions which focused on recent high-profile cases and refused to let the candidates skate by on rhetoric. He invited O'Malley, for instance, to "point to one specific example" where he'd dealt with minority communities, "to give the public confidence in a demonstrated record" of his ability to provide justice for all.
O'Malley evaded that question, saying that as City Councilman, he represented people of diverse communities and that his principal aim as prosecutor would be getting out there and "looking minorities in the eye," so that they'd know, down the road, even if he made a decision with which they didn't agree, he'd be making it on their behalf. Or something.
"They'll know that they can call me at anytime," O'Malley said. "And even if I don't pick up my phone. Their call will be returned."
Cox asked McGinty about the various debacles of the Tamir Rice investigation. Looking back, would he do it differently?
"Yes," said McGinty, who claimed his office was always learning and correcting as they moved along. He said it most certainly could have been handled faster. He turned the question back to O'Malley, though, saying his opponent had never answered the question of whether or not he would have sought an indictment in the Tamir Rice case.
O'Malley responded that he didn't have all the information that McGinty had at his disposal, but that he would have presented the case fairly and impartially to a grand jury.
"And I wouldn't have tainted the process by releasing confidential information to the media," O'Malley said.
O'Malley hinted that McGinty's info dumps had been selective (favoring one media outlet over others) and characterized the general practice of releasing the information, once again, as "an insane desire." When McGinty later read a line from a PD
editorial championing his consistent, methodical release of information, O'Malley quipped that his father taught him at a very young age not to believe everything he read in the newspaper.
The crowd jangled with delight.
McGinty, then, suggested that O'Malley seemed to have a distaste for the Plain Dealer
and that this was likely because the PD
had written so many articles exposing the corruption of the county political system at the time O'Malley served. McGinty urged the gathered crowd — by and large O'Malley supporters, if the rumbling was any indication — to take O'Malley's comments about the Plain Dealer "
with a grain of salt."
O'Malley then jabbed back. That's
just the kind of thing, he said, that displayed McGinty's true human nature.
"What we just saw Mr. McGinty do is again spontaneously attack me personally, which I found offensive, somehow relating that the predecessor in the county prosecutor's office was somehow involved in county corruption, which couldn't be further from the truth," O'Malley said. "Sitting here throwing rocks and throwing mud at Mike O'Malley and the Democratic party will get you nowhere. Period."
The machine's motor purred.
Though O'Malley's specific policy objectives remained thin, his pledge to convene a summit of municipal judges in order to prosecute low-level offenses consistently across the county seemed like a solid idea. He also said that given the national climate and the publicity around police brutality, now is the time to aggressively seek reform in Columbus. O'Malley wants all use of deadly force cases to immediately and compulsorily go to the Attorney General's office.
"Now is the time to strike," O'Malley said. "And I will work with both sides of the aisle to get it done."
One PR highlight for McGinty: When asked about efforts to increase diversity in his office, he pointed to a litany of advances, including gender parity on his staff and increased efforts to recruit minorities. He said that a full 50 percent of his clerks last summer were minorities. McGinty also said that he donates half of his net pay to minority scholarships through the Cleveland Foundation.
"We are committed [to diversity]," he said. "Believe me. We're committed."
Prior to the debate, City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop announced a new format for the Q&A portion of the program. Due to both campaigns' alleged concerns about the "unpredictability" of audience questions, all questions would be read from previously submitted emails, or — to preserve some degree of spontaneity — from questions Tweeted to @TheCityClub or written on note cards during the debate itself.
If anything, the questions were merely guilty of treading on territory already covered by moderator Brandon Cox.
Moulthrop also reminded the partisan crowd to refrain from booing and name-calling during the program, a reminder the crowd heeded (for the most part) with commendable restraint.