The Plain Dealer newsroom is solemn on Saturday mornings. The soaring two-story ceiling, the light refracting from the massive bank of windows and the rows of empty desks make the space feel almost like a cathedral awaiting Sunday’s Mass. A few reporters and photographers scurry off to assignments. A couple of editors answer phones, hoping the next call isn’t about a plane crash that they have no one left to cover.
Connie Schultz knew that’s what it would be like on Saturday, Sept. 17, hardly anyone there, no one with time to ask what she was doing, a question that might make her cry.
She started cleaning out her desk, filling canvas bags with books and mementos.
She stopped to remember the day six years before when her colleagues had stood applauding at their desks or leaning over the mezzanine rail above. Her columns had won the newspaper its first Pulitzer Prize in more than 50 years. Tears filled her eyes as she saw their shared pride.
There were tears this Saturday morning, too. The empty room came to life for her, bustling with the memories of the people who, 18 years earlier, had given a 36-year-old single mother with no newspaper experience a chance to be a reporter.
She was leaving The Plain Dealer, this time for good.
The next night, she let editor Debra Adams Simmons know. Debra asked Connie to stay. But on Monday morning, Sept. 19, Connie submitted her resignation.
And I’m glad she’s gone.
I’m not glad for the waitresses, steelworkers, teachers and countless other blue-collar workers who heard her voice as their own. And I’m not glad for the legions of young women, including my three grown daughters, who found her work empowering.
But for those who planned to pile even more bile onto her from behind the cloak of a personal computer as the man she loves seeks re-election to the U.S. Senate — I’m glad you lost your favorite target.
I was her editor for six years; I am her friend still. So don’t expect total objectivity here. In 2006, when her husband, Sherrod Brown, challenged Mike DeWine for his Senate seat, I recommended that she take a leave of absence. She resisted until articles and comments by people inside and outside the newsroom helped change her mind. It was the smart thing to do. She became a tireless and effective campaigner for Brown.
She came back to the newsroom after he was elected. It seemed awkward. I jokingly wondered if a senator’s wife could have me disappear for trimming three paragraphs off her column. But there were more serious issues to deal with. She was popular in the newsroom, but not universally beloved. People inside and outside The Plain Dealer began to question whether she was a cipher for her husband’s views.
I thought that was ridiculous.
I spent almost every day with her for months before she met Brown, working on her narrative series “The Burden of Innocence,” which became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. I got a regular dose of her opinions on women, minorities, workers’ rights, the right to choose and gays. Marrying Sherrod Brown did not change her views one bit.
But when she returned to The Plain Dealer after the election, it got so tense that management admonished her and me for mentioning his Christmas stocking in a column on Nov. 30, 2007. It humanized Brown, Connie was told. Soon, her column was moved from the front of the features section to the opinion pages. For a long while, the only reference to her husband allowed was the tag line at the bottom of her column that she detested so — Connie Schultz is the wife of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.
The tension eased when Debra Adams Simmons became editor last year. In August, she decided to move Connie’s column to the front of the Metro section.
But on Sept. 7, Connie wrote about attending a Tea Party rally in Avon. In the column, she neglected to mention that state Treasurer Josh Mandel, her husband’s likely challenger in 2012, had spoken there.
Something else happened that she didn’t write about. A videographer known to be a “tracker” for the Democrats was escorted out of the building. These “trackers” follow the opposing party’s candidates everywhere, hoping to catch a glaring gaffe like former Virginia Sen. George Allen’s “macaca” moment.
Connie was indignant about the decision to oust the videographer from a public event, at a venue funded by taxes in the town where she lived. So she pulled out a Canon PowerShot that she has been packing since she was assaulted by an angry Republican a couple of years ago.
She started recording as Mandel was speaking — a move she later described as “making an in-your-face point about public forums.”
Kevin DeWine, chairman of the Republican Party and cousin of the man defeated by her husband, called it a “blatantly political act,” implying that she was serving as a tracker for the Democrats.
It was a blatantly journalistic act.
But on Sept. 8, Connie wrote a column apologizing for the Tea Party column. She acknowledged her editors’ concern that some could have construed that she was filming her husband’s likely opponent for The Plain Dealer.
Now, she regrets that apology.
If it was a mistake to film Mandel, Connie tells me, “I would rather be a journalist who made that mistake than the coward who has to ask for permission.”
Connie agrees with me that she made one error in covering the Tea Party event: She didn’t tell her editors everything that happened. If she had, they could’ve decided whether she should write the column.
But the Tea Party incident didn’t trigger her departure.
On Friday, Sept. 16, she learned that a volunteer for Brown’s Senate campaign had posted an erroneous item on her personal Facebook page, saying that Connie would be raising money with Brown at an event in Akron. Connie was planning to attend the event, but not speak.
Word reached her editors again. She heard another meeting would be scheduled. Instead, after calling me and others for advice, she decided it was time to go.
Part of her reason was selfless.
“I realized I was putting my editors in a terrible spot,” she says. “They’ve been so supportive. They wanted to make this work. They deserve more than the ugliness that’s heaped on them.”
But in the newsroom that Saturday morning, she knew there was a more pressing reason to go.
On her final trip to her desk, she picked up a bumper sticker mounted on a plaque with a message that she had cherished for years:“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
I was with her at Harvard when she tracked down the author of the quote, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I know that to Connie, “well-behaved” means playing by someone else’s rules.
“I’m a 54-year-old woman,” she says now. “I’m not going to start playing by a new set of rules.”
She stuffed the placard in the bag. And a few moments later, a part of Cleveland’s journalism history walked out of The Plain Dealer’s doors.