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Issue Date: September 2007 Issue


Pork Roast

With his “News from the Pork Barrel Buffet” newsletter, Cuyahoga County Republican Party chairman Rob Frost is trying to cook Jimmy Dimora and the county commissioners for their handling of the Ameritrust Tower and the sales-tax increase. But will his talk of fat budgets and bloated spending make a difference in our one-party town?
Erick Trickey, photos by Eric Mull
If you’ve never heard of Rob Frost, he’ll understand. Anonymity comes with his job as chairman of Cuyahoga County’s outnumbered, beaten-down Republican Party. 

But Frost really hopes to get you thinking about pork, hopes it upsets you as much as it bothers him. The next time you vote, he wants you to think of lard, waste, table scraps thrown to political donors, payrolls and projects as huge as steroid-bloated hogs. He hopes it will incite you to end Greater Cleveland’s long era of one-party rule.

So in May, Frost sent out an e-mail with the big red-letter headline “News from the Pork Barrel Buffet” next to a photo of county commissioner and Democratic chairman Jimmy Dimora. The look on Dimora’s face was caught between complacent and calculating.

“Recently the Cuyahoga County Commissioners decided to throw away more of your tax dollars on a public works project that, if completed, will stand as a monument to decades of Democrat-led government waste and abuse,” Frost announced.
 
Frost was furious that Dimora and fellow county commissioner Tim Hagan voted to tear down the Ameritrust Tower, the skyscraper they bought two years ago. They want to build a new county administration building where the asbestos-laden tower now stands.

“How and why did Cuyahoga County become the owner of this albatross of a piece of real estate?” Frost wrote. “How many fat public contracts will be let to Dimora’s campaign contributors to do the work? … How did the Ameritrust Tower become the main entrée on Jimmy Dimora’s Pork Barrel Buffet?”

The e-mail, sent to local Republicans and a few reporters, only earned Frost a couple of blurbs in The Plain Dealer’s political gossip column. Still, the “Pork Barrel Buffet” was a rare event, a milestone. In Jimmy Dimora’s nine years on the County Commission, almost no one in local politics has challenged him as fiercely as Frost has.

Dimora is Cleveland’s biggest political power broker, one of three commissioners who control the county’s $1.4 billion budget, which includes everything from road repairs to economic development loans to a vast range of human services. Because Dimora chairs the party, aspiring Democrats court his support and cross him only at great risk to their careers. He wins re-election by such huge margins that few Republicans have even seen a point to fighting him.

Frost is Dimora’s opposite-party counterpart, but unlike Dimora, he doesn’t have much power to broker. Greater Cleveland is a one-party town. Democrats control all of county government, every elected office. Democratic primary winners always get the seat. Their unknown Republican opponents march like sheep to the Election Day slaughterhouse, carved up by a 3-to-1 vote margin or maybe a respectable 2-to-1.

To change that, to defy Cleveland’s history and Ohio’s recent swing to the left, Frost is punching, mocking, questioning, criticizing — acting like he’s actually the leader of a strong party in a real two-party system. Six editions of “News from the Pork Barrel Buffet” have attacked the Ameritrust Tower deals, the size of the county’s payroll and political donations to Dimora from county contractors.

Give Frost credit for timing. He’s taking on Dimora and company just when the county — that normally sleepy body, built for the stagecoach era, now Ohio’s second-biggest government, behind only the state’s — has suddenly become the most powerful, important force in Northeast Ohio’s politics.

Cleveland being the country’s poorest city and all, City Hall doesn’t have the cash to do anything big and dramatic to spark prosperity. But the county can try. And that’s just what Dimora and Hagan are doing. They’re spending more than a half-billion dollars to try to jolt some life back into Cleveland’s economy. They’re going to build a new county administration building and a new convention center, move thousands of government workers to depressed Euclid Avenue, invite business travelers downtown, and try to attract medical trade shows to grow our health-care industry. And to fund the convention center, they’ve just raised the sales tax.

So when Frost argues the county is inefficient, careless and indulgent, the stakes are high for him, for his party and for Cleveland. Republicans could benefit from a tax revolt — and could end up obstructing progress. That’s why some fellow Republicans haven’t gotten behind Frost’s attacks. They’re seeking power through bipartisanship, working with the Democrats, nudging and coaxing them toward smarter governing. Since he sent out his first “Pork Barrel Buffet” newsletter, Frost has had to think on his feet, reacting as the Democrats use their power and change the debate.
 
And while Frost criticizes, he’s also got a huge problem to solve. He’s now overseeing the county’s most dysfunctional agency, the board of elections. He’s one of four new board members who have to lead it back to health, make sure it stops losing people’s votes to incompetence and disorganization, and do so without repeating the previous board’s enormous budget overruns. That budget, by the way, is funded by the county commissioners. As Frost watches them, looking for mistakes and overspending, they’re watching him 
 
Rob Frost decided he was a Republican at age 11 after shaking Ronald Reagan’s hand. It was October 1980, the week before Election Day, and his dad took him downtown for Reagan’s famous debate with Jimmy Carter. They couldn’t get into the debate at the Music Hall, so they went to John Q’s Steakhouse and watched it on TV. By the time Reagan delivered his famous closing argument, asking, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” young Rob was captivated by his upbeat promise of better times. He and his dad crossed Public Square to Stouffer’s Inn (now the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel) and greeted Reagan along a rope line in the lobby.

Frost, 38, grew up in Rocky River and spent four years on its City Council, representing the lakefront ward. He already had some expertise in local law, having worked as lawyer for the state auditor, and he learned political compromise and decision-making suburban style — by overhauling the town’s animal control ordinances, regulating pit bulls and invisible dog fences, banning the feeding of ducks and geese. He left the council in May 2006, when he, wife Amy, daughters Bina and Evie and son Gabe moved to Lakewood.

He became chairman of the county Republicans in January 2005, promising to get the party’s anemic fundraising back in order; help suburban city council, mayoral and state representative candidates; and get “back to political relevance on a countywide scale.”

When we first meet in late June, it’s for lunch at Flannery’s, the Irish pub off East Fourth Street. He’s wearing a dress shirt in a stylish shade of purple. With blue eyes and brown hair short in back and tousled up top, he’s classically handsome.

He’s just come from a meeting about the Ameritrust Tower, where Cleveland’s planning commission approved a demolition permit, sealing the building’s fate.

The county bought the 29-story skyscraper at East Ninth Street and Euclid Avenue for $22 million in 2005. This March, Dimora and Hagan voted to tear it down to make room for a new county administration building. Peter Lawson Jones, the third county commissioner, wanted to move the county offices into the tower instead — which Jones argues would cost at least $20 million less. Either way, the county also had to spend $9 million to clean up the tower’s asbestos.

Architecture buffs wanted the county to reuse the tower, built in 1971, because famed architect Marcel Breuer designed it. Environmentalists argued that keeping it would conserve resources. That’s not Frost’s angle.

“Primarily I’m looking at the dollars on it,” he says. He can’t believe the county bought such a huge building just to tear it down, and took on a massive asbestos-cleanup bill besides. It’s part of his broader critique of the county’s leaders.

“Why do they need such a large county administration building?” he asks. “Why is our county work force so large? Why has it grown so much over the last 20 to 30 years, when our county has been shrinking?”
 
The county fought the trend by shedding 1,000 employees in a 2001 buyout, but Frost notes that since then, the total dollar amount spent on payroll has grown much faster than inflation and is now higher than its 2001 level. The county has one employee for every 141 residents, he calculates, compared to a leaner 179 in Columbus’ Franklin County.

“Dimora and company just don’t have the guts to change county pork barrel hiring practices,” Frost charged in his newsletter’s July 3 edition. To Frost, “pork-barrel spending” doesn’t just mean Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” and congressmen bringing home the bacon. His newsletters include a dictionary definition: Government spending “to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their political support, either in the form of campaign contributions or votes.” He thinks that a big payroll means county employees who help their bosses win elections, and that big projects can mean big contributions.

“There’s a lot of potential for political influence dealings to happen on this [administration building project],” Frost says. He even singles out Dimora as having the ability to control contracts, but Frost won’t get into specifics.

“I’ve looked at his financial reports. You see a number of people who do business with the county who are supportive of him.” He refers me to a Scene article on Dimora that named seven examples, from construction companies to developer Dick Jacobs — a longtime Dimora ally who gave him $36,000 in 1998, the year Dimora first ran for commissioner. Jacobs sold the Ameritrust Tower to the county in 2005.

Frost says he doesn’t know if contractors on the new county building project have given to Dimora. They have. Robert Madison, the project’s architect, and Vincent Carbone, owner of co-construction manager R.P. Carbone Co., each gave Dimora $1,000 in December 2005, 10 months before they got their contracts.
 
Then again, who hasn’t given money to Dimora? He raised $154,018 in 2005, including $20,000 at the brunch event where Madison and Carbone gave.

On June 19, Dimora and Hagan announced they wanted to raise the county sales tax to build a new convention center — which would attract a Medical Mart, a showcase for medical equipment, to town — and fund other projects, including the new county building. The local Republican Party’s first reaction was to say the tax increase “should be brought up at the ballot box,” as Frost’s executive director, Steven Backiel, told WKYC TV-3. “We intend to work in a bipartisan fashion to make sure the residents have their rightful say on this issue.”

Over lunch on June 29, Frost agrees that Dimora and Hagan should put the tax hike up for a referendum (“I would have confidence in the voters”), says raising the tax is premature (“There’s currently no project, no plan on the table”), and insists the commissioners just want more money to spend (“They need the tax for their county administration building and payroll”). Cuyahoga County has Ohio’s highest sales tax, he says: 7.5 percent, or 7.75 with the increase. He doesn’t want to risk nudging big stores and new shopping developments across the county line.

I read Frost a quote from local political blogger Chas Rich’s Web site, “NEO Babble”: “Also seeing a glimmer of a chance at relevance, the Cuyahoga County Republican Party is supporting a vote.”

Frost laughs so hard he swallows an ice cube. “Well said!” he exclaims, then clears his throat. “The truth hurts sometimes. But he’s right. We as a party have not been relevant.” That’s why Frost wants to challenge the Democrats in power using classic Republican arguments for frugal, efficient, smaller government and lower taxes.
When you’re a leader of a one-party town, and a guy from the pipsqueak opposition takes a shot at you, there are a lot of ways you can respond.

One is to pat little Robbie Frost on the head.

“He reminds me a lot of myself 30 years ago,” says Tim Hagan. Back then, Hagan was the new, relatively unknown chairman of the local Democrats. “I was railing away against Reagan and Republicans nationally — and it was an effort to be heard.”
 
Another option is to pity your critic.

“It’s a lonely job,” says Hagan. “Sometimes I’m sure he feels like he’s whistling into the wind.” Cuyahoga County has leaned Democratic since the 1930s, and it’s becoming more so as wealthy residents move to the counties next door.

“Bush, at the national level, hasn’t helped [Frost] any. The people who are independent in Cuyahoga County will be voting Democratic next year.” Add Democrats’ near-complete takeover of state offices, Hagan says, and “he’s going to have to ask for divine intervention to make a difference, I think.”

Still, to keep a one-party town a one-party town, sometimes it’s wise to actually engage the minority’s arguments.
 
Is the new sales tax premature? “The only reason we’re considering a convention center is because the Medical Mart said they would come here” if the county builds it, Hagan says in mid-July, before voting on the tax. “Of course there’s no legitimate proposal, there’s no negotiations, because the Medical Mart people have no assurance that we’re going to go forward with the project!”

As for Frost’s critique of the growing county payroll, Hagan blames much of the increase on state and federal programs the county must administer — and which the state and federal governments often reimburse for. Since 2001, Hagan says, “We’ve reduced the general fund three times, and we’ve eliminated a thousand jobs.”

Frost has criticized the 2001 employee buyout, complaining that the $118 million in buyout payments add up to more than the drop in payroll costs. But county budget director Sandy Turk says the buyout has actually saved more than $100 million, once you look at how much higher payroll would be if those 1,000 employees were still around.

“I don’t think [Frost] has a real grasp and depth of understanding of county government,” Hagan says.

Sometimes, graciousness toward the minority-party critic is in order.

“He’s throwing a lot of stuff on the wall,” says Peter Lawson Jones. “Some will stick, some won’t.”

Jones agrees with Frost about the sales tax. “It’s patently obvious we’re moving prematurely,” he says. “We don’t have a deal. The money is not needed for another year, two or three, until we start paying the debt” on the bonds for the convention center. (Jones would rather pay for half of the project with bed, restaurant and real estate taxes, then try to convince private business to fund the rest.)

Jones and Frost both want to keep the Ameritrust Tower, but when Frost came to a March commissioners’ meeting and criticized them for buying the site in the first place, Jones defended the purchase. The county also got the former Cleveland Trust Co. rotunda in the deal, which it plans to keep and build around.

“The rotunda is a gorgeous piece of architecture,” Jones says. “It’s on a great thoroughfare, with easy freeway access and the Euclid Corridor project. I thought it was an ideal location to bring a couple of thousand employees.”

Hagan defends the cost of tearing down the tower, saying it’s inadequate as modern office space, that a state grant will help with asbestos removal and that the parking structure that also came with the tower will help with costs, since it takes in $1.2 million a year. Other county officials question whether reusing the tower would really save money.

Another common response to a critic is anger.

“That’s absolutely, unequivocally nonsense, ridiculous,” bellows Dimora when I read him Frost’s quote about the potential of “political influence dealings” with the county building.

Sounding reasonable is a smart strategy.

“Those contracts are publicly bid,” adds Dimora. “We award them based on the best numbers.”
 
So why do contractors donate to Dimora, if not in hopes of getting business? “They donate to everybody’s campaign, including the Republican Party,” says Dimora. “They’re in town, you’re an elected official, you have a fundraiser, they attend, they buy tickets!”
Wishing for the critic to get a taste of his own medicine is highly effective.

“I don’t know that [Frost] clearly understands the complicated financing of the county,” says Hagan. “I’m sure he’ll learn that at the board of elections now.” The elections agency went $13 million over budget last year, under its former leaders. “He’s going to have to address the real world, instead of pontification.”

Sarcastic humor works too.

“Isn’t it funny, he’s biting the hand that feeds him?” Dimora says in July. “You would think you’d want to be on a good relationship, not antagonistic with people you’re going to be asking for funding from” as a member of the elections board.

When Dimora made a similar comment in The Plain Dealer this May, Frost read it to mean Dimora might deny election funding to retaliate against Frost’s criticism.

“No, not because of that,” Dimora says. “I have had concerns about the election system that we have in Cuyahoga County.” (He’s questioned the cost and reliability of the county’s touchscreen voting machines.) “That’s what I would base my decision on, not Rob Frost,” he says, drawing out his aspiring nemesis’ name like some outrageous exaggeration.

“He’s a small factor in the whole thing. He makes himself more important than he really is, I think.”
In late July, the board of elections holds a quick, quiet meeting. Where activists howled and now-sacked board members bickered, Rob Frost and the rest of the new board are now working, little by little, to improve the way we vote.

Jane Platten, the new elections director, asks the board to reject 11 absentee ballots and six provisional ballots from local elections in May because of various errors, such as voters not providing identification. The board agrees, but Frost speaks up. He knows the elections office sends letters to voters when their provisional ballots are rejected, so they can fix the error for the next election. Can it do the same for rejected absentee ballots? Platten agrees to do that too.

Frost has only been on the job three months. He and his colleagues held their first meeting in May, replacing the old board dismissed by Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. So far, they’ve been asking commonsense questions, plugging cracks in the system where votes get lost. Hopefully, that means the elections agency will be ready in November 2008, when the whole country watches whether Cuyahoga County can vote without the many mistakes that embarrassed us in November 2004 and May 2006.

“[We’re] going to have to be even more critical about insisting that we see the backup plan and the backup to the backup plan,” Frost says. “We’ll be very tough on the staff, on everything from budget to planning to getting the right checks and balances.”

Perhaps you’re wondering what a Republican Party chairman is doing on the board of elections, presiding over contests that, in his other job, he’s trying to win for Republicans. It’s a peculiar quirk of Ohio’s election system, which is bipartisan, not nonpartisan. Two Democrats and two Republicans run the elections in each county.

“It is a public trust,” Frost says. “I don’t stop being a Republican, but when I go there to do that job, I need to do that to the best of my ability, not in a Republican way.”

Partisan battles dragged the old board down, but Frost has already joined with the two new Democrats for the 3-1 vote naming Platten elections director over troubled-agency fix-it man Bill Denihan.

“When I read about him in the paper, I certainly can tell [he’s party chair],” says Inajo Davis Chappell, one of the board’s Democrats. But at their meetings, “I have yet to see any of that manifest itself. I think he’s making an effort to try to keep the responsibilities and nuances of his county party position out of the working and business of the board. I appreciate that.”

Of course, some of the board’s toughest decisions are still to come, including whether to keep the county’s new touchscreen voting machines, which confused poll workers and led to long lines and general chaos in May 2006, forcing the old board to spend millions on better poll-worker training. Also, several studies have shown that hackers could theoretically tamper with touchscreen machines’ vote totals. The secretary of state is conducting an in-depth study of the systems, with results due later this year.

“We went from voting on paper with hanging chads to [the] high-tech 21st century,” Frost says, “and suddenly it’s taking longer to get a result, it’s taking longer to do the job, and it’s costing a lot more money. We need to get to the root of that issue. Technology is supposed to make you more efficient.”
Longtime Cleveland Republicans say Frost has brought steady leadership. He’s the party’s first full-time chairman in years. “He’s raised the level of funding of the party, so it can do some things that haven’t been possible before,” says Dick Pogue, the prominent local lawyer and longtime power player who’s also the county Republican Party’s treasurer. “His style is very professional, very orderly. That encourages people to part with dollars.”

Frost has used the new funds on a few key races, instead of scattering them around, says Bay Village Mayor Deborah Sutherland. “He’s very supportive to candidates. He takes a very targeted approach, which I think is very smart for the party.” Last fall, Frost focused on some county judicial races, and Republicans managed to win a few.

I ask Pogue what he thinks of Frost’s “Pork Barrel Buffet” newsletters. He chuckles. “Well, I think they’re a useful public service,” he says. “They call to the public’s attention some facts that otherwise would not be known. They’re a little more combative than I normally think of him! Normally, he’s kind of above the fray, and these are pretty strong attacks.”

Pogue and Frost don’t agree about the Ameritrust Tower. “We need something dramatic downtown to jump-start economic development activity,” Pogue says. A brand-new building will help, he argues. Sure, adds Pogue, “you could probably save a few bucks” by reusing the tower — but Pogue knows that building, having worked for the bank that built it. “It’s very unsatisfactory in modern times.”

While Frost opposes the sales tax, Sutherland has been working hard to support the Medical Mart. “He and I have agreed to totally disagree about that,” she says.

Frost’s criticism of the county’s planned building boom exposes a split in his party. His arguments appeal to antitax conservatives, but they run up against chamber-of-commerce conservatives’ desire to revitalize downtown with a new convention center and new construction.
When I ask Frost why he thinks Dimora won re-election last year with 75 percent of the vote, he says his Republican opponent, Wendell Robinson, wasn’t well funded — and  Robinson wasn’t tough enough on Dimora.

“There are a lot of people who feel that negative campaigning is just a bad thing. Well, it’s something that works. In my opinion, our county government right now could use some criticism.” He hopes next year’s local Republican slate picks up on his arguments. “[It’s] a necessary and constructive part of the election process. You’ve got to be able to explain to voters why it’s time for a change.”

Frost has a point. If a minority party won’t do that, it’ll never get elected.

But there’s another way to gain influence, as Sutherland has discovered. She’s formed a bipartisan alliance with three other suburban mayors — Judith Rawson of Shaker Heights, Martin Zanotti of Parma Heights and Bruce Akers of Pepper Pike — to push for more regional cooperation in Northeast Ohio. And in mid-July, they warned Dimora and Hagan their constituents would not support the sales tax increase unless it was earmarked only for the convention center and medical mart. Dimora and Hagan took their advice. They publicly dropped their idea of using some of the money for the county building and other projects.

On July 25, the night before the commissioners vote on the sales tax, the county Republicans meet at the Independence Civic Center to decide on their platform. The tax isn’t on the agenda. Instead, about 140 Republicans debate issues such as whether to reduce the size of Cleveland City Council.

As they wrap up, Frost takes the mic. He hurries through a statement about the sales tax, fighting the buzz of restless Republicans ready to go home. He says the party needs to “review closely” the county’s actions on the sales tax, “propose specific reforms to our county government to make it more efficient and cost-effective,” and “elect Republicans who will cut the county budget by 2 percent a year.” That’s it.

The commissioners vote 2-1 to raise the sales tax the next afternoon. Dimora, for once, admits he’s scared for his job.

“Yes, I am risking my political career here, by imposing this tax,” he says. But he argues the Medical Mart is a smart investment in Cleveland’s medical industry. “What other development opportunity of this magnitude is out there to change [our] course and direction? There isn’t any.”

If Frost is still against the tax hike, he isn’t saying so the next day. He admits Republicans are divided on the issue. Dimora and Hagan “made a shrewd move, a good move,” by earmarking the tax for one project, he says. “At that point, it’s not about the county budget anymore,” he argues, because the tax won’t give the commissioners any “almost-slush funds” to spend as they like.

Frost says he wants to take a longer view and argue for a leaner county budget. It’s no “Pork Barrel Buffet” e-mail; no anger or drama, just the hard part of being in opposition, weighing the facts and trade-offs.

Then the tables turn on him.
 
Just months after Frost began criticizing the county commissioners’ budget, they criticize his. On Aug. 1, Platten, the elections director, asks for an extra $6.5 million for 2007’s local elections. The next day, she, Frost and the other board of elections members meet with the commissioners to ask for the money.

“It went fine,” Frost says. “There were no awkward personal moments.”
The commissioners have seen this before: last year, when the elections agency’s old regime started with an $11.4 million budget, then spent an additional $12.9 million to recover from the disastrous May primary. Now, Platten has discovered that the former board’s $16 million budget request for 2007 left out a bunch of costs they should have foreseen.

“Their oversight,” Frost says, “leaves us now with cleaning up that mess.”

The forgotten costs include $800,000 for more absentee ballot postage, since new laws have made it easier to vote by mail, and another $800,000 for more voting-machine memory cards, since cards used in federal elections can’t be erased for 22 months.

Meanwhile, payroll is “going through the roof,” Frost says: $2 million over budget. The board has more “temporary” employees than full-timers, but half of the “temps” have stayed more than a year.

Alarmed, Hagan and Jones warned the elections board that Cuyahoga County spends $20 per registered voter on elections, compared to a state average of $10. (Dimora was absent for family reasons.)

Hagan also pressed the board about touchscreen voting’s costs and security. Platten said she doesn’t want to risk chaos during a presidential election by changing systems again. But if the agency can’t make touchscreen voting cost-effective, Frost says, it’ll need to consider a change after 2008.

For now, our elections officials have to cut costs without creating more long lines and confusion on Election Day. Frost says he’s already asked Platten to get the payroll under control.

“We need to get to where this board can operate efficiently,” Frost says. “We can’t try to get so efficient it’s restricting people’s access to the vote.”

Meanwhile, Frost says he’ll run for another term as party chairman next year. He plans to stay in that job “for the foreseeable future.”
But someday, could he become the sort of aggressive, thoughtful Republican candidate he hopes will run against Cuyahoga County’s leaders? He’s getting good practice for county office. The “Pork Barrel Buffet” e-mails show he knows how to start a debate. Now he’s learning how to trim the fat and slice up the pig.

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