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Issue Date: May 2005 Issue


The Other Side of Coyne

You expect his life to be over. To find him cowering in a corner, meek as a kitten and shaking with shame. That's not the style of former Brook Park mayor Tom Coyne. But can a man go from passed-out on the evening news to elected office? Here, Coyne discusses his troubles with alcohol, what happened that fateful night in North Olmsted, his future in politics and his wedding plans.
Colleen Mytnick
mytnick@clevelandmagazine.com
"Are you an alcoholic?"
 
It's the first question I pose to Tom Coyne, who, after recently finishing a 66-day jail stint, now sits on a couch at the Rocky River Starbucks. He looks like any businessman who's stopped in for coffee — until he crosses his legs, exposing a contraption that will detect alcohol vapor and rat him out if he consumes a drink.

The question feels rude. You're supposed to encourage people in recovery, not dredge up the past and demand to know exactly what the future holds.

But for Coyne, who both built and ruined his reputation on the evening news, there isn't much privacy anymore. For those few who don't know, Coyne had served as mayor of Brook Park for 20 years and was contemplating a run for Congress when he was found passed-out and half-naked on a driveway in North Olmsted. That episode was preceded by a DUI and followed by a drug test that detected cocaine in his system.

"I'm powerless over alcohol," he responds, "but I'm not addicted to alcohol."

What's the difference between that and being an alcoholic?

"Same thing," he says.

Coyne is not a textbook alcoholic. When asked if it was hard to stop drinking, he says no without hesitation. He never craved it, he adds. His problem was that once he started drinking, he sometimes couldn't stop. While he does attend court-ordered Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he concedes that he has not adopted the "humble" demeanor that typically goes hand in hand with the 12 steps of recovery. That's just not his style, he says. An intense optimist, Coyne prefers not to dwell on how he's hurt his family and ruined his life. He'd rather rebuild.

This may be the part of the story where Coyne loses your good faith: Since his DUI, Coyne says the only times he's had a drink or done a drug have been the times he was caught — that night on the driveway and when cocaine was found in his system. What's more, it was the only time in his life he's ever taken an illegal narcotic.

Does he think people will believe him, especially about the cocaine?

"Ummmm," he says, thinking. "Probably not. All I can say is what the truth is. Anybody who knows me knows that. I mean, I don't even smoke cigarettes. I don't even take aspirin for God's sake."

Everyone who's known an addict has been asked to believe things that seem improbable and turn out to be lies. Is this any different?

Coyne is the type of guy you want to believe. Everyone uses the same cliche to describe him: He lights up a room. And it's true. He's got the gift of making you feel as if you're the only person in the world when he's talking to you. He's also wonderfully adept at walking in both blue- and white-collar worlds, one minute coming off as a scrappy kid from Cleveland who understands the little guy and the next as a sophisticate who, in his fine-gauge sweaters and stylish loafers, could blend in at any country club.

More important than his charm is his talent. In a landscape of politicians who play it safe, he's got the "get things done" gene shared by great mayors like the Daleys of Chicago, Rudy Giuliani and, yes, some would say Mike White.

So, the question becomes: Has Coyne accepted that he's an alcoholic, squared up with the truth and set off on an earnest road to recovery? Or is he destined to reappear on the evening news for another DUI, failed drug test or public embarrassment?

For most addicts, the question is a private one, shared only with close friends and family.

For Coyne, the implications of his actions are much greater. He's a man who is wired to lead, is happiest at the helm. And half of him wants to take another stab at public life. He has little chance of winning an election — any election — unless people can sympathize with his mistakes, yet trust that he won't make them again. What you think after reading this article could affect his life.

His fall was unbelievable. His rise must be just the opposite.

A few years back, I noticed a bouncer patrolling a back door to the Funky Buddha nightclub in the Warehouse District and — curious — asked what was up. It turned out the man was waiting for Coyne, a VIP guest who was scheduled to arrive to celebrate the club's one-year anniversary.

Intrigued by the prospect of a middle-aged politician who partied like that, I called Coyne for a chat. "I've paid the mortgage on the Warehouse District," he told me. "I'm 52 and single. What can I tell you?" The whole conversation was on the record, which surprised me even more. I'd expected him to play down his partying, not revel in it.

Coyne, a divorced father of two grown children, is also known for dating the kind of attractive young women found in disproportionately high numbers in hip places like the Funky Buddha. Walk into the condo he's renovating in Ohio City and his appreciation of beauty jumps out at you in the form of dozens of photos and paintings of Marilyn Monroe.

But it wasn't just the Warehouse District. The life of a politician revolves around social functions. Social functions revolve around alcohol. Plus, Coyne was mayor of Brook Park, a town where he says people "work hard and play hard." For years, he was on a competitive softball team. That, too, usually involves a bit of alcohol.

That's how it started.

"In the city I represented, that was the town," he says. "That was it. That was people. You didn't think anything about it, because there were no consequences."

Coyne admits he didn't see the toll drinking was taking on him. "What was scary was that I could do it and function for many years," he says. "I didn't see this coming."

Coyne's friends say he began to lose control when he left politics. "To me, the root of his problem is that he was — and probably still is — having trouble with the transition from being the center of the universe," says former Cleveland city councilman John Zayac, who lives in the building where Coyne is renovating a unit. "You can't be as successful as he has been without being a charismatic person. When he walks into a room, the room lights up. He's perfectly suited for politics and government."

When he left politics to start a consulting business, Coyne lost his stage and some of his motivation. "He had a lot of time on his hands and I think he was actually bored," says real-estate developer and restaurateur Tony George.

In September 2003, Coyne — who was then chair of the Cuyahoga Board of Elections — was pulled over for weaving while on the way to visit a friend in Westlake. He refused to take a Breathalyzer test, failed field sobriety tests and was arrested for drunken driving, according to Westlake police.

Coyne says he still didn't realize he had a problem. Instead, he was angry at Rocky River municipal Judge Donna Congeni Fitzsimmons, who he thought was being "personal, political and punitive" for sentencing him — as a first-time offender — to three days in jail and a five-day inpatient assessment at The Cleveland Clinic to determine if he had a drinking problem. (While Coyne says he has since accepted total blame for the trouble he got into, he still says there should be uniform sentencing for first-time offenders. He speculates that if such a system had been in place he would have focused more on his treatment and less on his punishment.)

Then things got worse — much worse.

On the day Coyne found out he would get his license back last August, he and his girlfriend, Christine Zeh, went out to celebrate over margaritas at Nuevo Acapulco in North Olmsted. He says that's the last thing he remembers of the night.

This is what he's pieced together by speaking with people: When Zeh returned to the table from a trip to the restroom, Coyne was gone, apparently having decided to walk the few miles home through the Metroparks. She drove around searching for him, with no luck. "She was looking for me all night," Coyne says.

Meanwhile, Coyne had passed out on a Columbia Road driveway and was found by a resident there at 2 a.m.

The first thing Coyne recalls is waking up in a bed at Fairview General Hospital, with a doctor and two police officers hovering over him, their faces distorted like the ones in a fun-house mirror. He ripped his neck brace off, threw it down and called Zeh to pick him up.

Coyne says he'd never blacked out before and that it terrified him. "I could have died," he says, a pained look spreading across his face. "I could have had a heart attack or a stroke. I didn't have my mind. I don't know what the hell happened to me."

He says one thought rose above the rest: I cannot do this anymore. That is the moment, he says, that he realized he was "powerless over alcohol."

Coyne quickly arranged to meet three friends at Nate's Deli in Cleveland: Zayac, George and attorney Ken Seminatore. Coyne was shaken and quiet, his cell phone ringing incessantly.

When his friends suggested that Coyne go through rehab at the Clinic, where he'd recently spent five days after being ordered, he balked. "He got his Irish up and said he was not going back there," Zayac recalls.

Coyne had another idea. "You know what? I'm going to go to Betty Ford," Zayac remembers him saying. "That's where all the celebrities go."

Coyne asked his friends where the clinic was located, dialed information, got someone on the line and talked his way into a place that usually takes at least a month to get into.

Upon hearing that Betty Ford required a payment of $21,000 before admitting a patient, George took the phone and put the entire amount on his credit card. (He has since been paid back.)

Zayac says that, because Coyne was still on probation, it was likely the judge would throw him in jail if they didn't act fast. He called his travel agent and booked a flight via Pittsburgh to California. "I set up the first flight we could get," Zayac says. George arranged to have Coyne driven to Pittsburgh.

Zayac says he later found out that Judge Congeni Fitzsimmons had indeed put out an all-points bulletin for Coyne.

"By that time," says Zayac, "he was gone."

Coyne didn't know that footage of him passed out had made the news until his daughter called him the next day at Betty Ford. As expected, it devastated him. "I deserved this," he says, "But my kids, my mother had to see this on TV."

While the media bashed him, the people of Cleveland lifted him up. Coyne says he has cried only four times in his adult life: when his father died, when his son was born, when his daughter graduated from Great Lakes Naval Training Center and when he read the hundreds of letters of support sent to him at Betty Ford. "It was amazing," he says. "Just amazing."

When Coyne returned from Betty Ford, he says he complied with the terms of his probation and didn't drink any alcohol. But then Judge Congeni Fitzsimmons ordered him back to jail and revoked his driving privileges as a penalty for breaking his probation during the August drinking binge. Coyne says his anger at the judge (which he now stresses was totally misguided) caused him to commit perhaps the biggest mistake of his life, which he has since dubbed "an experiment in anger."

"In my view, a compassionate judge would have said, 'OK, here's what happened to this guy -- he went to Betty Ford. We're going to walk with him the extra mile,' " Coyne says. Instead, she punished him. And he was furious.

That was Coyne's emotional backdrop when he ran into some old friends (who were, ironically, reformed drinkers who attended AA meetings) last October and accepted an invitation to a card game. Things were fine until 6 a.m., Coyne says, when one of them allegedly offered him cocaine, saying, "You ought to try this. This isn't going to get you into any trouble."

So he did. And got busted later that day when he reported to his probation officer for drug testing. He claims it is the only time he ever took an illegal drug.

That's when Coyne got sent to jail for 66 days, including four days in county jail that he recalls almost fondly for the chance it gave him to talk with people. "It was like I was the jailhouse lawyer," he laughs. "They'd be coming to me, asking for advice."

"Do you see this orange uniform?' he'd ask. "I'm the same as you."

"But can you help me?" they'd counter. And Coyne helped them as best he could, telling them what he knew about the judges they'd be facing and helping them compose letters.

Boredom didn't set in until his 32 days in the Bedford Heights jail, during which he paced the length of the cellblock, watched "Law and Order" and read book after book, including John Lennon's biography, "The Godfather Returns," "A National Party No More" by Zell Miller and the beginning of a biography of Ronald Reagan.

Coyne says there is a "50-50 chance" that he will run for elected office again.

"Am I capable? Damn right I am," he says. "But I have mixed emotions about it. I think my ability is needed. ... The issue is whether I want to do it or whether the media will allow me to do it. Will the issue always be Tom Coyne is a recovering alcoholic?"

So where might he run? "I think the only two places where you can really make an impact is mayor, probably more than anything else, or the Congress," he says.

While some politicians watch their words, Coyne is just the opposite, openly criticizing current politicians for their lack of ideas and ability to get things done. Here's what he says about his motivation for running for Congress: "It's obvious why. We need somebody from Cleveland in Congress who understands what this world is all about. In my view, and he was a friend of mine, I think Dennis [Kucinich] is a thespian. He's a great actor. He comes from the theater background and he's acting out his own personal rainbow, I guess. That's great for him, but it's not good for us."

If Coyne were to run for mayor, it would likely be in Cleveland, as he plans to be living there by early summer after his condo renovations are finished. The place is within walking distance of where Coyne was born.

These days, he stands on the balcony, looking down at Scranton Peninsula behind Tower City and wondering why it isn't developed. It's home to a concrete plant, but Coyne says it would have been the perfect spot for the Rock Hall and Great Lakes Science Center.

The Browns Stadium is in the wrong place, too. Where it now sits would have been ideal for high-end housing to draw business leaders who instead live in Hunting Valley or Bratenahl.

Yes, his ideas for the city are bold. "He's way ahead of his time," notes his friend, Tony George. "The so-called leaders that are now in office can't even comprehend the vision that Coyne has."

One example is Coyne's idea for Cleveland schools: Hire a handful of the best teachers in the country and pay them each $200,000 or so a year to instruct via a movie screen. Students in grades 7 through 12 would gather in cineplexes to hear their lessons and also meet in small groups led by a secondary team of teachers.

"I was thinking about going to Bill Gates and saying, 'Will you work with me to create the school system of the future?' " he says. "Let Cleveland be the guinea pig."

To the skeptics, he would say this: "Can it hurt?" And then he pauses, looks straight in my eyes and flashes his trademark smile — a grin bursting with confidence that he holds for a beat before moving on.

If the idea sounds far-fetched, consider that Coyne has a reputation for getting things done. He counts his three biggest political accomplishments as the airport deal whereby the city of Brook Park acquired the NASA Glenn Research Center, the cleaning up of the strip joints on Brookpark Road and "sustaining Ford and NASA."

His biggest failure?

"I didn't have any," he replies.

While that may sound cocky, Coyne has always been highly respected among West Siders. And in Brook Park, he won seven consecutive elections.

To find out what Coyne's former constituents think of him post-scandal, I head to the city, circling by the massive Ford plant, the airport, the I-X Center and NASA before finally breaking into the core of the city, where all the homes, people and stores are tucked away.

At Amy Joy Donuts, a handful of people sip coffee and smoke cigarettes. If Coyne were to run for elected office, would they vote for him?

Pat, the manager, mouths an exaggerated Noooooooo, before elaborating: "He's a drunken drug addict."

A police officer who has dropped in is more forgiving, but still wouldn't vote for him for mayor of Brook Park. "I personally like the man, but how embarrassing would that be for the city?" he asks. If Coyne were to run for Congress, however, the officer says he'd definitely consider him.

"They elected Bill Clinton twice," interjects a NASA employee named John. "What's the difference?"

My next stop is a barbershop in Brookgate Shopping Center. "I like him," says Don, scissors in hand. "He's a good guy. He was a good mayor. He did a lot for this city. He did a lot for the seniors. The seniors love him out here." But would he vote for him? "All depends who he'd be running against," Don says.

Rick, a retired firefighter, sighs before answering the question. "Probably not," he says softly. "It's hard to trust someone after he's done something like that. Drinking really messes up your judgment."

Does he think Coyne would have a shot running for mayor of Cleveland?

"He'd clean house," shouts Don, who's heard the question from across the room. "He'd have a good chance, I think. And I think he'd clean it up."

For his part, Coyne claims his reputation as a public official is still intact. "My reputation is impeccable as a politician," he says.

To those who say he's a drunk and shouldn't be in politics, he counters, "You can't battle ignorance." The same sort of prejudice keeps some people from voting for minorities or Jews, he continues.

He compares alcoholism to a chronic disease. "If you do what you need to do, you can lead a meaningful life."

Coyne says he thinks more people than not can relate to the problems he's had — either personally or through a friend or family member — and will give him a second chance. "Ballplayers or people in the movies," he says, "they come back from these things." Winston Churchill was a known alcoholic.

The No. 1 question he's asked, he says, is proof that people can overlook his mistakes: When are you going to run for office?

Coyne says he knows the state in which people expect to find him: "hunched over and hiding in a corner."

How have the last three years changed his personality?

"My personality?" he asks, as if the question is absurd. "Hasn't changed a bit."

During rehab, Coyne says he was criticized for not seeming humbled enough. "You're not going to change my personality," he states. "You're not going to change my confidence. I'm not lacking in any confidence whatsoever. My personality's always been the same."

These days, Coyne has returned to his consulting business and is looking forward to getting his license back. He has two Jaguars (made in Brook Park, he points out) that are sitting idle.

A bigger event is just around the corner. Coyne and girlfriend, Christine Zeh, plan to marry this fall. It's worth pointing out that she is 33 years old — and, as Coyne puts it, "one of the most beautiful women in Cleveland." She doesn't hide it, either. The day I met her, she was wearing a short skirt and thigh-high white boots.

Coyne's friends have gotten on his case for dating attractive, younger women sometimes lacking ambition. And he says they have been critical of Zeh, too. "They think she was a bad influence on me, she's too young for me, that I should have somebody older to settle me down," he says. "In reality, she's settled me down."

And while Coyne stayed true to form by pairing with a younger, good-looking woman, there is a difference this time: Zeh is working on her dissertation at Cleveland State University and should soon have her Ph.D. in urban education.

Zeh, who began dating Coyne shortly before his troubles started, says she was attracted to him by "his smile and his charm," which he has never lost. "There's not a lot of people out there who can go through what he went through and still have such a hopeful, go-lucky spirit," she says. "He carries on strongly."

She says Coyne is a hopeless romantic, the kind who'll surprise you with roses and a candlelit dinner with all of your favorite foods.

Children may also be a part of Coyne's future. "We've talked about that," he says, adding that his age is an obvious consideration. "We'll see."

For now, Coyne says he's living in the moment and feels good. "I'm incredibly blessed in my life," he says. "I have really no issues with God. There's some reason that I got that DUI that evening. There's some reason why I've went through this experience. And there's some reason that I did that silly experiment in anger one night. There's some reason all of this happened. There's something else for me to do • and what I do best is bringing about something good for people.

"What form does that take at this time? I don't know."

Looking at Coyne, who once referred to himself as "prince of the city," it's hard to imagine him staying off the stage for very long.

"Was I born to be mayor?" he asks, flashing that grin. "Probably so."


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