Thursday, August 16, 2007

Kalb's Brain

Kalb at Council Meeting

The news has been dominated this week with reactions to the hasty departure from Washington of Karl Rove, “Bush’s Brain.”

For the last several years, ever since Jim Kalb was elected mayor of Portsmouth, I have been struck by the similarities between Bush and Kalb, from their purported past heavy drug use to their incompetence and conspicuous lack of intelligence. Kalb has become a joke locally for the same reason Bush has nationally and internationally. It may say something about where this country is headed that the chief executive officer, at both the national and local levels, both the President of the United States and the Mayor of Portsmouth, appear to suffer from a very serious handicap: like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, neither of them appears to have a brain.

Unable to think for themselves, they rely on others to do their thinking for them. If Karl Rove is Bush’s brain, who is Kalb’s? As far as I can figure out, it’s the man who was instrumental in helping him get elected, Neal Hatcher. The flatulent frat boy who found himself elevated to the White House by the likes of Karl Rove and the serial grocery clerk who was put in the mayor’s chair at the Municipal Building by the likes of Neal Hatcher, that is not the American Dream: that is the American nightmare. There is a tendency in Portsmouth for the over-privileged to tap the socially marginal and misdemeanor miscreants for public office. Remember ex-felon Mike Malone's interest in serving on the City Council, which the City Clerk and the City Solicitor did nothing to discourage? Don't be flabbergasted to someday see Tim Loper as a candidate for mayor. David Kuhn did everything he could to keep Loper on City Council, even though he was unqualified to serve, according to the city charter, because he was not a legal resident of the ward he claimed to represent.

If Hatcher is Kalb’s brain, it would explain why the city government has been tied up in knots for the last several years over the issue of a new municipal building. Kalb has said publicly more than once that the land the present municipal building sits on is “prime real estate” and that some unnamed developer wants it. Kalb and the city government may have accommodated that unnamed developer by systematically neglecting upkeep of the Municipal Building while at the same time declaring it decrepit and dangerous. Though the Municipal Building may have become decrepit and dangerous as a result of systematic neglect, it is hard to believe it is that bad because it was built at about the same time, in the same style, and of the same kind of materials as the Portsmouth Post Office, which has been serving the public well for the last seventy-five years and looks like it will do so for another fifty years, provided the building is maintained properly.

But the Municipal Building, Kalb tells us over and over, is dangerous and has to be torn down. Since Kalb is incapable of generating ideas on his own, where did he get this idea? Probably from the unnamed developer who covets the “prime real estate.” And who is this unnamed developer if it isn’t Kalb’s brain, Neal Hatcher? Otherwise why would Kalb not say who the developer is? Why the need for secrecy? Because if it were confirmed that the controversial Hatcher is the unnamed developer there would be a storm of protest and possibly the Municipal Building might be rescued, restored, and treasured for being the historical landmark that it is, every bit as architecturally distinguished and useful as the Post Office is. If Hatcher is the real estate developer who is behind this whole mess about the Municipal Building, Mayor Kalb might be subject to the kind of recall movement that led to Mayor Bauer’s recall from office. That may be the reason for the secrecy.

Peer Evaluation

I have asked some half dozen people who have worked with Kalb at Kroger's what they think of his being mayor. They all expressed surprise, if not astonishment, at his occupying that top municipal office. A Kroger employee who had moved away from Portsmouth and then returned some years later told me he was absolutely flabbergasted to learn Kalb was mayor. He just could not believe it. But let’s give Kalb his due. A long time employee of Kroger’s, Kalb should be given credit for holding down that job as long as he did. Especially in Portsmouth, having and holding on to a job is no small achievement, and Kroger’s is a successful company that has been in a highly competitive business a long time. Kroger’s is the largest retail grocery chain in the country. It isn’t as if Kalb was employed in some shady business or some pork-financed operation of the kind that Portsmouth is noted for, such as the Welcome Center, whose unqualified director is the wife of recalled mayor Greg Bauer. Kroger’s is not the Welcome Center, or the Portsmouth Municipal Housing Authority, where jobs are provided for relatives of politicians. Kroger’s is the real deal. Why, then, would people who worked with and had the chance to get to know Kalb up close be surprised, astonished and even flabbergasted to find him serving as mayor? The reason is that though Kalb has worked for Kroger for many years, he has not been what you would consider a prize-winning employee. On the job, he did not display the industriousness, smarts, or ambition that would explain how he came to be the chief executive officer of a city of some twenty-thousand people with an annual budget of millions of dollars. If it were not for the union and seniority, he might have been gone from Kroger's long ago.

Kalb was not only not the star at the top of the Kroger tree, he was not one of the brighter bulbs on that tree either. He could stack shelves and punch the cash register with the teen-agers and young adults that Kroger employs to do that kind of work, but those young people usually move on to other jobs and careers or, in exceptional cases, move up the Kroger ladder. I can think of at least a dozen SSU students who worked full or part-time at Kroger’s, and I can think of a few of them who moved on to other Kroger stores at the managerial level. But Kalb did not move up. He did not move on. He stayed at the Portsmouth Kroger’s at or near the bottom of the pecking and register-punching order. In his long and lackluster career at Kroger’s, Kalb did not become a department manager. He did not even become an assistant department manager, not even after a larger new store was built, with presumably new opportunities for advancement for employees. To say he was not executive material, to say he was not even assistant manager material, would be an understatement. I sometimes wonder if Jim Kalb as mayor is not the cross the community has to bear for its low academic standards and its traditional tolerance for drugs and crime.

To understand why Kalb has worked as long as he has at Kroger’s is to appreciate the sway of seniority and the power of unions. The late Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa said that it was working at a Kroger warehouse, in Detroit, that convinced him militant labor unions were an absolute necessity for workers. Hoffa organized the first union at Kroger’s, in Detroit, and Hoffa’s son Jim as Teamster president is still putting the pressure on Kroger’s in Michigan on behalf of Teamster members. If Kalb owes the mayorship to Neal Hatcher, he may he owe his longevity at Kroger’s, indirectly, to Jimmy Hoffa.

Portsmouth’s Legendary Pothead

Kalb’s education, or lack of it, may have held him back. He did not spend his junior and senior years at Portsmouth High preparing for college. He spent his junior and senior years at the Scioto County Vocational-Technical school. Whatever studying electronics might have consisted of at Vo-Tec back in the early 1970s, when Kalb (shown at left) was a student there, it was nothing he was able to draw on to help him advance at Kroger’s. In the 1973 PHS yearbook, the only extra-curricular activity Kalb is credited with was being a “Cafeteria Worker.” There may be something to the legend that the long-haired Kalb was a pothead in high school and continued as a post-graduate in that role for some years after. According to Austin Leedom, who has copies of the original court records to prove it, Kalb was arrested sixteen times after the age of eighteen, including for smoking marijuana. (What must his juvenile record have looked like?) Somewhere along the way, Kalb also became addicted to nicotine, which Malcolm X claimed was a harder habit to break than heroin. Kalb’s trips to Kentucky in a city vehicle to buy lottery tickets and cigs suggest he still likes to gamble and smoke. His difficulty staying focused at council meetings, of alternately dozing off and waking to engage in tirades, and challenging members of the Concerned Citizens to a public debate, may have something to do with at least one of his addictions. In contrast to Kalb, his high school classmate Howard Baughman (shown at right) was in the Latin Club, the Spanish Club, the Social Studies Club, played Golf and Volleyball, was the Football Manager, and a Homeroom Officer. Baughman was obviously preparing for college and the future, even if he later dropped out of college and had to settle for being a furniture salesman. If he did not play athletics, Kalb kept up his macho credentials by becoming a biker.

Unfortunately, too often people who otherwise have achieved little in life look to public office to get the recognition and influence they were unable to achieve in the private sector and in their personal life. Until Rove came along, George W. Bush was a miserable failure, as a student, as an oil entrepreneur, and as a baseball owner. (Think Texas Rangers.) It was his father’s millions and his family’s influence that bailed him out. Then, using the lowest of political tactics, Rove got Bush elected governor and then president, twice. And now, as commander-in-chief, Bush, claiming God is on his side, is responsible for failures so pervasive and catastrophic in their human and material consequences that his incompetence rises to level of criminality.

At the city level, the highest office is the mayor. In Portsmouth, the mayor’s office is becoming a haven for losers who have not achieved success in the private sector but are willing to sell their souls to the over-privileged in exchange for becoming a posturing political figurehead. Prior to becoming mayor, Greg Bauer was a failure at the graphics business, possibly because he was using his nose for purposes neither the Lord nor evolution intended; Kalb, for all his passion for speed, was a slow-show at the supermarket; and Baughman, who will probably be the next mayor because he is related to the Godfather, is chief of the La-Z-Boys at Covert’s Furniture. It may not be a requirement for being mayor of Portsmouth, but being an underachiever or failure apparently is an advantage. A mayor not having a brain is no impediment in Portsmouth. To those who control the city, a no-brainer is a definite plus. On her valuable website,, Teresa Mollette wrote in reference to Kalb as mayor, “It always astonishes me the people who are actually occupying positions in public offices that should require some amount of experience and a fair share of intelligence lack both.” As reported on the front page of the Portsmouth Daily Times (31 Jan. 2007), at the same time that the city was facing a $272,000 deficit, Kalb ineptly and inaptly asked for a ten percent raise. How much brains does that take? What would Kroger's have done if he made such a request?

I would have less contempt for Kalb if the price for his betrayal of the public trust was a little higher than it is. I don’t discount the possibility that he is profiting financially for the services he is providing to the over-privileged of Portsmouth, but I think his chief compensation and his chief need is psychological, not financial. He has an almost pathological need for respect, as you would expect someone who seems congenitally incapable of earning it would be. I doubt that he is taking anything under the table. Perhaps only a born loser would be willing to sell out for so little: a ten percent raise; a luxury SUV with a city seal on it, a vehicle worthy of His Honor; and the privilege of telling those concerned citizens who criticize him at City Council meetings to shut up, something he would not be allowed to get away with at Kroger’s. That’s all he’s asking for really – a $5,000 raise, a big car, and the right to insult citizens. Is that too much to ask in exchange for his soul?

Union Man

One of the advantages of being in a strong union is that Kalb can be the mayor and still remain an employee of Kroger’s, with all the rights and privileges, including insurance coverage. Jimmy Hoffa did not die for Kalb’s sins, but at least he provided him with job security. Whatever else he may have lacked, Jimmy Hoffa had balls and a brain. Kalb better not give up his Kroger job given his poor performance as mayor. To retain his union rights and privileges, as I understand it, Kalb only has to put in a minimum number of hours at Kroger’s each week, as provided for in the union contract. I see nothing wrong with the mayor moonlighting, particularly given his low salary, but I object as a taxpayer in principle to his moonlighting at Kroger’s during the morning. In practice, I doubt if it makes much difference to the future of the city whether Kalb is working behind a checkout counter at Kroger’s or behind his desk at the Municipal Building. It doesn’t make much difference where somebody who’s out to lunch works. But when I look up at the clock at Kroger’s and see that it is 10 AM and he is behind the checkout counter and not at the Municipal Building, I resent that he is not willing to at least keep up appearances. If he needs to work a certain number of hours at Kroger’s to keep his job open there, let him turn on the checkout charm in the evening or on weekends when the taxpayers are not paying for it. At least let him pretend at 10 AM on weekdays to be wrestling with the crises of the city, at the Municipal Building that he is letting go to hell, and not chatting it up with customers at Kroger’s. At least let him pretend he has a brain and is not simply waiting for the over-privileged to tell him what to do next.

It's 10 AM. Do you know where your mayor is?

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