Friday, February 15, 2008

Hillary, Ted, and Neal

Not long after Governor Ted Strickland gave the oath of office to Portsmouth mayor James Kalb on January 1, 2006, at the Portsmouth Municipal Building, I posted on River Vices an open letter to Strickland that began, “Ted, I have been a strong supporter of yours from your first run for Congress, but what were you thinking when you swore in James Kalb as mayor of Portsmouth at the Portsmouth Municipal Building on January 1? What a way to begin your Portsmouth campaign for governor!” I asked the rhetorical question, “Are you that out of touch with Portsmouth, now that it has been gerrymandered out of your district, that you didn’t know that Kalb and the corrupt and incompetent Portsmouth city government that he heads is as much an embarrassment and threat to democracy locally as the administration in Washington is nationally?”

Two years later, Strickland is governor of Ohio, Senator Hillary Clinton is campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, and the March 4 primaries, in Texas and Ohio, have become her last-ditch hope of winning the nomination. It is possible, therefore, that when Strickland comes to the Portsmouth area with Senator Clinton and her husband Bill, next Saturday, he may commit the same political blunder he did back on January 1, 2006, when he swore in Kalb, but it is potentially a hundred, no a thousand times worse, considering what’s at stake.

Iowa Caucuses

Strickland made what looked like the worst mistake of his political career, a few days before the January 3 Iowa caucuses, when he told the Columbus Dispatch that the Iowa caucuses made “no sense” and were “hugely undemocratic.” Embarrassed, the Clinton campaign disassociated itself from his remarks. Clinton finished third in the caucuses, and while no one should blame Strickland for her loss – the Clinton team made enough mistakes of their own – his untimely criticism of the caucuses sure didn’t help. That caucuses generally are a poor mechanism for selecting a candidate, and that they are not very democratic is a valid criticism, but for Strickland to have made that criticism when he did was a serious lapse in political correctness.

For him to have accused Iowans of being undemocratic was not only untimely but somewhat hypocritical, because Strickland’s home base is Portsmouth, which happens to be one of the most corrupt and poorest excuses for democracy in Ohio, if not America. If a sociologist wants to see what a couple of crooked lawyers and real estate developers can do to a community, they should come to Portsmouth; if a political scientist wants to see an undemocratic city government in action, wants to see what bipartisan corruption looks like up close, she should come to Portsmouth.

Hugely Undemocratic

If Strickland accompanies Senator Clinton to Portsmouth, he will be providing as a backdrop for her Ohio campaign a city government that is controlled and corrupted by a private agency, the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership; a city government, that does everything possible to discourage citizen participation; a city government that has for years frustrated pleas from citizens to televise council meetings and make city government more transparent and less secretive; a city government that tries to stifle free speech at city council meetings by restricting citizens from speaking to the council; a city government that has anyone who criticizes a city official by name removed under threat of arrest from the council chambers; a city government that has the police chief sitting by the door of the council chamber, acting as a bouncer; a city government that has as police chief a man whose son was dealing drugs in the restaurant right across the street from the police station, a son whose conviction for drugs was later expunged from court records; a city government that allowed that same police chief to denounce concerned citizens as “domestic terrorists” at the same time that a major Oxycontin and chop-shop operation was going full blast a half a mile from the police station; a city government that has a city clerk who, along with her husband, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and who was admonished by the courts for illegally removing names from petitions to recall city officials; a city government that awards pay raises to sitting elected officials, including Mayor Kalb, in violation of state laws; a city government that illegally paid $2 million for a 125-year-old former department store for use as a “new” municipal building while neglecting and trashing the existing municipal building, which is a half-century younger; a city government that continues to ignore a referendum in which voters rejected using the Marting building as a municipal building by a 2 to 1 margin; a city government that in a fishy deal sold eight acres of city land to a developer, Elmer Mullins, for $60,000, which several years later was worth over $4 million; a city government that allowed that same property to be developed in spite of widespread rumors that the site was contaminated; a city government that colluded with trustees of Shawnee State University to allow the developer Neal Hatcher to build tax-abated student dorms in which the public, not Hatcher, bears all the risk; a city government that has shrunk the local tax base by indiscriminately granting 100 percent tax abatements to new businesses; a city government that permitted a councilman, in my ward, Timothy Loper, to sit on the council though he was not a resident of the ward, as the city charter requires; a city government that allowed the city solicitor, David Kuhn, to do everything he could to keep Loper illegally in office; a city government that, after I brought a challenge that led to Loper’s removal from office, appointed as his replacement a local lawyer, Mike Mearan, who is widely rumored to be tied to drugs and prostitution in Portsmouth; a city government that then appointed appointee Mearan to chair the Building Committee, in spite of Mearan having a clear conflict of interest since he was the lawyer for the landlord the city entered into negotiations with for use of his property for city offices; a city government that allowed Mearan as chair of the Building Committee to appoint as the Building Committee stenographer a drug-addicted young woman who was arrested a short time later transporting Oxycontin to Portsmouth in an automobile Mearan had rented for her; a city government that allows the city engineering office to punish Mayor Kalb’s critics by requiring them to make expensive repairs to their sidewalks; a city government that allows the city engineer’s office to decide who must make sidewalk repairs, in spite of the fact the city charter, in an apparent attempt to restrict the mayor’s power to punish opponents, requires that the Auditor’s Office monitor sidewalk repairs; and a city government whose machinations go unreported in the only local newspaper, the Portsmouth Daily Times, which fires reporters who dare to report anything that embarrasses or exposes the over-privileged of Portsmouth.

This is the political backdrop that Strickland will be providing Senator Clinton when he escorts her to Portsmouth next Saturday. If the Iowa caucuses were “hugely undemocratic,” what is the Portsmouth city government all year long but a travesty, a prostitution, a degradation of democratic government?

What democracy there is in Portsmouth is reflected in the resistance of the misgoverned citizens to the corrupt politicians. In response to the violations of democratic governance, the voters of Portsmouth recalled by a 2 to 1 margin Gregory Bauer, the mayor responsible for the $60,000 land scam and the Marting fraud, and recalled two council members who had helped make the scams possible. City Solicitor Kuhn, who contributed so much to the lawlessness of our city, was defeated in last November’s election by a 2 to 1 margin, in spite of outspending his relatively unknown opponent by twenty to one.

Photo Oops!

I see no evidence that Strickland is responsible for the corruption in Portsmouth. On the contrary, he was a shining exception to the golden rule of Portsmouth politics: do unto others before they get a chance to undo you. When I first came to Portsmouth in 1989, Strickland with a kind of religious determination, was working for a pittance teaching part-time at Shawnee State University, whose Republican dominated board of trustees were opposed to raises for part-time faculty. When Strickland was first elected to Congress, as a Democrat, and left for Washington, one of the Republican trustees vowed Strickland would never teach at SSU again.

But Strickland’s last campaign appearance in Portsmouth, as I recall, was on Gay Street, in front of the Democratic Headquarters, a building that the notorious local Republican real estate developer, Neal Hatcher had recently made available to the local Democratic organization. He who lies down with dogs rises with fleas, the Bible says. The Democratic campaign headquarters was just around the corner from the Republican campaign headquarters, in a building that Hatcher (shown above giving the finger) had made available to the local Republican organization. Hatcher was a big backer of the tool Kalb, a Democrat, in the last mayoral election, as he was of the corrupt Republican mayor, Bauer, in previous elections. At least when it comes to influence peddling and political corruption, Portsmouth is bi-partisan.

If she comes to Portsmouth next Saturday, as she is now scheduled to do, Hillary Clinton would be well advised to avoid photo ops with local politicians and bigwigs because there might be someone somewhere in the picture giving proponents of democracy and honest government the finger. The last thing her campaign needs, in its last ditch efforts to defeat Barack Obama in Ohio, is associating itself with any "hugely undemocratic" characters who not only thumb their nose at democracy but also give the people the finger.