Politics on Location:
On the trail in Cuyahoga County
While presidential candidates are getting the lion's share of attention this year, for most politicians and campaign workers more is riding on the slew of spring primaries than the question of White House occupancy. State, county, and municipal campaigns across the country are gearing up with local pols pitting traditional seat-of-the-pants management and grass-roots arm-twisting against slick national media campaigns for voter attention.
Harvard offers no government courses which prepares one for politics in urban areas, such as the 20th Congressional District in Cleveland, Ohio where several former and current Harvard people are getting a baptism in realpolitik.
The Ohio primary takes place on June 8, and in the solidly-Democratic 20th Congressional District seemingly everyone and his cousin (literally) has jumped into the void left by incumbent Rep. James V. Stanton (D), who has announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. At this point, there are about twenty hopefuls, representative of a wide range of backgrounds in local and state political experience.
Somewhere along the strip of cheap bars, industrial warehouses and porno bookstores which line Detroit Avenue, one storefront advertises CELEBREZZE FOR CONGRESS. Anthony J. Celebrezze Jr., a state senator since 1974, is one jump ahead of the pack at this premature measuring point according to a recent private poll. And--although Detroit Avenue is a far cry from Nini's Corner, the Celebrezze headquarters is heavily staffed by Harvard people. Ira Forman '74, campaign manager, came back to Harvard in December to recruit, and with the aid of Office of Career Services and Off-Campus Learning (OCS-OCL) staffers he nailed down two undergraduates who were looking for excuses to flee after exams.
Cameron G. Nixon (sic) '78 of Cumberland, Rhode Island and Winthrop House, is still surprised to find himself talking of precincts, polls and re-districting instead of Gov 30's interest groups, bureaucracy and party loyalty drifts. A government concentrator, Nixon had not intended to take time off, but he started looking around to see what was available, applied for jobs, and "got sucked in deeper and deeper. There were good opportunities in political work this spring, and if you pass it up now, who knows? I dove for this now because there may not be another chance for awhile."
Kevin Riper '77 of Palo Alto, Calif. and Leverett House, says he is not headed for a political career. An Applied Math/Economics concentrator, Riper says he "wasn't originally interested in this field at all. But I saw the job listed in the OCS-OCL newsletter and decided, hey, this would be a good way to spend time off, as long as I would be doing something other than stuffing envelopes. I grew up in Palo Alto, a fairly wealthy suburb of San Francisco, then I went to Harvard--how 'elitist' can you get? I thought this would give me a chance to deal with real people, to hear their concerns--and it does."
The district in which Celebrezze is running--and, unlike most of his opponents, the district in which he lives--is a striking case study of urban politics. It is extremely liberal on economic questions and extremely conservative on social issues. "The same people who foam at the mouth about busing and have every stereotypic ethnic concern you could name are, on economic issues...well, I wouldn't want to say they're socialist, but they come awfully close," Nixon said last month.
While the district is all white, it is not the whiter shade of pale reflected in the gracious homes of Shaker Heights. The 20th's whiteness is tinged with the dirty grey of Cleveland's heavily industrialized flats; the Cuyahoga River, which cuts across the district, caught on fire several years ago because it was so heavily polluted with industrial waste. The population of this lower-middle-class urban stretch is predominantly of eastern European ancestry--Polish, German, Czech, Hungarian, plus some Irish and Italians--and roughly 75 per cent Catholic.
Crime--which has skyrocketed in the past year or two--is the number one issue for most constituents, followed closely by anxiety about the economy. Bearing the scars of heavy industry, yet strongly oriented towards small businesses and unionized labor, residents of the 20th are demanding checks on the reach of big business and more federal aid to workers and the unemployed--hence the district's economic radicalism. Social issues such as consumerism, pollution and abortion generate little interest, and international affairs do not claim much attention from district voters. Black-white relations have been a source of tension in the past; the racial issue lies just below the surface now, an uneasily quiet volcano which could erupt this summer when the District Court makes a decision on busing.
The scenes of local politicking are usually intimate. When Celebrezze staff members are lucky, that might mean talking to members of Local 91 in a bar down the street, but more frequently it means spending the evening in Democratic ward club meetings.
In the basement of St. Josephat's church, Gerald McFaul, Ward 31 Leader and a candidate for County Sheriff, greets his neighbors by first names as they stroll into the weekly gathering of the Ward Club, children in two and knitting ready. Campaign flyers scattered over tables, chairs and the floor advertise candidates for U.S. Congress, Cleveland City Council, District Judge and "McFaul for Sheriff." Forman is circulating petitions to assure that Celebrezze has more than enough names to put him on the ballot. City Councilman Michael L. Climaco, another candidate for Congress, is pumping hands and introducing himself as "the picture on that card you're holding." Although the room has the ambience more of an after-church coffee klatch than a political meeting, those present take their politics seriously. The gap between St. Josephat's basement and the House Chamber in Washington seems unbridgeable--but even House majority leader Thomas P. O'Neil (D-Mass.) got started in church basements.
The initial impression which clicks when you shake Tony Celebrezze's hand and listen to him talk is one of solidity and careful seriousness. Thirty-eight years old, Celebrezze has had two years' experience in the Ohio State Senate. Name recognition is no problem--Celebrezze comes from a prominent Cleveland political family. His father, Anthony Sr., presently a federal District Court judge in southern Ohio, was mayor of Cleveland and HEW Secretary under John F. Kennedy '40. His uncle is a Cleveland municipal judge, one cousin is an Ohio state senator and another--also a former state senator--is running against Tony this year.
Certainly, recognition presents no obstacle for a Celebrezze--but will two scions of that family confuse voters in a race which one Cleveland columnist claimed has "overtones of a family rivalry?" A recent poll done for Tony's campaign showed a big gap between his support and his cousin's--respectively, they garnered 25.6 per cent and 7.5 per cent. City Councilman Basil Russo, Tony's major opposition, remarked that "having two Celebrezzes in would be the best thing that could happen to me."
The campaign staff displays real affection for Celebrezze; as Forman said, "Tony creates loyalties." At the same time, Celebrezze can be difficult to work for because he spends most of his time in Columbus with Senate work. Forman heats up when he talks about this particular campaign-manager headache; he and his boss have a running battle over Celebrezze's absence from his district. "We don't have the dough to run a slick media campaign," laments Forman. "It's all personal contact--but Tony has to be here." Getting Celebrezze's name in the local news takes more calculation than for other candidates who hold local positions--what goes on in Columbus often loses out in competition with local news.
In a district where one-third of the population is slavic, there seems to be an overabundance of Italian surnames in the race. Behind Celebrezze and Russo jogs Michael Climaco, another young city councilman whose big issues are social security rip--offs and reducing U.S. imports. Despite his bias, Nixon is on target when he says, "Climaco has a good deal of polish but he's not big on substance. He gets all kinds of political mileage by wrapping himself in the flag and talking about things everyone has to be concerned about--but getting the facts wrong."
The rest of the pack ranges in background from a crusading young council women--whose latest project was a vigorous campaign to have a large rock on which high school students have inscribed their class dates since 1883 declared a historic monument--to a suburban mayor--who has been involved in a series of racial crises and near-scandals since he took over in 1967--to a lawyer with thirteen kids who incorporated the Ohio Right to Life Society and has in the past run for governor, Ohio attorney general (three times), and U.S. Congress (twice--once successfully as an arch-conservative).
The field is large, but in the Celebrezze headquarters staffers swear "we're the only ones with any kind of organization."
"If Russo would withdraw, we'd walk away with it," Forman said.
Nixon and Riper are officially "field coordinators," which entails setting up offices in different sections of the District, organizing volunteer work, targetting wards, gauging the candidate's strength in each area through statistical analysis of past election turnouts, and canvassing later in the spring. However, as Nixon said, "it all blends together," and everyone on the staff finds himself doing "everything" at onetime or another. The Celebrezze campaign is in the initial stages of setting up a solid groundwork and evaluating just where their candidate stands: in other words, guessing how much work they have ahead of them before June 8.
The current staff consists of three paid members ("put 'paid' in quotation marks," Forman advised) and three students who are working in return for room, travel costs, and $50/month living expenses. Forman, Nixon, Riper and Bill Thompson, the third "area coordinator," share two temporarily donated apartments near the headquarters.
It's like six people all going in different directions...and occasionally our paths cross," one staffer said, commenting on the hit-or-miss style of this campaign and the problem of adjusting to it. "I think the schedule has worn on Kevin and Can somewhat. The rest of us knew each other before the campaign, and it was hard for the new guys at first to take the heat. They were on the defensive all the time."
Nixon and Riper agree it has been hard to adjust to their new life. "This is intense in a different way from academics," Nixon says. "When you're in an academic environment you can play all sorts of games--you can dodge things if they take too much time. Here, its an all-or-nothing deal--we win or lose, and if we lose we've all wasted months..."
It has given both of them a new conception of politics. Riper says he took a Gov course last fall that stimulated his interest in voting patterns and grass-roots politics. "They told us how a voter identifies with a candidate and lines up on issues. Well, when I got here I realized that was all bullshit. It doesn't work that way at all--people don't want to know where Tony stands on the issues. We tell them he's a good man, he'll do the job. If they ask, we give them the issue staff--but they rarely do."
The two imported area coordinators also agree on what is drawing them towards Cambridge and repelling them from it: the people they miss, the work they don't. "I miss the people more than anything else," sighs Nixon. "Here, everything is related to the campaign; a lot of things are halfway related, things I wouldn't do if I weren't working on he campaign, like attending city council meetings to hear the opposition. Personal life and campaign work tend to blend together."
The campaign often seems to command all waking hours. Forman swears--with a wink--that he has to squeeze all possible work out of his "slaves," and he himself hardly takes any time off. Cooking takes too much time, according to Riper. "There's a Red Barn next door; we ate there for three weeks until we got sick of it." Campaign work becomes a monomania, and time spent on expendables such as entertainment, relaxation, eating and sleep takes on overtones of guilt; there is always something more to be done, and every missed opportunity could conceivably lead to defeat. Downing a beer in a Cleveland bar and listening to bluegrass one night, Forman flailed his arms and wailed, "I'm not upset about anything! That's wrong--What can I get upset about?" Later, he said sardonically, "At least you see what a paranoid, uptight thing a campaign can be."