Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

A Culture of Corruption by Angie Schmitt

[ Angie Schmitt lives in Cleveland and runs Rust Wire and also writes for Streetsblog. She’s a great commenter on cities and definitely not afraid to take on the big issues and powers that be, as this piece shows – Aaron. ]

When I was about 24, I moved to Youngstown, Ohio to take a job as a newspaper reporter. It was, I now realize, a crazy thing to do.

I didn’t plan to stay in the city long. But my dad was pretty upset when I told him about it. His company had an experience there in the ’90s where one of the construction foremen was run off the road by someone who was upset about something–I’m guessing they had problems with a local labor union. After that, his company wouldn’t do business there anymore.

I had heard about the mafia in Youngstown, but they had sort of been flushed out by the Feds. Anyway, I thought that stuff would be interesting, reporting-wise. But my dad said something that I only know understand the wisdom of: corruption like that, he said, long-term corruption, becomes a part of the local culture.

I think about that a lot now that I live in Cleveland, a city with a similar history–and only about an hour away.

In the four years since I’ve been here, the FBI has been conducting a major corruption investigation and many of the local officials have been caught up in it. As a result, there was a big “county reform” effort and the bums–at least the most obvious two–were thrown out. Then they held an election to name new leaders and Cuyahoga County residents reelected a lot of old-time politicians to the newly vacated offices. Disappointing, yes. But, also, telling.


This high-school-educated former janitor was the unquestioned political leader of Ohio's largest county for decades, a position he used to enrich himself.

None of these old-time folks had been caught pants-down in a corruption case. But they were all part of the same milieu; everyone who held a power position must have had to deal with these guys. One notable exception is the county executive, who has been a breath of fresh air.

Some City Council members and high ranking city officials had been mentioned during the course of the investigation, most notably City Council President Martin Sweeney, a career Cleveland politician. He continues to serve in that position–the second most powerful one in the city. Just today it was revealed in The Plain Dealer that in one of the ongoing corruption trials, Sweeney’s name came up as part of some contract fixing scheme, possibly tied to free improvements done to his home and campaign donations.

And meanwhile, yesterday, Cleveland City Council did something I found to be especially significant–and depressing. One of the Councilmembers, Ken Johnson, wanted to retire and then immediately be reappointed to his job so he could collect a public pension and a salary at the same time, something we in Ohio call “double-dipping,” which is technically legal but widely viewed as an abuse of the system. And what did City Council do? They reappointed Ken Johnson so he could double-dip–even with the The Plain Dealer staring them down, publishing a page-one story.

And you know why they did it? City Council doesn’t care what people think about them. It doesn’t matter. Constituents don’t hold the power in Cleveland, with politicians answering to them for their actions. Quite the opposite. In fact, I’m fairly certain these politicians don’t expect their constituents to even question them.

That is how power operates in Cleveland. First you must become part of the club. How do you do this? Not smarts, not merit–it’s loyalty. Loyalty, or, “connections” or “relationships,” reign supreme in Cleveland. It’s the culture of corruption, because if you’re breaking the law (or doing something otherwise dubious or morally questionable, abusing your position of authority) the number one priority is surrounding yourself with people who will keep their yaps shut.

And that’s exactly what everyone in greater Cleveland did for decades. There were a scant few whistle blowers who lost everything, only to be vindicated decades later. But nearly everyone was in on what was happening.

Something that really struck me was a lengthy article the The Plain Dealer ran about why they themselves didn’t expose the local corruption ring that was our regional government. The former editor pushed for the story before she left.

They interviewed reporter after reporter, and they all said they knew it was going on but offered, in my opinion, extremely inadequate reasons for not uncovering it.

Here is one reporter on trying to expose the County Sheriff, who was eventually ousted:

I knew he was probably playing fast and loose . . . but I think my mind was that that’s the way the system was. I don’t remember anyone fainting with shock when they found out that the sheriff was taking kickbacks.

I think the reason the The Plain Dealer didn’t uncover corruption is because it was so widespread and pervasive it was hard to tell where the corruption began and ended.

The central premise of David Hugill’s critical media theory book Missing Women, Missing News is that the mainstream media, exemplified by major newspapers, are inherently conservative because their default presumption is the legitimacy of public institutions. Expecting The Plain Dealer to properly cover the story of Cleveland’s corruption would have required a radical rethinking of the legitimacy of our public institutions. So, they couldn’t.

Anyway, all of that doesn’t go away overnight after a few FBI arrests, although I think Cleveland (especially its leadership and civic boosters) likes to imagine that it does. Corruption, in the sense of a degraded, rotten foundation, is a well chosen term for what’s occurred, because the cheating and dishonesty we see from our leaders, the blatant public theft, has a corrosive effect on a community. You take a look at a place like East Cleveland or Buckeye and ask yourself, would such profound wreckage have been possible without corruption, without someone with power choosing to exploit the community? I think the answer is no.

The story of Cleveland’s decline is much bigger than deindustrialization, even though I think that’s what we’re most comfortable attributing it to.

I saw a study about national corruption a while ago and it found that nations with higher levels of corruption had greater levels of infant mortality and greater high school drop-out rates. This would certainly apply locally. The money these guys stole to remodel their tacky homes in Parma Heights or wherever was literally food out of babes’ mouths in one of the poorest major cities in the United States.

It’s bigger than that even. It seeps into every aspect of life, I think, this culture of corruption. I think it erodes the freedom associated with creativity, as exemplified in the 2006 German film The Lives of Others. As much as Cleveland touts its performing and visual arts, I think the local art scene is strangely stifled. We have a great orchestra and some great theaters, but no street art scene, no art element with a revolutionary bent.

Cleveland is a place that’s very deferential to authority. I heard a theory once that industrial cities are like that because of the historically hierarchical structures of the manufacturing industry. But I think it’s more sinister than that here. I feel it constraining me sometimes, and it makes me very depressed. It makes me want to move away from Cleveland. This very blog, which is at times critical of leadership in Cleveland, provokes such reactions from Clevelanders who are wary of criticizing authority that you’d think I was drowning puppies.

One time someone told me, in all seriousness, that having strong opinions was not accepted in the local culture here, that it was considered “arrogant” to have strong opinions about anything. I think he was actually trying to help me; he was trying to give me advice. But it just made me feel worse about this place. A city where it’s not okay to have strong opinions is not a good place for creative people: it is a good place for sheep. It is a good place for morons. People with respect for their own thoughts won’t choose to live in a place like that, and given the choice again, I probably wouldn’t.

People should be able to freely express opinions in a public blog about civic issues without fearing retaliation. I think people in other cities take that for granted. I saw this kind of thing happen recently to my friend Phil Kidd in Youngstown. Phil runs a popular blog and a store in Youngstown and is a well-liked and well-known activist. Last week he made an offhand comment on his Facebook page about past corruption in the city with respect to the upcoming mayoral race. Soon, one of the county commissioners was virtually shouting him down on Facebook, saying he needs to be careful what he says on Facebook.

I also think in Cleveland we continue to have a society that doles out rewards fairly arbitrarily, rather than based on merit–and what is corruption, basically, if not that? I think this culture of “loyalty,” or “relationship building” establishes a perverse set of incentives for people that live here. It doesn’t encourage people to excel in specific fields or realms. It rewards only friendly relationships with powerful individuals. As a result, I think in Cleveland we hold up some very mediocre stuff produced by well-connected people as a very lousy ideal for others to aim for.

For example, why is it that this blog should be referenced and praised by Salon, The Atlantic, the Indianapolis Star, the Las Vegas Sun, Governing Magazine, and Details, but we’ve never received any sort of formal mention by our local press? Is it that our local media is more discerning than those national publications? I don’t think so; I’ve seen them feature centerfolds of bloggers who write about going out to local bars and how much they love Cleveland.

That is very discouraging if you are really striving to excel in a particular realm. And those individual ambitions, nurturing them, that is the very foundation of a healthy society. The smartest and the most ambitious, they will chafe in that environment. They will realize that they can’t succeed, and they will leave — as I am quite certain the last generation of honest political talent did — leaving a gaping hole.

The culture in Cleveland doesn’t lift people up: it grinds honest, hardworking people down. That was perhaps Jimmy Dimora’s and Frank Russo’s most serious crime. And that is the problem with Cleveland. New York inspires. Chicago is a mecca of Midwestern ambition. But no one comes to Cleveland to realize their dreams because of the fantastic opportunities available to anyone who’s ambitious or hard working or smart enough.

If we can solve that problem, we’ll have solved them all. I’m not sure how to do that, but I think shining a light on it is an important first step. We need to be brave and stand up to the corrupt elements of our society to make it better, even if that requires making great personal sacrifices. The people who do that, though, just end up being marginalized here. I think it’s a shame.

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on January 9, 2013.

Related:
Chicago: The Cost of Clout
If You Don’t Understand Urban Political Theory, You Probably Don’t Understand Land Use

25 Comments
Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Cleveland

25 Responses to “A Culture of Corruption by Angie Schmitt”

  1. Idyllic Indy says:

    Depressing, but a great piece! Of course, this same institutional attitude is present in a lot of cities, so let’s (Indianapolis) not pretend that it only applies to the so-called poster child cities of Cleveland, Detroit, etc.

  2. Matthew Hall says:

    “A city where it’s not okay to have strong opinions is not a good place for creative people”

    Well put. The local blogs and tv/newspaper comments sections in Cincinnati are among the most vicious I’ve ever read. I’ve often wondered if this was good, bad, or both. Angie’s comments make me think there is at least some good in it.

  3. MichaelSchwartz says:

    This is nothing unique to Cleveland. In fact, the same thing has been going on in Pittsburgh for years despite their upbeat (and in my opinion dubious)PR hype machine. And what about Birmingham or Atlanta, where on NPR today they were parroting the school test scandal that apparently has been going for years to enrich the administrations bonuses. The best line I ever heard about Cleveland was during the last Presidential election and goes something to the effect that Cleveland is just Chicago without the benefits (payola that is).

  4. Angie says:

    I was thinking about this today. I wonder if it might be a common trait of older cities, rather than necessarily industrial cities. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps a history of machine politics and patronage is hard to shake, while newer cities, and suburbs as well, subscribe to the more “professional” concept of city management. IDK. I definitely think Columbus was a much better managed city than Cleveland. Many suburbs I covered as a newspaper reporter as well.

  5. MichaelSchwartz says:

    Angie, there is no question that Columbus is better managed than Cleveland. They also have the advantage of annexing rural land into the city if they want water which Cleveland and other older cities do not have. In my opinion, the only hope for cities like Pittsburgh or Cleveland is regionalization in a city /county scenario like Louisville or Indianapolis has done in some fashion, as to have 40-50 feifdoms in a county like Pittsburgh or Cleveland has is just strangling them.

  6. Matthew Hall says:

    Columbus is better managed because its easier to manage. Regional division can be a problem, but when most of your infrastructure has been built since the War and most of the people have been there even shorter periods of time, its easier. If you do something a Clevelander doesn’t like, he’ll launch a whispering campaign or a sensationalist counter attack. If you do the same in Columbus, they’ll just leave for Austin, Charlotte, or the next “new thing”. It makes for very different dynamics. Cleveland reformers have to fight to hold each side back, while Columbus reformers just have to keep people paying attention.

  7. Ziggy says:

    Ms.Schmitt’s post was incredibly courageous, and I appreciate Aaron’s willingness to repost it here.

    Every major Midwestern city has its elites and power structures that are more or less plugged into broader economic strategies. These local elites are no doubt aware that larger economic forces are making their cities what Chris Hedges describes as “sacrifice zones:”

    http://billmoyers.com/segment/chris-hedges-on-capitalism’s-‘sacrifice-zones’/

    No problem. The uber rich in Midwest cities have capital investments that allow them to profit even while the urban environments around them crumble. Those that chose to remain can live remote, gated community quality lifestyles – the full Third World urban experience.

    There are alternatives, but you won’t hear about them in mainstream media. Blocks, neighborhoods, biz districts – all those not connected to the local ruling elites – are on their own. There are entirely peaceful and productive ways to revitalize. And, there are people of good intentions and means. Ms. Schmitt’s story of Cleveland underscores the need to for those people to come together and do whatever they can to strengthen communities at the grassroots level.

    Midwesterners and many other Americans are in unchartered waters.

  8. aim says:

    This culture isn’t limited to the corruption at city hall. As we saw in Detroit, some of the biggest advocates for Kwame Kilpatrick were in the corporate offices even after it was clear that his administration had a taint of corruption. While it was one of the major dailies that helped bring Kwame down, the major news outlets in the city largely covered for him until the evidence of corruption couldn’t be hidden. Likewise, they played up all the good news while largely burying bad news, lending legitimacy to an administration that didn’t deserve it. I’m sure such dynamics exist in other communities where public corruption is endemic. Such corruption can only survive where the local press has been co-opted and local powers-that-be either enable, tolerate or participate in the corruption. The rot doesn’t exist only at city hall, it’s a culture of corruption that can be found in institutions across the community.

  9. EJ says:

    MichaelSchwartz,
    Totally agree with you. And both Allegheny and Cuyahoga counties now have a county executive and council. It shouldn’t be much of a stretch for each of them to consolidate all of the municipalities within their boundaries and essentially create quasi-regional cities of Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Then they can expand their boundaries and absorb surrounding counties.

  10. DBR96A says:

    Pittsburgh is succeeding despite some of its politicians. With that said, there’s been an increasing resistance to the old-school politicians in the city over the last 10 years, and who knows? Maybe Luke Ravenstahl’s idiocy will catalyze political turnover. We’ll see, though, because a city’s political climate is always the last thing to change, and typically lags its social and economic climate.

    By the way, there’s nothing “dubious” about the Pittsburgh MSA being one of only three in the United States with more jobs now than in 2007, or the size of its labor force being larger than ever, or its “real” per capita income growth being among the best in the United States since 2000, or its residents under age 45 being college-educated at a rate higher than both the national and metropolitan averages, or its unemployment rate being below the national rate for 76 consecutive months, or the median age in the city proper decreasing from 35 to 33 between 2000 and 2010. Those are facts, not hype.

    Quite frankly, most people don’t know shit about Pittsburgh, so the PR “machine” is necessary. Yeah, the city still has problems, but to discount the positive momentum in the last 10 years requires willful ignorance. And many of the things that people bitched about — the most glaring example being all those young people who were supposedly “fleeing in droves” — have been proven to be outright lies. This ain’t 1983 anymore. It’s not even 2003, for that matter.

  11. Vince says:

    This article addresses an important topic very haphazardly. It is not carefully written and is poorly researched. To me it is closer to a rant than an op-ed piece. This is unfortunate, because some important points are made in the article–an article flawed by its many unsubstantiated leaps.

  12. Jason says:

    Very interesting. I’ve always had an interest in organized crime and curruption. I read a lot about that stuff. I agree, that this is well put.

  13. Rod Stevens says:

    Angie,

    A courageous entry in your blog. Thanks for writing about Cleveland. You’ve said more in your piece about the social dynamics there than countless puff pieces on the city.

    I live in a small (23,000 person) affluent community, and we have some of the same taboos here about our public institutions. Why is it taboo to say anything that is other than positive about these institutions? Because they are major employers and it is financially in the community’s interest not to say there are problems. Even though this holds the community back in the long run. Interesting that it can be taboo even to talk about a taboo!

  14. Betty Barcode says:

    We have some of the same dynamics in Buffalo, though I have no idea how you would measure which city has it worse.

    I am regularly pointing out to my fellow citizens that we are not uniquely dysfunctional. Lots of people here seem to believe that we alone are pathologically corrupt and/or incompetent, while other cities have their act together.

    In a perverse misery-loves-company way, it helps to have essays like this one to pass around when we start believing the puff pieces about nearby cities.

    We are acutely conscious that we have an uphill battle against the national consensus that Buffalo is worthless, a place not worth caring about. Blunders and idiocies really reverberate when you’re carrying a heavy burden of stigma.

  15. Ziggy says:

    Nate Hopper at Esquire had a post earlier today on “The Five Kinds of Crooks in Local Politics.” Not to diminish Ms. Schmitt’s thesis regarding the unique brand of Cleveland’s corrupt politics.

    As someone who believes in the value government generally, I think the healthiest approach is acknowledge that governments almost always have a monopoly on the services they provide, and therefore must be in a constant state of reform. If governments at any level aren’t seeking more public engagement, making their activities more transparent (a cinch with modern technology) or trying to clarify their decisions in the most straightforward language possible, then there’s probably a problem.

  16. Ziggy says:

    Oops – here’s the link to Hopper’s link at Esquire:

    http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/local-political-crooks

  17. Quimbob says:

    I have read that the corruption in Haiti is linked to a prevailing sense of despair & that everybody winds up being out for themselves (as opposed to some curse as Pat Robertson posits). The rust belt has no shortage of despair.

  18. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    Bunch of bunk. Why print this? Corruption in Cleveland? The bad eggs were found out and tossed in jail, what more do you want? Have you ever traveled to another city like Philly or Miami? Were you in Cleveland for the Voinovich or White administrations? They ran pretty well in my opinion.

  19. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    The City of Cleveland has had a fine mayor in Frank Jackson, definitely make the separation between county and city govt.

  20. Matthew Hall says:

    Paul, thanks for providing a wonderful example of what Angie was talking about in her article!

    Paul’s comment reminds me of that old joke, “some say Cleveland doesn’t have culture. What a bunch of bunk, we’ve got culture coming out of our a**holes!”

  21. TMLutas says:

    At least make the crooks work harder. There are mounds of information that is open and actually put on the Internet but we don’t review it and we don’t take action on it. That’s nobody’s fault but our own.

  22. Paula says:

    Angie, this is good thinking.

    I live in a small city in the northwest that has every one of these traits, and now I know I’m not 1)alone or 2)crazy.

    I think this “public/private crony looting culture” takes hold in a place when the legitimate economy is circling the drain. Manufacturing flight can certainly jumpstart it, but whatever the catalyst, the weaker politicians and the more venal business types develop a sort of informal cabal.

    Of course ordinary citizens are absolutely shut out. Their absence allows foolish, overblown construction projects (stadiums, convention centers, anyone?) dreamed up by the looting regime to proceed without opposition.

    Sadly, the put-upon citizens do indeed seem to believe that life there will be easier if they have no opinions or feelings. Apparently numbness is preferable to helpless anger.

    As you say, there is much hearty talk of “relationship building” but the “relationships” are between the same 10-25 people. The smarter outsiders (whether native or imported) figure it out and leave.

    And, as you say, at no point in the process will there be anything but the mildest squeaks from the local newspapers. Every pointless money pit of a project and decimation of services, like transit, libraries and schools, for ordinary citizens is rationalized away on some pretext or other.

    Moving is one cure. Is there another?

  23. Valeria says:

    Paula, I initially thought you were talking about Indianapolis!

    Moving on is the cure if one wants to live a joyful, purpose driven life. Not until they bleed the treasury bone dry will any change occur. Life is too short.

  24. May says:

    Southern states are also highly corrupt. Even North Carolina has had 500 public corruption cases in 10 year period!
    http://www.wral.com/cooper-state-needs-more-tools-for-public-corruption-cases-/12020206/
    Cooper: State needs more tools for public corruption cases
    But here is something else worth studying:
    http://ideas.repec.org/p/man/cgbcrp/88.html
    Why is Corruption Less Harmful in Some Countries Than in Others?

  25. Idyllic Indy says:

    But is having more public corruption cases a sign that there is more corruption present, or just a sign that someone is actually doing something about it?

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