Off Target

This is a bad sign.

The starting gun has barely been raised on Cleveland's mayoral race and I'm already sensing a false start.

February brought open hearings on the mayor's budget. With it came the normal squabbling over revenue projections and line items. But with Mayor Jane Campbell and Council president Frank Jackson as the first candidates to settle into the campaign starting blocks, the budget wrangling turned political quickly.

What else can I conclude when a proposal to put 45 laid-off cops back on the street prompts cries of playing politics? Or when the public's greatest civic concern is a proposal for 20 red-light cameras to ticket scofflaws?

As a town, we don't have the luxury of playing politics. Don't waste our time with it. Our city's to-do list already has as many pages as "Crime and Punishment." So if we can find a way to put 45 more cops back to work, back into the neighborhoods, let's do it. Move to the next item. I don't care who gets the credit.

And if it means installing red-light cameras to help pay for the rehiring of officers, then let's do that, too. (But let's negotiate a better cut of the revenue from the private contractors.) Councilman Joe Cimperman had it partially right when he told The Plain Dealer, "Maybe we should worry about real economic development rather than nickel and diming commuters."

Red-light cameras are mere nickels set against the greater economic challenges facing our city, yet our level of political discourse struggles to rise beyond traffic violations.

We need to encourage investment in the city, such as the Steelyard Commons project, even if it means finding a way to work with Wal-Mart. We need to get things done.

And it needs to start with the schools. The mayor has already pulled the plug on the ballot issue for May with little apparent forethought on how one might be passed in November.

Even in my West Park neighborhood, where levies typically go to die, most people acknowledge that the schools are the greatest issue. Yet few of them feel invested enough in the system to make a difference.

Rather than voicing our outrage at traffic-light cameras, can't we muster even a little energy for our city's children? This year's political campaign must find ways to engage all parts of the city and transform tepid concerns about our schools and our future into a searing force for change.

Rather than playing politics, shouldn't we demand that our political leaders work at attracting jobs instead? We're the poorest big city in the country — a fact that's provoked initial consternation and poverty summits, but little action.

We're poised to take another huge hit: 700 jobs at NASA Glenn Research Center could be cut as a result of President Bush's budget. And the ripple effect on related businesses could be three times as great.

Jobs at NASA Glenn are laid out on the chopping block every few years, and we must once again fight to defend them. But shouldn't we also be innovating, finding ways to help the center better compete for projects in NASA's focus on space exploration? Shouldn't we have done better already at using the technology advances within NASA Glenn to spawn new businesses, new products and new jobs?

Rather than conceding that most of the affected employees will take buyouts, early retirement or transfers, as NASA Glenn director Julian Earls proposed, we should be finding ways to keep these scientists and engineers — and the high-tech knowledge they possess — in Northeast Ohio as entrepreneurs or new employees of existing companies.

Playing politics or getting distracted from the real challenges ahead won't get things done. And getting things done is what we need from our next mayor.

So the starter's pistol on this year's mayoral campaign doesn't need to contain a silver bullet. We just need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot with it.

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