Million-dollar Challenger

Ken Lanci brings a busload of eccentricity and anger toward the state of Cleveland's neighborhoods to his run for mayor.

Ken Lanci is showing off his tattoos, even to people who don't ask. He pulls up his purple Adidas shirt's right sleeve and shows his bicep to a security guard at the Lee-Harvard Shopping Center.

"My good friends on the West Coast call me Ice," Lanci says of the blue "ICE" letters surrounded by flames. (Friends think he's strong but calm.) An angel alights on his chest. "I've been blessed," he says. On his left arm, the sun rises over the date 7/19/07. "This one's because I died that day," Lanci says.

Since his cardiac arrest six years ago, the millionaire printing company owner has refocused. "I've devoted 100 percent of my life working for the greater good of all," he says. Selflessly, Lanci has decided he should run the city. He's Mayor Frank Jackson's challenger in the Nov. 5 election.

You may remember Lanci from his last turn as a candidate, in the 2010 race for Cuyahoga County executive. He spent $1 million of his own money and decorated dozens of RTA buses with his deeply tanned face. He ran as an independent and argued his experience turning around failing businesses made him an ideal CEO for the corruption-scarred county. He interviewed the head of every county agency, filled three-ring binders with his plans and won 11 percent of the vote.

In May, Lanci moved from Brecksville to downtown Cleveland to run for mayor as a Democrat. He's spending $1 million again. Some of his bus and billboard ads were installed upside down, to get attention. "We are not getting any coverage," he laments.

It's difficult to run against an incumbent. This time, Lanci doesn't have binders full of ideas for fixing city hall; he can't interview the mayor's cabinet. Instead, he's running on anger at the state of city neighborhoods, assorted grievances of public employees, a busload of eccentricity and a rich guy's confidence that his brand of leadership and charity work can solve the city's intractable problems.

Ruthless math drives Lanci's argument against Jackson. "Every real measure that relates to the quality of life of the residents has gotten worse," he says. Lanci's fliers cite Cleveland's murder rate (it went up in 2012), poverty rate (higher than when Jackson became mayor) and the school district's failure to meet a single state report card standard (last year and the year before). Jackson supporters blame the Great Recession and foreclosure crisis for the crime and poverty, and argue the mayor's new school reforms need time to work. Lanci says the economy is no excuse: "We have to do better."

Dismissive of Jackson's school reforms, Lanci says he'd expand Project Love, a charity he helped fund that matched at-risk girls at Collinwood High School with mother-figure mentors. It helped boost the girls' graduation rate far above their peers'. If elected, Lanci wants the project, which helped 72 kids, to expand to include all 40,000 Cleveland public school students. That'd cost $40 million in a district that's seen years of deep budget cuts. But he's confident that eliminating mismanagement and cronyism will pay for it. "With the waste that's in the school system, the money's there, no doubt in my mind," he says.

To fight crime, Lanci wants to bring back community policing and convince young crime witnesses to testify against suspects. He envisions an era of harmony where police representatives and police critics such as Art McKoy share a City Hall office and resolve disputes. And he says he'd fire police chief Michael McGrath and safety director Martin Flask. "You have to be able to get to the table with someone that the rank and file respect," he says.

With that, Lanci's grabbing hold of Cleveland's biggest political issue: whether Jackson can effectively control the police and fire departments. Since last November's 60-car police chase and shooting, which ended with police firing 137 shots and killing two unarmed suspects, the debate has turned to whether the officers in the chase or the command staff should be held accountable. (No one ever says both.) Lanci has taken the side of the rank and file.

"The breakdown is at the top," Lanci says. What about the officers who violated department policy by joining the chase without permission? "[If] I join the chase, and I'm not told to back off by my supervisor, who knows that policy, that's acceptance." That stance helped Lanci win the police union's endorsement in August.

Running against the popular Jackson this year is no politician's idea of a shrewd career move. Instead, Lanci is spending lots of money to be the mayor's chief critic when no one else will. "Everybody I know thinks I'm crazy," he says.

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