The Flamingo Kid

Charmer, reformer, prodigy, politician -- Dean DePiero must be more than a political lawn ornament as the 35-year-old mayor tries to transform Parma's racist and ridiculed reputation.


Dean DePiero wants very badly to be the new face of Parma. Most everyone in Parma would like him to be, too. So there's a crowd of 80 or 90 on hand on West 54th Street one sunny May afternoon for a cleverly orchestrated pageant of destruction.

DePiero dons a hardhat, picks up a sledgehammer, walks up to Parma's squat, drab, '50s-era former police station and takes a few cracks at the brick. The hammer bounces off the wall without denting it. Chalk one up to Old Parma.

The mayor hands the hammer to the council president, who pounds on an edge until brick and mortar chip off. Council members take turns whacking the corner. DePiero gets a second shot so the cameras can catch him smashing off some shards.

Everyone cheers when their new mayor hops into an excavator and swings its clawed bucket, punching holes in a window-board. Now, the brick crumbles easily. The bucket bashes through the window, leaving blinds swaying in the frame, then tears the sill apart.

Like 6-year-old boys, the crowd is wowed by the heavy machinery, the crash, the rubble. And it's not just because Parma filled up long ago, like most inner-ring suburbs, and gets excited when it builds anything new, even the 14 homes planned for the police station site.

Something else is going on. "It's a tangible example of a renaissance or rebirth in Parma," councilman Sean Brennan tells the crowd before the demolition. "We're committed to improving the image of our city."

DePiero comes back to the mike. "I agree: whatever we can do to improve the image of our city," he says.

That explains the calculated symbolism: It's Parma, for pierogi's sake, the butt of jokes, the town infamous for its racially tainted history, knives-drawn politics and City Hall scandals — Cleveland's largest suburb and one of its most ridiculed. Its leaders are really swinging at the old Parma, trying to sledgehammer it into the past.

That's the theme of DePiero's first year as mayor, which is why the 35-year-old former Ohio House minority leader is enjoying a generous honeymoon. He's trying to change his town's reputation, through his actions — such as appointing a black cabinet member — and by offering up his successful, professional image as if it were a new suit for the city to try on.

Allies once warned him away from the job, afraid that Parma's politics would cut him down. Rivals belittled his pledge to reform crony-filled City Hall by attacking his loyalty to his many political friends. Now, he's in a rare political situation: Almost no one wants him to fail. Even old enemies are wishing him well or at least laying low.

That's because no one in Parma wants Parma to fail.

Dean the charmer

"There's a new day in Parma. There's a new excitement," council president Chuck Germana announces at the town's senior center one morning in April. "Things that have been [one] way for 20, 25 years have flied out the window."

Two Catholic priests listen at a table next to a woman in a headscarf from the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland. A pastor consecrates the breakfast, not with prayer, but by singing a heartfelt hymn to karaoke accompaniment. Parma's ministers, in all their ordinary and extraordinary glory, have gathered for a talk with the new mayor.

When DePiero gets up to speak, he's in full pep-talk mode. "Image-building is extremely important for our city right now," he says. "We've been beat up — fairly or unfairly." He's passed out a list of accomplishments from his first 100 days, but as he speaks, he sticks to easy praise for Parma's 52 religious denominations, its business community, schools and housing stock.

"Mr. Mayor, I believe the police levy failed to pass last time," a United Church of Christ pastor says. "That concerns me." It failed because last year, police officers were caught abusing overtime and sick leave and staging an apparent ticket slowdown.

"The overtime abuse is gone," DePiero says. Unfortunately, the official investigation into the abuses isn't finished, he adds, but he promises to take appropriate action once it is. Meanwhile, the police chief has tightened the rules.

A Baptist minister says he's concerned about racial discrimination in Parma.

"We're focusing on hiring and making sure our hiring is wide open, no matter what color you are," DePiero says. He cites communications director Powell Caesar, the conservative former Sun Newspapers columnist and Parma's first black department head, who's sitting nearby. "Diversity is important to us."

DePiero's chummy personality impresses the ministers. "It's nice to have a mayor we can talk to," gushes one. Others say they liked the mayor's answers. DePiero is clearly the biggest political talent in the room, and the town.

Dean the prodigy

DePiero is classically attractive: dark hair, large dark eyes, expressive eyebrows. He has a loud, friendly voice. He's so animated and energetic in conversation, it's as if there's a natural caffeine infusion in his blood. People who work for him say they can't keep up. He's an eager hand-shaker and a bit of a close talker. He'll say, "How ya doin', buddy?" after meeting you once. Of course he's a politician, he leaves you thinking.

His friend, state Rep. Chris Redfern from Catawba Island, noticed that charisma at work at a party DePiero threw after buying a house on Kelleys Island. "I show up with my wife, we're walking up the driveway and the local councilman from Kelleys Island and the mayor of Kelleys Island are cooking burgers!" recalls Redfern, who succeeded DePiero as leader of the statehouse's Democrats. "He's only probably been there two or three months, and he's already got the mayor of Kelleys Island cooking burgers for him! And the head of the chamber of commerce was there, too!"

"He's always been a politician," says DePiero's mother, Roberta, by which she means her son has always been a people person, a charmer, the first in the family to notice her new haircut as a kid.

Social graces led to leadership. His sister, Lisa, remembers a long procession of friends and teammates stopping by the house after Dean, football captain at Holy Name High School, broke his ankle.

"He's a good talker. I think he got that from my wife," says his father, Jerry, who was a firefighter and bricklayer before going into real estate with Roberta. Dean is the youngest of four children. There's Lisa, the oldest; Chris, who works at his parents' Century 21 office; and Matt, a salesman in Atlanta who looks a lot like Dean (though a full head shorter) and speaks just like him, too.

Dean followed Matt to Ashland University, joined the same fraternity and, like Matt, was elected its president. He kept busy coaxing the fraternity, which had been suspended a few years earlier, to stay out of trouble. He majored in marketing and business management, graduated in 1990, and went on to law school. In 1993, he approached then-Parma law director Bill Mason, the brother of a fraternity friend, for a job.

"I knew he was a winner," remembers Mason, now the county prosecutor. He hired DePiero, impressed by his self-confidence. "You knew he'd be able to do whatever he wanted to do."

Working for Mason, one of Cleveland's most intense political operators, drew DePiero toward politics. In 1995, at age 26, he applied for an open city-council seat and got it. "My feeling was, if you want to get involved, you should start from the bottom and work your way up," DePiero says. He impressed people by making sure Parma built a new Justice Center, fighting off not-in-my-back-yard protests. He spent three years as a councilman while working as an assistant city prosecutor in Berea.

His potential and drive were obvious. Lisa DePiero remembers friends saying he already carried himself like a senator. "He'd say, 'Oh no, don't say that!' "

DePiero is "appropriately ambitious," says Cuyahoga County commissioner and former state representative Peter Lawson Jones. "His ambition wasn't obnoxious. He didn't hit you over the head. It's not like the whiff of too-strong cologne. It's more subtle." He's "kind of a man's man," Jones adds, "a former athlete, in good shape, young, good-looking — a man men tend to admire."

In 1998, DePiero saw a chance to move up when veteran Parma legislator Ron Mottl Sr. resigned from the statehouse and appointed his 23-year-old son, Ron "Mickey" Mottl, to replace him. "I didn't think those kind of jobs should be handed down in the family," DePiero says. So he ran, and beat Mottl in the Democratic primary.

His general-election battle with Republican David Bentkowski drew so much blood that the candidates sued each other for defamation. DePiero claimed that at a Seven Hills council meeting, Bentkowski had told a resident in a wheelchair, "I don't care about your opinion." Bentkowski, insisting he'd been misquoted, sued DePiero and the Parma Sun Post, which had written about the incident.

"Dean DePiero will stop at nothing to win an election," charged a Bentkowski flier that accused DePiero of voting for a pay raise for himself. DePiero beat Bentkowski 58 to 42 percent, then countersued over the pay-raise claim. (Today, all is forgiven: Bentkowski, now mayor of Seven Hills, dropped the suit years ago and says DePiero is doing a great job in Parma.)

In the House, DePiero joined the criminal-justice committee and sponsored some crime bills that became laws, such as increased sentences for shooting a police officer and for selling and possessing date-rape drugs. When term limits forced many House veterans to retire in 2000, DePiero ran for minority leader. "I wanted to help the party to sharpen its message," he says. He thought Ohio Democrats needed a more centrist agenda — lower college tuition, a better business climate — to appeal to middle-class suburban voters. He beat an opponent 25 years his senior, becoming one of the state's most prominent Democrats at age 32.

DePiero spent the next two years crisscrossing Ohio to recruit candidates and raise funds for House Democrats. He went beyond the party's typical liberal sources and raised $800,000 for the next election — more than any of the House Democrats' minority leaders had before.

He also may have saved the congressional careers of Dennis Kucinich and Sherrod Brown. In 2002, strategizing with Dick Gephardt, then U.S. House minority leader, he cut a deal with Republicans after they missed a key deadline, scuttling a redistricting plan that would have thrown Kucinich and Brown into conservative districts.

Those successes could've made DePiero a good candidate for statewide office. But he told friends he was thinking about a new job: mayor of Parma.

Dean the son of Parma, Dean the anti-Parma

DePiero sits in Parma's Jigsaw Saloon, next to a fallout-shelter sign and a yellowing poster of Henny Youngman. He points out the Mug Club rack above the bar, where 400 regulars hang their identical silver tankards. A visitor's eyes dart, overwhelmed, from the rack to an accordion above it, its cobalt-blue plastic edges shining, then to a fish-shaped sign for Polski's Live Bait hanging next to an AC/DC poster.

Here, at one of the great outposts of classic Parma, it's hard for the mayor to finish a conversation or his fish-and-pierogis lunch. Teachers at the next table look up and say hello. One comes over to ask how City Hall is treating him. The waitress asks if his parents are in Florida (they are).

DePiero is a loyal son of Parma, a product of the town's Catholic schools who now attends services at St. Francis DeSales in the city's working-class northeast corner. Yet his youth, charisma and polished appearance are just what people elsewhere don't expect in the leader of an aging blue-collar town.

Back in the '50s, Parma was young, full of promise and growing by the month, the classic post-war suburb filling up with veterans and émigrés from the city. But in its early adulthood, Parma had to laugh off the sort of merciless needling that most of us escape after high school. Ernie "Ghoulardi" Anderson's "Parma Place" skits on his 1960s "Shock Theater" show stereotyped Parma residents as white-socked, bowling, pink-flamingo-lawn-ornament-loving polka fans. They started out as a big Polish joke aimed at Parma-ites who'd left Cleveland's Eastern European neighborhoods. Forty years later, the gags have survived as class snobbery, a way for West Siders and East Siders alike to feel superior.

In the '70s, Parma looked like the vicious old racist on the block. "I do not want Negroes in the city of Parma," then-council president Kenneth Kuczma declared at a meeting in 1971. The federal government sued the city for housing discrimination in 1973, after it refused to adopt a fair-housing ordinance, outlawed high-rise apartments and threw a wrench into public-housing plans. The case wasn't resolved until 1999. The NAACP sued Parma in 1990 to get it to hire more minorities; that case took 12 years to resolve.

And since the '80s, Parma has displayed a bad habit of getting into fights. Mayors and council members brawled for sport, passing pointed resolutions fueled by spite, revenge, pride and power-lust. The wars calmed down for part of the 1990s, but resumed around 2000 over an old complaint: A political machine ruled Parma, rewarding friends with city jobs.

Cronyism swirled into scandal. The public-housing director got caught embezzling $127,000, then died before she could be prosecuted. Cops were caught collecting overtime and sick leave on the same day. Even the dogcatcher was investigated for (but never charged with) mishandling public funds.

"I was born and raised in Parma," DePiero says. "I didn't like the direction it was going." He praises his hometown as "a microcosm of middle-class America" with stable property values, good schools, relatively low taxes and "a good mixture of blue-collar [and] young white-collar folks who've moved in." But he says City Hall was suffering from not enough leadership, too much venom and too many scratch-your-back hires.

"Although we had an administration that was well intentioned, I think folks got complacent," he says. "I think members of City Council were more concerned about political infighting than moving the city forward. -- I think, a lot of times, people were hired and fired based on who they knew as opposed to what they knew and what they could do."

Most of his friends told him to stay in the statehouse, not to run for mayor. "I just thought, he's bigger than that," says Bill Mason, "and that he was coming back into a battleground where he was going to get wounded, because Parma's a very tough place for politics. They eat their young."

But DePiero says he was tired of leading a small minority in the statehouse. "We were shut out of the process," he says. House Speaker Larry Householder ignored him, he says, on school funding, economic development and even questions about Capitol office space.

So DePiero tried to win seats in 2002 by attacking Householder in a campaign video as a divisive leader who employs questionable fund-raising tactics. He figured his relations with the speaker couldn't get any worse — but he now says the video was probably a mistake, too personal an attack.

Also, it didn't work. The Democrats lost three House seats. Four days after the election, DePiero announced he was running for mayor.

A cynic could see it as a shrewd career move. Why lead the losing side in Columbus, living with a setback in your rise to power, and become known as one of the guys who couldn't stop Ohio Democrats' decline — when you can make a quick change before the loss hurts you, become the mayor who cleaned up a corrupt town and polish your image as a promising young talent?

DePiero says he thinks he would've been re-elected as minority leader, but admits that fighting the Republicans was frustrating. "Throwing bombs gets old," he says. As mayor, he could make things happen.

Though Mason had warned his protégé not to run, he turned around and helped DePiero's campaign. He convened a mini think-tank, including councilman Tim DeGeeter, Cleveland councilman Mike O'Malley and old Parma-politics hands Marty Vittardi, the clerk of courts, and treasurer Jack Krise, to help DePiero create his campaign message and decide how to get it out.

DePiero's opponent, councilwoman Debbie Lime, argued that those friendships made DePiero part of the Parma status quo, the wrong candidate to end patronage and corruption. The Cleveland Free Times, which has criticized Mason for years, repeatedly called DePiero "Bill Mason's bitch."

"The low times [were when] things get said about you in the campaign that you know are not true," DePiero says. "For someone to suggest that people would control me if I was elected or that I wouldn't make my own decisions was kind of upsetting to me."

DePiero played tough, too. He hired a consultant who dug up Lime's financial problems and passed the documents to newspapers.

DePiero beat Lime 60 to 37 percent in November, after outspending her $244,000 to $43,000. Since then, they've had coffee and patched things up. Lime won't criticize DePiero now, or talk about the campaign. "I have some opinions on things he said or did, but that's not important right now. What matters is that Parma turns itself around," she says.

Dean the reformer

Most nights last year, DePiero walked through Parma, knocking on doors, working one side of the street, his relatives the other, talking to voters, leaving fliers for anyone who wasn't home.

By election day, DePiero says, he'd walked every block of every street in the city. "If you're willing to do it every day, six days a week, and be relentless about it, you'll be very tough to beat," he says. "If people see you at their doorstep and they see you more than once, it's amazing what they'll do."

By the end, he knew what Parma voters wanted. Over and over again, they told him the same thing: "Clean house."

After the election, DePiero dismissed all of ex-mayor Gerald Boldt's cabinet members, including a friend of his, service director Vickie Stanley, and recreation director Ray Zemek, "my football coach when I was a little kid." DePiero set up a hiring committee to recommend cabinet candidates. It included Parma council president Chuck Germana, Brook Park law director David Lambros and then-Greater Cleveland Growth Association president Dennis Eckart. "A lot of times, it helped me keep my own biases in check," DePiero says. "There were a lot of people I knew, for whatever reason, who gave me resumes, who I interviewed and ultimately didn't pick."

Two choices won him positive buzz. The first was integrating the cabinet by hiring Powell Caesar, a suave public-relations consultant who, as a Sun columnist, thrilled fellow conservatives and horrified others with his blunt criticisms of some black people's behavior. "It's time for us to move into the 21st century," DePiero says. "It's important that the city put these race issues behind us." His safety director, charged with cleaning up the police department, is Greg Baeppler, a respected former Cleveland police commander.

The committee and the all-new cabinet have insulated him from Lime's complaints that he'd secretly represent cronyism-as-usual. And of the 116 people Parma hired in his first 5 1/2 months as mayor, only one contributed to his 2003 campaign (his public housing director, a former auditor for state government).

There's still a place for loyalty in his hiring, though. "I don't have a problem with someone who's got a political name as long as they're qualified to do the job," DePiero says. Mickey Vittardi, brother of DePiero ally Marty Vittardi, was promoted from the No. 2 to No. 1 job in parks and recreation. Also, DePiero brought a trusted aide to City Hall: Vince Russo, his campaign manager, is his administrative assistant now. Russo is the son of county auditor Frank Russo — DePiero's sister Lisa's boss.

The mayor's staff cracked down on excessive overtime in the service department (and found that police chief Dan Hoffman, hired last year, had already reformed police rules). Now, DePiero gets reports on overtime from his directors every two weeks. They proudly say the police claimed 40 percent less overtime this winter than last.

DePiero and his staff may have saved the Parma police further embarrassment in January, when the mayor intervened in a dispute at the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland on West 130th Street in Parma. Baeppler and Hoffman warned DePiero that some cops were planning to work, while off duty, for board members at the center who were trying to force out their imam, Fawaz Damra. But Damra, who was accused of supporting the terrorist group Islamic Jihad, insisted on leading a service at the mosque, and it looked like violence might break out — with Parma cops free-lancing as muscle for one side.

DePiero called both sides to City Hall, tried unsuccessfully to mediate, then got Damra on the phone and warned him that he could be arrested if he incited violence. The mayor sent neutral, on-duty officers to the mosque, who watched as Damra led the tense service without incident. (In June, a jury found Damra guilty of lying on an immigration form about his terrorist connection.)

Meanwhile, the mayor's enthusiasm has impressed people at City Hall. He's had a scanner installed in his car to keep up with police, firefighters and service workers. He went to the service garage after a big snowstorm to tell the snowplow drivers they'd done a great job on the streets. It sounds corny, but it's winning people over. Council members rave about how often the mayor calls and lobbies them and how thoroughly he answers their questions.

DePiero's arrival has inspired a truce in Parma's political wars. The Democratic majority he helped elect keeps things humming smoothly for him, and the minority is careful not to shatter the peace.

Ex-mayor Gerald Boldt, true to form, keeps calm and doesn't say much about his successor. "I'm not going to second-guess what Dean DePiero does," he says. He calls his years as mayor "successful" and says DePiero will understand the financial difficulties he faced once he's been in office a while.


Dean the politician

DePiero juggles a cell phone and two newspapers at a table in the Warehouse District Starbucks on the last day in June, between a meeting at the AFL-CIO office and a lunch at Johnny's, the movers-and-shakers' restaurant down the street. He puts down the papers to talk about his plans for fall.

He's still waiting for a report on the police overtime investigation, which began in March 2003.

"I'm pissed off about it," he says. "It's a cloud hanging over our administration that we inherited." He thought he'd have the report by April, so he could discipline any cops who abused the system, then tell the voters the department was reformed, so they'd renew the police levy in November.

Why isn't there a report yet? "Because the investigator's not done," he says, smiling sarcastically.

Every day, DePiero says, he asks law director Tim Dobeck for news on the investigation. Dobeck pushes the investigator to finish. He doesn't.

DePiero says he's ready to "punish the wrongdoers" as soon as he gets the report. "Firing, demotion, suspension, time off" are all possibilities. "The credibility of the city is at stake," he says.

He's already telling voters that the police chief has cleaned up the department, that overtime is down, that most Parma cops are good cops. He cites an award Parma received as one of the safest cities in the country.

Still, DePiero admits voters might not renew the levy because of the scandal, especially if news of it is fresh in their minds. Parma stands to lose $1.5 million from a $40 million budget, prompting cuts in police protection and other services, DePiero says.

That's one reason the mayor and his allies are talking about replacing the police and fire levies with a permanent millage. The tax could be written into Parma's first-ever charter, which a commission is busy writing; it'll go before voters in November. City treasurer and DePiero friend Jack Krise, who's on the commission, came up with the idea, but the mayor is involved, too.

A second tax problem could put DePiero in a bind this fall. Some voters want him to get rid of a tax, passed in 2002 during a budget crisis, on income earned outside the city. Many Cleveland suburbs have a similar tax, but Parma voters hate it because they aren't used to paying it. The tax is set to decrease at the end of this year and disappear after 2005 — costing the city budget $1.5 million, then $4.5 million more. Soon, council must either renew the tax or make deep budget cuts.

Residents asked DePiero to get rid of the tax when he was running for mayor. He told them he'd "look at" cutting or eliminating it, he says. The slick answer made him seem like the anti-tax candidate without promising anything. But now that he's in office, he says the city needs the money and would have to replace the tax with another one. He says Parma will probably keep the out-of-town income tax for now.

The mayor is taking a risk by putting off an income-tax cut while advocating a permanent property tax. Mickey Mottl, a charter-commission member and DePiero's old rival, predicts that adding the property tax "will definitely kill the charter."

If Mottl is right, and impatient voters reject the charter, DePiero's honeymoon will be over. He'll have to slash services and possibly lay off city workers this winter, much as Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell did last December — and, like Campbell, DePiero could end up with a lot more enemies.

But if voters support the plan, DePiero's honeymoon could go on and on. That could revive the talk that he's destined to go even farther in politics. And if he does, Parma's reputation could improve along with his.

In April, DePiero tries to raise Parma up along with him when he appears with John Kerry at a "jobs summit," a presidential campaign appearance with several of Ohio's big-city mayors. But, like his sledgehammer swing, his speech there needs work.

Jane Campbell kicks off the event, at a Slovenian hall on Cleveland's St. Clair Avenue, with a strong speech blaming Northeast Ohio's suffering economy on President Bush. DePiero, seated two seats to the left of Kerry, speaks third.

"I'm probably the newest mayor on stage here," he says. The youngest, too: He looks baby-faced next to the gray-haired mayors and Kerry's craggy visage.

"It's clear that the Bush policies of the last 3 1/2 years have been a disaster," DePiero says, enthusiastic but nervous. Laid-off LTV employees who live in Parma are voting against levies because they can't pay them, he says — not the best argument for a guy who'll soon ask his electorate to make a tax permanent. His talk is choppy and scattered; he complains that federal tax cuts didn't help Ohioans because Congress paid for them by giving states less money, prompting Ohio to hike its sales tax.

"Talk about homeland security — what a joke that is!" DePiero says awkwardly. He argues Bush has underfunded it. "They can talk about it all they want, but they don't walk the walk. That's been the problem with this entire administration."

He saves his speech with that line. The crowd forgives his nervous jitters and applauds. "Well spoken, my colleague," says Campbell. Kerry nods solemnly and when he speaks later, he picks up on one of DePiero's points: "The wealthy are getting wealthier, the middle class and the poor are getting poorer, and the burden of taxes — I listened to the mayor from Parma talk a moment ago, Dean DePiero — he said, 'Taxes? We're paying more!' "

Friends and rivals would be shocked if the mayoralty is DePiero's last political step. Sitting in his office, DePiero looks every bit the aspiring Democratic star, surrounded by the obligatory pictures of himself with Bill Clinton and Al Gore, plus the required John F. Kennedy painting — a print of the official White House portrait, of JFK looking down, thoughtful and burdened.

DePiero is too shrewd to admit to higher ambitions. "I just want to do a good job and work hard at what I'm doing," he says. If he wants to stay in politics, he acknowledges, being a good mayor "could open up opportunities down the line. But I really haven't thought about that."

DePiero's next move will be "whatever he wants," Mason says. "His star is as bright as anybody's.

"If and when Dennis Kucinich should ever leave the congressional seat, that would be something that would interest him. I could see him running for state office. And that would be in the short term, the next 10 years."

Maybe DePiero can be the new face of Parma — locally for now, in Columbus or Washington someday, if Mason's prediction comes true. If he clears a path for himself by smashing the icons of old Parma, so much the better. Those flamingo jokes are way too stale.

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