Stuart Garson looks out his law firm's window atop the Rockefeller Building. Downtown's office towers line up perfectly, looking big-city bold as they frame Public Square — and two enormous, sprawling parking lots.
"In 21 1/2 years, that view hasn't changed," Garson says. "Is that the best we can do?"
As he stalks down the hall, anxious, dissatisfied, Garson is impatient to see Cleveland shift out of its asphalt stasis. Years ago, he wrote a Sinatra-style ditty, "Cleveland, U.S.A.," for the Cleveland Pops Orchestra: "The town that gives more than it gets/ ... The town that's down but never out." Now, at 61, the Moreland Hills trial lawyer can do more for Cleveland than pen a tune: He's trying to jump-start the stalled, scandal-plagued Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.
In June, the party chose Garson at its new chairman, replacing FBI target Jimmy Dimora mere months before crucial elections for governor, U.S. senator and the new county government.
His assignment, restoring local voters' trust in Democrats, is going to be tough. Over coffee, Garson's thin face and friendly dark brown eyes slide between dry wit and a reluctant volunteer's hangdog woe.
"No one is more surprised than myself," Garson says. "I didn't campaign for it."
He's being modest: Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge and former AFL-CIO leader John Ryan all lobbied him to accept the unpaid chairmanship. His work as U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown's 2006 state finance chair, helping Brown raise more than $3 million from Ohio donors, earned him respect from all the party's factions, from the Bill Mason crowd in Parma to the Fudge forces out east.
Brown says Garson will run the party very differently than Dimora. "He won't make this the Stuart Garson show," the senator says. "He's an honest guy. He's a smart guy. He's all the things the party needs."
How Garson can be the man to fix the county Dems
- Restore voters' trust. Democrats have to "show that the party chair is a man of integrity," Brown says. Garson says Democrats need to be a party of service, not just a party in power. "I'm going to have a very low threshold of tolerance for any ill-toward behavior," he says, meaning "anybody who's attempting to use their office to enhance their own financial gain."
- Curb machine politics. Garson has to show that "the organization isn't about patronage, it's not about pay to play, whether or not it was that in the past," Brown says. Because Garson isn't an elected official, no one will wonder if he's governing to benefit Democrats or politicking to further his career.
- Recruit candidates. Winning the voters' confidence "starts with recruiting the right characters to run for office," Garson says. He wants to set up a training and mentoring institute for aspiring Democratic candidates.
- Gain influence in Columbus. Democrats in the rest of Ohio often perceive the Cuyahoga County party as off on its own, Garson says. That means Greater Cleveland gets shortchanged in state budgets. So Garson wants to improve relations with state party leaders. "We need to make sure that some attention and some regard is paid to us," he says.