Armond Budish is 16 months ahead. The former Ohio speaker of the House and host of a local infomercial for seniors has all but clinched this year's race for Cuyahoga County executive, Northeast Ohio's most powerful political job. He's been gathering support since early 2013. Everyone who's anyone in Cleveland politics — from Ed FitzGerald and Frank Jackson to Sherrod Brown, Marcy Kaptur and Marcia Fudge — is backing him.
A sunny guy with tightly combed silver hair, Budish is smooth, disciplined and scripted — the kind of politician other politicians don't want to face. He's a close talker with a soft voice who can be personally charming in a way that Cleveland's current leaders — FitzGerald, the icy former FBI agent, and Jackson, the wary introvert — are not. His intense ambition, long-contained and now unleashed, drives his uncanny ability to court donors and raise money.
The Plain Dealer dubbed Budish the race's front-runner a year ago, before he officially announced his candidacy. Since then, he's won the campaign's two most important contests, the money primary and the insider's game. The party-endorsed Democrat in the May 6 primary, Budish has raised 10 times as much cash as each of his first-round opponents. As for November's general election, well, Republicans haven't won a countywide office in 22 years.
So it's settled.
* * * *
Voters used to have a real choice when a top job in Cleveland politics opened up. Jackson, Jane Campbell, Mike White and George Voinovich all survived fierce competitions to become Cleveland's mayor. The former county commissioners, Tim Hagan, Peter Lawson Jones and Jimmy Dimora, all beat strong Democratic opponents for their seats. FitzGerald won a tough race four years ago. Each winner was tested, obligated to answer sharp questions and make campaign promises by which the public could later judge them.
This year, Budish's most qualified opponents include former county sheriff Bob Reid and state Sen. Shirley Smith, both Democrats, and Jack Schron, a Republican county councilman who's also a CEO. Political forecasters look at Budish's campaign fund and party endorsement and say the others stand almost no chance.
We may be entering a new era in Cleveland politics, the uncompetitive era, when the race goes to the swiftest and most moneyed Democrat, and when the real choices get made before anyone hears from the voters. Blame a shrinking political talent pool, our deep-blue voting habits and the distortions of campaign fundraising that benefit business-friendly candidates — not the populists.
But the speeding up of local politics shares some responsibility, as the endless campaign cycle of presidential and congressional races trickles down to Statehouse seats and local elections.
Budish is the new pacesetter in Cleveland, running the same sort of two-year campaign he mounted as leader of the Ohio House Democrats. Would-be competitors discovered too late that he's warped the rules of political timing they once knew.
It's not that talented people don't want to be county executive. Plenty of local leaders would like to have the job. Former county treasurer Jim Rokakis, University Circle Inc. president Chris Ronayne and County Council president C. Ellen Connally explored a run in early 2013. That would've been a real competition. In the end, none were willing to invest two years in a campaign.
"I started to make the rounds early," Rokakis says. "I learned Armond had been virtually everywhere in Cuyahoga County."
Rokakis says the main reason he didn't run was his commitment to lead the nonprofit Thriving Communities Institute. But it couldn't have helped that during 34 years in politics, he'd never faced a potential opponent like Budish. "He works harder than anybody I've ever seen in this business," Rokakis says.
To Budish's many supporters, his anointing is a triumph of the best candidate, a meritocracy at work.
"Sometimes you see people who are politicians first, policy experts second," says FitzGerald, the current county executive and Democratic candidate for governor. "He's a policy person first." When Budish finally announced his run last May, FitzGerald appeared at his side and endorsed him. "I wanted to make sure my successor is somebody that has the same basic philosophy I did about the reforms we'd done," FitzGerald says. "I didn't want to see the county move backward."
But the fact is, Budish has answered few tough questions about ideas for the county. He has little executive experience. And as of March, he has never attended a Cuyahoga County Council meeting. He often sounds like he's running for governor or for speaker again. So if his coronation is well-rehearsed, what comes after?
* * * *
The politicians wear sport coats and ties, the other Democrats sweaters. Budish, 60, the only guy in a full suit at the Parma Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, crosses the floor, shaking hands before the Parma Democrats' March meeting. The room evokes the '50s: white dropped ceiling, wood floor, wood-paneled columns. Much of Budish's first year of campaigning took place at party meetings like this, where he courted the 550 members of the county Democrats' executive committee, who bestow the magic D on candidates in pre-election endorsements. Budish's party connections, forged in his two years as House speaker, gave him a huge advantage.
"All of us elected officials came out early for Armond," says Parma Mayor Tim DeGeeter, a friendly, bespectacled 44-year-old former state representative who served in Budish's House leadership team. "He hit Parma early."
Last summer, Budish came to Parma's Veterans Memorial Park to pose for a photo with DeGeeter and the many other Parma politicians who endorsed him. It's as friendly a show of force as you'll ever see: Budish, wearing a red power tie, stands in front of four flagpoles, amid 10 smiling sport-coated guys and a red-cardigan-clad councilwoman. DeGeeter tries to remember, When was that taken?
Budish approaches, just in time to ask him.
"September, right?" asks DeGeeter.
"I would've liked it around April!" Budish says, and laughs, a sort of high-pitched hee-hee. Actually, the park pic was shot in July, seven months before the Feb. 1 party endorsement vote — three months late in Budish time.
DeGeeter grew close to Budish during their time in the House, and he tries to prove the rarity of their friendship with a Columbus joke.
"If you count five close friends on Capitol Square, you're counting three too many," he says. Budish chuckles as if he hasn't heard the joke before, which seems unlikely.
"We have a good working relationship," DeGeeter says. "I'm excited he'll be our next county executive."
Budish smiles and holds out a $5 bill, its dog-eared edge pointing toward DeGeeter — another joke about political loyalty.
"Just kidding!" Budish says as he pulls the bill back.
A few minutes later, DeGeeter introduces Budish to the audience of about 60, and Budish gets a standing ovation. He thanks the audience for their endorsements. Last year, Budish says, people wondered whether a Beachwood Democrat could win on the West Side. "When Parma came out for me, it meant everything," he says. "That was it."
From there, Budish launches his stump speech, heavy on economic development, the main goal set in the county government's 2009 charter. His pitch is very pro-business, new-tech Democrat with high-flying rhetoric about Northeast Ohio's economic strengths — the type of talk business and civic elites love. He calls the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and MetroHealth Medical Center the "Microsoft of health care" and says the county should support the startup businesses spun off from their innovations.
To argue he's the guy to help Cleveland's economy, Budish points to his experience in the Statehouse. He says he'll create a venture capital authority for Cuyahoga County, like the state fund he helped expand. Like many candidates today in Cleveland and elsewhere, Budish pledges to better match government job-training programs to the needs of local employers.
"We have something like 30,000 jobs in Cuyahoga County right now that are not filled, because the employers are saying, We can't find people with the requisite skills,' " he says. "That cannot stand."
Budish promises to help Parma if elected, asks the Democrats to work the polls for him and offers to answer questions.
There aren't any.
So he fills the silence with a familiar topic: statewide politics.
"Cuyahoga County is the base for Democratic votes in this state," he says, "and things that have been going on in Columbus are not so good." He decries Ohio's latest election laws and rules, which trim the early-voting calendar. "You know who that's aimed at," he says. "It's an attack on Democratic votes."
Then Budish tries, rather awkwardly, to turn Ohio's labor-rights battles into an issue in his campaign.
"The next thing that's going to come down in January will be the right-to-work constitutional amendment or legislation," Budish warns. (He and many other Ohio Democrats predict that Republicans will try to ban mandatory union membership from workplaces next year. State Republican leaders say it's not on their agenda.)
"If that passes, labor will be destroyed in this state, and the Democratic Party will be destroyed in this state," Budish says. "Jack Schron, who's my Republican opponent, will not stand up against the right-to-work legislation."
Though Budish resigned from House leadership to run for county executive, his political instincts still steer him toward Capitol Square. He often promises Democratic audiences that he'll use the executive job as a platform to fight statewide partisan battles.
"We need a Democrat who is strong in the county executive position, who will help us lead the efforts to defeat right-to-work when it comes down," he says.
Finally, Budish gets a few questions.
"How do you see the county working together with a city like Parma?" asks one Democrat.
"Are you a believer in regionalism?" asks another. Budish says the county should share more services and purchasing with towns that want to cut costs. He says he'll spread casino tax money around, not spend it mostly on downtown Cleveland, as FitzGerald has.
"How do we get rid of Kasich?" an older man growls.
"Vote for the other guy," Budish answers. "We have a very important election coming up."
Three questions, and the room goes quiet. DeGeeter claps, so everyone claps. The QandA's over.
* * * *
"Where's Amy?" Budish asks, pausing outside a conference room in the Cuyahoga Land Bank's offices. He steps into the room, finds her already there and introduces her. "My wife, Amy, my chief policy adviser," he says with a grin. He's joking a little, but not really.
Amy, 61, is a head shorter than her husband, her red-brown hair in a pixie cut, her little glasses stylishly boxy. She's wearing a blue turtleneck and charcoal sweater vest, business casual next to his suit, white shirt and red-striped tie. Quickly, she establishes her bona fides, mentioning her background in consumer affairs. When Budish brings up the legal column he once wrote for The Plain Dealer, she adds that she used to edit the column.
They're here to learn more about the land bank, the government-created nonprofit that demolishes and resells abandoned homes. Though the land bank has invited other county executive candidates to similar meetings, a sense of Budish's inevitability slips into the conversation. Gus Frangos, the land bank's president, says it's important for "a new administration, which Armond's going to be heading," to understand the nonprofit's work.
For the first half-hour, Amy asks more questions than her husband. Like a tough chief of staff, she takes the skeptic's role so Budish can remain the diplomat.
Does the land bank seize property by eminent domain? (No.) How does it decide whether to sell or tear down a house? (Depends on its condition and location.) Budish chips in: Do banks pay the cost of demolition when they donate a house? (Yes.)
"It seems like everywhere he goes, he brings Amy," says Matt Zone, a Cleveland city councilman who has endorsed Budish.
Rokakis says Amy sat in on about 80 percent of his meetings with Budish about the Thriving Communities Institute.
"She's very engaged, takes notes, asks questions," Rokakis says. "They seem to work as a team."
That's been true since the Budishes moved to Cleveland as newlyweds in 1979.
* * * *
When Budish was a newly minted lawyer at age 26, he turned down offers from New York City and Washington, D.C., firms to return to Cleveland. A former Beachwood High School student body president, he wanted to go into politics back home.
"This has been his life's dream," says Amy.
But the couple wanted to start a family, so Budish decided not to run for office right away.
"Amy knows how focused I get," he says. "I put everything into something when I do it. I wanted to be home with my kids. I wanted to be able to read to them at night." He took a job with Hahn, Loeser and Parks, which allowed him time to get involved in the community.
Back then, Amy had more political experience than her husband. When they met, she was working in the White House for President Jimmy Carter's consumer affairs office; he was serving as a clerk for a federal judge. In Cleveland, she worked on consumer issues for Howard Metzenbaum, Ohio's longtime liberal U.S. senator, and ran the district office of then-state Rep. Lee Fisher before she became a stay-at-home mom. Her past work still influences Budish, who'd like to create a consumer advocate's office for Cuyahoga County.
Budish began writing his "You and the Law" column for The Plain Dealer in 1981. The many questions he got from senior citizens led him to an expertise. With Amy as his co-author and editor, he wrote three books on seniors' issues, including Avoiding The Medicaid Trap and Why Wills Won't Work (If You Want to Protect Your Assets). He became a legal-affairs columnist for Family Circle. At work, he took on more seniors as clients. Budish now specializes in estate planning. He advises seniors on how to shield their assets so they can receive Medicaid, the nation's health care program for the poor, to pay their nursing homes without depleting all their savings.
In 1998, Budish also launched Golden Opportunities, a Sunday morning infomercial on WKYC, in which he talks about seniors' issues with guests, many of whom pay to be on the show. (He's on leave now that he's a candidate.)
"It's time to get G-O-ing!" Budish declares at the start of each episode, with a smile that widens as he repeats the corny tagline. "So pull up a chair and join us at our kitchen table!" His shirt collar open, his voice at its softest and highest pitch, he seems impossibly friendly, like the kind adult son who'll find his elderly mom the best possible retirement home, but only when she's ready to move.
He was 53 when he finally ran for state representative.
"Amy jokes that no sooner than my younger son left the house to go to college — before the door even shut — I was on the phone making phone calls." He tapped his connections in law, business, real estate and labor to raise an unheard-of $265,000 for his first campaign. He fundraises methodically, like U.S. senators do — daily phone calls and thank-you notes.
It's one reason Democrats have mustered behind Budish in the county race. He's raised big sums to take the party to a place of power before. Budish joined the General Assembly in 2007, just as term limits had turned all its leaders into lame ducks. Democrats were the minority party, an impotence Budish couldn't stand.
He stepped into the power vacuum.
Soon, everyone in Columbus knew about the freshman who wanted to be House speaker. To win his colleagues' support, he traveled the state and raised $1.4 million between the elections. He doled it out to Democratic challengers in conservative-leaning suburban House districts. His support helped them ride Barack Obama's coattails to surprising victories that gave the Democrats their first House majority since 1994.
Budish's brief time in power was bittersweet. The Great Recession forced the General Assembly to cut the state's budget rather than embark on ambitious new programs. Though Budish now boasts he worked constructively with the Republican Senate, critics complained at the time that the divided Legislature set records for inaction. The two houses did approve a new school-funding formula (later abolished), renew the Third Frontier technology-development program and pass some tax credits to stimulate jobs. But overall, fundraising outpaced lawmaking as both parties prepared for a rematch.
The nationwide Republican wave of 2010 swept away Budish's majority. House Democrats, absolving him of blame, elected him minority leader. But he was reduced to making angry speeches as Republicans cut taxes and funding for local governments and schools. Life in the minority was "miserable," he says. Term limited in 2014, he started looking for a new job.
* * * *
"I didn't want to jump in, but my wife keeps doing it," Budish says a half-hour into the land bank meeting. Amy scoffs, but softly. Playing off her is part of Budish's act.
Budish asks about FitzGerald's proposal to issue bonds to tear down thousands of abandoned houses. He sees a flaw.
"If the county's going to go out and borrow $50 million, there's got to be a way to get that money back," Budish argues. "Random demolition with that $50 million would not, to me, be the most sensible way to do it. You would need to do something more along the lines of what's going on in Slavic Village, where you have a target neighborhood, where somebody goes out and identifies properties, some of which can be restored, and some of which can be torn down." He's challenging Northeast Ohio's demolition-heavy answer to the abandoned housing epidemic. He wants fewer bulldozers, more rehab.
Gus Frangos, the head demolisher, swiftly agrees with him.
"Unquestionably, yes," Frangos says. "We're in the best position here to do that, because that's kind of what we do now."
Frequently, Budish is sharp with his questions but dull with his answers. He's a smart guy and a quick study who's still trying to understand the job he's running for. Yet his answers tend to be either well-scripted or vague. Politically, he's playing a defensive strategy to preserve a lead.
FitzGerald's early endorsement of Budish anointed him as his heir apparent. But when Budish is asked what advice FitzGerald has given him, he thinks for a while, as if calculating what's safe to share.
"Ed is careful on making sure everything is done as ethically as you could possibly be," Budish replies at last. FitzGerald, he says, trusts him to be ethical.
What did FitzGerald advise him to pay the most attention to?
"If I had to put it in a sentence, do the right thing," Budish says.
When FitzGerald gets a similar question, he drives deeper. "Resisting the temptation to expand the payroll" will be the next county executive's most pressing challenge, he says. The county has fewer employees now than under the old patronage-bloated government, but will that last?
Budish says he won't hire based on politics. "Nobody has been promised anything, nor will anyone be promised anything, during this campaign," he says. And if he wins and supporters ask him for jobs then? "I'll do exactly as I have in my career: Anybody who is hired for any job will only be hired if they are the most qualified person for that job."
Though Budish has impressed FitzGerald, he's underwhelmed the county's second most powerful official, council president C. Ellen Connally. She went to see Budish speak to Shaker Heights Democrats, "and he started talking about college scholarships," she says. "That's probably low down in the agenda of problems that relate to the county."
Budish has never been to a County Council meeting, Connally notes — a fact Budish confirms, though he says he's met with FitzGerald and various County Council members.
Connally supports state Sen. Shirley Smith, whom she feels pays more attention to the county's long-standing obligation to deliver social services.
"We've got a problem with infant mortality," she says. "Before we get the kid going to college, we've got to make sure they're alive."
Her criticism of Budish gets to an irony about his campaign. He's known as an advocate for seniors, thanks to his TV show, yet he's running for executive as a new-economy guy. In fact, ask political insiders what Budish's passion is, and they'll likely say, "seniors," then struggle to name anything else.
So besides seniors, which issues is Budish most passionate about?
"Those are the issues I'm most passionate about," Budish replies. He talks about his legal work directing the elderly to Medicaid and veterans' programs. "I've become very passionate about job creation, because we have to pay for those programs," he says.
What about the county's social programs needs the most attention? Budish pauses for several seconds, as if it is a question he is not used to answering. "Probably the thing I would focus on immediately would be to make the programs more people-friendly," he says. "It's difficult for people to deal with government agencies."
As the interview ends, Budish brings up the passion question again, sensing he didn't quite nail it the first time.
"I grew up — and I don't know whether this is religious or otherwise — believing that it's our responsibility to repair the world," he says, using a resonant phrase from Jewish social-justice tradition. "I take that very seriously. I think that's our responsibility, to help people who need the help, who can't do for themselves."
* * * *
Budish strides to the City Club's debate table, confident. Behind him, Amy sits at a table with nine African-American men in suits. "Friends of Armond Budish," says the sign at the table. Sitting next to Amy, chatting with her, is the Rev. E.T. Caviness, the dean of Cleveland's black ministers. It's a show of strength as clear as that photo in the Parma park: Although Budish has an African-American opponent, he also has significant black support.
The City Club's ceremonial bell clangs. Moderator Rick Jackson asks each candidate a personalized question. They can add other opening comments if they choose. He turns to Budish last.
"Sir, your campaign's been relatively low-key," Jackson says. "You have, according to most accounts, the most money, the most endorsements. So the complaint's been you're not allowing the public to get to know you well, despite the fact that you are an elected official. Should we expect a different Armond Budish to emerge, should you win this nomination?"
Budish thanks Jackson and the City Club, then reads from prepared remarks and doesn't answer the question. He talks up his job-creation record as speaker: approving the film-industry tax credit, renewing the Third Frontier, expanding the state's venture capital authority.
"You will see me all over the place," he says at last. "I've been out there one-on-one, meeting with individuals, meeting with voters, for more than a year."
Shirley Smith jousts with Budish throughout the debate, trying to paint him as a lawmaking lightweight. "I have been more successful than any other Democratic legislator in this county," Smith says. Budish looks up and back down. He knows she's challenging him.
Smith has an outside shot at upsetting him in the May 6 primary, if she can combine enough votes from African-Americans, women and the county's northeast. (Several Cleveland and East Cleveland city council members have endorsed her.) Though some Budish supporters see her as stubborn, rather than a consensus-builder, she's sponsored several successful bills in her 15 years in the state House and Senate: laws that helped unemployed ex-offenders, the mentally challenged and small businesses.
Jackson asks what the government can do to stop Cuyahoga County's population decline.
"We need to bring jobs," Budish says, and he touts his four-point plan on his website. (His point No. 1 promises to "transform Cuyahoga County into an economic powerhouse," but doesn't say how. The other three points are a talent recruitment initiative, better job training and sharing services and purchasing with towns.)
"I have the only real four-point plan for prosperity," Smith snaps. "It's got a point, and it's not full of platitudes." (Her plan, which is somewhat more detailed, promises to recruit new businesses, demolish abandoned homes, launch a five-year health initiative and, yep, improve job training.)
Bob Reid, the former Cuyahoga County sheriff, pitches himself as the best administrator in the race. Before his 3 1/2 years as sheriff, he was Bedford city manager and police chief. (His endorsements are clustered in the county's southeast.) Like Budish, Reid has been running hard for the county executive job. He announced his candidacy before Budish, and he says he and his wife personally visited all 550 Democratic executive committee members to ask for their endorsement. (Reid got 68, Budish 382.)
At the City Club, Reid plugs his accomplishments as sheriff: saving money by consolidating jails, giving inmates the GED test. If elected, he says, he'll demolish abandoned houses and create scholarships for Cuyahoga Community College students. He says he wouldn't continue FitzGerald's efforts to fight the state government's changes to voting rules — a defiance of the Democratic Party line that may cost him.
A minister at Budish's table asks the candidates a question about unemployment and the prison system. When it's Budish's turn, he praises Smith's work to help ex-offenders, a canny front-runner's move — he can afford to give her credit on one issue. Then he one-ups Smith and Reid by offering two "suggestions" (though not promises): establishing a community college branch at the Justice Center and putting people to work rebuilding infrastructure and foreclosed homes.
In his closing remarks, Budish returns to Jackson's opening question.
"You talked about me being low-key, and some people think that. Not the Republicans in the state Legislature, but some people think that!" Then he says he'll fight for workers' rights, women's rights and voting rights — all issues that come up more often in the Statehouse than county government, all issues that rally loyal Democrats. He gets worked up, until he's shouting. "As county executive, I will do everything I can to preserve our right to vote," he concludes. As Reid listens, a sour look twitches across his face.
* * * *
Budish's problems are front-runner problems. Everyone is taking a shot at him.
Each of his primary opponents is trying to turn Budish's elite support — he raised $594,000 in 2013 — against him. Reid has criticized Budish for raising $4.8 million for his House races, including contributions from nursing homes, an industry that often enjoys special treatment in state budgets. "When you generate that much money from special interests, I believe that eventually, those dues come around," Reid says. (Budish says the House cut nursing home funding when he was speaker.)
"He's been a politician for a long time," Reid says. "I've been more of a civil servant." Reid says his only ambition is to serve two terms as executive, and that he suspects Budish sees the job as a step toward a higher office.
Thomas O'Grady, former mayor of North Olmsted, joined the race just before the February filing deadline. Compared to Budish, Reid and Smith, he offers a vague platform, including a promise to focus "incredible attention" on cutting the county budget. He says he's running to give the public more of a choice.
"It seemed that last summer, and definitely by last December, that the decision had been made and that Armond Budish would be the next county executive," O'Grady says. "I thought that was wrong. It should be the people who decide. Instead, so many times — with donations and use of media — it's the people of influence and power who decide who's going to be the next elected official."
Is Budish's quick anointment what voters wanted when they voted for Cuyahoga County reform five years ago? The county executive was meant to be a mayorlike figure for the city and suburbs, with new powers to encourage job growth, promote regional unity, encourage education, remake parts of downtown Cleveland and better provide for the needy. An open seat ought to attract Northeast Ohio's best political talent and a strong debate. The danger of the FitzGerald-Budish handoff is that it may establish the job as a refuge for the term-limited politician, a power base for Democrats to fight statewide partisan battles or a stepping stone to higher office.
Does Budish hope to serve two terms as executive? "I have no reason to believe I'd be going anywhere," Budish says. He says the next county executive will have a lot of work to do. He implies he isn't a job-hopper. "I've served four terms in the House, until I was term-limited." He stops well short of a promise, saying nothing he'd have to go back on if a path opens up to a statewide office in 2018.
* * * *
Forget whether anyone can beat Budish. Can anyone challenge him? Can a candidate at least test his ideas, force him to get more specific, give us a real choice?
Yes. If Budish wins on May 6, he'll face Jack Schron, a much stronger candidate than Cuyahoga County's usual sacrificial Republicans. Schron, who has served on the County Council since the new government debuted in 2011, is also CEO of Jergens a Cleveland manufacturer with 450 employees here and abroad. Schron says that makes him the best-qualified candidate to take on the top goal in the county charter — economic development.
"I'm the only one who's actually created jobs," Schron says. He's also the only candidate besides Budish who's good at raising money — $117,000 in November and December 2013.
That's not to say Schron can win. Budish will have a huge advantage: the word Democrat next to his name.
Even talented Republicans rarely reach 40 percent of the vote in Cuyahoga County. A Republican last won a countywide race in 1992. In 2010, at the height of public revulsion at the local Democrats' corruption scandal, Republican Matt Dolan, son of Indians owner Larry Dolan, spent $1.4 million, ran aggressive TV ads against FitzGerald and still got only 30 percent to FitzGerald's 46 percent.
But candidates run for office against long odds for many reasons: To advance their ideas, spark a debate, increase their influence and hold an opponent accountable. Schron, in a race against Budish, has a good chance of accomplishing all those. One reason is he's not going away if he loses. He'll still have two years left in his County Council term. A well-run race would position Schron as leader of the opposition to Budish. A close election would pressure Budish to work with him.
Schron says the county needs to aggressively recruit manufacturers and medical companies to expand or relocate here. H