By Larry Durstin
Cleveland City Council President Marty Sweeney made it official recently by announcing that he “will be seeking a full four-year term representing the great people of Ward 16.”
This, of course, should come as no surprise to anyone who follows Cleveland politics and didn’t even merit much conversation among those who packed the house to strap on the feedbag at his annual “Party with Marty” soiree that took place last week at Massimo Da Milano.
Tanned and fit as a fiddle after losing 70 pounds, Sweeney glad-handed the crowd in the signature “aw shucks” manner which has helped him fashion a political career that has been fairly remarkable, especially when measured against the consistently low expectations that have accompanied it.
But what few understood as they watched the two-term council president gallivant around the room is that – according to an advisor very close to Sweeney – he is currently leaning against seeking a third term as council leader.
Picked by Frank Jackson to be his successor as council president when Jackson was first elected Cleveland mayor in 2005, Sweeney battled his way through a fairly rugged first term. In September of 2007, former council clerk Emily Lipovan filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission stating that she had been relieved of many of her duties by Sweeney and eventually was forced to resign after “confronting the president . . . and requesting for the third time to stop the harassment/sexual to myself and other members of staff.’’
Following the revelation of many juicy details involving Sweeney’s questionable behavior toward Lipovan, some of which took place in his office and in front of other witnesses – including the time that Sweeney reportedly stuck out his cheek toward Lipovan and said, “Here, you want to taste? You want to lick me?” – council eagerly settled with her for $60,000, a tab picked up by taxpayers.
Then in 2008, the feds began looking into the dealings of many of Sweeney’s politically connected friends as part of a massive county corruption case and Marty’s name came up in two subpoenas seeking information about his ties to two construction companies involved in airport work. Sweeney acknowledged that he hired one of them, Solomon & Associates, for a $50,000 expansion for his home. Sweeney claims to have paid for the work himself but, to this day, has been unable to produce a receipt.
It was primarily these two issues that prompted fellow councilman Matt Zone to orchestrate a coup in an attempt to oust Sweeney as president following the 2009 election. With 19 council members then, 10 votes were needed to win. One of the individuals who participated in the plot reported that, as the council neared a final vote, the tally was 9-8 in favor of Sweeney – with two voters undecided.
According to this source, at a last-minute meeting of the rebellious eight and their supporters held in a downtown hotel, Councilman Joe Cimperman arrived and indicated that he could be persuaded to vote for Zone if the other undecided, the newly elected TJ Dow, chose to be the ninth vote against Sweeney. But Dow never showed up. The coup failed and later it was formally announced that the vote to retain Sweeney was unanimous.
This time around Sweeney knows that he might not be so fortunate. For one thing, partly because he enraged many of those who supported him in 2009 and still have a bad taste in their mouths because of his failure to show up at the aforementioned meeting, Dow is in a tough election and could be bounced.
Another reason that Sweeney may be sweating a bit is the fact that one of his arch-enemies, Councilman Jeff Johnson, will be running against Eugene Miller in a newly created ward that Sweeney specifically drew up to favor his supporter Miller. Because of Cleveland’s population loss over the past decade, the number of council seats has been reduced to 17, meaning only nine votes will be needed to elect the council president at the end of this year.
Sweeney is already losing supporter Jay Westbrook, who is retiring, and with Dow and Miller in contested races, he could lose two more. Also, with the formation of a pact made up of Johnson, councilmen Mike Polensek and Kevin Conwell – who have vowed to support each other on issues relating to the northeast region of the city – Sweeney could find himself bayed about by a bloc of enemies ready to challenge him on a variety of issues while ethical concerns relating to his home expansion linger in the background.
Now, of course, Sweeney still controls the Council Leadership Fund, a hefty pile of cash supplied by wealthy donors – many from outside the city – which he has often deftly used for the campaigns of friendly-to-him council members and can certainly do so again in order to curry support.
That said, the arithmetic doesn’t look good for Sweeney, a shrewd political survivor who may already have concluded that it would be wise for him to step down – and support his second-in-command, Kevin Kelley for the council presidency – before he ends up getting voted out.
Larry Durstin is an independent journalist who has covered politics and sports for a variety of publications and websites over the past 20 years. He was the founding editor of the Cleveland Tab and an associate editor at the Cleveland Free Times. Durstin has won 12 Ohio Excellence in Journalism awards, including six first places in six different writing categories. LarryDurstinATyahoo.com