A morality tale is playing out in Cuyahoga County, where voters will soon construct a new form of government for Ohio's most Democratic region.
Last fall, a silent coup d'état was orchestrated by the architects of Cuyahoga County's Issue 6, a new county charter that replaces the three county commissioners (one of whom is currently the target of an FBI corruption investigation) with 11 county council members and a county executive. The new charter also makes many elected positions (auditor, treasurer, recorder) appointed positions.
For the first time in a century, real change is possible in Cuyahoga County, where incestuous relationships between many elected officials and a handful of powerful local businessmen who donate to their campaigns have been used to advance their own agendas.
A candidate for the downtown seat, County Council District 7, lifelong Clevelander Tim Russo, would seem like a safe bet for anyone craving effectual leadership for a change. The 42-year-old former lawyer's resume reads like a who's who of liberal celebrities. Russo's college internship was with Dennis Kucinich in 1988. In 1996, Russo was Ohio's get-out-the-vote director for the Clinton-Gore re-election. He was a Labour Party Visits Coordinator for all three Tony Blair election victories in the UK, in 1997, 2001 and 2005. In 1998, he was Al Gore's hand-picked New Hampshire Democratic Party coordinated campaign state director. Russo was the top strategist for Congressman Tim Ryan's first run for Congress in 2002-- perhaps the Buckeye State's most promising future Democratic leader. And for many years he helped seed democracy in places like Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and half a dozen other countries.
Russo has the sort of leadership experience Cuyahoga County desperately needs at this dangerous, hopeful crossroads. But local media are doing their best to scuttle his campaign before it really begins. Why? Because in November 2001 he solicited sex from an FBI agent posing online as a minor and was made Pervert of the Day for an entire 24-hour news cycle. Local media want him to pay for that for the rest of his life.
"It's time to no longer be defined by our mistakes," says Russo. "This new legislature, in my own hometown, needs precisely the experience I can deliver, and I'm not going to let a stupid mistake I made almost a decade ago stop me from trying to deliver it. Not for one second."
Anyone tuned into Rust Belt politics learned about Russo's conviction long ago -- if not on the day of the arrest in 2001, then years later when Russo posted honest, revealing and specific details about the event and his life after it on his blog. He has never hidden from the charges, admitting it was the biggest mistake of his life. He never bothered to have it expunged.
Instead, Russo took some old Kennedy advice and hung a light on his problem, remaining transparent about it and trying to make up for it in his actions, in his efforts to make his city, country, and his world a better place in which to live.
Media coverage of Russo's candidacy in Cleveland has focused almost solely on the titillating nature of Russo's 9 year old "news." On March 1, Channel 3/NBC investigative reporter Tom Meyer called his story, which was essentially based on Russo's own blog, an "exclusive." Cleveland's daily paper, the Plain Dealer, ran an article several days later that again rehashed the circumstances of his arrest nine years ago -- they even published the original prosecutor's notes and transcripts from the case online, a decision which led to persistent death threats.
"I've paid for this mistake, I've apologized, and I've made amends, for years," Russo says, noting the conviction is so minor, he doesn't even have to register or report as a sex offender. "I'm done paying and apologizing," says Russo of the incoming flak. "And frankly, all this tells me I must be getting somewhere."
Russo never let the conviction keep him from staying involved. Three months after the arrest in 2001, he worked to put his good friend Tim Ryan in Congress. In 2003 he trained activists for elections in Latvia, Croatia and Kosovo. He recruited and trained election-day precinct challengers for the 2004 Kerry-Edwards campaign, trained election observers in the West Bank and Gaza in 2005, and continued to consult on local campaigns, all after his conviction.
He became Ohio's most prominent political blogger, currently writing at Plunderbund. Russo emerged as a Youtube phenomenon in 2008, with the world-famous McCain-Palin Mob, and his YouTube videos of Tea Party teabaggings have been featured repeatedly on the Rachel Maddow Show.
Still, try as he might, every time Russo started to get a life back, his enemies found a new way to toss out the salacious details of his conviction, to a media environment frothing at the mouth for sex. Even then, they have to sex it up, because the details of Russo's bust aren't really that exciting. An FBI agent posing as a minor conversed with him about sexual acts, and a meeting was arranged. Only, Russo didn't stop at the pre-arranged stop; he continued driving past. The police picked him up anyway. It would be the most boring episode of To Catch a Predator ever-- one where the perp shows a conscience, some second thought, and drives by the house instead of going inside.
Still, local media can't resist it.
"My friends, family and supporters have watched me deal with this for nine years," says Russo. "Another series of bottom-feeding stories in the media isn't going to be news to them."
Russo is putting this experience to work in his campaign too, advocating for a new law in Cuyahoga County forbidding discrimination in employment and public services based on criminal record unrelated to the job or service. "Ex-offenders are forced to be more transparent about themselves than anyone else, and even that doesn't help them find work," Russo says, having walked this walk himself. "It'd be nice if your government was this transparent, wouldn't it?"
At the moment, Russo is more concerned with distancing himself from Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo, who is also a target of the ongoing FBI investigation. Russo used to be the best name in Cleveland politics; now if your last name is Russo, every voter asks if you're related to Frank.
"No relation," he says, laughing. Russo's even made a parody ad out of the issue, calling himself "The GoodRusso." "Guess we're gonna put that last name to the test, aren't we?" he says.
If elected, Russo will also be the first openly bisexual elected official in the history of Ohio. "We're going for a lot of 'firsts' in this campaign," he jokes. And he plans to make county government transparency his top priority -- a frightening proposition for those who seek to control Cuyahoga County again.
No doubt they will try to make Russo's nine-year-old mistake news yet again as the September primary draws closer. But Tim Russo's the only one with nothing to hide.