By Daniel J. McGraw
From a practical political standpoint, opponents of Issue 7, the extension of a Cuyahoga County sin tax to fund sports facilities, faced a huge uphill battle. The Cleveland establishment put the issue on the ballot in May as opposed to November, leaving just a few months to organize any kind of opposition. There was the money factor; the sports teams ponied up big as expected, helping to fund a constant “Vote Yes” media message that played seemingly all day and all night for two straight months. Compounding the difficulty of opposing the sin tax, that non-stop message implied you are against a tax because you don’t like sports. Cleveland sports.
So yesterday’s vote was not a victory for sin tax opponents, by any means. But the tally was surprising in many ways. A group with no money and little time and a mix of many divergent views convinced as many as 80,000 voters in Cuyahoga County to say they didn’t want a small tax to stay in place as it has for about 25 years, based upon principle. But no one wants to hear about symbolic victories. When you put your heart and soul into a project, having someone pat you on the head and say you tried means little in the immediate aftermath.
But a fairly large group of citizens was willing to stand up and say that the status quo in Cleveland isn’t working very well these days. The message of this vote was that the political and business leaders in Cleveland were painting too rosy a picture of the region (complete with casinos, chandeliers, and fancy TV chefs), while perhaps ignoring high poverty rates, job loss, crappy schools and people moving elsewhere like they did in the 1970s.
No one I spoke with in the last few months told me they were voting for the sin tax because they thought it was a wonderful way to invest in the community. Instead, they all said this was a “hold your nose” vote. They figured what they knew – and they had been paying this since 1990 – was better than what they didn’t know. Under those circumstances, no one is going to sway the multitudes much by changing something that hasn’t harmed most voters very much. That was the challenge of this campaign against the sin tax.
[blocktext align=”left”]Resisting the sin task had the makings of an impossible task.[/blocktext]Reluctant yes voters would argue it wasn’t much of a tax and was a “choice,” meaning if you were against it, then don’t smoke and drink. And if you did, and this was pointed out over and over by those holding their nose and voting yes, is that it was $15 a year if you smoked a pack a day and drank a 12-pack of beer a week. That is 4 cents day. Sports owners can be fat cats and have lousy teams and charge so much for games that most can’t even afford to go, but don’t mess with them over a few pennies.
When the anti-sin-tax crowd proposed a ticket fee of about $3.25 – to spread the cost of the stadium maintenance among the users of the sport facilities – most of the voters in the middle figured wasn’t much better than what they had been paying for the past 25 years.
So the issue became more a philosophical one; namely, should we subsidize very profitable businesses with public funds while many see the region has problems that that same money might help to solve? But political campaigns do not lend themselves well to selling philosophical arguments to the masses. Add to that the notion that sports teams were involved – and the emotionally high pedestal they are put upon in Cleveland by a downtrodden public – resisting the sin task had the makings of an impossible task even in the best of circumstances.
Whether the Coalition Against the Sin Tax can gain any traction in the post-mortem political discussion will be interesting to watch. The opposition to the sin tax was able to meld the interests of the liberal Heights arts crowd with the anti-tax tea partiers from Strongsville and North Olmsted, a neat and odd trick. Whether this was a single-issue alliance remains to be seen. Pursuing a ballot item in November that will add a facility fee to event tickets makes far less sense now, but CAST still may go down that road.
It may be difficult to maintain the interest level of these volunteers. So many of the people working against the sin tax – especially those who vigorously poured out their feeling on social media – had little experience with local political campaigns and didn’t quite get the rules of the game. I heard over and over from the anti-sin tax crowd that we shouldn’t give the money to the billionaire sports owner but to the homeless instead. When I would tell them that is not a good message to send to the average sports fan voting on this issue, they would shake their head, as if I was a real-life Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.
What Cleveland needs right now, and it might come from this group and it might not, is an active political resistance to a broken status quo. The city has to redefine itself, both in terms of economic but also political leadership and national identity. The political and business leadership’s approach in the region has been of the caretaker variety, a style that works only when things are going well. But when things aren’t going well, a more active leadership is needed.
[blocktext align=”right”]The difficult part is to keep pushing. It won’t be easy to do, but the experience of this vote is a lesson.[/blocktext]The old leadership’s approach to Issue 7 was very caretaker-ish, doing things the way they always have, without much thought of doing it better. Evidently, the general public thought that was a good approach. While the anti-sin-tax forces may point to how the teams and the government officials lied and deceived and all that, unfortunately the rules favor those in power and those who have the cash. It has always been that way, and always will.
Some of the discontented will use the excuse that the voter turnout was small to say that people don’t care. So why bother? That’s a very understandable reaction. This setback is a gut check for people interested in changing Cleveland, asking whether they will retain their enthusiasm, maintain this coalition of diverse interests, and use their influence in the future. Politics has always been about handling losing as well as winning, figuring out what hill to die on and what hill to pass by.
It’s hard to think about that stuff the day after a defeat. But what this election shows is that a group of concerned citizens has pushed the door open a bit. The difficult part is to keep pushing. It won’t be easy to do, but the experience of this vote is a lesson.
Progressive Field photo by Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock.com.
Let me start by saying that I did vote no and not because I didn’t think the city/county should pay for the repairs but because I don’t think there was enough time for alternatives to be discussed, Maybe I would have voted yes in November who knows. I like the fact that this issue brought people together as unlikely allies a la Dr. X and Magneto in an occasional X-Men comic.
Too bad there are not other issues like this and that these people don’t wake up and realize, especially at the local level, that the party lines need to blur. For F’s sake, Armond Budish is going to be the next county exec unless a miracle happens and Jack gets elected. That just proves that the voters in this county are all about the status quo.
The people’s love of the status quo in this county makes me sick. I want people elected that will ruffle some feathers here and there. I want to elect someone who will go against his/her party every now and again. And quite frankly that ain’t happening.
This isn’t the event that requires such an extensive post mortem. The author’s characterization of the town and what ails it may be accurate, but this was an easy vote for me. It costs ME very little; those who pay the most somewhat resemble those who benefit the most. And, while it shouldn’t be the case that rich sports teams get us to pay anything, it’s the reality in all pro sports across the country. So, the voters opted for a relatively painless status quo over an uncertain and possibly ugly future fighting about this issue. Move along…nothing to see here.
One thing I would take issue with here: “[U]nfortunately the rules favor those in power and those who have the cash. It has always been that way, and always will.”
I think it’s important to point out that the obliteration of campaign finance restrictions is a phenomenon that’s new and unique to this last decade or two. “Those in power” and “those who have the cash” used to be two different things in a way that contributed to much healthier conditions than we’re living in now.
When was it, Mr. Pattakos, that there was a divide between “those in power” and “those who have the cash”?
Nobody ever said there was a complete divide, but before McCain-Feingold there was a lot less overlap than there is today, and the problem continues to get worse with no end in sight.
You said this:
““Those in power” and “those who have the cash” used to be two different things in a way that contributed to much healthier conditions than we’re living in now.”
I don’t think that’s ever been close to being true.
I am curious about the people pushing against the tax … if they are sincere then they will start to push for the alternative funding (facilities fee) and the renegotiation as the passage of 7 does not preclude any of the steps that were next on the anti sin tax agenda.
Are y’all ready to start the hard work? I have some doubts that the newly engaged really had an interest on the long struggle ahead.
The more I read about this “campaign”, especially on Facebook (from the “no” leadership), it occurs to me that they may have blown an opportunity to win this thing. The harangue against members of the Tea Party from Mr. Glazen shows him to be, at the very least, a poor politician and at most, a very small-minded person. It’s been my life experience that the most narrow-minded people in our political climate are those who have lived their entire lives on the left, never making any effort to see things from another perspective (think Hillary Clinton’s morally superior attitude in the early years of the Clinton presidency-she’s TRIED to rid herself of that trait since). The Tea Party crowd were your natural constituency. You should have been working closely with them instead of treating them like they had a social disease. People who stand for small government, less taxes, middle class suburbanites who probably aren’t that fond of going Downtown.
The anti-sin tax groups shouldn’t disband but should try to monitor the spending of the tax revenue. That would give it relevance but it isn’t easy to do and citizens have a hard time staying with an issue. The PD endorsed the issue way back in January. You can look at today’s headline about Johnny! to know that there will be little monitoring, as there has been so little in the past. They can afford to put out two sections of 18 pages of sports yesterday but the paper’s leadership can’t inform the public on the most important issues, not just the sports stadiums. I’ve tried to alert the public to the amazing amount of revenue that has gone downtown. It is available for downloading here: http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/20912
I don’t believe there is any compilation as exhaustive as this.
Thanks, Roldo Bartimole
Roldo, I agree that getting the facts out are important, but hard work and strategy is equally important. I’ve given this a little thought since writing the above column the night of the election, and I see better now how the anti-sin tax started strong, but then petered out because I don’t think they understood the local political process. And in some ways that is understandable, because many were new to local political activism. But active campaigning seemed to be beneath most of the anti sin tax folks. You have to knock on doors and raise money and most importanrtly, meet and discuss the issue with people who are not like you. That means going out to Strongsville and Parma and knocking on doors and talking to some tea party leaning guy and discuss why voting no is good for the left leaning arts crowd people and him. They had 2,500+ “likes” on their facebook page, and got more than 78,000 votes, yet raised only about $750 when you take out the big three organizer donations (according to the last report). No one really blasted the NAACP for endorsing the sin tax. Why? You can complain about the other side having too much money, but if you can only raise a paltry sum like that there are problems about how enegaged your supporters are.. Some post-election FB posts (that Practice Man alludes to) said they didn’t want to work with local tea party people on this because that would mean they were aligning with Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann. So you don’t want to work with someone who agrees with you that giving tax money to rich people is bad (in the fundamental ways) because you disagree with some nut in national politics? That attitude is amazing because this was local politics. Then they started to bring in issue of homelessness and poverty rates and the Opportunity Corridor and all sorts of things that had little to do with giving money to the owners of sports teams. The message should have been, “we don’t think we should give the money to sports owners, you should be able to keep it in your pocket and spend it how you like.” Very Tea Party-ish. That message popped its head up from time to time, but it got lost in the mass of selfie-interests. In the end, a lot of anti sin tax folks were good at posting their peronal ideas on Facebook, but not interested in raising money or knocking on doors or pushing aside personal views in the name of winning an election. Again, I realize that many did not have the experience level to see this stuff, but the leadership should have put their own personal views to the side and make winning the election the most important thing.
Of course, you are right. That was the importance of the 21st District
Caucus. It had power because it had organization, especially getting out
its vote. People listened when it spoke. There is no comparable organization
to represent common folks, unless you consider the Tea Party. I would think
that the Tea Party and I have similar views on the economic give-away by
government to wealthy interests. The Dems certainly don’t represent the people
who keep them in office in Cuyahoga County.
One more thing, Roldo, and having been around in the political diatribes in Cleveland as long as you have, you’ll probably get this. You don’t win elections by sitting around and talking with like-minded people. You win elections by getting a slice of the people who aren’t on your side to cross over. Compremise is not selling out; it is using each other for short term common goals. Many (and I’m not saying all by any means), thought that this sin tax political campaign was sitting around and talking to each other on FB. No one much thought of alliances with other local groups (not just tea party, but many others as well), fundraising, concentrating on certain suburbs, etc. They did, however, do a nice job of taking pictures of yard signs and then posting them on FB.
When looking for stats on the original tax vote breakdown, I remember the city voted it down, but the county voted for it. I stumbled upon this video recap from WEWS, I had forgotten how tense the lead up to the original vote.
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