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County executive candidates Chris Ronayne and Lee Weingart offer different visions for Cuyahoga County

Cuyahoga County Executive Candidates (L-R) Chris Ronayne and Lee Weingart

by Bruce Checefsky

              (Plain Press, November 2022) Democratic candidate Chis Ronayne and Republican hopeful Lee Weingart, candidates for Cuyahoga County Executive, could not be more different. Ronayne wants to build on his long-standing relationships with civic leaders and work with the nonprofit sector to bring support and reform to many social programs. Weingart would leverage the private sector in a $600 million program to fund minority-owned and small businesses and the acquisition, construction, and renovation of 10,000 private homes for Cuyahoga County citizens by 2026.

     A coalition of community organizations held a forum on October 6 at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry Richard Sering Center on Superior Avenue in Cleveland, focused on health, human services, and critical need issues. Topics ranged from MetroHealth Hospital to racial equity issues to the Department of Child and Family Services. Cleveland journalist Rachel Dissell moderated.

     Other forums took place at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry hosted by the Cuyahoga County Stakeholder Group and First Suburbs Consortium & Cleveland Community Development Forum on Shared Priorities, hosted by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and the First Suburbs Consortium.

     Ronayne, former President of University Circle Inc (UCI), stepped down in 2021 after serving sixteen years to campaign for Cuyahoga County Executive. UCI is the nonprofit development, service, and advocacy organization responsible for the growth of University Circle.

     UCI neighborhoods faced accelerated growth and redevelopment pressures during his tenure. The increase in expensive residential housing construction and the lack of investment in the existing housing stock pushed out those in the middle-income bracket creating economic disparities in Greater University Circle (GUC) communities, according to a Year 7 Evaluation Report on the Greater University Circle Initiative prepared by the Center for Economic Development at the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.

     The Cleveland Business Journal reported more than 2,000 new housing units to the neighborhood were added in the last decade. The area is one of the largest employment centers in Ohio. A wave of high-end condos and apartments also makes it one of the most expensive places to live in Cleveland.

     Weingart served as County Commissioner from 1995 to 1997 and failed to win re-election, losing to Democrat Jane Campbell. He has not held elected office in 25 years. LNE Group, an advocacy and lobbying firm he founded in 2002 and continues to run as president, helped bring the Global Center to Cleveland. LNE lobbied the state to change the laws in 2007, allowing Cuyahoga County to own and manage the convention center. He later called it a “colossal waste of money.”

     The Convention Facilities Development Corporation oversees the taxpayer-funded center and recently voted to seek a $46 million facelift.

     In his opening statement, Weingart pledged to fix a county government that has lost its way and forgotten its purpose. He said that Cuyahoga County lost jobs and people after twenty-five years of ineffective and ineptitude leadership with higher sales tax and property taxes than other midwestern urban counties. As a result, the county has an uneducated, poor, hungry, and segregated population. He wants to connect people without money to wealth-building strategies, including homeownership, creating an entrepreneur fund for minority-owned and small businesses, and simplifying the tax collection systems.

     “My vision for the county is bold. It requires a change of thinking,” said Weingart. “I have the knowledge and experience in the private sector to be successful.”

     Ronayne said infant mortality, poor literacy rates, and a faltering justice system undermine the community. Connecting the community to working opportunities strengthens the future of the region.

     “We need to create a new housing department and transportation department, and an ombudsman office that helps people navigate our system,” he said during his opening statement.

     Both candidates rejected Budish’s plan for a new county jail near the Cuyahoga River at the site of a former Standard Oil refinery. Ronayne wants to review renovation plans; Weingart suggests building a jail downtown. Both candidates support rehabilitation and treatment to reduce the prison population. 

     Debate Moderator Rachel Dissell asked the candidates to address health and human service’s needs. Weingart said growing the economy would add new jobs, the best social program. 

     “People need to support their families, buy a house, and start generating wealth. For too long, we have denied building wealth-generating opportunities to the urban core of Cuyahoga County,” he said.

     Ronayne defined poverty as the most critical issue facing the county. He proposed partnering with nonprofits and creating new private/public partnerships to address poverty. More resources are needed to establish and develop these connections. 

     “We have to be present in the community.” 

     Reproductive rights were among the top issues.

     The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, the landmark piece of legislation that made access to an abortion a federal right in the United States. Individual states are left to curtail or outright ban abortion rights. The Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas granted a temporary restraining order in September against Senate Bill 23, a law banning abortion starting at six weeks of pregnancy. Governor Mike DeWine signed the Human Rights and Heartbeat Protection Act in 2019 to prohibit abortion in cases where a fetal heartbeat is detectable.

     Weingart noted that state and federal offices impact reproductive rights, not county offices, in response to a question about reproductive rights and the needs of the LGBTQIA+ community. He pledged to protect the state law at the county level.

     “We have to protect the health and lives of pregnant mothers to ensure that healthy babies are born in Cuyahoga County,” he said. “Create a fully enforced child support agency, foster care, and adoptive care services.”

     Ronayne recognized the disproportionate number of LGBTQIA+ individuals in foster care and juvenile detention systems. He pledged to work with area schools and crime legislation to provide for the safety of students and individuals in the community.

     “As far as a choice, I am happy to be the pro-choice candidate,” he said. “I will advocate for abortion protection as enshrined in the Ohio Constitution.”

     When asked by an audience member if either candidate would invite the loser of the election to join their administration, Ronayne cited political differences but extended an open invitation. Weingart said he would extend an olive branch, too, as long as Ronayne conceded to his vision. 

     “Our visions are very different,” said Weingart. “I want to sell the Hilton Hotel and Medical Mart to save the county money and spend $54 million of the CARES Act on building 10,000 new homes and give tax cuts to taxpayers.”

     Ronayne vowed to focus on community-based solutions while providing more resources to nonprofit institutions as part of his plan for Cuyahoga County. Weingart agreed on the problems but disagreed on the solution. He said private homeownership and wealth-building strategies are good public policy, and that investing in the urban core creates jobs and new small businesses.

     Midterm elections will be on Tuesday, November 8. Polls Open 6:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. For more voting information: Cuyahoga County Board of Elections at https://boe.cuyahogacounty.gov/voters.

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