Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Keith Burris


Wisdom from the sage of Cleveland



George Voinovich is 78 now, and four years out of the U.S. Senate. He’s had some health challenges, but these have given him family time. A grandchild played as we chatted.

Mr. Voinovich is a singular man. First, there simply aren’t many people in public life with his range of experience — local, state, and the federal government.

Second, he’s succeeded. Most people will tell you he was one of the best mayors in the history of Cleveland and one of Ohio’s finest governors. He is the biggest vote getter in the history of the state.

Years ago, on a fellowship to examine best practices on child welfare, I discovered that Mr. Voinovich was one of the most progressive of all governors. He wanted to junk self-perpetuating programs that didn’t help kids and start programs that got results.

He always seemed a little out of his element in the Senate, where words rule and deeds are few. He’s a governor.

Third, Mr. Voinovich is a moderate Republican. He believes in letting people keep their money and their liberty. But he is also a guy who knows government is necessary to the common good. He was a budget hawk and a Iraq and culture war dove.

As mayor of Cleveland he helped turn around a city in decline and faced up to an environmental disaster.

“You brought Cleveland back,” I said.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” he told me, “I didn’t bring Cleveland back. The private sector did.”

He is writing a book on private-public partnerships. He thinks this is the only proven method for revitalizing cities. The Cleveland model has a name — “the operations improvement task force.” He will email me some case studies. He is also sending the name of two environmentalists who are experts on algae blooms. This is not a Republican who spurns science, or reality. He believes there will have to be, ultimately, tougher legislation regulating pesticides and manure. He believes farmers and environmentalists need to sit down together. He says, of one his recommended enviro pals, “She’s a very liberal lady, but we worked well together because we were honest with each other.”

I wish there were a George Voinovich Sanity Award similar to the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award. We could give it, each year, to a politician who is simply reasonable.

Might we bring the senator here to kick off a discussion of public-private partnerships?

Such a partnership is already happening with the city and ProMedica, but we need more.

Mayor Mike Collins is perceived as a “labor guy,” a label he wears with just pride. But his wife, Sandy Drabik, is one of the most experienced and savvy public administrators in the state and worked for Mr. Voinovich. Perhaps she could head up the public-private partnership here.

“I was the luckiest guy in the world,” says Mr. Voinovich. “Nobody got more help from the private sector than me.”

But you have to ask for help. Listen to the old pro.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.

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