At last, Cleveland gets another turn in the spotlight [Commentary]

After 80 years, the city of Cleveland, much maligned in lore as "the mistake on the lake," has been selected to host a national political convention in 2016. Famous Ohioans President William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the Karl Rove of his day, might well be turning in their graves.

Cleveland has long been a bastion of latter-day Democratic politics in the state. In the late 19th century, Republicans McKinley and Hanna were principal champions of the Gilded Age, in which business and Wall Street dominated the nation's economic life.


In the last few decades, the city has fallen on leaner times. Its physical plant and environs, once a bustling center of blue-collar manufacturing industries before the technological boom, became a broken-down eyesore. A series of calamities and man-made gaffes besmirched its reputation.

The Cuyahoga River that runs through the city suffered embarrassing fires. Adding to the insult, one Cleveland mayor, Ralph Perk, once set his hair afire with a blowtorch during a ceremonial opening. In 1972, his wife generated further chuckles when she turned down a White House dinner invitation because it was being held on her bowling night.


Perk as mayor lobbied intensively to attract a national convention to Cleveland, proposing that ocean liners be anchored in Lake Erie to house the delegates. Once, flying over Northern Ohio at night with me, he pointed out a window and boasted of the impressively illuminated city below. An aide, leaned over him, whispered: "Mr. Mayor, that's Akron!"

A suburb, Parma, came to be known, not in a good way, as the White Sox Capital of the country, and the costume that included white shoes, a white belt and a polyester leisure suit was mock-celebrated as "a full Cleveland." It was unkindly said, too, that if one suffered a plane crash over Cleveland, it was preferable to have it occur going in.

But the old city has experienced much better days, marked by a downtown renaissance including museums, first-class hotels and restaurants, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center. Infinitely more to the point, Ohio has become one of the key swing states in presidential elections, helping win the Oval Office for John F. Kennedy in 1960, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

Significantly, no Republican since Lincoln in 1860 has won the White House without carrying Ohio. And although bagging a national political convention is considered a prize, luring millions in conventioneer spending, there is little solid evidence that the locale has ever had a substantial influence, if any, on the outcome of a presidential election.

The most recent declared presidential election candidate from Ohio was Dennis Kucinich, a former mayor of Cleveland who had the distinction in the 1970s of surviving a recall from office in a row with the city council and police. He later became a darling of the Democratic left in Congress for his uncompromising protests against the war in Iraq and other liberal positions. But he was a perennial also-ran for the party's presidential nomination.

The present Cleveland mayor, Frank Jackson, a Democrat, was a major figure in the campaign to bring the 2016 Republican National Convention to the revitalized city. The choice is said among Republicans to enhance the potential presidential candidacies of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Gov. John Kasich, both of whom lobbied for the selection.

The convention is to be held in either late June or mid-July, to provide the party more time to recover from what could be a repetition of the 2012 cycle, in which nominee Mitt Romney endured a long and battering series of state primaries. The earlier start for the general election is deemed advantageous for healing political wounds, fund-raising and campaigning against the Democratic nominee, widely expected now to be Hillary Clinton, named at a later summer convention.

The Democrats are still considering Philadelphia, Birmingham, Columbus, Phoenix and Brooklyn for their convention. The latter option was once mocked as the hapless borough of New York City that allowed its beloved baseball Dodgers, known affectionately there as "Dem Bums," to escape to glitzy Los Angeles. Brooklyn's recent gentrification and newfound cachet notwithstanding, its choice for the Dems' convention would make for a blue-collar doubleheader, and would be applauded by working stiffs in both places.


Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is

To respond to this commentary, send an email to Please include your name and contact information.