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Weingart, Ronayne work to draw distinctions in Cuyahoga County executive debate

Cuyahoga County executive candidates Chris Ronayne and Lee Weingart stand at lecterns for the City Club of Cleveland debate
Michaelangelo’s Photography
Cuyahoga County executive candidates Chris Ronayne, left photo, a Democrat, and Lee Weingart, right photo, a Republican, debate at the Renaissance Hotel in Downtown Cleveland.

The two candidates for Cuyahoga County executive tried to contrast each other’s visions for county government at Tuesday’s City Club of Cleveland debate, but largely avoided sparring during the hourlong exchange.

Democratic candidate Chris Ronayne and Republican hopeful Lee Weingart met at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel at noon, answering questions from county residents in a conversation moderated by Ideastream Public Media.

Weingart, a former county commissioner in the 1990s who runs the lobbying firm LNE Group, reiterated his proposals to build new housing and sell the publicly owned Hilton Downtown Cleveland and Global Center for Health Innovation.

In one of the debate’s only contentious moments, Weingart tied Ronayne to the outgoing administration of Democratic County Executive Armond Budish, accusing his opponent of lacking a plan to attract employers to town.

“The administration that currently exists, and (would) under Mr. Ronayne, doesn’t value jobs, doesn’t understand the impact of working the private sector,” Weingart said as Ronayne grimaced and shook his head. “I understand that. I’ve been in the private sector for the last 20 years.”

A former official in Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell’s administration, Ronayne ran University Circle Inc. for 16 years before announcing his bid for county executive. Shortly after Weingart’s remark, Ronayne pitched himself as a county executive who could make use of longstanding relationships with the region’s civic leaders.

“One of the defining themes of my campaign is I’ve been there. I’ve worked with you,” Ronayne told the City Club audience. “Lee, I sometimes wonder where you’ve been these last 20 years.”

Both candidates signaled their opposition to Budish’s plan to build a new county jail near the Cuyahoga River at the site of a former Standard Oil refinery. The estimated project cost has grown to $750 million, and builders would need to take steps to protect the facility from the site’s environmental contamination.

Weingart pledged to sell the land if the county buys it and to fight the extension of a quarter-percent sales tax to pay for the facility. He said the county should retain part of the current jail complex at the Justice Center while building a second, smaller jail to supplement it.

Ronayne called for a review of plans to renovate the Justice Center and said he would look for a new site for any construction. He said he would also work to make better use of the new – but underused – diversion center, which the county built as an alternative to jail.

The two candidates also debated novel tax proposals that would reshape how local governments collect revenue from individuals and healthcare systems.

Weingart wants to ask Cuyahoga County voters to allow county government to collect and distribute income taxes on behalf of the county’s 57 municipalities. A single, countywide income tax rate would replace cities’ individual rates, simplifying the filing process for taxpayers who live and work in different cities.

Ronayne said Weingart should heed local mayors’ concerns about that plan.

“I think the mayors, many of whom are out here today, need to be listened to and spoken with first,” Ronayne said, adding, “my leadership style is collaborative, listener, leader.”

Ronayne has called on the county’s hospital systems, which as nonprofits largely do not pay property taxes, to pay instead into a health equity fund. An Ideastream Public Media analysis of property records found that the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals would pay $112 million annually if their land were taxed.

Weingart dismissed the idea, saying no hospital chief executive would go for it. To that, Ronayne accused Weingart of acting as a “shuttle diplomat” on behalf of the hospitals. Weingart said he wasn’t defending the hospitals, but merely pointing out that it was a “terrible time” to ask them to pay up.

“Had you called [the hospital CEOs], they would have told you, ‘We’re not going to do that,’” Weingart said. “Because right now the hospitals are on their backs financially, because of supply chain challenges, inflation and staffing, they are really hurting.”

The two men are competing to become the county’s third elected executive since the 2009 overhaul of county government following a string of federal corruption prosecutions. Democrats have won each of the three elections since then, elevating Ed FitzGerald and later Armond Budish to the job.

Weingart and Ronayne will appear on Cuyahoga County ballots in the Nov. 8 general election. Early voting begins Oct. 12.

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.