Nothing Rotten about the Big Plum

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George Voinovich, 44, is a shy man who shuns the headlines. Yet late last month, after a year and a half in city hall, the slight, sandy-haired Republican mayor of Cleveland indulged himself in a bit of well-earned whimsy. At a Cleveland Indians' home game against the New York Yankees, Voinovich showed up wearing a garish T shirt under his neat sports coat. NEW YORK'S THE BIG APPLE, proclaimed the shirt, BUT CLEVELAND'S A PLUM. Breaking out in a sheepish grin, he then tossed a real plum to the Indians' catcher.

If Cleveland is a sweet plum of a town to live in these days, it is due largely to Voinovich. Three years ago, the city was strictly persimmon as it puckered its way through an attempt to recall its abrasive Democratic child-mayor, 31-year-old Dennis Kucinich. Then, in December 1978, Cleveland failed to pay $15 million of its debt, thus becoming the first major U.S. city to default since the 1930s. Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1 in Cleveland, but Voinovich nevertheless managed to trounce Kucinich by a vote of 56% to 44% in 1979. "I've got work to do," said Voinovich after his election. "My war will be to save one of this country's greatest cities."

Work he did. Voinovich quickly made peace with the city's business community and persuaded eight local banks to buy back $10.5 million in defaulted notes and lend the city another $25.7 million at 8⅞% interest. He also launched a campaign to prop up the city's faltering services by asking voters last November to approve a ½% increase in the city's income tax. When the measure lost, the mayor announced a host of budget cuts and threatened not to run for a second term in 1981.

"During the 1970s, our taxes stayed low, our services declined and the city lost 24% of its population," said Voinovich. "At that rate, the city will be extinct in the 21st century." The voters got the message: last February they voted for the tax hike by 62% to 38%.

A native of Cleveland, Voinovich graduated from Ohio University and received his law degree from Ohio State. Despite Democratic domination of Cleveland, he won a series of elected posts: state representative, Cuyahoga County auditor, county commissioner and finally Lieutenant Governor under Republican James A. Rhodes. A penny pincher in private as well as public life, he lives with his wife Janet and three children in a modest frame house, and once bragged to a friend that he went five years without buying a new suit. He relishes his reputation for dullness; aides joke that he is so low-profile no one can ever find him. Still crushed by the death of his nine-year-old daughter Molly in a 1979 auto accident, he spends as much time as possible with his family and reserves most Sundays for outings with them.

Not everyone gives Voinovich high marks.

"I don't think anything has changed, except people are paying higher taxes," grouses ex-Mayor Kucinich. Yet most observers rate Voinovich a shoo-in to win a second term this fall.

Not only is the budget balanced, but Voinovich proudly announced last month that the city was facing a $3.9 million surplus. Says Cuyahoga County Democratic Chairman Tim Hagan:

"Right now he is unbeatable." Voinovich is already talking like a campaigner as he describes his dreams for the Big Plum. Says the mayor:

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