Ed FitzGerald can’t help but laugh as he looks forward to this month’s ribbon-cutting for Cleveland’s new convention center. FitzGerald, the county executive of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, is proud that the $465 million project is opening on time and under budget, but he recalls that not long ago people harbored serious doubts about it. “How about that guy shouting out at the groundbreaking that this would never open?” FitzGerald says. “What took nerve was that he was working on the project.”

The steelworker-turned-heckler wasn’t the only skeptic. Construction began in the aftermath of a corruption scandal that left people wondering whether Cuyahoga County was capable of doing anything right. A massive FBI raid in the summer of 2008 led to the arrests of the county auditor, a county commissioner and about 60 other county employees and contractors—many of whom have long since gone to prison.

Against that backdrop, Cuyahoga County voters opted to change the county’s 200-year-old form of government, shifting it from a three-member board of commissioners to a single executive. FitzGerald was elected in 2010 as Cuyahoga’s first county executive, answering to a new 11-member county council.

It’s possible to find people who will criticize the job FitzGerald’s done, but it’s not easy. He’s lowered the number of non-courthouse county employees by 1,600, or one-fourth. He’s created an economic development fund that is bigger than those run by all the other counties in Ohio combined. And he has encouraged greater cooperation among local governments in the region, while saving the county itself millions by consolidating and cleaning up offices that once seemed like little more than personal piggybanks for corrupt officials.

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In the old days, the more your house or commercial property was worth, the more likely it was to be undervalued, thanks to a kickback scheme that was a major part of the corruption scandal. “We’ve pole-vaulted right from Tammany Hall to a customer-oriented, competent and honest assessor’s office,” says Ned Hill, dean of Cleveland State University’s College of Urban Affairs. “When it comes to actually executing the vision and building a more responsive county government, and changing the culture of using it as a patronage pit, Ed gets four stars.”

Hill is not alone in giving FitzGerald high marks. He’s also one among many who regret that FitzGerald is ready to leave the job so soon. In April, he officially launched his candidacy for governor. At the moment, he appears to have a clear shot at the Democratic nomination to challenge GOP Gov. John Kasich next year.

Regardless of how that race turns out, FitzGerald will be done as executive for this county of more than 1.2 million residents. The end of his term coincides with the gubernatorial contest, and he can’t run for both offices. People are not only worried that it’s too early for FitzGerald to declare victory and leave, but also that the campaign will leave him distracted for the remainder of his sole term in office. “I’m concerned about the next year and a half or two years,” says Ellen Connally, president of the Cuyahoga County Council. “We have a county to run. He came in as a very strong leader, and we’re concerned about how much he can do if he’s traveling up and down I-71.”

FitzGerald recognizes that he’s in an unusual position, having made a success out of a job that never existed before. When a new Cleveland mayor gets elected, he may be great or he may be lousy, but people have a sense of what the job entails and can ride out the term if they have to. Cuyahoga residents are understandably more wary of the still-new county executive position at a time when memories are fresh of cronyism, bribery and outright theft. “There’s been too little time,” says Chris Ronayne, who has held a number of local government posts and may run for county executive next year. “The ink hasn’t dried in terms of rewriting our future.”

FitzGerald himself believes that many of the changes he’s helped put in place will be difficult to reverse. Either way, he says, “other people can do it, and somebody else will do it.”

Cuyahoga’s troubles burst into public view on a July day five years ago, when 175 federal agents searched offices and seized documents across the county. Their investigation—and subsequent trials—has made clear just how pervasive corrupt practices were in the county. School district treasuries were raided, contracts were handed over in exchange for bribes, and a disturbing number of county employees held no-show or redundant jobs because they were friends, or friends of friends, or girlfriends of individuals with political connections. “People who aren’t from around here don’t understand how deep it went,” says Michael Gallagher, a member of the county council. “It went to the root.”

The crisis also created an opportunity. A group of reform-minded individuals, led by a trio of suburban mayors, pushed through something that had been attempted many times over the previous century without success—namely, a change in Cuyahoga County’s form of government. “Getting structural change for structure’s sake wasn’t going to work,” says Joe Roman, president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the local chamber of commerce, which underwrote the charter revision campaign in 2009. “Changing our county was both structural and a response to what was happening in county government.”

FitzGerald was elected to the county executive’s slot by a plurality. He’d served as mayor in Lakewood, a suburb with about 50,000 residents west of Cleveland along Lake Erie. And before that, he had worked as a county prosecutor and an FBI agent, attached to the organized crime task force in Chicago. “It’s a strange coincidence that my FBI experience ended up being so relevant to what we ended up doing here,” he says. “In terms of what was happening on a day-to-day basis with kickbacks and no-show jobs and patronage employees, it was very familiar to me.”

Corruption is possible under any form of government. FitzGerald—who had initially opposed the restructuring—worried that the new form of government put too much authority directly in the hands of the executive. He came into office with the power to unilaterally grant and sign contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, so he established a board of control to oversee such deals. He also helped set up an inspector general’s office to keep an eye on departments so that problems could be spotted before they spiraled out of control.

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A lot of the managerial changes FitzGerald has implemented would have been a given in most places. Under the old regime, plenty of employees couldn’t be disciplined by their supervisors, because of who they knew or who they were dating. Now, employee evaluations are routine—and meaningful. All union employees are entitled to baseline raises, but some will get more based on merit. Nonunion employees, who haven’t seen a raise in seven years, will get a modest bump this year, which should help to ease some of the sting caused by the mass layoffs and furloughs FitzGerald implemented early in office. Name an operational budget—information technology, vehicles, building, utilities, procurement—and FitzGerald has found ways to save money. “There were a lot of duplicate jobs and an incredible number of HR departments,” county council member Gallagher says. “Now we’ve put everything under one umbrella.”

Having spent considerable time getting the county’s operations back in order, FitzGerald is now focusing on boosting a local economy that never seemed to recover from the recession in 2001, let alone the one that came along in 2007 and has lingered nationwide ever since. The county has historically been a weak player in the region—providing social services, but little else. That’s no longer good enough. Cleveland now makes up a fraction of Cuyahoga’s overall population and there’s no other regional actor ready to take the lead. “The county planning department went from being isolated, this kind of sideshow,” says Hill, the urban studies dean, “to being used for long-range planning.”

Using the cost savings he’s achieved, FitzGerald has created a $100 million economic development fund that will lend assistance to companies creating jobs in the county—including some of the tenants who will fill a medical innovation center adjacent to the new convention center. Like other executives around the country, FitzGerald is now able to come in as the closer when necessary on deals, says Roman, the chamber president. In the old days, having three people in charge meant no one was able to call the shots. People attempting to put together a package would have to engage in shuttle diplomacy. “It’s as close to night and day as you can get,” Roman says.

FitzGerald is not the sort of politician who absorbs all the oxygen in a room. Slight with soft features, he may ask pointed questions but he doesn’t immediately take charge of every meeting he’s in. Instead, his job is making sure that the right people are in attendance and are being tapped as resources. Jim Bennett, a senior vice president of Chicago-based MMPI, the county’s private partner on the convention center project, says FitzGerald improved both its design and its business plan by bringing to the table senior government and private-sector leaders. “He’s the convener,” Bennett says. “You had every heavyweight in town to put pressure on MMPI to open on time and secure the best tenants.”

FitzGerald has taken that talent and applied it to his peers, the local mayors. To everyone’s surprise—including his own—he’s been able to persuade all 59 municipalities within Cuyahoga County to sign an agreement not to use tax incentives or other tools to poach businesses from one another. In exchange, they’ll each get a real shot at a share of the county’s development dollars.

His interest in regionalism goes beyond attracting new business. There are currently 45 emergency dispatch centers within the county; FitzGerald hopes to cut that number down to four. He’s established an office of regional collaboration to encourage his former mayoral colleagues to work together where possible and to buy services from the county whenever practical. He intends next year to release grades that will show whether each municipality is making strides at regional cooperation, and he prods county department heads to market services to cities such as IT and health insurance pooling. “I feel kind of ghoulish asking the coroners to send us more business,” said Thomas Gilson, the county medical examiner, after FitzGerald’s chief of staff suggested at a CountyStat hearing that he offer DNA services to other localities.

FitzGerald looks up from his desk to a large photo of Robert F. Kennedy. Born just a month after RFK’s assassination in 1968, the 44-year-old may be one of the last people to enter public service inspired by the example of the older Kennedy brothers. He says he’s always been fascinated by politics and history and assumed when he went into law enforcement that he might end up running for office some day. “I finally got to the point where I wanted to feel like what I was doing in my career was creating something,” he says, “as opposed to just punishing people for doing the wrong thing.”

He’s been able to do both. Having cleaned house at the county level, FitzGerald now hopes he can make a difference as governor. His next campaign will be a challenge. After a rough start early in his tenure, Kasich’s approval ratings have improved, Ohio has created more than 100,000 jobs on his watch and he leads FitzGerald by double-digit margins. What’s more, early polls indicated that four out of five people in Ohio don’t know enough about FitzGerald to have an opinion about him one way or the other.

People in Cuyahoga County understand that FitzGerald is ambitious. No one seems to begrudge him his shot at statewide office. Still, lots of people wish he would hang around a little while longer. Cementing changes within the local political culture—as well as expectations among the county’s workforce—will take more than a couple of years, even if things are heading in the right direction. “The county executive did a great job in setting the foundation for the change and putting in place some of the procedures and avenues for the change,” says Nailah Byrd, Cuyahoga County’s inspector general. “Whoever comes in next really has to have a similar vision and has to stand behind some of the things that have to be implemented.”

Over the next couple of years, the county administration building will be imploded to make way for a new convention center hotel. County operations will be consolidated from a number of buildings—“too many buildings,” council president Connally says—to a new location in Cleveland’s downtown. Those moves are expected to ultimately save the county millions of dollars in real estate costs.

Lots of people think it’s a shame that FitzGerald won’t be running the county when it moves to its new headquarters, or that he won’t be in his present office if a mini-World’s Fair known as the Great Lakes Exposition takes place in Cleveland in 2016, as FitzGerald hopes. He’ll also be leaving just as his convention center and other projects help spur a downtown Cleveland revitalization that’s long overdue.

But if FitzGerald won’t be in office long enough to see his grand plans take fruition, most people recognize that his short tenure is what made them possible. “He has made a dramatic change in how people think about county government,” says Kevin O’Brien, head of the Center for Public Management at Cleveland State University. O’Brien says that even though FitzGerald will be leaving soon, “he’ll have done his service to the county at the time when it needed it most.”

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