First impressions mean a lot in politics. And for Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who is gearing up for a run at Ohio Gov. John Kasich next year, they are especially important.
A Democrat who previously served as mayor of Lakewood, FitzGerald is not well-known beyond Greater Cleveland. He has been traveling the state for nearly a year in an effort to build relationships with party activists who can help make him a credible candidate.
The effort intensified last month when ex-Gov. Ted Strickland, a fellow Democrat, said he would not seek a rematch with Kasich, a Republican. FitzGerald has been the most active in a group of potential challengers that also includes U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and former Rep. Betty Sutton.
While speaking last month at the Ohio College Democrats’ winter conference in Cincinnati, FitzGerald mixed his dry humor with political biography. He presented himself as a reformer -- a theme familiar to local voters who elected him to lead them past a corruption scandal.
The boast that caught our eye was one reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer: "He proudly said that he was the first Cuyahoga County official to endorse President Barack Obama."
PolitiFact Ohio found the line interesting and wanted more context.
We reached out to the Ohio Republican Party, which sends trackers to capture FitzGerald’s public remarks on video. (FitzGerald frequently jokes that the trackers’ jobs are the only ones Kasich can take credit for creating, but we’ll set that claim aside as political hyperbole.)
Video provided by the GOP shows FitzGerald made the claim about his Obama endorsement toward the end of a 20-minute speech. While praising the young crowd for its engagement, he drew inspiration from Obama. He recognized Ohio Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney, who spoke before him, and noted that Kearney was an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Then FitzGerald continued: "I was the first elected official in Cuyahoga County to endorse him."
Cuyahoga County has nearly 60 municipalities, each with its own set of elected leaders. Obama began his campaign for the presidency in early 2007. At the time, FitzGerald was a city councilman and mayoral aspirant in Lakewood, Cleveland’s second-largest suburb. FitzGerald won his race for mayor that year and was in office by the time the 2008 primary season began.
A search of Plain Dealer archives revealed then-County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones as one of Obama’s key local supporters in early 2007. Jones was one of several local officials to attend an Obama’s first Northeast Ohio event Feb. 27, an East Side rally less than three weeks after Obama officially entered the race for the White House.The newspaper’s first mention of FitzGerald as an Obama backer came Jan. 31, 2008, when he represented him at a Lakewood straw poll. Obama beat Hillary Rodham Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin, according to the story.
We reached out to Jones, now pursuing an acting career.
"I don’t know how he calculates that he was the first," said Jones, who could not remember when he formally endorsed Obama. "I think that’s incapable of being proven or disproven. How did this manifest itself? He would have had to have gotten up pretty early to beat me to it."
When reached by PolitiFact Ohio, FitzGerald said he pledged his support the day Obama declared himself a candidate for president, Feb. 10, 2007. But he added that there probably was no record of the endorsement because he offered it through an Obama campaign web site.
"He might have beaten me to the web site," Jones allowed.
FitzGerald accurately recalled that Obama began his campaign as an underdog. Clinton was the early favorite for the Democratic nomination. But FitzGerald also acknowledged that he hardly was a heavy-hitter at the time. Even in its infancy the Obama campaign was enough of a force that it didn’t have to worry about telling the world about a city councilman’s endorsement.
"No one cared about it then," FitzGerald said.
But now it’s a handy tidbit as the county executive contemplates a run for governor. FitzGerald told PolitiFact Ohio that he couldn’t remember why he shared it with the College Democrats, other than to emphasize the importance of getting involved early in a cause you believe in. According to the Ohio GOP video, here’s what he said after claiming first dibs on Obama:
"There’s a lot of great things that President Obama has done. One of the great things that he’s done is that he has empowered young activists more than any other presidential candidate that I have seen — and, I would argue, ever — since Robert Kennedy."
FitzGerald, though, clearly said he was the "first elected official in Cuyahoga County to endorse" Obama. To endorse is to "approve openly" or "to express support or approval of publicly and definitely," according to the most applicable definition offered by Merriam-Webster.
We don’t doubt that FitzGerald was one of the first local supporters of the future president. His work in the straw poll, at a time that many were still in Clinton’s corner, confirms that. But FitzGerald’s initial backing, offered quietly online and by his own acknowledgement tough to verify, doesn’t equal an endorsement in the most accurate sense of the word.
FitzGerald is correct that his support wasn’t a big deal at the time. So even if he was the first or, more precisely, one of the first, he might have overstated the importance of his endorsement. And Jones rightly questions whether it can be proven who, technically, was the first. FitzGerald is unable to offer proof.
The gubernatorial prospect’s statement has an element of truth, but leaves out critical information that would give a different impression. On the Truth-O-Meter, FitzGerald’s claim merits a rating of Mostly False.