The Cafaro event drew a crowd four times larger than usual after the Citizens' League flak.
By MARALINE KUBIK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- A group of about 60 -- mostly men -- met for lunch Saturday at Anthony's on the River.
The restaurant's dining room isn't usually open so early Saturday afternoon, but this was a special occasion.
Everyone there was personally invited by Anthony Cafaro, Cafaro Co. president. The room was packed with a veritable who's who of area business, political and religious leaders.
Some, such as Harry Meshel, former Democratic Party chairman and state senator, were long-standing regulars who've attended the luncheons ever since Cafaro's father, William, started inviting friends and business associates to join him for a meal and discussion more than 30 years ago.
Others, such as Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Youngstown Catholic Diocese, were there for the first time.
Last month: The group was four times its usual size and a full corps of reporters was on hand because last month's luncheon turned into a police event after Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey spotted someone he believed was a sniper outside the restaurant.
The person turned out to be Bob Fitzer, a member of the Citizens' League of Greater Youngstown, who was using binoculars to keep track of public officials attending the event.
After the episode, the Citizens' League stated that it does not object to the luncheons, but to public officials' attending the luncheons, said Virginia Shorten, who's been a member of the league since it was established in 1982.
The Citizens' League's concern about the private luncheons, she said, "is how political power is brokered in our community when select public officials regularly attend private, exclusive luncheons with powerful businessmen who have extensive interests in public contracts and who are major campaign contributors."
During this month's luncheon, friends of Cafaro and local leaders who have high regard for the Cafaro family turned out to show their support for the forums, where everything from sports to politics dominates conversation, said Norman Peters, senior vice president of The Cafaro Co.
"They're upset," Peters said, saying the luncheon-goers think the bad rap the Citizens' League has given the luncheons is unfair.
Some of those supporters haven't been to a Cafaro luncheon in years.
Who was there: "I've never been to Anthony's on the River. That's how long it's been since I've been to one of these," said Carmen Policy, chief operating officer of the Cleveland Browns and former Youngstown lawyer.
He came to the September forum "because Anthony called and invited me. He's a great guy, a great friend. Besides, somebody told me there'd be a lot of season ticket holders here," he joked.
Bishop Tobin attended his first Cafaro luncheon "to lend support to the family and find out what all the hoopla is about." Bishop Tobin said he didn't have anything specific to discuss. "I'm here to listen and to learn."
He's known the Cafaro family since he first came to Youngstown six years ago and said he has a great deal of respect for them.
He also has respect for the Citizens' League and said he believes that it is a "well-intentioned" group that should have a place in the community.
However, as far as the Cafaro luncheons are concerned, the bishop said he believes the Citizens' League's actions are misguided.
"I think the flap is kind of silly," agreed Dave Johnson, former chairman of the Columbiana County Republican Party.
Cafaro's September luncheon was Johnson's first.
"I think it's important for business, civic, political, ethnic and religious leaders to work together. This is just one of many forums where they have the opportunity to talk about community issues," Johnson said.
"I think this community is lucky to have Tony Cafaro. He's very public-minded, public-spirited."
Johnson said his reason for attending the luncheon is that he wants good government and hopes to discuss ways to achieve that with other luncheon attendees.
Background: The Cafaro luncheons started as a group of friends -- all from the East Side -- meeting for good food and friendly discussion, Meshel recalled. "I came mostly for the discussion because I didn't need the food," he said in jest.
Originally, the luncheons were every Saturday and whoever was around came, Meshel said. After William Cafaro died and his son took over, the weekly gatherings were changed to once a month -- the first Saturday of each month.
As the younger Cafaro began inviting his friends and acquaintances, the group became more diverse, with more younger faces, Meshel continued.
Although the majority of attendees, and all of the regulars are men, Meshel said women have always attended. Some women are family members, employees of The Cafaro Co. or officeholders such as Mary Ellen Withrow, who attended a Cafaro luncheon while she was Ohio state treasurer.
Opposite view: The Citizens' League paints a different picture of the luncheons. Referring to the meetings as "Cafaro roundtables," Shorten said yesterday's event was "virtuous posturing" designed to deflect attention focused on the luncheon meetings since last month.
She's never been to a Cafaro luncheon and said that she can't be sure what is discussed.
"All you can do is have a good guess when you see your judges and legislators meeting with Cafaro and Bruce Zoldan, the two biggest contributors to political campaigns in the area," she said. Zoldan is the owner of BJ Alan's Phantom Fireworks.
"All we're doing is having the lunch that we have every month," Cafaro said. To help dispel the mystery of what takes place at the luncheons, Cafaro said he plans to invite one representative from the press to future luncheons.
The gatherings will not be open to the press, however; they will remain private functions, he said.