Published July 21, 2008
From the numerous tributes that have been lovingly recounted since his passing Wednesday, Don Hanni Jr. was a caring family man and generous community leader. It is fitting to respectfully acknowledge the many lives he touched through his law practice and charitable efforts. Clearly, he will be missed by many.
To briefly get up to speed on how Hanni came into power and crafted the "machine" that ran Mahoning County politics for sixteen years, let's turn to Clingan Jackson, The Vindicator's longtime political editor, from the latter's autobiography:
In his youth, Hanni was a Republican from the East Side of Youngstown and served as president of the Young Republicans Club during the blossoming of the Democratic strength here. Hanni proceeded pretty much in the way of his life—if you can't lick them, join them—and thus became a Democrat. A successful criminal lawyer, his election as party chairman was adamantly opposed by some who held that an attorney should not be in a position to deal with judges whose elections depend partly on party operations.
Right away, we're presented with a man who thrived on ambivalence. He was a political boss with the power to influence judges, yet he was a talented trial lawyer whose admiring audience would swear he was so skillful; he didn't need influence apart from his courtroom arguments to be successful in winning his cases.
Hanni knew how to cover his tracks in other ways. When he left a party and famously crashed into the downtown post office window in 1985, he ducked into a bar before the police arrived. If he was drinking when the police arrived, they couldn't prove he had been drinking before the accident. Likewise, though he was a politician, as lawyer for the mob, he could be as cozy with organized crime figures as he liked and explain away aspersions of impropriety. He was their attorney after all, how was he supposed to provide counsel without meeting with them?
We tend to treat politics as a game, as if the people living and dying by the policies set by those in power are less important than the stories generated by colorful characters like Hanni and his frequent combatant Traficant. The media, at power lunches and black-tie journalist dinners, raises a glass and says "well played."
Witness Bertram de Souza's Sunday column: "[T]his was the man who introduced Mafia boss Joseph “Little Joey” Naples to the writer and who took Vindicator City Editor Jagnow and the politics columnist to have lunch at the Calla Mar Restaurant, owned by the other mob boss in the Valley, Vincenzo “Brier Hill Jimmy” Prato."
Note the ironic pride in de Souza's column about being introduced to members of organized crime by the chairman of the local Democratic Party. This point was echoed in a conversation I had Sunday with Jim Callen, co-founder of the Citizens League of Greater Youngstown and Executive Director of Northeast Ohio Legal Services, about Hanni's legacy. I contacted Callen because he has been speaking out against organized crime in the Mahoning Valley for nearly three decades, and I wanted to get his perspective on how Hanni seemed to have a foot in both worlds.
As our conversation began, Callen expressed his sincere sympathy for the family personally in their loss. As we continued to speak, he lamented that Hanni became just another party chairman "who served as interface between organized crime and community and political structures." Without a diverse power structure of a larger community to compete against it, he explained, organized crime had an "incredibly devastating and destructive" influence on this area "that went on for decades."
Hanni, in comments during a 1990 appearance on 60 Minutes to a national audience, made it seem like taking money from the mob was "the normal course of business," Callen continued. Wasn't that just Hanni dealing with reality, being pragmatic? Callen argues otherwise—and from experience.
Hanni decided he would take Callen on in the 90s and made defamatory remarks on the radio and in the news about him, for which Callen pressed charges. Hanni settled with a signed statement that read, in part, "I made these statements in an attempt to discredit you and to undermine your position that organized crime was a serious problem in the Mahoning County."
So, Callen summed up, not only was Hanni not helping the people of his county by fighting against organized crime, he was actually fighting against the people who were fighting against organized crime.
I also spoke with Liberty Township Administrator Pat Ungaro, who was Mayor of Youngstown from 1984 to 1997. He spoke of his discomfort with the Hanni gang and said he "managed to overcome the 'machine' by going door to door." He described "surviving" fourteen years of Hanni-supported challengers. Ungaro was taken aback when he once got some political advice from Hanni: "He told me, 'I don't like your politics, and I don't understand them. But don't change.' And I never did."
Hanni was ousted from his seat as Democratic Party chairman in 1994 by a wave of fresh blood titled Mahoning Democrats for Change, led by Michael Morley. This morning, I published the full text of an historic editorial that preceded the May primary election. The author, Bob Fitzer, was a force for change in Youngstown, attacking corruption, fighting for downtown's landmarks and enriching our lives with his art until his untimely death last year from cancer.
As I said in the notes that accompany the editorial's text, I don't publish it to step on the fresh grave of a man who's been lionized by so many. Rather, I believe it is appropriate to give the fullest picture of a man of such large and controversial stature in this community so that we can learn from it and move forward with an informed record.
I encourage you to read the full commentary, but I will cite some passages here for special note.
For 16 years Don L. Hanni Jr. has been running the Mahoning County Democratic Party "like a dictator," according to U.S. Congressman James Traficant. In a county with a virtual one-party system of government, Hanni—as Democratic Party chairman—has had unquestionably more political power than any other public official.
But lately Hanni's noose-like stranglehold of power has been fraying and loosening to the point that his very credibility as a political force in the valley is being questioned.
And while Hanni's mouth garners the most press, it's his actions that cause the greatest consternation among serious critics, as his long tenure has been marked by many questions of impropriety: coziness with reputed mobsters and mob associates, blatant nepotism, unapologetic cronyism and patronage, and intimidation tactics that would make even the late Mayor Daley of Chicago nostalgic.
But unlike Chicago—long known as "the city that works"—Mahoning County has not worked well under the chokehold of Hanni's party machine. We've instead become a sort of national "poster child" for all types of social and economic ills: unemployment, poverty, population loss, crime (both organized and unorganized), property devaluation, infrastructure decay, and a less-than-healthy business climate.
Simply put, the Mahoning Valley is developmentally handicapped. And Don Hanni's philosophy of "to the victors go the spoils" is a major cause. For when the victors get the spoils, the victims get the crumbs, and in this needy county, there are too few spoils and too many victims.
Some, though, still give him credit for being a "brilliant" politician, but they are failing to see the bigger picture. For what benefit is derived from delivering political candidates or being a rhetorical charmer if you don't use that power to solve the most intractable problems a community faces? And in Mahoning County, the principal issue is economic development. Think about this: Of the 25 largest manufacturing employers in our five-county area (Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana, Mercer, and Lawrence), only one is located in the largest county—Mahoning. Only one! Now, if you were the long-time "dictator" of a virtual one-party county, would you feel "brilliant" with that record of political success?
Ironically, our economy has been improving recently, but seemingly in inverse proportion to Don Hanni's waning political clout. Thanks to the emerging generation of progressive, anti-Hanni public servants (as well as the pork-barrel "successes" of Congressman Traficant), we may finally be ready to put our economic house in order.
What takes much longer to repair, however, are the numbing effects of the autocratic system of control which Hanni has skillfully manipulated for nearly the past two decades. His divide-and-conquer strategies—fueling political and ethnic turf wars—both paralyze and polarize the community, sapping it of its strength and preventing it from working together to attract business and healthy development. All we're left with is an alarmingly high level of cynicism and apathy and a dangerously low civic self-esteem.
This is a critical point. We hear it every day on the local talk radio and see it every day on the Vindy.com discussion boards. When new development comes into town, we bend over (choose your direction) to accommodate, regardless of whether we are certain our best interests are being kept in mind. We suffer, as a region and a community, from the "low civic self-esteem" Fitzer describes, and it hurts us in ways as simple as the inability to imagine a better future and make it happen. We need to find a way to acknowledge our challenges in a healthy forum while recognizing our venerable history, exciting present and promising future. And if we don't talk up our positives, who will?
What makes matters even worse is the half-century of overt organized crime interference which Mahoning County is famous for, and with it our history of shamefully high public acquiescence. For his part, Hanni sounds like nothing more than an apologist for the mob. He blurs the distinctions between legitimate businesses and organized crime operations, implying they are the same. He once defended Traficant's taking of mob money by asking, "Is he [Traficant] any more guilty of wrongdoing than those candidates running for office who accept thousands of dollars from major utilities and big oil companies?"
Hanni also trivializes the insidious effects of the mob on the community by saying, "Organized crime is chiefly reflected in racketeers killing racketeers," ignoring the more profound economic ramifications of mob control. He takes it even a step further by impugning the integrity of all elected officials, claiming—as on CBS's 60 Minutes—"I know that everybody takes money from the mob." This mean-spirited generalization once again serves to confuse the public as to who the "good guys" are and who the "bad guys" are. Hanni also unwittingly indicts himself with this quote, for he, too, is a longtime elected official (current precinct committeeman and former municipal judge). And if he lives by his quote, then does Hanni—as Democratic Party chairman—advise candidates he's grooming for office to be like "everybody" else and "take money from the mob"? And since Hanni is also chairman of the Mahoning County Board of Elections, does his quote also imply that he is derelict in his duty as chairman for not forcing candidates to report their "mob money" to the board?
What's the motivation of the Morley-led Change candidates? Most of them are political neophytes who simply, honestly, painfully want to see this valley flourish again for their children and grandchildren. They also believe the old adage that one person really can make a difference. These independent-thinking men and women are convinced they can replace good old boys with good new ideas.
At the very least, the Democrats for Change promise to bring about a long-overdue aeration of Mahoning County's constipated political soil.
At the very best, they will bring about a revolution in the way politics are handled in Mahoning County, paving the way for true economic growth and renewed hope.
It's hard to say whether the Democrats for Change succeeded in building a new Democratic Party beyond their success in ousting Hanni, though this was a significant accomplishment. In 1999, Morley abruptly resigned as chairman and remained on the Mahoning County Board of Elections.
A side benefit of the Change impetus is the window of opportunity it affords Republicans, who will be more easily able to cultivate their best and brightest. Who knows—it may even eventually lead to an authentic two-party system in Mahoning County, incorporating the checks and balances upon which democracy is built. Wouldn't that be special?
I asked Dr. Bill Binning, Bob Fitzer's co-host on Commentary Café, about this. Has an "authentic two-party system" developed? Dr. Binning replied that the local GOP has not competed for "any legislative or county offices in the post-Hanni period." He sighs, "Bob's hope of a two-party system has yet to emerge."
When the voters of Mahoning County close that curtain of democracy behind them on May 3, they might be casting the "biggest little vote" in local Democratic history. It may even result in what could be called "the end of an error" in Mahoning County politics.
Monday afternoon I spoke with attorney John Shultz, who has known Hanni for most of his life and shared an office with him "for longer than anyone else." I asked Shultz about Hanni's accomplishments as party boss. He was quick to reply, "He injected enthusiasm into what would otherwise be a lackluster venture." He spoke with obvious affection and admiration of Hanni's organizing skills, his "renowned lunches and breakfasts," his "grassroots politics," his ability to stimulate and rally. "He had a way of overcoming blasé."
When I broached the subject of Hanni's relationship to organized crime, Shultz suggested that law enforcement had plenty of opportunity to nail Hanni if there was anything going on with all the surveillance he was surely under. But as far as his long-time friend and associate was concerned, "It was a tribute to his basic moral fiber. He knew where to draw the line, and he never crossed it."
One final interview I'll share, which was the most prosaic of the lot; this one with Jack Wendle. Wendle has been variously President of the Youngstown Federation of Teachers, Mahoning County auditor assistant and Tennis Coach at Youngstown State among, I'm sure, many other pursuits. (I can also tell you he's an incredible craftsman with wood.)
"Don Hanni could have been a Shakespearean character." Wendle stressed the good and bad in all of us and related encounters of both kinds with Hanni.
As a teacher, Hanni "would have done anything I asked of him . . . would have bent over backwards. He was well-educated, well-trained, and well-connected." Hanni asked Wendle to be his finance director during his run for mayor in '68. Wendle ultimately decided against it and walked away from the role. He said, "Hanni never held it against me." He related the story of a party not long after where Hanni sat down and spoke at length with Wendle's wife.
Wendle sees Hanni ultimately as a tragic character. When he became the party chairman, "he was in a position to get a lot of things done" and didn't live up to his talent. He "got himself on 60 Minutes and said all politicians take money from the mob. He should have been fighting that instead of contributing to it."
As Jack Wendle said, people are neither all good nor all bad. Throughout history, we read biographies of complex individuals who have achieved greatness—sometimes with the stain of muck still on their traveling clothes. History will tell what Hanni's most lasting achievements and most lamentable failures were.
For those of us he left behind, organized crime, though diminished, is still with us. We still see political positions being consumed on the basis of patronage rather than merit. We still have a law enforcement culture that is governed by boys'-club, anything-goes rules. Did Hanni really leave? And who will replace him?