The Plain Dealer, December 20, 1998
Copyright 1998 Plain Dealer Publishing Co. The Plain Dealer
Sunday - December 20, 1998

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Timothy F. Hagan likes to say that he is heading into the last third of his life.

It sounds gloomier than it is.

At age 52 the retiring Cuyahoga County commissioner has set himself up for a pretty good final third. Hagan exits after 16 years as commissioner on the three-member board with his reputation and integrity intact.

Using political and personal connections, he has pieced together a series of post-political jobs that will challenge him and pay well, but not keep him so busy as to interfere with the country gentleman he hopes to become on his modest spread in Olmsted Township.

Oh, and one other thing. He's engaged to a Starfleet captain.

Last month, he asked Kate Mulgrew, Starfleet Capt. Kathryn Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager," to marry him.

"I'm in the twilight of a mediocre career," he says. "But I'm looking forward to going to the grocery store without someone asking me for a job."

Hagan's resume is missing the stellar political credits that usually identify a popular politician. He was defeated in his bid for Cleveland mayor in 1989. And in a bid for Congress in 1992.

But if Hagan was unsuccessful at adding other offices to his resume, he led a political life that has helped ordinary citizens.

Ask him what he is proudest of having accomplished as a commissioner, and he'll tell you it's what he has done with taxes.

Not lowering them. Raising them.

He doesn't put it that way, of course. He doesn't campaign for higher taxes because he wants to; he does it because the money is needed. The levies are a means to an end. And he is clear about that end.

"It's our responsibility to do what we can to make sure our society is more civilized and gentle," he says.

Who was the last do-gooder to declare that government's purpose is to be a gentle, civilizing force? Not Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich. George Bush's "kinder, gentler" pledge doesn't count because he was talking about mellowing the Reagan Revolution.

As far as Hagan is concerned, the answer - a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt - is framed on the wall outside the entrance to his den.

"I'm basically an unreconstructed FDR New Dealer," he says. "It's not all the government you want; it's all the government you need. I'm a liberal. I don't make any bones about it. I think government has an important role to play in the lives of its citizens."

So why is he leaving?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the last line of a letter to the editor Hagan penned in June on the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

"In the 30 years since his death, I have listened carefully to those who seek to lead our country. Perhaps the years have hardened me, and the skeptic has become a cynic. But, oh, what I would give to believe as I once did when I was young."

The second oldest of 14 children - he is eight minutes younger than his twin brother, James - Hagan was born to Robert and Ada Hagan in Youngstown in 1946.

His father is a former ironworker, Trumbull County commissioner and, from 1986-90, was the most liberal member of the Ohio Legislature. The Hagans drilled into their seven boys and seven girls the sanctity of union, liberalism, the Democratic Party and, above all, service.

The lesson took. One of Hagan's siblings is a state senator, five are teachers, and one is a Plain Dealer journalist. Several have been presidents of their local unions.

After graduating from Ursuline High School in Youngstown, Hagan attended Youngstown State College for two years before he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Germany during the Vietnam War.

He returned to Youngstown in 1968 and worked as a baker and steelworker before moving to Cleveland in 1970 and earning a degree in urban studies from Cleveland State University in 1975.

While working for James Carney's mayoral campaign in 1971, he met Carney's niece, Jeanne. With a shared loved of politics and public service, the two married in 1973. The Carney family's wealth provided a cushion so Hagan could continue to work on political campaigns, making friends in Democratic circles along the way.

In 1978, he became chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party. With his newfound prominence, he endorsed Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy for president over incumbent Jimmy Carter, one of the first Democrats to do so. The move endeared him to the Kennedy clan, if not to fellow Democrats who felt it was impulsive.

But Hagan has always put his passions above politics.

"The '60s are burned into my soul," says Hagan, shaping him the way the Depression and New Deal shaped his father's generation.

In 1980, Hagan ran for a county commissioner seat. He lost to Republican Virgil Brown. The next year, he ran again, and this time he won.

His ambition grew, and he decided to run for Cleveland mayor in 1989. Hagan thought he and then-City Council President George L. Forbes would emerge from the primary, but little-known State Sen. Michael White beat Hagan and went on to defeat Forbes.

Generally thought by his peers to have one of the sharpest political minds around, Hagan's message of obligation to the downtrodden didn't sell, even to those who would seem to have the most to gain from it.

"He never really was able to build a truly urban constituency," says Republican State Auditor Jim Petro. "It always appeared his constituency was more of a suburban thing."

His intellectual, tax-and-spend liberalism didn't sit well with the blue-collar voters whose support he needed to win the office of mayor.

That sentiment was captured in an often-quoted put-down of Hagan by then-Cuyahoga County Treasurer Frank Gaul. Hagan often referred to the French philosopher Albert Camus in his speeches. Camus, an existentialist, believed that life was essentially meaningless unless man infused his daily work with meaning.

"Most people in Cleveland think Camus is the whale at Sea World," snorted Gaul.

Hagan went back to his county commissioner seat. But in 1992, he bid for a congressional seat. He ran against Rep. Mary Rose Oakar. Mayor White endorsed Hagan, but he still lost.

Still, he didn't take the defeats personally.

"It's neither an embrace of your personality if you win nor a rejection of your personality if you lose," says Hagan. "In most cases, people don't even know who you are."

After that, Hagan resigned himself to finishing his political career where it had begun.

"I didn't have the chutzpah to believe in myself as much as others did."

If his confidence was shaken, it didn't show. He returned to the county commissioners' office where the daily work is more mundane than that of Congress.

But county government has a greater impact than anything politicians in Washington, D.C., or Columbus do. The county decides how much property is worth and how much to tax it. It runs the courts and the jails, offers services for the mentally ill and the mentally retarded, looks after abused and neglected children, passes out food stamps, fixes roads and bridges, and performs a thousand other functions. It all takes 9,800 employees and an annual budget of $1 billion, larger than that of some small states.

In between signing contracts for road salt, the commissioners also began work on securing financing for Gund Arena, Jacobs Field and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Although Hagan has been dismissed as a political dinosaur and a hopeless ideologue, he was a practical and pragmatic politician on these projects.

"There is no question he has dominated the county government for a decade," says Commissioner Timothy McCormack. "The county government, in a large part, is a reflection of his vision and his work."

Hagan has done it through longevity, attention to details and the ability to take the heat.

"His leadership on issues is one of his biggest strengths," says Thomas J. Hayes, a former county administrator. "He not only will get out front on issues, he'll pick them up and put them on his shoulder and carry them."

He also is willing to concede that the other guy might just have a point.

"He's pragmatic enough not to be 100 percent ideologue. He knows when to compromise; he can form relationships," says James Trakas, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party.

One of the biggest compromises he struck was Gateway. In essence, the county, with state and city help, paid for Jacobs Field and Gund Arena and leased them on very favorable teams to the Indians and Cavaliers.

Using public money to build multimillion-dollar sports palaces would seem to be at odds with Hagan's liberalism. But Hagan doesn't see any conflict.

"We looked at it as an economic engine and a revitalization of the whole community," he says. "You're not a major-league city unless you have major-league franchises."

As for charges he made the rich richer with the leasing deals he championed, Hagan counters that, "I would have preferred Mother Teresa own the franchises, but poor people don't own franchises."

Though the leases drawn up by Hagan and Mayor White have kept Gateway struggling financially and could eventually bankrupt it, Hagan still says it was the right decision.

"I never compromised my basic convictions," he counters. "I never brought to the table an ideology that was unwilling to cooperate to get things done."

Hagan's political philosophy has always been to trust others to do their jobs. But that approach blew up in his face during the Secured Assets Fund Earnings, or SAFE, scandal.

He and the other commissioners accepted then-Treasurer Frank Gaul's claims that his pooled investment fund was not only profitable, but risk-free.

When The Plain Dealer disclosed Gaul's risky investment practices, commissioners liquidated the fund and returned the money to the suburbs and school districts that had invested. The county took a $115 million hit, one that might have been avoided had commissioners not taken Gaul at his word.

Though Gaul was responsible for investments, Hagan and other commissioners were on an oversight board that could have reined in the treasurer and his advisers. Hagan and others said they asked questions, but got false answers.

During Gaul's trial, Hagan, a defense witness, testified that he dismissed others' criticism of the SAFE fund as the grousings of those who wanted to discredit it for their own profit, and said he had trusted Gaul "implicitly."

A booming market helped the county recover its losses, and Hagan, who won re-election in 1994 in the middle of the SAFE fallout, suffered no lasting damage.

Praise for Hagan's straightforward politics comes from both sides of the aisle.

"If he gives me his word, I don't have to watch behind the door," adds Mayor White. "We've sat in the same foxhole politically. We've never cut and run on each other."

"I consider Tim probably the most honorable politician I've ever known," says Petro, a former Cuyahoga commissioner. "He sometimes looks at the political consequences and says, 'I might have to suffer some.' He'll just go ahead and do it.'

Hagan counts White and former opponent George Forbes as friends, despite Forbes having called him a "pimp" during the 1989 mayoral race.

Hagan proved his friendship, Forbes says, when Forbes, then president of City Council, was indicted in 1978 for allegedly taking money from carnival operators.

"When I was indicted on the carnival case, he was with me every day," Forbes recalls. "He called me, we had lunch. I'll never forget that. Some politicians go out and deliberately cultivate enemies. It's scorched-earth politics and if you get in my way, too bad. With Tim, it was always people first. He never made it personal."

When Hagan retires next month, he will leave behind a relatively inexperienced board. Commissioners McCormack and Jane Campbell have been on the job only two years and have yet to show they can work together. Hagan's replacement, Bedford Heights Mayor Jimmy Dimora, has never served in county government. In addition, the county's auditor, treasurer and recorder have been on the job two years or less.

Hagan has been the fulcrum on which the board pivots. But he had begun to feel increasingly isolated. He has little use for the mercurial McCormack, whom he considers irresponsible. It is a rare meeting when he does not take a verbal jab at his colleague.

Hagan works better with Campbell, but doesn't understand her appetite for press conferences and TV appearances.

Neither commissioner does business the way Hagan prefers it, with phone calls, quiet conversations and handshakes backed by trust that takes years to build.

When the county child welfare agency and the Cleveland police began blaming each other for the beating death of a child last year, Hagan avoided the press conferences, and called City Hall. The commissioner and the mayor quietly formed a task force which found ways the police and social workers could work more closely. According to both sides, it is working.

That his behind-the-scenes skills will be missed was evident earlier this year when a debate broke out over where Cuyahoga should build a new juvenile detention center.

After years of searching, the county decided to build on the grounds of the Metzenbaum Children's Center at E. 33rd St. and Community College Ave.

White, working with Hagan, was ready to approve the site selection until Campbell said the county would build it even if the mayor objected. White balked at the quasi-threat and the county had to settle for shoehorning a new detention center onto the existing site.

It was a mistake Hagan would not have made.

Dimora, who plans to keep the job of chairman of the county Democratic Party, is a pragmatist, but he lacks Hagan's passion for the poor and downtrodden. And no one on the new board has a close relationship with White.

Still, Hagan says he is not worried.

"New perspectives are always going to be better. McCormack, Campbell and Dimora will have new ideas of doing things and that's fine," he says. "I'm over, I'm tired. I've been doing it since I got out of the service in 1968. I'm probably a dinosaur in a lot of ways."

It is not just county politics that have worn Hagan out. He is saddened by the nation's political movement away from liberalism.

Medicaid, Medicare, civil rights, women's rights - that is the legacy of progressives, he says.

"The reactionaries, the conservatives, are the ones who fought that over the course of history."

He scorns the Democrats' shift to the center, even if it was necessary to recapture voters lured away by the Republicans.

"It's disturbing to me that some of the public leadership has lost the passion once felt for the poor and oppressed in society. FDR, and the activist approach he took, I think, lifted a lot of people to the point where they can be New Democrats. What happened to a lot of people is they forgot where they came from."

At a time when many people are seemingly content to leave government alone if it leaves them alone, Hagan has not forgotten the lessons of his parents.

"I think everyone is obliged to give some service to society," he says. "I gave a lot of years to public life. I can walk away and say, 'I tried to make a contribution.' Others can judge that contribution.'

And that is why he is proudest that the additional levies he championed have made it possible for Cuyahoga County to spend $200 million more on services for the mentally retarded, mentally ill and poor than it did when he first became commissioner.

"Though it's not a building like Gateway, I hope there are a lot of children and families whose lives are better because of it," he says.

Hagan still loves government. Even after 16 years atop an enormous bureaucracy, he believes and trusts in it, defends it.

But lately, he has found himself implementing policies of which he does not approve.

He is most agitated about welfare reform. The county is enforcing federal and state mandates on work requirements and time limits on benefits.

At a November commissioners' meeting, he could not hide his frustration.

"Even with the most perfect program, at the end of the line you'll have these people who can't all get jobs," he said. "Somewhere down the line there will be people who won't be able to jump through all the hoops.

That doesn't make them bad people. They're human beings and they're struggling with their lives." That disillusionment has turned Hagan away from politics - as much as his nature will allow - and toward his family.

He has two daughters, Eleanor, 11, and Marie, 9. Divorced from his wife, Jeanne, since 1995, he shares custody of the girls.

He moved from the West Side to a $200,000, 2,400-square-foot house he designed in Olmsted Township. The home is about as far from Cleveland as he could manage and still live in Cuyahoga County.

He bought 18 acres, but recently sold 12 behind the house, land that he hopes will not fill up with houses anytime soon.

"I wanted to get away from everything. I like the quiet. I like to read," Hagan explains.

The two-story white house with a circular drive is masculine and comfortable. There are books and photographs everywhere. The built-in bookshelves in the den are lined with works by Arthur Miller, Noam Chomsky, Calvin Trillin and Isaiah Berlin, often cited as the voice of liberalism in the 20th century.

In a first-floor bathroom is the Starr Report. On the coffee table is a book about the Johnstown Flood, "Great American Essays of 1997," and Vaclav Havel's "The Art of the Impossible."

Framed snapshots seem to include every possible arrangement of his parents, their 14 children and their 29 children. There are also pictures of Hagan with members of the Kennedy clan, including Jean Kennedy Smith, former ambassador to Ireland, and Teddy Kennedy.

Hagan has become good friends and a frequent guest of the Kennedy clan. He was there when John F. Kennedy Jr. got married and was a pallbearer at the funeral of Steve Smith, son-in-law of U.S. Sen. Kennedy. He is godfather to Kate Kennedy, granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy.

Family is important to him. Over the garage is a "bunkhouse" where his nieces and nephews frequently spend weekends. His daughters, whose Spice Girls CDs share the rack with his Sinatra and Mendelssohn, are the principal reason he is retiring as commissioner.

"I really decided I wanted to be a father. I have a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old, and I felt that I had established a routine with them. I wanted to be a father," Hagan says.

The girls also are the reasons for the new corral and barn behind the house. Hagan, who helped build the barn, plans to buy a horse for each girl. He is looking forward to getting up in the mornings to pitch hay and muck out the stalls.

"It gives me something mindless to do and it's good for the kids," he offers.

On the kitchen table is a publicity photo of actress Kate Mulgrew, autographed to Hagan's oldest daughter. She and Hagan announced their engagement late last month. Mulgrew will move here after her work on "Star Trek: Voyager" ends, which will be at least a year and a half.

The 43-year-old actress and the politician have much in common. Both are the oldest of large Irish-Catholic broods, and both have fathers who were politicians. It will be the second marriage for each of them. Like Hagan, Mulgrew has two children.

While waiting for Mulgrew to move here, Hagan has pieced together a patchwork of consulting jobs that pay handsomely - most of which came to him as a result of the friendships he developed as a commissioner.

"I'm a little nervous because this is a transition and a serious transition. I want to work with people I respect, I want to do something worthwhile, and I want to have a few laughs," Hagan says.

A year ago, he accepted the invitation of longtime political supporter Morton Mandel to join the board of the Mandel Foundation, one of the richest in the country. Hagan's role will be to advise the foundation on its contributions to social service agencies.

Hagan won't say how much the job pays, only that it is more than the $65,000 he earns as a commissioner. The foundation work will take only three or four days a month.

"He's just a wise head," says Mandel, chairman of the foundation, a liberal who looks for similar qualities in politicians he supports.

"He passed that test with me. He has the right values and he is in government for the right reasons."

Because Hagan is retiring a few months short of reaching 30 years in the state Public Employees Retirement System, he will work for Cleveland State University to create a civic forum on issues such as urban sprawl and race relations. He will earn $1,000 a month for this, working one or two days a week. The job makes him eligible for a $40,000 annual state pension.

Hagan expects to teach a class sometime in the future.

He also will work as a consultant for MetroHealth Medical Center, raising money for the county-owned public hospital's foundation.

In addition, Hagan will produce occasional commentaries for WKYC Channel 3.

With the first two-thirds of his life behind him, Hagan is eager for the "final third" to begin.

"I have a great relief in my heart."