Twenty-Five Stories

15 The ladies of the press

Mary Anne Sharkey

The long, battered table in the middle of the Ohio Statehouse Pressroom was piled ceiling high with yellowed newspapers and magazines.  The Pressroom was conveniently positioned between the ornate Ohio House of Representatives and the regal Ohio Senate. It was a frequent stopping place for news-hungry legislators.

The Journal Herald in Dayton had promoted me from Dayton City Hall to the Ohio Statehouse. I followed two legends, Hugh McDiarmid and Keith McKnight, to become the newspaper’s first woman Capitol Correspondent in 1978. McKnight gave me a tour of the Pressroom and a smart mouth in the back feigned concern about a female in the locker room: “Oh, no, we are going to have clean up this place, paint the walls pink.”

I took a closer look around the pressroom walls and noted they were decorated with scantily dressed women featured in the risqué “Peach” section of the Toledo Blade. Where am I? Is this a pressroom or a greasy garage?

Let the hazing begin. A few days later, I visited the Pressroom and it got quiet, too quiet, when I walked in. I know they were discussing this female interloper. I ignored them and went to my assigned workspace. Finally, one of the “guys” who worked for Scripps Howard offered to show me around and all eyes followed us. We got to the large table and he kicked out a large box overflowing with Playboys and Penthouse magazines. “This is our titty box,” he snickered.

Now I understood why all those eyes were following me, it was a set up. “If you think I give a shit, I don’t,” I said in a modulated voice. A few laughed, and one of the AP wire reporters who would become a favorite patted me on the back and said, “That’s the way to handle these clowns.”

Relating this reception to my tough-as-Lou Grant city editor Bill Flanagan, he asked me, “How you going to handle this situation?” I responded, “I can handle these guys, I will just beat their ass every chance I get.” Flanagan chortled, “That’s why I sent you there.”

What my male tormenters did not know is I considered the Statehouse light duty compared to covering cops and courts. I competed for traditionally male beats because of my admiration for women like Doris O’Donnell in Cleveland  and Annie Heller in Dayton, and national political columnist Mary McGrory.

What a ride it was in a newsy town like Dayton: the deadly Xenia tornado in 1974 that destroyed large swaths of the city and both Wilberforce and Central State universities; the 1975 murder of Charles Glatt, school desegregation planner in the Dayton federal courthouse; the deaths of 165 night club patrons in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Kentucky in 1977, many of the victims from Dayton; striking Dayton firefighters who committed arson to force the city to accept the union’s demands; and a serial killer who randomly shot black people during hot summer nights over several years.

Perhaps my most controversial story was on the 1974 death of an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who shot and killed another AT&F agent in the Dayton federal courthouse. The two were apparently involved in illegal activities including selling confiscated guns on the black market. A source gave me a transcript of the dramatic testimony. “You are fucking with my family, you are fucking with my future.” Charles Alexander, the editor of The Journal Herald, made the courageous decision to run the story with the obscenity because it was a direct quote from the murdered federal agent. However, the publisher of Cox Newspapers, owners of both Dayton newspapers, did not agree and our church-going, straight-laced editor was fired for putting the expletive on the front page.

The editor’s firing erupted into a national debate in journalism circles.

So after being in the middle of a national journalism controversy, and covering murders, disasters and mayhem, I thought I had moved to the white glove side of journalism with the assignment to the Statehouse. The General Assembly could not pump up the adrenalin like a call in the middle of the night to cover a major disaster.

My city editor Flanagan, who called me a “broad” much to my unspoken dislike, did not treat me any differently than male reporters and gave me some of the best assignments. For that, I let the “broad” reference slide.

This was decades before the politically correct era. At the Statehouse, the lobbyists and legislators would gather in a smoke-filled, stereotypical political bar across South High Street at the historic Neil House Hotel. It was generally agreed that what went on was off-the-record. Many married male legislators were seen dining and drinking with pretty young women before retiring to a room at the hotel. One Ohio state senator from Cleveland would introduce young women as his “nieces” and we could only conclude that he came from a rather large family.

I decided the bar was much like the scene of a fire. If you were going to cover it, you needed to see it for yourself. After keeping the informal rule of off the record, I gained acceptance by the legendary House Speaker Vern Riffe who rose from being a “hillbilly legislator” – his words not mine – to the most powerful figure in Ohio politics. In fact, the Speaker found that a reporter such as I was useful as a lobbyist repellent. “Here, sit next to me so they will leave me alone,” said the Speaker many times trying to swat away a lobbyist.

This gained me a huge reporting advantage through the years. The Speaker fed me a number of scoops on background. His trust also opened the door for other legislators, lobbyists, and members of the administration to call or meet with me.

By 1983, I was recruited by The Plain Dealer’s State Editor, Greg Moore, to join the Columbus Bureau of The Plain Dealer. We had worked together in the Dayton newsroom, and as a woman and Greg as an African-American we bonded over navigating the white male world of newspapers. Greg persuaded me to join The Plain Dealer despite the fact the PD had a well-deserved reputation of having a snake pit of a newsroom. Dayton, a non-union newspaper, was a much more congenial place to work without the labor difficulties and the “we-they” management fights that plagued the PD.

When I made the jump, I was serving as the first woman president of the Ohio Legislative Correspondents Association. After I accepted the offer from the PD, my peers joked the only way the PD could get a Statehouse press corps president was to hire one. In other words, no one actually working for the arrogant largest newspaper in Ohio would be elected to a largely ceremonial position in the Ohio press corps.

In the next few years, other newspapers and TV and radio outlets began to assign additional women to the Statehouse. Women remained a distinct minority but there was some comfort in our increasing numbers.

The women reporters decided to band together and for our first outing we invited the colorful Governor Jim Rhodes to lunch. The Governor insisted on going to the exclusively male Athletic Club, and much to our dismay he ordered us all fruit salads and brought flower corsages. We thought it could not get worse but it did. Rhodes ducked all the substantive state budget questions and talked about his daughters and grandchildren. No one took notes. A few of my colleagues were in a rage and tossed his flowers into a trash can.

Prior to the advent of more women in the press corps, I was the only reporter Rhodes refused to take on his China trade mission. I later learned he felt a woman would force him to clean up his language and jokes. His press secretary, Chan Cochran, tried mightily to deny my snub had any correlation with being the only woman in the press corps. Years later, Chan admitted that was his most challenging time as the press secretary for Rhodes, trying to justify why I was snubbed by the Governor on the trade mission. I might add here I got no support from my male colleagues who went on the exotic trip. Some of the reporters who did travel to China with Rhodes accepted expensive Gucci purse trade mission gifts for their wives, leading to what we called “Gucci-Gate” in the Ohio press corps.

As an aside, Rhodes did belatedly admit that it was a mistake not to take me to China and I can only assume that was because by that time I was the bureau chief of The Plain Dealer. I did not give him the satisfaction of saying that’s okay because it was not.

Rhodes’ fourth and final term was also marked by the fact that he was being covered by those of us who were in college during the 1970 National Guard killings of four Kent State University students after he had ordered the guard to Kent. When he made his final run for Governor, I pinned him down for not apologizing for the deaths of the students at Kent State. “I already apologized.” he insisted. I could find no record and told him so. “Look it up,” he insisted.

Our women’s group of reporters had better luck with Speaker Riffe than Rhodes. He agreed to meet us at a blue-collar bar, Club 185, in German Village. There was a bowling machine and a pool table. Riffe was enjoying himself as we bought him drinks and peppered him with questions that were strictly on background. His candor struck us, and so did the fact that he was taking us seriously. We had taken note that he had a woman for his Chief of Staff.

Maureen Brown, a reporter for Scripps Howard, waited for the pool table to open up so she and Riffe could get in a game. The guys playing pool told her she would have to win the table. So Maureen chalked up her pool cue, tossed off her heels, and hiked up her skirt. She made short work of it, banking shots and clearing the table. After winning the table, Maureen turned to the Speaker to get their promised game going. “Hell, no, Maureen, you didn’t tell me you were a pool shark,” he said with admiration.

Rhodes’ final term (1979-82) was dull. But soon things would get newsier when Richard “Dick” Celeste was elected Governor. His administration was awash in Cleveland-style ward politics and patronage. Scandals erupted in half of the agencies including the Department of Mental Retardation and the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services. Cabinet members were forced to resign due to public corruption charges and convictions. A Franklin County Grand Jury investigated and indicted the Governor’s chief fund-raiser and the fund-raiser for the Ohio Democratic Party for shaking down state contractors for contributions.

We had so many front-page stories that a Newspaper Guild representative called us to suggest we slow down because the reporters in the newsroom looked bad by comparison. This made us laugh, or as my bureau colleague quipped, “There is enough dead wood in that newsroom to make a petrified forest.”

During the first Celeste administration, I became the first woman Bureau Chief by succeeding Tom Diemer for The Plain Dealer. I drew a choice assignment to cover the national political conventions but even at this late date in my career I had to assert myself. Bob McGruder, Managing Editor of The Plain Dealer, suggested I might want to cover the “wives” of politicians at the convention. I looked him directly in the eye: “I don’t do wives.” We sat in uncomfortable silence until he laughed.

The Celeste administration was overwhelming our small bureau of reporters. And the more we wrote about scandals, the more stories and tips came our way. I joked about putting a sign on our office door: “Dump here.” I actively recruited ace investigative reporter Gary Webb to move from Cleveland to Columbus. “Look Gary, you are going to be like a kid in a candy shop.”

Fortunately, I had the knowledgeable and talented Tom Suddes as my colleague who did an outstanding job on the Home State Savings Bank scandal, the biggest banking failure since the Great Depression. Also in the bureau were two talented women I had recruited, Mary Beth Lane who we stole from Dayton, and Laura Jones who was our resourceful and organized office manager. When Gary agreed to join the bureau, I felt we had a murderers’ row line-up of reporters.

Meanwhile, we could not ignore the Oho Supreme Court.  The court was in a fight with the Ohio Bar Association which had launched an ethics investigation of Chief Justice Frank Celebrezze. The news of the ethics investigation leaked and it started an unprecedented war between the Court and the Bar. As we looked deeper into the Celebrezze-led Court with a multi-part series, “A Law Unto Himself,” we found the court was awash in patronage and favoritism. Ironically, one of the key figures in the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal that sent County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and Auditor Frank Russo to long prison terms was the late lawyer Lou Damiani. Maybe it was not a coincidence because Damiani, as the administrative director of the Ohio Supreme Court, was orchestrating much of the pettiness, patronage, and suspicious court activities.

Associate Ohio Supreme Court Justice James Celebrezze, Frank’s brother, sued The Plain Dealer and me over a story that quoted a state legislator comparing the court to the “mafia.” Eventually the case was dismissed thanks to the excellent work of PD lawyers but while the lawsuit was pending I was sidelined from covering the Court. Webb, one of the top investigative reporters in Ohio, took over the court coverage and the campaign for Chief Justice. Webb delivered with a series of stories that rocked the Court and contributed to the defeat of Frank Celebrezze as Chief Justice.

Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the Chief Justice tried to trap me before his brother’s libel suit was filed. He called me into his office on some ruse and quizzed me about the new story I wrote quoting the legislator who used the word “mafia.” I sensed I was being taped so I dodged his line of questions.

A year or so earlier, the Chief Justice reportedly said in a locker room at the Athletic Club: “I want Mary Anne Sharkey dead.” An alarmed member of the Ohio Senate called me after he left the locker room. “I don’t think your life is in danger but I feel I should tell you what the Chief said.” Bill Woestendiek, editor of The Plain Dealer, placed an angry call to the Chief Justice and told him he better never threaten one of his reporters again. Celebrezze denied it.

Celebrezze lost to Thomas Moyer, a moderate low key and respected jurist, in the 1986 election. Ohio newspapers weighed in heavily on the race condemning Chief Justice Celebrezze and giving Moyer their full-throated endorsements. The Court has remained solidly in Republican hands since then.

Despite the many scandals that marred his administration, Richard Celeste still dreamed of running for President. Gary Hart was the leading Democrat running for the 1988 presidential nomination until his campaign blew up over an affair he was allegedly having with Donna Rice. The Miami Herald had stalked him after Hart had foolishly challenged the newspaper’s political team to do so.  The result was Hart was forced to drop out of the race for President.

Celeste began an exploratory committee and stepped up his appearances in the national news media. Given the Governor’s reputation for womanizing, it was surprising Celeste saw Hart’s downfall as his opportunity. It was not a secret in state political circles that Celeste had mistresses including an intern that worked in his office and another one who was on his security detail.

Brent Larkin, long time PD political writer and columnist, and I had separate but solid sources who confirmed these affairs. After Celeste made it clear he was exploring a run for President, I received a call in the Statehouse Bureau from Larkin: “Are you thinking what I am thinking?” asked Brent. “If you are thinking Celeste has a lot of nerve to do this on the heels of Gary Hart – we are on the same page.”

Larkin and I began to double-back to our sources with direct knowledge of Celeste’s multiple affairs. It did not take long for the Governor’s office to catch wind of our inquiries and our publisher Tom Vail was called directly to ask him to get us to back off. Fortunately, Vail kept that political pressure to himself as we continued with our investigation.

In June 1987 Celeste held a press conference on a topic long forgotten, but what happened will be a part of political history. Prior to Celeste’s arrival, several of us joked about who was going to ask THE question of Celeste. Tim Miller of the Dayton Daily News pulled out a dollar bill and I added a quarter to the bounty.  The intrepid Jim Underwood of the Horvitz newspapers took the money. And we waited for the usual Q & A session after the news conference.

“Governor,” Underwood said directly to Celeste, “Governor, is there anything in your personal life that would preclude you from being president, as it has for Gary Hart?”  The room went silent as we held our breath. “No”, responded Celeste. Underwood pressed again. Same answer “No.”

The Governor’s staff looked ashen. They knew he had made a huge Gary Hart-like mistake of lying at a press conference in front of a large Statehouse press corps. Later, they admitted Celeste had been prepped for that question and he was to dodge it but under no circumstances answer it.

Larkin and I went to work. We produced a detailed story on Celeste and his womanizing that went back to the days when he was Lieutenant Governor. This was years before Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and newspapers did not publish such personal and lurid stories about politicians.

Our story was heavily edited by a skittish team of editors and the lawyers who took out all the pertinent details except linking Celeste to three women who were not his wife, Dagmar. The story was definitely not written by Larkin and myself who are known for hard-hitting reporting. Instead it had this tepid lead that Celeste “was romantically linked to three women.”  The story excluded pertinent details as one woman was a young intern in the Governor’s office, another woman was married to a top campaign aide and was placed on the state payroll, and a third woman and her husband were social friends of Dick and Dagmar Celeste. In fact, limiting it to three women was a conservative estimate and Vail stated that in public after the story was in print.

Well, it caused a media uproar. Our story went national and led to a debate on whether Larkin and I should have reported on Celeste’s affairs. What did it have to do with his job as Governor? Why now and not earlier? Was the story written because he lied or because of the affairs? All fair questions that we had asked ourselves before publication. But had our full story appeared it would have muted some of the criticism.

And I got some personal sniping from Celeste supporters that he had rejected me and the story was a payback. Now, no one accused Larkin of that motivation, just the woman who co-wrote the story. I also noticed all the stories by other state and national media were about how The Plain Dealer wrote the story rather than focus on the story of Celeste and his womanizing. I thought they were all dodging the real story.

No, it was not personal. The reason it was a story was quite simple. Celeste saw an opportunity to run with the exact same personal baggage as Gary Hart. And he lied about it at a press conference.

For me though, one of the best moments was going into the Statehouse Pressroom feeling beleaguered by all the criticism of the Governor and his mistresses story, and being greeted with “Way to go” and “Good work” by other reporters, who appreciated it was a gutsy and difficult story.

I smiled and remembered my first day in that pressroom, when I felt a need to prove that a woman could be a statehouse and political reporter and compete with the guys. And yes, from time to time, I got to kick ass.

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