Cuyahoga County’s First Elected Bag Lady

By Robin Adair

As the story goes, Thomas Riley Marshal was simply filling in the blank of a U.S. senator’s prolonged pause. During a speech, the legislator had confounded himself after constructing the front end of a sentence—“What this country needs….” As all you American history students know, this is a time-honored tradition among lawmakers: baiting themselves and attentive citizens with the promise of a solution, and then getting stalled for lack of details.

As the senator waited in vain for Providence to supply a caboose for his mighty rhetorical train, Marshal found himself as bored with the speech as he was with the job that required him to listen. He turned to a clerk and uttered, “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.”

Marshal had actually cribbed the observation from a comic-strip character of the day. That fact notwithstanding, America quickly embraced the aphorism and long made it a shorthand reflection of the regard in which it held its politicians as problem solvers.

In under 10 words, Marshal had cemented a footnote into the nation’s history books. Marshal’s remaining contributions as Woodrow Wilson’s vice president are relegated to the pages of ignored master’s theses in Indiana.

Which brings us to another five-cent idea, this one showing far more potential in terms of securing the electorate’s long-term distain. Sunny Simon wants a nickel’s worth of plastic-bag tax in Cuyahoga County.

The county council vice president would tack on this five-cent tax with every plastic poke that businesses and restaurants hand out to customers. The revenue, of course, would be applied to such worthy goals as educational and environmental efforts. No mention has been made of investing in a summer camp for legislators ignorant of applied economics.

I cannot speak for anyone else here in Cuyahoga County, but I traffic in a lot of store-supplied plastic bags, upwards of 50 a week. That has been the case ever since my indentured servant left me to take up his entrepreneurial dream, operating a picture-postcard kiosk featuring Greater Cleveland’s long-lost industrial sites.

I am not ignorantly scoffing at the impact that plastics bags have in an urban economy, either. I carefully retask mine at home. I have a dog with environmental concerns of its own. Believe me, Harrington and I are most appreciative every time the Heinens bagger packs light.

My circumstances notwithstanding, bag-tax proponents are determined to make their case. Councilwoman Simon and like-minded social engineers can point to such bag-tax zones as Washington, D.C. And there is even a Web site——that monitors this monumental issue.

As far as the nation’s capital is concerned, let me quickly rejoin that the Beltway is wholly subsidized by taxes. Being environmentally conscious in D.C. displays no real virtue when the sacrifice is borne by taxpayers who don’t even live there. Such is not the case near the Cuyahoga River, where Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Jack would really like to hang on to as many nickels as they can during these tight times. 

How much consideration Councilwoman Simon has given to the proposal’s household impact is uncertain. She and the rest of the county council are focused on whether they even have the authority to pass legislation. Councilman Dale Miller told the Plain Dealer: “There’s some question as to how far our authority extends.” My neighbor Paul, a businessman who chooses to live in Cleveland, knows how far common sense extends in city hall and county council. “These jokers,” he told me yesterday, “need to get real jobs…that is, if they can find any.”

Councilwoman Simon told the morning journal that she “plans to research legal issues” before introducing the legislation this spring. “I really want to do the research and be careful,” she said. “This is something that’s going to be testing the waters. With this new government and the charter, how far can we go to impact residents’ lives?”

Being careful is good. Showing a sense of priorities is even better. The smart money says neither will come into play here.

So move over, Thomas Riley Marshal, and take your five-cent cigar with you. Make room for our bag lady.

Writer Robin Adair moved back to his hometown of Cleveland after realizing the Middle East did not offer him enough political conflict and social confusion.



  1. You have got to be kiding, a bag tax. come on people we can’t buy food and now you want to tax the bag. A bag tax means less food. I will brng my own bags.

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