Ilene Shapiro is Summit County’s first female County Executive
Whether divine intervention or fate, Ilene Shapiro now thinks there’s a bigger reason she didn’t run for Akron mayor last year.
Many of her supporters urged her to run, saying she’d make a great candidate and the city was ready for its first female mayor. But instead, she opted to support her friend Dan Horrigan.
That left Shapiro as president of Summit County Council, next in line to be county executive.
So, when Summit County Executive Russ Pry died suddenly a week ago, Shapiro stepped into his spot — and now plans to run for the seat this November instead of her close ally Pry, who was poised to seek re-election for the last time before he became ill.
“Whatever you believe in — God, karma, a higher power — there is sometimes a synergy we don’t necessarily understand that brings you to places you don’t expect to be,” Shapiro, 69, said last week in an interview in a conference room in the Ohio Building that is her temporary office. “That is where I am right now.”
Shapiro, who knew it was a possibility but never thought she would be county executive, is now the first woman to hold Summit County’s top spot in its 35 years as a charter county and the first woman in Ohio to assume this position. For Shapiro, who has long supported women’s issues and has taught classes to women wanting to run for office, this seems like a natural step, albeit under difficult and unexpected circumstances.
Shapiro’s supporters in the community think she’ll do a great job as executive temporarily — and for the next four years, if she wins the election. They also say she could potentially inspire other women to follow in her footsteps.
“Little girls are not only going to look at Hillary (Clinton),” said Marie Covington, who, along with Shapiro and several other local women, started the Women’s Endowment Fund that supports organizations benefiting women in Summit County. “They are going to look at Ilene and say, ‘Hey, maybe I can do that someday.’ ”
Shapiro had a whole career before she ventured into politics, including holding prominent positions with FirstMerit Corp. and the Summa Foundation and starting a beauty supply business.
More recently, she owned a consulting business, Shapiro Consulting, a venture she will discontinue now that she is county executive.
Former Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic encouraged Shapiro numerous times to consider running for Akron City Council, but her busy career stopped her. After serving on the county’s charter review commission, however, she decided to run for an at-large Summit County Council seat 10 years ago, at the urging of then-County Executive Jim McCarthy.
Shapiro won the seat and re-election after that, each time as one of the top vote-getters.
Pry entered county government about the same time as Shapiro, replacing McCarthy when he stepped down as county executive.
Shapiro and Pry worked closely together, particularly because of Shapiro’s roles as chair of council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee and as council president. Shapiro said they shared like philosophies, including the need for collaboration and innovation.
For her accomplishments on council, Shapiro points to a “laundry list of things” that include helping with the successful efforts to keep Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Bridgestone Americas in Akron, the combining of the county and city building departments and the creation of Conexus, an effort to match job training to the needs of area employers.
Jason Dodson, the county’s chief of staff, said Shapiro has been “at the table” for all of the county’s major efforts since she’s been on council, including having to slash budgets during lean economic times.
Until Pry’s unexpected death, Shapiro said she expected herself and Pry to end their time in county government together.
Pry had said his bid for another four-year term as executive this year would be his last and Shapiro had another two years left on her council term.
“I figured we would kind of go off into the sunset,” Shapiro said.
That changed when Pry was admitted into Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital in June for colon cancer, and then readmitted in early July to repair a tear in his small intestine. Still, Pry, Shapiro and other county leaders thought he would recover.
Pry announced July 29 that he was withdrawing from the executive race, though he still planned to return to work and finish his term that runs through Dec. 31.
Hearing about Pry’s decision a few days before he formally announced it, Shapiro visited him in the hospital. She told Pry she would be willing to run for executive in his stead but said she would leave it up to him. He told her that was what he wanted.
“Hearing from him made me all the more comfortable,” Shapiro said.
The day after Pry announced he wasn’t running for re-election, Shapiro announced she planned to run for executive. The following day, Pry died about 5 p.m., greatly moving up Shapiro’s time table.
Immediately after Pry’s death, a small group of county and city leaders gathered in the eating area of Shapiro’s West Akron home, where Summit County Probate Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer swore her in as executive. Afterward, the group lingered at Shapiro’s deck, where they reminisced about Pry with laughter and tears.
“I never thought I would be sitting here,” she said, shaking her head. “It was not in the plans.”
Shapiro said stepping into the executive role has been “surreal.” She spent the first week trying to balance the need to keep county government running with the need for people to grieve the loss of Pry. She met with senior staff members and signed many contracts, but she didn’t move into Pry’s office and has continued to park in her county council parking spot.
Shapiro said certain things can wait until after the Summit County Democratic Party’s Central Committee meeting Thursday night to appoint her to fill Pry’s term through the end of the year and to take his place on the ballot, and Pry’s memorial service and celebration on Saturday.
“I’m comfortable that once we say our final goodbyes and have had the chance to grieve, it will be fine,” Shapiro said.
If Shapiro is appointed executive as expected, the Democratic Party’s Central Committee will then need to appoint her replacement on council at an Aug. 17 meeting.
Shapiro’s salary nearly quadrupled going from council president to executive, a full-time position that earns $119,513 annually.
To hold on to the higher-paying, higher-profile job, though, Shapiro will need to defeat former Summit County Councilman Bill Roemer, a Republican, in the Nov. 8 election.
The county GOP is hoping Roemer may have a better chance against Shapiro than he would have against Pry, who was well-known and well-liked. The executive office carries with it more than 700 jobs.
“There’s no doubt about it,” said Bryan Williams, the Summit County Republican Party’s Executive Committee chairman. “Ilene is not nearly as qualified a candidate as Russ.”
Roemer, 59, who narrowly lost the at-large county council seat he’d held for four years in November 2014, said he thinks he is the better candidate because of his educational, political and professional experience. He is a certified public accountant.
“I have the tools to make Summit County a better place for our residents,” he said in a recent phone interview before going door to door to campaign.
Her supporters, though, say Shapiro is more qualified.
“She’s got a lot of experience on the legislative side,” said Akron Mayor Horrigan, a Democrat. “She has good business experience. She has a good approach.”
If elected, Shapiro said she hasn’t yet decided if she would seek more than one term.
“Right now, it is about the folks inside county government and the people outside,” she said.
Neither Shapiro nor Roemer now has much in campaign funds. Their latest reports show available balances of just a few thousand dollars each, with Roemer having loaned his county council campaign $50,000, most that still needs to be repaid.
Pry’s campaign account, however, has a sizeable balance of more than $250,000. Shapiro doesn’t know how much, if any, of this money will be coming her way — a decision that will be up to Pry’s campaign treasurer.
“I’d sure like to have some,” she said, laughing.
Shapiro and Roemer both seem confident that they will be able to raise sufficient funds to get out their messages.
“I know I can compete financially,” Roemer said.
Like Shapiro, Roemer is hoping for a first in his bid for county executive.
“What I’m going to work on is your next story,” he told a Beacon Journal reporter. “I would be the first Republican Summit County executive in history.”
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“Ilene Shapiro is Summit County’s First Female County Executive” Akron Beacon Journal. Retrieved from http://www.ohio.com/news/local/ilene-shapiro-is-summit-county-s-first-female-county-executive-1.702890 (6 August, 2016).