Harlan Diamond lost a dear friend in Sen. George Voinovich.
The city of Cleveland, the state of Ohio, the nation and the state of Israel lost a tireless, compassionate, dedicated politician who prioritized family, but also sought to better everyone else. Voinovich was a people’s politician.
Voinovich, who served as U.S. senator from 1999 to 2011, Ohio governor from 1991 through 1998 and mayor from 1980 to 1989, when Cleveland was the largest city in the state, was 79 when he died June 12, weeks shy of his 80th birthday.
Voinovich died peacefully in his sleep, his family confirmed.
His death came as a surprise to friends. Two days earlier, he delivered public remarks at a 25th Slovenian Independence Day event at Cleveland City Hall, and next month, he was to be a delegate to the Republican National Convention coming to Cleveland.
Diamond, 82, president of Executive Caterers, knew Voinovich for more than 60 years. His company catered many Voinovich events and was Voinovich’s personal caterer.
Diamond, a Bratenahl resident, shared some of his recollections of Voinovich with the Cleveland Jewish News in one of the banquet rooms of his Mayfield Heights party center. Heartbroken by the news he had received about 24 hours earlier, he reminisced about how his friend pioneered the private-public partnership, how he kept the Cleveland Indians in town and about his support for the Jewish community and Israel.
“I’m still shocked. I mean he is a loss, he is a loss personally, he is a loss to the community, he is a loss to the nation, he is a loss to the world,” Diamond said. “Some people, their lives make a difference, and he tried making a difference.”
Diamond said Voinovich was “very close to the Jewish community, and the whole family, they were just, there was no discrimination … You know, faith is not necessarily anything other than doing the right thing and believing there is a Lord, and whatever you believe, that’s George Voinovich and his family, they were brought up that way.”
Diamond last saw Voinovich, a Catholic, about a month ago at Muldoon’s Saloon and Eatery on East 185th Street in Cleveland. The Voinoviches were having dinner and Diamond joined them.
“He texted me the next day saying how nice it was to join them, and I feel that the Voinovich family was part of our family, and my family, and when you know the family for 60 some years, you become pretty close to them,” Diamond recalled.
Diamond spoke fondly of some of Voinovich’s accomplishments in the political arena.
“He built his foundation on the private-public partnership, he brought that in with him, and while he struggled with it sometimes, it was his call all through his career as a politician,” Diamond said. “The private has to support what the public needs and wants and the public has to go along and support the private. He was very strong on that. It’s easy to feel that way, (but) it’s hard to do, because of all the different pressure you have on you as a politician, and the people in your organization have, but that was his call. And I’d like to really make sure that people understand that. He was really a good guy and he never asked for anything. He was just a straight arrow and a great guy.”
Diamond credited Voinovich for saving the Cleveland Indians during his tenure as mayor. Diamond was in St. Petersburg, Fla., recovering from heart surgery when he was reading the sports page of the daily newspaper. Something jumped out at him. The city recently had built a new baseball stadium and had hired a consultant to bring baseball to the area.
“I read the article and I said to myself, ‘Oh my G-d, they’re going to buy the Indians, and they’re going to bring the Indians down here.’ … I said, ‘I think that you are going to go down in history as the mayor who lost the Cleveland Indians for Cleveland,’” Diamond said.
“He said, ‘What are you talking about? The family has promised me that they will keep the team in Cleveland.’ They’re not telling you the truth.”
Voinovich made sure the team didn’t move.
In the late 1970s, Cleveland was in default until Voinovich came along.
“When he moved to Columbus, we moved him into the mansion,” Diamond said. “We were his caterer. He hired one of our people to be his chief of staff, and social chief of staff for his wife, and one for himself. I mean, he was, they were special people, that’s some special family.”
Voinovich received an abundance of awards from Jewish organizations, including the 2009 Charles Eisenman Award for Exceptional Leadership from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland in 2010. The award – the highest bestowed by the Federation – recognized him for helping a Cleveland-Tel Aviv partnership, aiding the cause of Soviet Jewry, promoting Ohio-Israel connections and combating anti-Semitism.
“The Jewish Federation of Cleveland is saddened by the passing of Sen. George Voinovich. As mayor of Cleveland, governor of Ohio and U.S. senator, George Voinovich was the consummate public servant,” board chair Gary L. Gross and President Stephen H. Hoffman said in a joint statement.
“He was deeply compassionate and truly cared about all people – no matter their race, religion or economic status. He was a steadfast friend of the Jewish community and the state of Israel, which he cherished, and he never stopped praying for peace between Israel and its neighbors. Recognizing the evils of anti-Semitism, Sen. Voinovich, together with the late Congressman, Tom Lantos, was responsible for the creation of a new position in the U.S. State Department: Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat World-wide Anti-Semitism. …”
When Diamond accepted the CJN’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, there was only one person he wanted to introduce him.
“When the senator was called by Mike Jacobson,” he said, ‘Oh my G-d – for Harlan, absolutely! Now the senator had given me a couple other awards, but this was special. And we had a chance to reminisce when we were on the stage together and we talked about some of those moments, his career and my career, and how can you find someone better than that gentleman? He is a unique man. He is very, very, very, very close to the Jewish community. He was extremely close to my company and my people, and we loved him. And I loved that family.”
In 2006, Voinovich received the AJC’s Congressional Leadership Award at the group’s 100th annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC director of international Jewish affairs, worked closely with Voinovich for many years. In a statement, he said, “A decade ago we were still pushing European governments to recognize the problem of anti-Semitism and do something about it. Sadly, these governments may have heard from their Jewish communities, they may have heard from AJC, but it took the voices of prominent members of Congress to get their attention, and there was no one more persuasive and dogged on this issue than Sen. Voinovich.
“In 2008, Congress passed legislation that called for a State Department report on international anti-Semitism and created the position of special envoy. The late Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, took the lead in the House, but George Voinovich led the effort in the Senate. A number of people then and since have told me they understood Tom’s interest in this, but asked, why George?
“He surely had Jewish friends and Jewish constituents, but if you knew him, you knew this wasn’t politics. It just mattered to him. Here in Washington, we are accustomed to knocking on doors, seeking contact with representatives and senators when we have an issue to press. But on this subject, Voinovich was the one to call us, wanting to know how things are going, what more we need, what else he can do. We have sorely missed him since he retired from the Senate, and we mourn his passing now.”
In 2003, Voinovich and his wife, Janet, were honored by Jewish communities throughout the state of Ohio in honor of their 36 years of public service in an event sponsored by The Negev Foundation.
Diamond, fighting to hold back tears, said of his friend, “He always strove to make sure that he was basically a family man, and he had a pretty unique family, these people were all, they were all nice people, there wasn’t anybody there with such a big ego, nobody in that family thought they were anything special, they wanted what was good for everybody to be good for them, too.
“He understood the community and he understood the nation. And I think we lost a great guy.”