Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cultural Divides

When I was young I used to think that the key to success in Cleveland was to observe what was being done on either coast and to adapt that to the local scene. It seemed to me at the time that we were ten years or so behind what was happening in the leading business and cultural trend-setting centers of the nation.

Now, 30+ years later, [as we embark upon a new, yet to be named decade], as political and cultural evolution accelerates more rapidly in much of the rest of the country and the world than here in Cuyahoga, we may be facing a larger gap.

The perceptive Fareed Zakaria observed last year in his book, The Post-American World, that America’s real problem was not one of excellence but one of access. Recognizing the danger posed by the country’s inequalities, he argues that the country will decline “if we cannot educate and train a third of the working population to compete in a knowledge economy.”

An application of this global political analysis to our beloved crooked river community suggests that Zakaria’s concern has special resonance in our County. Indeed, apprehension over the effects that the new county charter would have in exacerbating the County’s existing inequalities was a paramount concern for many opponents of the charter.

Charter champions touted the ability of a sleek new county government to drive economic development. Others, sensitive to the county’s historic role as provider of essential health and social services to those in need, worried about the neglect of those services by a county administration focused on bringing new development in. This worry was joined by concerns that the fruits of any new development would be skewed towards those Cuyahogans who already enjoy the most fruits of America’s competitive marketplace.

In reality, both sides of the Charter dust up may have been guilty of a too-narrow focus. Greater Cleveland’s competitive advantage once relied on its “great location”. Once upon a time we touted that with great community pride. The refrain now echoes plaintively as if emanating from a scratchy phonograph record still looping; everyone has left the party and nobody stayed to clean up.

In today’s wireless digital age, a company’s choice of where to locate may have more to do with the owner’s preferred lifestyle than the economics of manufacturing. But what has remained constant for business success, of course, is human capital.

This area once boasted one of the largest, most highly skilled and best trained manufacturing workforces the world has ever seen. The guts of that workforce are now largely deceased, retired, transferred, migrated, or casualties of globalization.

The establishment of Plato’s Republic along these southern Erie shores will not be sufficient to attract new businesses if we cannot replace that legendary workforce with its modern equivalent: tech-savvy, open-minded, versatile, young men and women with a global appreciation of possibilities.

Those kinds of workers flock to Silicon Valley, Route 128, Austin, the Research Triangle, and other dynamic locales. We have some of them here, concentrated in world-class enterprises like the Cleveland Clinic and hey, the Cleveland Cavaliers [key workers come from Lithuania, Brazil, Mississippi, Akron, and wherever Jamario Moon is from].

Today’s workers are increasingly people of color, some with ethnic self-descriptions and sexual orientations that defy the white bread, black-white, male-dominated, racial and religious, manifest destiny, nine planet world reference points we were once fed as universal and eternal truths. Many are multi-lingual and untethered from our own sense of limitation.

Here in Cuyahoga, we are going to have to work diligently and creatively to unleash the creativity in our most precious resource, our children. Where in our community is there greater hunger and energy than in our public schools?

My son struggled with some typical black-male issues in his suburban high school years, persevered, got an M.B.A., and now runs a successful company in … Hong Kong []. His customers are those who aspire to a global understanding for their children so they can compete internationally. Do we want as much for our community’s kids?

We have bought or been sold a new form of government. Left untouched in the transaction was any discussion of consolidation, of working across municipal boundaries that would go unrecognized but for differently colored street signs, or of cooperating safety, sanitation, or [!] school systems.

Zakaria understood that part of the universal appeal of American culture is rooted in its celebration and reinforcement of a problem-solving attitude that questions authority and thinks heretically.

The authors of the new county charter should have included a provision for those traits to be embedded in the DNA of all county office seekers. They omitted such a clause, so county voters are going to have to demand it from candidates. Maybe we should start demanding it from all of our leaders. Maybe we should demand it of ourselves.

• • •

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Building Community across Cuyahoga

I have been speaking with a lot of our community’s political leaders lately in the aftermath of last month’s volcanic decision to smash the existing political compact.

There were many civic-minded citizens on both sides of the question of how best to reform a Byzantine system of government that promoted nepotism, encouraged inefficiency, rewarded mediocrity, and tolerated corruption. But the decision was made in the crisis atmosphere that typifies much of our community decision-making: winner-take-all snake-oil salesmen on one side and we-are-all losers demagogues on the other.

The voters were fed up, thanks to a tanking economy accompanied by blaring headlines signaling widespread corruption. In our collective wisdom, amidst despair over the economy and disgust with many of our politicians, we have jumped into the treacherous waters of structural reform. Next up: selecting a captain and a crew to steer our vulnerable county ship.

My discussions about leadership with some of our most savvy and successful politicians — including some at the top and several on the rise — have led me back home. I want to talk about my mother.

Maybe that’s because I write this on Christmas Sunday morning, an especially sacred day in my household, and often the busiest day of the year. My father, re-channeling his inner Oliver Wendell Holmes, had at age 40 been called to his first pastorate by one of Cleveland’s oldest black churches, Mt. Zion Congregational Church. My mother, a music professor at Howard University, resigned her job and came to Cleveland with her husband and two grade school children to start a new life in the bustling Midwest metropolis that 1953 Cleveland seemed to be. She was 38 and I had no idea that her earthly life was more than 3/4 spent.

She might have known that, however. Several years earlier, she had undergone a double mastectomy, undergoing radical radiation that left scars and disfigurement that I can still see. Radiation burns and extraordinary edema notwithstanding, she was beautiful both inside and out.

The church was in a precarious position. Its last pastor had moved onto a bigger church in Chicago. The last church home had been sold and converted into a nursing home by new ownership. Sunday service was held in two small meeting rooms at the Cedar YMCA. The church office was down the street, sharing a suite of rooms with a dental practice. The dentist was a church trustee who lived upstairs from his practice. There was a parsonage in Glenville, with a huge sycamore tree that dwarfed the two-cent postage stamp of a lawn.

And there was a choir. It seemed to sing only dirges.

But the church congregation was not without assets, primary among which was a core of faithful members. These included several leaders who even in de facto segregated Cleveland of the 1950s were accomplished professionals and community leaders.

But about that choir. My mother, Marjory J. Andrews, became the organist and choir director sometime in that first year. Within no more than three years, she had five choirs going, for everyone from preschoolers to the transformed Chancel Choir. It was the latter where her impact was most dramatic. The Mt. Zion music ministry became known throughout community. Its repertoire included Tchaikovsky, Handel, Beethoven, and prominently featured brilliantly arranged Negro spirituals.

On the Sunday before Christmas, Mt. Zion Vesper Service began at 6pm. If you weren’t there early you either had to stand in the back or along the sides, or sit and hear through loudspeakers from an anteroom. Worshippers came from all over, from Lakewood and Rocky River to Chagrin Falls.

My soft-spoken mother was a totally dedicated, demanding, professional. She was upbeat and optimistic, and she accepted no excuses for anything less than excellence. Her approach began to attract some of the area’s best singers and musicians, a process accelerated by the Church’s buying property in University Circle and building a magnificent sanctuary.

The choir included at least a dozen solo-quality singers, blended together in near perfection with supporting voices. Members were schoolteachers, basketball coaches, grad students, housewives, engineers, and probably a couple of roués. They were black, white, straight, gay, young and seasoned.

Long story short: I never thought of my mother as a leader, though clearly she was. She was my mother. I did understand that professionally she was an accomplished and dedicated musician who, despite the severe physical limits under which she labored as a result of her cancer, always found the stamina to practice.

But with half a century to figure it out, I realize that my mother was not just a leader in her profession. She was a builder. And she worked with everybody. She built an outstanding music program by focusing on the mission. She never sought personal acclaim and did everything she could to enhance the ensemble over any individual. And she found a place for everyone. If you couldn’t sing especially well, maybe you could maintain the music library.

She never assumed that your social status, skin color, or previous condition established your talent or worthiness in support of the common endeavor. And she never accepted that excellence and equity were incompatible.

I could say more, but I hope the point is made. Cuyahoga is a venerable institution with a rich history. We face daunting challenges that are both real and spiritual. Our choir sings dirges. We have lots of talent, though we stifle much of it.

We seldom focus on excellence and equity as partners.

We need builders who will focus on our joint mission to create a healthier community and not worry about who gets the credit.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

United Pastors initiate Community Dialogue for Reconcilation and Unity

About 60 citizens took up the invitation extended by the United Pastors in Mission to attend a community meeting called in the wake of the recent controversy over the tasteless assault upon State Senator Nina Turner in the Call & Post for her alliance with the architects of the successful Issue 6 campaign to change the form of county government.

The tone of yesterday's meeting was restrained for the most part. UPM president C. Jay Matthews, pastor of host church Mt. Sinai Baptist on Woodland Ave., stated at the outset “you can’t have private reconciliation in a public debate” and sought throughout the 90-minute session to focus attention on moving forward with outreach and community engagement. While he had some success in this effort, many in attendance were still preoccupied with the last campaign and the passions it exposed throughout the community regarding change, political power, and economic and social inequalities.

These passions were best put in perspective by the Rev. Tony Minor of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, who first arrived in Cleveland 25 years ago, dispatched here, he said, by Rev. Joseph Lowery of Alabama, to re-establish a local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Minor recalled a conversation with one his parishioners, a single mother who had come to him seeking aid because her cupboard was bare and she was being evicted. In the midst of assisting her, he asked her opinion about the Aunt Jemima depiction of Sen. Turner. As might be assumed, the woman, consumed by hand-to-mouth necessities, was totally unaware of the controversy.

Minor used the vignette to argue that “the town needs to change; the old guard needs to open up and change.”

This theme was echoed by Matthews, who said, “Leadership is not born or made. It has followers.” He said that there was a “process of opportunity”, and that while we certainly had not become a post-racial society, the election of President Obama suggested that there are some new opportunities open to African Americans that should be seized.

Yet and still, there was discussion of issues further polarized by the Call & Post cartoon. Deborah Plummer, chief diversity officer at the Cleveland Clinic, rose to express her appreciation to UPM for standing up on behalf of women. Attorney Michael Nelson argued that the cartoon merely depicted what many, if not most, of Cleveland’s black community were thinking and saying about Sen. Turner, including all … of Cleveland’s black councilmen.

County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, saying that he felt a newfound liberation in his new, charter-mandated lame-duck status, spoke of the importance of participating in the election of new county officials next year. Pointing to his obligation as a countywide official to pay attention to the “aspirations, needs, and desires” of all county residents, he expressed concern whether county council candidates would feel similarly obliged.

The meeting, which began with a presentation on behalf of Christians United for Israel, concluded with a stirring Advent homily from Dr. Marvin McMickle, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church.

In the brief press conference that followed, Rev. Matthews, who during the meeting lifted up the diversity of the black community, was backed by nearly 20 members of UPM as he resisted any line of questioning that sought to exploit fissures in the ongoing relationship of the black clergy and the Call & Post. While that posture may appear ironic, his answer was both adroit and accurate, as UPM’s stated intent is to continue dialogue both with the paper’s leadership as well as with those who are involved in delineating the new county government.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Paean to a Cleveland Landmark

We received this email from our good friend Dick Peery, who "broadcast it to the ether". It struck us as a love song to a lost era. Reproduced here with his permission, we wonder how it strikes you.


The flames that destroyed the Lancer Steakhouse Sunday took more than a business from the community. They consumed a legacy of Cleveland's finest memories.

When the Lancer opened 49 years ago, its well-dressed patrons included physicians, lawyers, successful business owners and numbers bankers who prospered before the state encroached on their territory with the lottery. As Carl Stokes ran for mayor in the mid-1960s, the Lancer was where campaign workers swapped information, recharged their political batteries and planned new activities after an evening of volunteer work. It was considered the unofficial campaign headquarters. Stokes was elected by a hairsbreadth in 1967 as the nation's first black mayor of a major city and launched a political revolution that opened urban leadership to all citizens across the country. Arguably, it was the Lancer that put him over the top.

The political importance of the Lancer continued throughout the Stokes administration as the mayor opened the full range of positions in City Hall to black job seekers for the first time. Municipal workers, city council members and anyone wanting the back story on developments at City Hall knew they could get a good political conversation going at the Lancer. The upstairs conference room was the place of choice for strategy sessions.

As a reporter for the Call and Post while Stokes’s was mayor I found the Lancer invaluable. I started at the Plain Dealer in 1971 shortly before Stokes' announcement that he would not run for a third term. When the bombshell dropped on a Saturday, I was told to go out in the black community and get some reaction. I guess the editors assumed I would buttonhole people on the street. I made a beeline for the Lancer where I took a stool at the middle of the bar and sat there the entire afternoon taking notes. Virtually everyone I would have thought to ask for an opinion came by. Elected officials, heads of neighborhood organizations, activists who had been in the news one way or another, all flocked to the Lancer seeking understanding of the shocking news. When I turned in the story, several editors told me no other reporter would have known how to get such a comprehensive wrap up. I didn't tell them it wasn't me. It was the Lancer.

Of all the sessions I attended in the upstairs meeting room, the most unique was hosted by Ron Bey. He was a black Muslim protégé of Louis "Babe" Triscaro, a colorful Teamster official and Mafia figure. Bey owned businesses, headed some anti-drug programs and was a City Hall frequenter during the Stokes and Perk administrations, but his primary occupation was assumed to be as a hit man for the mob. He was a fixture in Little Italy when few African Americans dared to visit the area. He helped calm a community uproar after kids threw rocks at a school bus carrying black students on Murray Hill road in Little Italy. Bey arranged a press conference at the Lancer at which businessmen Al Micatrotto and Tony Hughes said they wanted to apologize on behalf of the Italian community. Micatrotto was especially eloquent as he emphasized the right of everyone to travel on any street without fear of attack. When the local Mafia unraveled years later, Micatrotto and Hughes were identified as longtime members.

Over the decades politics, economics and demographics changed and so did the Lancer. As the old customers faded and the next generation of professionals were welcomed in new hangouts downtown, the base for a center of black social and political activity also waned. But not completely. When there was a need to gather, old timers resurrected the past at the Lancer. For instance, whenever boxing promoter Don King came back to Cleveland for a political event or the funeral of former colleague, he bought out the house and everyone was welcome.

The most significant celebration in the Lancer s history occurred just a year ago. The local NAACP wanted to have a viewing party for the election of Barack Obama as president and there was just one logical place to go. International television broadcasts emanated from the large tent in the parking lot where euphoric voters rejoiced in Obama's incredible victory. Of all the passionate statements from gatherings throughout the country that I saw on television that night, the most profound was from the Lancer patron with long braids down his back who told the world, "Tomorrow I can cut my dreads."

Owner George Dixon says he will rebuild. He must. It will be great if his new restaurant brings back the enchantment of the original Lancer. In any case, a monument to that magic time is needed.

Dick Peery

Friday, December 04, 2009

NAACP Youth Gathering Holds Promise

Christmas came early for the three dozen or so aspiring young political activists who responded to the NAACP flier inviting them to a primer on building a framework for leadership in the new political landscape ushered in on election day last month, even if the lessons didn’t go exactly as planned.

More than 250 people filled the atrium at Cleveland State’s Levin College of Urban Affairs last night in a pulsing, buzzing swarm that in some ways resembled a political convention. There was an intriguing mix of officials serving as faculty, but the audience included a rich array of political activists whose roots go back to the black community’s heady successes of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and a surprising number of current elected officials whose presence [in a delightful departure from normal protocol, was not officially recognized]. There was also a healthy dose of the hoi polloi, whose dismay at the perceived loss of black political power in the wake of the county’s new charter provided hot sauce for the evening’s brew.

An enterprising political aspirant could reflect on the mixed bag of wisdom that came from the invited panelists [State Rep. Robin Belcher, Lakewood mayor Ed Fitzgerald, Cleveland council members Mamie Mitchell and Zach Reed, Young Democrats president Curtis Thompson II, Jose Feliciano Jr. of the Hispanic Roundtable, and for good measure, community activist Eric Johnson and Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc. [State Senator Nina Turner was an invited panelist but chose not to participate.]

Perhaps the most important lesson a novice politico could have learned was the need for patience and composure in the face of the untidy part of public life: when citizens, feeling disempowered and deeply upset with the state of public affairs, take the microphone and say so in all kinds of ways.

Charged with keeping the proceedings under control were recent law school graduate NeKima Hill of the NAACP Youth Council and radio talk show host Basheer Jones. Hill focused on keeping both panelists and audience on point, though her predetermined questions left panelists groping to respond at times. Jones showed promise as a moderator, and earned audience gratitude when he gracefully but firmly forced ever-garrulous Gerald Henley to give up the microphone after an overlong declaration of his intent to run for a seat on the new county council.

Panelists expressed a range of views when asked why Issue 6 had passed. Lakewood mayor Fitzgerald observed succinctly that people had lost faith in the existing system, and expressed it by overturning the existing order. He said, “Sometimes elections are about an idea, and not about the specifics.”

Eric Johnson argued that Issue 6’s mandate was weak because of poor turnout. Councilwoman Mamie Mitchell pointed out that very few of the politicians who stated opposition to the new charter actually campaigned against it.

For Curt Thompson II, three factors contributed to the result: the overwhelming amount by which Issue 6 proponents outspent the opposition, the ongoing corruption revelations and allegations, and a lack of engagement by Issue 6 foes. Speaking to The Real Deal in a post-forum analysis, he said matter-of-factly, “there is no more Issue 5 or Issue 6. Issue 5 is dead and Issue 6 is a law. We must concentrate now on putting people into office who will concentrate on progress and growth.”

Councilman Zach Reed was blunt in his analysis. “Issue 6 passed”, he said, “because the Plain Dealer wanted it to pass, and they took advantage of the corruption issue.” He said several times, in apparent reference to Republicans and their allies, “the people who couldn’t get in the front door came around the back door.”

Reed did have some cogent advice for those young people who want a place set for them at the table. It’s about power, he told them, and it’s not in the nature of power to yield except in the face of a greater power.

Among those on hand, possibly to recruit new blood or take the measure of potential rivals, were Cleveland council members Mike Polensek, Eugene Miller, and councilman-elect Jeff Johnson; mayor-elect Gary Norton of East Cleveland, and Highland Hills councilman Kenneth Roberts. Also in attendance was former county commissioner Tim McCormack, giving fuel to talk he may be considering a run for county executive.

Other public officials observed at the forum were former election board chief Jane B. Sheats, former Cleveland safety director James Barrett, chief Cleveland Municipal Court referee Greg Clifford, former Central State University board chair Betty Pinkney, and deputy county administrator Lee Trotter.

• • •

The Plain Dealer account of this event reported attendance as “more than 100” and seemed to suggest that the event was a downer because many older citizens lamented the passing of the old order.

In fact, more than 125 attendees signed in according to the organizers, and at least an equal number did not.

Whether or not a sizable number of young people attended depends in part not only one’s ability to guess ages, but also how old you can be and still qualify as young. I saw a vibrant mix of young and old, tried and true, straight and crooked. There was pessimism yes. There was despair, yes. But when I left after 90 minutes, finally tearing myself away from a fascinating evening to keep a commitment a few blocks away, I left feeling that I might be witnessing multiple manifestations of the law of unintended consequences. First, that a ballot initiative developed with the intent by at least some of its partisans to diminish some segment of the electorate, might prove a galvanizing force to greater involvement by that very segment. Second, that the evening’s takeaway for a young leader could plausibly include receiving not only a realistic dose of what his or her constituents likely feel, but a commitment to work to channel the intensity and depth of those feelings in positive ways, and to feel supported in that quest by the veteran troops who came out to be a part of a night for the new and the young.

Kudos to the NAACP, its Youth Council, and its executive director, Stanley Miller. Here’s hoping they do it again, east side, west side, all around the town.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Déja` Vu Act Ignites Vision of Era’s End

There is no surprise in the despicable attack by George Forbes upon state senator Nina Turner in the pages of the Call & Post. Forbes has a long and practiced history of vulgarity. His attack upon Turner’s intelligence and character is no different than his calling [then councilman] Jeff Johnson a “mulatto punk” a political lifetime ago. It parallels his routine denigration of the entire community back in the days when he performed as a shock talk jock on radio while running Cleveland City Council. Déja` vu.

We’ve seen this act countless times, sometimes disguised, often not. Sometimes toned down, sometimes not. Forbes is an equal opportunity offender. He has cursed white folks for whiteness and black folks for blackness.

The man long ago showed he had no shame in his game. And this community has repeatedly shown him he didn’t need to be ashamed for his behavior, even though his contempt for the community he has purported to serve has never been hidden.

The true shame in this stale scenario belongs to the community that has tolerated it for so long. And nobody is innocent. Why does a community with upwards of a thousand active local graduates of a program called Leadership Cleveland repeatedly turn to the same negative sources for positive solutions? Can we possibly expect different results?

It cannot be a failure to understand. Forbes’ public tactical practiced and public use of anger, ridicule, and scorn has always and only been directed at carefully selected targets for well-defined strategic goals. Those goals have always been related first and foremost to the accrual and preservation of Forbes’ personal political power.

Forbes is a past master at invoking the downtrodden and abandoned as props to show that leadership in the black community must continue to be trusted only to him. “Fifty thousand black schoolchildren are suffering.” “The police want 9mm ammunition to gun down black people.” “White folks won’t treat black people fairly.” “Black businesses can’t catch a break.” Forbes is always willing to step up and negotiate with wealth and power behind closed doors in the name of the community to protect the community.

The chief benefactor in these situations has always been George Forbes. He entered into personal business transactions with Jim Stanton, denounced as arch-nemesis to the black community in the 1960s and 70s. Forbes did legal work for multi-millionaire developer Dick Jacobs. He was confidant and mentor to former Cleveland mayor, Ohio governor, and current lame-duck US Senator George Voinovich. Despite the careful public posturing, Voinovich — who may be on his way back to town to run for county executive — has never been a friend to the black community. But he is a friend to George Forbes.

The pattern of personal gain as public denouncer and private negotiator has continued apace since Forbes became local NAACP president. He was legal counsel to Shell Oil when that company was gouging the community he claimed to represent. This summer he served as personal escort to Dan Gilbert’s triumphal march through portions of the black community, dispensing confections and reassuring words about future African American involvement in his casino business. But Gilbert uttered not one firm, enforceable commitment.

[A new form of gaming has already come to the black political community, as wags place wagers on where, how, and when Forbes’ law firm will appear as counsel to which company tied to Gilbert’s burgeoning empire, now enshrined for life into the Ohio Constitution.]

This structural pattern of designated spokesmen negotiating in private as nominal representatives for a vast and diverse segment of the community can only exist when the community stays in shadow. If any potential dissent emerges, its champion must be isolated, ridiculed, and rubbed out by any means necessary, including page one cartoons and editorials.

Nina Turner’s public defection from plantation politics represents a core threat to Forbes’ status as black political broker and overseer. He knows better than anyone that suburban mayors, business leaders, the regional GOP and statewide politicos will no longer employ him as a toll booth if alternate routes — more modern, straighter, less treacherous — are readily available.

A Better Future
One consequence of county charter reform, possibly unintended is the probable emergence of black political leaders who are not beholden to plantation politics. For example, serious citizen thinkers and activists like former Cleveland municipal judge Ellen Connally and Shaker Heights councilman Earl Williams are considering running for the new county council from the new county District 9. These potential candidates, like Turner, inner ring suburban activist Julian Rogers, and rising Collinwood resident Curtis Thompson II, are building coalitions and political paths independent of the black old guard.

Of equal consequence, other voices are bubbling to the surface. Brian Hall, a voice of quiet authority in Cleveland’s tiny black business community for decades, and a leader by example, took the unprecedented step of circulating a community letter denouncing the work of the Call & Post and calling upon Forbes to resign as NAACP head. As a result, 500 people who have joined the Facebook page “ We demand an apology”. Boyd’s Funeral Home has pulled its advertising. Local corporations and businesses are being asked to declare there will be no support for the NAACP’s 2010 Freedom Fund dinner if it does not stand up and denounce the Call & Post for its use of the Aunt Jemima image.

Forbes will no doubt display a steely resolve and attempt to turn aside the disgust he has generated in the black community by his disrespect of Turner and the symbolic use of its ugly racial imagery. He will bring out the hostages — Cleveland’s schoolchildren — and say this is what we should focus on.

Those schoolchildren are involuntary testimony to the power relationships that exist in our community: within the black community, between the City of Cleveland and its more affluent neighbors, and between private self-interest and public duty. The opportunity is at hand to re-structure some of those relationships, to set a broader table for public discourse, and to call an end to the era of I-win-you-lose political relationships.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

County Charter, Dimora Departure, offer Opportunity for Cuyahoga Democrats to Restructure, Rejuvenate their Party

Jimmy Dimora has literally and figuratively cast a huge and depressing shadow over the county Democratic Party for more than a decade. As the ongoing federal investigation has forced him to step away from his central command post as party chair, small rays of light have begun to expose long-suppressed sores and scabs in the folds of the party’s huge, stagnant and shaken body.

The dominance of the party in sweeping all non-judicial county races since 1992 has been less attributable to Dimora’s political acumen than to simple demographics. Republicans have either fled Cuyahoga for the fresh air of Lake, Summit, Medina or Lorain counties, or have retreated into privileged enclaves along the outskirts.

Dimora can be credited, in a quasi-positive way, for navigating the community’s long unresolved ethnic and class fault lines — lines faithfully recapitulated within the Party — with sufficient fairness and skill to keep the party’s core constituencies from imploding into unmanageable intraparty strife. He did this not with an iron fist but by using a carefully honed affability to disguise constant use of a mental abacus to calculate his political advantage.

Unfortunately for northeast Ohio, Dimora’s lame and dishonest stewardship as county commissioner has been a key element — though by no means the only or even the most important one — in retarding regional adjustment to 21st century realities.

Dimora’s greatest gift to his community, to paraphrase some wag, may be found in the appropriately large wake of his effective departure from his twin posts as government official and party boss. While he still has the titles, his power and influence have been eviscerated as a result of his total loss of public face. While the legal end to the federal investigation is not in sight, nor its outcome guaranteed, county voters overwhelmingly slammed the door on the particular form of government that facilitated his malfeasance.

• • •

Notwithstanding the abrupt and dramatic shift to a new form of county government that will soon be underway, it is the new contours of the local Democratic Party that may have greater impact upon the community’s public life. This is presently uncharted territory.

Will there simply be a repeat of the top-down structure with a new head? That is the dominant model across too many domains in this region. If that model prevails within the Party, there will likely be further erosion of party strength, with especially negative consequences to the state Democratic ticket next year.

Will old-style jockeying to protect county jobs and long-established fiefdoms derail a healthy and open process? Not if a new group calling itself Cuyahoga Democrats for Principled Leadership has anything to do with it.

Yesterday, shortly after sunrise, there appeared signs in Midtown Cleveland of a new coalition of activist Democrats. There were about 40 in attendance. Prominent public officials, even those who likely would support efforts to transform the party into a more open, transparent, democratic organization, were intentionally left off the list of invitees. A few suburban council people, including Lakewood’s Tom Bullock [one of the conveners], Pepper Pike’s Rick Taft and Rob Zimmerman of Shaker Heights did overcome the disability of office-holding. The diverse assembly included a smattering of precinct committee members, some old war-horses, some presumptive office-seekers, and a healthy contingent of new blood.

This latter group included several young people who have come to northeast Ohio from outside the state in recent years for reasons of job, family, or in several cases, to work on national campaigns. This segment seemed particularly appalled at the condition of local party affairs.

The tone of the meeting was crisp, open, organized, realistic, agentic, and hopeful. The focus was on values and practices, not personalities. Consensus was reached early in the ninety-minute meeting that the group would commit to openness, transparency, and inclusiveness.

The group has adopted no formal position statement, has no officers, no membership requirements. As a measure of its openness, the blogger/journalists in attendance [I counted two] were not asked to treat the meeting as confidential.

After the meeting, Tom Bullock, emailed The Real Deal to say the meeting "was the first of what we hope will be a series of meetings that will include a growing circle of participants. The invitation list for this first session did not include major elected officials but rather emphasized rank-and-file Party members, activists, and campaign volunteers to allow for a grassroots discussion. Some attendees hold formal Party positions; many do not. All agreed that future meetings should reach out to an ever-broader circle of Cuyahoga Democrats, including elected officials."

Stay tuned!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Building a New Ship, or Re-arranging the Deck Chairs?

Those who discounted the argument that the Issue 6 measure was at base about power and money should be a lot less certain today in the wake of the Plain Dealer’s call for a major shift in the public control of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority.

If Fox News is the communications arm of the Republican Party, our community’s daily has long played the increasingly transparent role of mouthpiece for the dominant corporate interests that have always controlled this region no matter which party has nominally controlled the reins of city and county government.

Cleveland has had only three mayors in the last sixty years who weren’t eager to do the bidding of the region’s economic oligarchy. In 1967 Carl Stokes came into office with a progressive and pro-active civil rights and economic agenda. He was supported by the business community not so much for its positive elements as for the expectation that he could keep the fuse from being lit on the stockpile of socio-economic dynamite created by a half-century of retrograde policies. Dennis Kucinich squeaked into office in 1977 on an anti-corporate agenda but had no plans and no ability to do anything, given that his administration was at war with the Establishment every day of his tenure.

The current mayor, Frank Jackson, runs an honest, prudent, and pragmatic administration, no mean achievement in a time of national and regional economic freefall. His lack of personal political ambition and greed means he can’t be bought off like so many of his predecessors who aspired either to higher political office or to personal wealth. So while he leads well by example, and works constructively behind the scenes, he has yet to field an effective voice to counter the growing assaults upon his domain.

Perhaps the crassness of the Plain Dealer’s call for Cleveland to cede two seats on the Port Authority board to what is likely to be a business-controlled county government will stir some emotion in our strong-willed but publicly dispassionate mayor. Some righteous indignation would be both good and justified.

Brent Larkin, whose PD columns should be set in faint type, italicized, and boxed to show their kinship to commercial speech, gratuitously slurs both current and former Port Authority trustees by suggesting they represent a “generally pathetic” crop of public appointees. The recent sudden departure of the port’s chief executive, Adam Wasserman, has provided a convenient excuse to set up this latest power grab. His board-requested resignation is wholly unrelated to a discussion about how board members are selected.

A majority of the current board had no role in Wasserman’s hiring. The Nov. 10 PD editorial suggestion that current directors owe their selections largely to their political clout is ludicrous. The disdain for their expertise is rooted perhaps more in the fact that three of them are African American and one is Hispanic. Collectively, these four have less political clout than the weakest city councilman. All were appointed by Jackson, though the Port’s chair, Steven J. Williams, was originally appointed in 2002 by Jane Campbell, Jackson’s predecessor. It seems that their main shortcoming in the Plain Dealer’s eyes is that they are NOT inside players in the region’s shadow government.

Cleveland enjoyed phenomenal growth from mid-nineteenth century commercial town to world-class industrial behemoth during the roughly hundred-year period ending around 1950. This growth was largely built on the backs of immigrants, initially from central and southern Europe and later from the black farmlands of Alabama and Georgia. The social and infrastructure strains these newcomers placed on the city were manageable in an era of nearly unbridled growth. Congestion, pollution, and other public challenges could be and were personally resolved for industry leaders by relocation to newly minted suburbs.

Direct control of city government was relinquished by the city’s industrial captains as a consequence of the suburban migration, and replaced by informal methods devised to protect commercial and class interests.

Meanwhile, first white and then black ethnics, each in turn fearing loss of hard-fought political clout, rebuffed repeated attempts by good-government types to reform county government. Excepting the goo-goo types, nobody seemed much disturbed by the culture of corruption and inefficiency that infested county government, going back decades before mid-20th century party boss Albert Porter and extending forth decades to the present era. Winner-take-all, zero-sum game politics has been the name of our political game.

This didn’t seem to matter much fifty years ago. Hey, we had world-class institutions! We had more Fortune 500 companies than anywhere outside of New York or Chicago. We had the world-class Cleveland Browns! We had the Cleveland Indians, better than any team not the Yankees! We were the greatest location in the nation!!!

Anybody check the standings lately?

The fading of the industrial age, a transition to service- and knowledge-based economies, urban sprawl, and globalization, finally combined to force a renewed focus on the consequences of our inefficient and corrupt ways of doing public business. Unfortunately, we didn’t police ourselves but needed federal prosecutors to do it for us.

Embedded in the new county charter are mechanisms for the old forces to control valuable public resources in the name of economic development that never seems to trickle down in ways useful to those at the very broad bottom of our community. It is now incumbent on those who insisted that a new charter was about efficiency and progress to ensure that they are not out-maneuvered by those for whom Issue 6 was always about money and power.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Lingering Images from the Campaign Trail

While the Board of Elections tells us the bottom line winners and losers in an election, it helps to be out on the hustings to get a sense of what really happened. Newspapers once served to give us a flavor of the political battles and the contestants, but in today’s era of contracted resources and decreasing institutional memory, campaign vignettes are a rare sighting. As we begin the adjustment to the new political realities in Cuyahoga County, it seems appropriate to step back and share some of our lasting impressions of the campaign trail.

Peter Lawson Jones established himself as both an indefatigable campaigner and the most knowledgeable official around about the workings of county government. He showed up late to practically every event but unlike most of his fellow Democratic office holders, who opposed Issue 6, Jones actually campaigned against it. In the process he revealed a depth of knowledge about county operations and responsibilities that could serve him well if he decides to seek the new chief executive position.

George Forbes was the most predictable person we saw on the campaign trail. Appearing alongside Arnold Pinkney at a debate organized by the Black Women’s Political Action Committee to provide historical perspective on county reform efforts, Forbes allowed Pinkney to do the heavy lifting as to the history. Forbes simply enumerated all the white politicians who came beseeching his support of Issue 6 [implied testimony to his continued self-professed status as defender of all things black] and scowled that “Issue 6 was bad for black people.” This act needs a curtain call.

Lillian Greene was the most aggrieved campaigner. After resigning a Common Pleas judgeship to accept the position of county recorder, she set about reforming and streamlining the recorder’s office, successfully standing for election to the post in November 2008. Feeling tarred by the broad brush of corruption allegations against Public Officials 1 & 2, she defends both her own honor and that of the overwhelming majority of her fellow county employees, elected and hired. No shrinking violet, she castigated those who would condemn county employees as mostly a bunch of incompetent and or crooked bumblers, and repeatedly trumpeted her belief that the reforms that Issue 6 will usher in will lead to unimaginable problems for Cuyahoga County residents and government.

Harriet Applegate made the most memorable declaration we heard during the campaign. Alluding to organized labor’s often sordid history in blackballing black workers, she vowed that labor would never desert the black community so long as she was AFL-CIO secretary. Made us wonder if her labor troops would have her back if push came to shove.

Ronald V. Johnson Jr. of South Euclid was the most impressive candidate we interviewed during the campaign. A lawyer with KeyBank, Johnson was the lone Republican on the Issue 5 slate. He thoroughly studied the Issue 6 proposal, along with existing state law, concluded that its shortcomings outweighed its merits, and actively spoke out against it.
It was a mark of the shortsightedness of local Democratic Party leadership that Johnson was the only member of the Issue 5 slate not to receive party endorsement. Bright, articulate, and conscientious, Johnson is the kind of candidate both parties should be recruiting for the new county council.

Nina Turner was the most courageous figure on the campaign tour. The state senator was virtually alone among black political leaders in endorsing Issue 6. Her refusal to kowtow to the old guard and to stand on political convictions earned her this observer’s respect even though we disagreed with her. Reports are that she will face a tough fight in that labor and black leaders have vowed to defeat her should she choose to try and retain her seat. But she should not be underestimated.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Cuyahoga County: What Change Do We Want?

In less than 24 hours Cuyahoga County voters will head to the polls to cast the most consequential ballots this community has seen since Carl Stokes was elected Cleveland mayor in 1967. Voters’ decisions on county Issues 5 and 6, along with results of Statewide Issue 3, are likely to bring profound change to the area’s political landscape. Some of that change has already begun to occur.

Cuyahoga’s landscape has been bleak for a long time. While a lot of manure has been spread over bald spots in the name of economic development, the establishment preference for quick and dirty fixes instead of labor-intensive work to rebuild the community’s barren polity almost guarantees that we will get the stench of economic b.s. [“34,000 jobs”] in the guise of fake economic development and imitation political reform.

The previous sentence may presage my vote, but my opinions are based on having talked to numerous municipal and county elected officials across the County, including those whose jobs will be directly eliminated if Issue 6 passes, and many who will remain in place however 5 and 6 turn out. I also have attended more debates than the select few the Plain Dealer chose to report, and they absent at some important ones. These would include newsworthy programs sponsored by the Black Women’s Political Action Committee at Cleveland State University and last week’s informative presentation at Case Western Reserve University, organized by State Senator Shirley Smith.

The Case presentation was especially notable because its Allen Auditorium stage not only included key Issue 6 proponents Parma Heights mayor, Martin Zanotti and State Senator Nina Turner on one side, and the fiercely-against 6 County Recorder Lillian Greene, but literally in between her and them were Issue 5 supporters, County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones and North Olmsted councilwoman Ann Marie Donegan, as well as two out-of-state experts on local and county government imported to lend perspective on what is happening here and what ought to happen here. Presiding over the program was Case Professor David Miller, also a South Euclid councilman, and surely the only public official in these parts who packs both a PhD and an impressive set of dreadlocks.

Finally, I also have talked with close to a dozen of the impressive citizens who will be appearing in alphabetical order on the ballot as candidates for the charter review commission that will be established if Issue 5 passes. If the Plain Dealer talked to any of these people and reported on them as other than Issue 5 pawns or mostly-Republican Issue 6 supporters, that day’s paper wasn’t delivered to my home.

In support of the claim that the political landscape will change irrespective of tomorrow’s voting results, consider this: two local dinosaurs are dying. With respect to Issues 3, 5 and 6, the Plain Dealer has shown itself to be the FoxNews of Cuyahoga County, only with less imagination, energy, and imagination. The dumbed-down discussion promoted by a one-newspaper town was stultifying in its simplicity. In failing even to provide comprehensive analysis of the issues — not to be confused with relentless repetition of the flattest aspects of the debate — the paper has pretty much unmasked itself as being on sale to the highest bidder.

But a word of praise: retired PD writer Thomas Suddes wrote a piece that appeared in the October 18 Sunday edition of the paper that was remarkable for the plain and simple way it ripped the covers off the casino issue, exposing its sordid money plays, its assault upon the State Constitution, and its likely consequences for the already overburdened citizens of this county. If you voted early for Issue 3, you probably called the Board of Elections the next day and tried to get your ballot back.

A second major dinosaur about to fall is the black political leadership infrastructure. Little observed among the huge forest of demographic trends that both contribute to and document the community’s declining resources has been the emergence of positive black political leadership in many of Cleveland’s suburbs. If Issue 6 passes, this leadership will become more important in countywide discussions, Even if Issue 6 fails, the political domination of Stokes-Forbes-Pinkney will soon be retired, both by time and an inability to adapt its carnivorous ways. The issue here will be whether the new leadership will attempt to replicate the personal style of power accumulation that has retarded both the black community and the region, or whether they will lead the way in emulation of the more transparent, inclusive, and bottom-up style of the current White House occupant.

• • •
As to the Issues, I have almost given up hope, but here goes my Suddes-like evaluation:

Issue 3 is a sucker’s bet. The State’s voters will allow this community to play the lottery, which is to say, we will provide eternal riches to Dan Gilbert via constitutional amendment on the very long shot that casino gambling will revive us to the same extent that winning LeBron James in the NBA lottery revived the Cavaliers. Lightning strikes the whole community! Economic miracle! VOTE NO ON ISSUE 3.

Issue 6 is also a sucker’s bet. Whereas the casino issue is all about money, which buys power, the charter reform plan is all about political power, which when abused is a great way to acquire money. I have many, many good friends who believe in good government, who know that our current system is inefficient, obsolete and corrupt at key spinal joints, and who therefore support this county reform plan as a last gasp life-saving operation. But Issue 6 is like giving the County a blood transfusion with infected blood. It doesn’t address the corruption issues, it won’t improve the quality of our public officials, it puts too much power unchecked into the wrong hands, and it enhances the power of one current public official who either knew about county political corruption and did nothing or should be out of office for not having known. It will also perpetuate and extend the current inequities in our community in the name of economic development.

And the most important reason to vote against Issue 6 is that it is the product of a deeply flawed process. It is top-down reform being sold as our only way out. Those who are not cynically trying to regain the control they lost when they moved to pristine exurbs are totally frustrated by the County’s last-century orientation and believe that this is our last chance to turn the ship around. They have no faith that we can do better so they will gamble that the hungry sharks behind Issue 6 don’t bite.

We do need change. But Issue 6 is not the change we need. Process matters. VOTE NO ON ISSUE 6.

I am excited about Issue 5. I am excited because I believe some of Cuyahoga’s best citizens are members of both slates. I have talked at length with people like Tom Kelly, Ronald V. Johnson, Angela Thi Bennett, and James Brady about how they were selected, why they are running, and what they hope to accomplish. I don’t believe they are puppets for political leaders of any faction.

If Issue 5 passes, the citizens of Cuyahoga County will be empowered. We have been awakened by this political campaign in spite of its atrocious media coverage. We will not relapse into apathy. We will rise and re-take control of our community and craft a charter through a process that is open, inclusive, and transparent. The result will be a much stronger charter and a much better county government. The year spent in this process will not be wasted but will equip us to move forward together. VOTE YES ON ISSUE 5 and vote for at least 5 candidates from your less preferred slate.

P.S. This is an overwhelmingly Democratic county. The best reform we could make would be to reform the Cuyahoga Democratic Party. But that’s for a future post, for which you won’t have to wait as long.