Thursday, November 04, 2010

Post-Election Observations, Part One – Spaces and Places

The most telling image of post-Election Day coverage in the local paper was the map showing the partisan divide among the first-ever county council. Republicans won only three of the eleven seats, but the geographic extent of their districts comprises more than half of the county’s land. Of equal significance, the GOP districts surround the more densely populated Democratic center districts like a doughnut surrounds a hole.

The twin factors of space and place epitomize both much of the county’s history and the challenges to be faced by the new council, even as its members ready themselves for office in January.

Looking at “place”, the eight districts [2-4 and 7-11] comprise the inner core of Cuyahoga County: the City of Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs. The three GOP districts [1, 5, and 6] constitute what could be considered a necklace of sorts. The back doors of these districts all touch adjacent counties. Without the exception only of tiny Oakwood Village, 32 the municipalities that make up this GOP turf are overwhelmingly white.

The “space” disparity – three outer districts have a greater land mass than the eight central districts – suggests that the occupants of those districts enjoy a less crowded sense of community, a fact likely attributable to greater household income and wealth.

We are discussing the obvious here, but we do ourselves no service as a community if we pretend the obvious does not exist. The Plain Dealer, for instance, points to Ed FitzGerald’s victory in the county executive race as evidence that the Democratic Party organization is still intact. Left undiscussed is the fact that Ed FitzGerald went looking for votes in Hough, Glenville, Warrensville Heights, East Cleveland, and Bedford Heights. How many of his five opponents honored these area with their campaign efforts? [Bus signage doesn't count.]

Why would the strapped and the trapped -- welfare recipients, struggling single parents, senior citizens, the outcast and the left-behind – and other hard-working citizens vote for some of the wealthiest candidates this community has ever had, when those candidates did not even bother to come meet them, nor offer any credible programs or initiatives that would address their issues?

Black people are often described, accurately, as “the most dependable” part of the Democratic Party base. Sometimes I think it’s because Republicans make them that way.

I will have more to say on this in the next installment. But I will add early on that we can’t begin to solve our complex issues unless we begin by acknowledging and naming them. And I will go on record as saying that neither race nor gender should play a role in the selection of the first council president.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Election Day 2010

I am a traditionalist when it comes to voting. I like walking to my neighborhood precinct — usually the library or the elementary school — and physically casting my ballot in our increasingly virtual world.

[Actually, I’m a deep procrastinator, so I wait until the last day, telling myself you never know what may happen during the campaign to change my assessment. [Only yesterday I read that a Seattle newspaper withdrew its endorsement of a judge who made public statements betraying his deep bias and limited understanding.

I also confess that, from the vantage of one who writes about politics and public affairs, I am less and less impressed with newspaper endorsements. They seem so after the fact. The paper’s decision makers favor this candidate, and then they set out to find reasons to convince voters who are undecided, wavering, harried, uninformed, preoccupied or lazy, why they should vote the paper’s way. Editorialists argue in a Mt. Olympus tenor that suggests they know best. Even if you know nothing about the candidates, it often comes across as so much b.s.

Much of the time it seems candidates are asked the wrong questions. Candidates talk about policies and what they intend to do. Their commercials bash their opponents. Too many exaggerate their virtues and demonize their opponents. When 80% of the electorate tunes out, the politicians get louder and more strident. This season, as the television blasted four, five, even six consecutive political ads in a single commercial break, I resorted to an old tack. I turned off the sound and observed their faces and body language, and looked for character clues.

Why is this candidate really running? Do they appear to have a real dedication to public service? Is their opposition to existing policy based on genuine analysis or the financial interests of their backers? Can they be counted upon to stay true to conviction when the discussions are private and compromises [“deals?”] are on the table? Are they special interest captives, reflexively parroting a party line? Depending on the nature of the office they seek, what evidence suggests they have the requisite components of executive, legislative, or judicial skills and temperament to be honest and effective public servants?

Seldom do I find my local papers giving me real help in discovering answers to these questions. And history tells us these questions mean more than platforms and promises, because the issues that arise during the term of service are often unforeseen. Bush 41 was elected president with presumed foreign policy expertise and was undone by domestic issues. Bush 43 had an intense domestic agenda that took a deep back seat to post-911 global issues. Lyndon Johnson had immense legislative skills that proved useless in charting a course in Southeast Asia. Neither Ike nor JFK was prepared to deal with civil rights.

The same considerations apply locally. Every current candidate for county executive proclaims that his administration will be honest, open, and efficient. I bet they all love their grandmothers too. Who among them, however, has the political and life experience to revamp effectively a huge public bureaucracy with requisite degrees of wisdom, tenacity, and fairness? Who is least likely to make critical errors that will erode the public support and confidence necessary for effective leadership? The “best” policies mean nothing without the ability to implement them. So who can work best with a new county council whose dynamics are totally unknown?

These are the kinds of questions I have been asking since the new county charter was approved. [I have been asking similar questions about state and federal races as well.] To answer them I have, like many of you, watched and listened to the candidates, read campaign literature, visited websites, reviewed platforms, talked with supporters and opponents.

So, for those of you are either undecided, wavering, harried, uninformed, preoccupied, lazy, or just curious, here is who I plan to vote for county exec when I go to Noble Elementary School Tuesday, November 2.

I think independent Don Scipione and Green Party nominee David Ellington are the "smartest" candidates. They are reasonable men who if elected, would serve in a true spirit of public service. If either were elected they would find themselves as unprepared as was Dennis Kucinich the day he was sworn in as mayor of Cleveland. This would only be slightly less true of independent Ken Lanci. His frustration would come as soon as he discovered that you can’t fire everybody who doesn’t want to do things your way, and that there are vast differences between running a company you own and having to pretty much negotiate everything you do with independently-based council members, civil servants, interest groups, media, and several score municipalities.

I respected Tim McCormack as county auditor and county commissioner and thought he got a political raw deal when business interests conspired to oust him in favor of pseudo-liberal Tim Hagan several years ago. He was an uncompromising commissioner in healthy ways. But his strong self-righteousness and thin-skinned persona would likely endanger the kind of coalition-building necessary to get our new charter experiment off to a successful start. I also have a sense that he is now a stealth candidate for some of the same business interests that consistently roam local corridors of power.

Republican Matt Dolan impressed me when he appeared this past April at an early nonpartisan forum sponsored by the Eleventh District Congressional Caucus. He was direct and surprisingly at ease in a gathering that was mostly black and Democratic. I am disappointed that he did not continue along the same path of positive engagement countywide. Instead, he seemed to retreat to his comfort zone in the mostly white, mostly wealthy corners of the county, from where he lobbed grenades attacking his Democratic opponent as a foe of charter reform and scurrilous attacks linking him to the county corruption.

I had never heard of Lakewood mayor Ed FitzGerald, the Democratic Party nominee, until after last year’s charter vote, even though he was mayor of one of the county’s largest and best run cities. I was initially cautious about him, especially because of presumed ties to the Bill Mason faction of his party. In twelve months of watching and investigating, I have found nothing to be concerned with on that score, even absent the mounting evidence that county prosecutor Mason’s political career is moving to a dead end with all deliberate speed.

FitgGerald’s charter opposition, rooted in a belief that a different process would have led to an improved charter, is not a reason to disqualify him from serving as County Executive, any more than it would be a reason to disqualify the more than half a million registered County voters who did not vote for the charter from voting for the new positions the charter created.

But I have found several positive reasons to vote for Ed FitzGerald. First, he has real leadership skills. He is a grounded individual, based upon his family, church, and community values. He has regularly articulated the clearest, most comprehensive, and positive vision of what Cuyahoga County can become, and he has done it consistently all across the county, with voters of every ethnic and class background. And no matter where he has been, or who he has been in front of, he has been himself, seeking to connect with people where there are, suggesting that a common journey to a better place is possible. He has done so earnestly, his message appropriately leavened by a deft sense of humor that the new county executive will surely need.

I think Ed FitzGerald is clearly the best choice to be our first County Executive.

If you haven’t voted, I hope you find the discussion useful. If you weren’t planning to vote, perhaps you will be persuaded to go to the polls and exercise your right and duty. And if you don’t vote, then in the words of a longtime friend, a true Republican, a retired judge who is still a feisty and active civic leader, “Nobody gives a damn what you think if you don’t vote.”

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Giants in Our Midst

My thoughts about this post arrived with that pre-dawn clarity that emerges where lots of the things one has been wrestling with for a long time suddenly find resolution. For me, the last few months have been full of multiple re-connections, recapitulations and reconsiderations. A Journey to Sankofaland, as Alice Coltrane might call it.

Sankofa, as many of you know, is an African term/concept where one looks to the past to prepare for the future. That has certainly been my situation as my late summer and early fall were periods of reunion and reflection, both real and virtual.

The first look back was especially congenial. Four of my confreres from the epic 1960s came to Cleveland for a mini-reunion. We had met at one of America’s most liberal colleges in one of the nation’s most tumultuous times — President Kennedy was assassinated two months after I arrived as a freshman; Martin King was assassinated two months before I graduated. Coming of age at that time and in that space, we bonded in ways that have held firm through more than four decades and sometimes scant contact. We did the downtown happy hour, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert, a Saturday morning excursion to the West Side Market, and a mini-tour that encompassed a passage through my old Glenville neighborhood and University Circle before settling in my backyard for well-lubricated repast and talk.

The second look back came with the passing of a family member, Mollye Virginia Jackson Williams, a remarkably joyous, talented, and giving woman who died at 99. Only Alzheimer’s could have dimmed her matchless vitality, which sadly it did for her last decade or so. She was the last survivor of ten remarkable siblings. Read her obituary at the end of this post for a glimpse of those who have worked to redeem America’s promise.

The reunion theme continues for me as the first Andrews Family Reunion in over 40 years takes place this Thanksgiving in Dallas. Not yet sure that I will be there, but I am charged with contributing a piece on my father’s branch. In preparation I pulled out a Texas Trailblazers account of the life of my great-great grandfather, Robert L. Andrews Sr. (1865—1933). A re-read of his story as audacious businessman and civic leader in Houston [he lived on Cleveland Street!] inspired me on a recent milestone birthday to incorporate a new business named for his signature success.

I am a word aficionado. One of my earliest memories is sitting at my father’s feet in the living room of our two-bedroom Howard Manor apartment on the Howard University campus in Washington, DC. I read the comics as he sat in his wing chair, reading the news and stealing a few moments of daily respite. Both my parents spoke and wrote with precision, but it was probably from my dad that I came so early to love the sounds and rhythms of the English language. I still recall in my mind’s ear hearing with fascination hearing the word “Mordecai”. The word never made sense to me but I loved it.

It was only decades later that I realized that Mordecai Johnson was the legendary president of Howard University, where some of my parents’ friends, like James Nabrit, Jimmy Porter and “Dot P” were employed. Very belatedly did I come to appreciate that these adults were world-class achievers.

This has me devouring In Search of the Talented Tenth: Howard University Public Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Race, 1926-1970. Written by University of Akron professor and Cleveland resident Zachery R. Williams, the book examines and argues the important relationship between individual achievement and community culture. While my attraction to it is deeply personal and visceral, I cannot read it without considering its implications for my Cuyahoga arrondissement. I will be reviewing this book soon in this space. I will conclude for now by saying that the book — while focused on a single institution during a defined time —raises questions about race, class, achievement, education, identity, accessibility and community that are arguably more fundamental than our recent county governmental reorganization.

[1] Nabrit was a key member of the legal team in Brown v. Board of Education and later served two terms as Howard’s president. James Porter was a distinguished artist and professor at Howard. His wife, Dorothy, perhaps my mother’s closest friend, was a world-class librarian and archivist. She started and developed Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, which has been described as “the finest collection of black research materials in the world”. My mother, Marjory J. Andrews, was an instructor in Howard’s School of Music.

Mollye Virginia Jackson Williams
April 25, 1911—6 September 6, 2010
Mollye was born in the Allegheny Mountain mining town of Pocahontas, Virginia on 25 April 1911 and died on 6 September 2010 at Judson Park, Bruening Health Center in Cleveland, Ohio. She had been a resident of the Judson Retirement Community since 1997.

Mollye was the ninth child in a family of ten, and the fifth daughter of Robert and Ida Perrow Jackson. Her father worked as a clerk and butcher in Elliott’s General Store, which was privately owned and was in competition with the local (mine owners) company store. Robert’s facility with the Hungarian language enabled Elliott’s to serve the immigrant miners and their families, thus providing a vital edge over the company store.

Mollye began her education in the public schools of Pocahontas and attended high school in Bramwell, West Virginia. In accordance with her parents’ ambition that all of their children attend college, Mollye became the family’s ninth college graduate, finishing West Virginia State College at Institute, W. VA. She later earned a Masters Degree in Business Administration from Columbia University in New York, and a second Masters (of Science) Degree in Special Education from Virginia State University. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Blessed with boundless energy, high spirits, humor, and a generous nature, Mollye loved nothing better than engaging in talk, light-hearted pursuits and mischievous high jinks with family and friends. Yet, most of her adult life was devoted to helping others. As a young girl, fresh out of college in the 1930s, she took a series of teaching positions at ill-equipped one-room schools for Negro children, operated by the State of Virginia in its rural counties. Here, in addition to dedicated teaching, Mollye also raised funds from the community for books and teaching material, often supporting her work with her own meager salary. She became a one-woman civic committee, organizing and conducting small, makeshift “fairs” and bazaars to raise what funds she could. She also solicited donations of old clothes from adults and, using her sewing skills, set about cutting them down and remaking them to fit her children.

Upon her marriage to Rev. John Francis Williams, Mollye enthusiastically added the responsibilities of a Baptist minister’s wife to the demands of her teaching career. Tapping a deep well of kindness and charm, she assumed an active role in church affairs and became a valuable asset to her husband’s ministry as his calling moved them to Wheeling, WV, New Orleans, Newport News, VA, St. Paul, MN, and finally to Cleveland, OH. With each move, Mollye contributed her efforts to the activities of the local community, and continued her work as a tireless educator and organizer. She was a teacher of the deaf in Newport News. Her last position was with the Special Education Department of the public schools of St. Paul, MN.

In spite of her public responsibilities, privately this little dynamo of a woman remained the same girl who had grown up in a kind, close-knit clan, who never failed to come to the aid of a friend or family member in need. Mollye often said that her family “might not have been rich in material things, but was blessed with an abundance of love.” Although she had no children of her own, she took a benevolent interest in the raising of her eight nieces and nephews to whom she was their beloved, fun-loving “Aunt Mollye” of the brilliant dark eyes and the uniquely raucous infectious laugh. A perfectionist in all things, she was a patient but exacting taskmaster to this younger generation.

Raised to be the quintessential southern lady, Mollye maintained a seemingly effortless, yet impressive standard of living throughout her life. As mistress of the various parsonages she and her husband called home, she created attractive, immaculate surroundings, imbued with an atmosphere of style, whimsy, comfort, and ease.

Mollye Williams leaves behind a legacy of fond memories of loving devotion to family and friends, hard work, good deeds, and numerous lives made better for her having touched them.

She is preceded in death by her four brothers, five sisters and her husband of more than fifty years. She is survived by four nieces and nephews: Miss June Morgan of New York City, Clintona Jackson Hare, Esq. of Morristown, NJ, Stanley Jackson, Esq. of Detroit, and Elbert Hendricks, PhD, of Copenhagen, Denmark.