Monday, May 01, 2017

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: From Obama to the Q

Former community organizer offers cautionary tale on seduction by the elite

Just over a week ago, I spent a few hours, along with a couple of other reporters, listening to and asking questions of the leaders of Greater Cleveland Congregations, the largest and most prominent of the civic groups questioning the fairness, wisdom, and morality of the Cavaliers proposal to have the public fund a glittering expansion of Quicken Loans Arena at a projected cost of $282 million.

The diverse group included pastors of several inner-city black churches with both high and low profiles, the minister of a mainline Protestant suburban congregation, and two activist professionals from Greater Cleveland's Jewish community, still one of the nation's largest, best organized, and most influential. No Catholic or Muslim representative around the table, but Catholics for a Greater Cleveland and the Islamic Center of Cleveland are active GCC members.

GCC wanted to counter what they saw as the horse race coverage of the legislation and the occasional distortion of its position. Members emphasized GCC is a social change organization focused on specific actions in such areas as jobs, mental health, civic participation. They said their concerns over the Q deal were informed by a canvass of over 15,000 homes last fall that produced more than 5,000 discussions.

GCC position
GCC favors the creation of a community equity fund to address some of the city's systemic and structural inequities. They specifically disclaimed any interest in controlling the fund.

As we went around the table, the most resounding statement came from an African Methodist Episcopal clergywoman who is also a retired Cleveland public school teacher. She expressed her outrage over "this unjust deal. ... It's not about the Cavs. There are needs more important than the Q," she said, listing more jobs, better schools, greater police protection as priority community needs.

"People's voices should be heard,” the Glenville resident continued. “People in Cleveland deserve more than they're getting. We're not going to be silent anymore."

The Rev. Richard Gibson serves alongside Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk and the Rev. Jawanza Colvin as one of GCC's three co-leaders. Gibson, who pastors Elizabeth Baptist Church, spoke starkly about what he sees underlying the proposed deal. The onetime corporate lawyer said that public investment in sports venues was not rational. He said such deals reflect the inefficient function of the market here and suggested that waterfront development was only one of numerous ideas that made more sense from a development standpoint.

Gibson invoked a biblical perspective, arguing that our obsession with pro sports and its heroes was akin to idolatry. "We have elevated sports and sports teams over people."

Rev. Colvin, senior pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, echoed his colleague. "Our opposition to the deal is clear," he said. "Budgets are moral documents. 'Where your treasure is, there will be your hearts also.'"

Colvin dismissed arguments by the deal's proponents about the economic development benefits that would flow from the Q expansion, saying that trickle down theories were without merit. "We need strong community benefits agreements coming out of these investments," said Colvin.

As the conversation continued, reference was made to how public officials in other communities had successfully leveraged sports venue investment deals to negotiated positive outcomes for the larger community. Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Atlanta were cited as examples. GCC members acknowledged that each deal is different but said community investment was a common thread. GCC lead organizer James Pearlstein said community investment relative to public investment in pro sports venues was "a conversation that should have happened 20 years ago."

GCC said it met with Cavs leaders and County Executive Armond Budish in private to express their concerns and to seek creation of a $160 million community equity fund. The fund would be used to create jobs, especially for formerly incarcerated people; for capital improvements in the most under developed neighborhoods; and to create east and west side mental health centers that, among other benefits, would reduce the strains on a county justice system that regularly stores an inmate population comprising 1/3 to 1/2 of people who don't belong there. Alternative treatment, they say, could save the public $5 million annually — citing Portland, San Antonio, and Chicago (each of which also has an NBA franchise).

When the meeting ended without progress, GCC delivered a letter to the Cavaliers. They say the Cavs have yet to reply to that letter, or to a second letter that was publicly delivered by a delegation that went to Quicken Loan headquarters in Detroit in late March.

Cavs Response
We spoke with a top Cavaliers official the day after meeting with the GCC team. We wanted to engage a discussion about GCC’s position, to talk about community benefits from the public’s perspective, to dig deeper into some of the assertions made by each side.

The conversation was cordial and extended almost ninety minutes. But the official did not want to speak for the record, and totally refused to entertain any question about GCC, even down to the date of the Cavs/Budish/GCC meeting, the contents of the letter delivered by GCC, or the team’s non-reply. He was expansive about the benefits of the deal, as touted on the “Q-Transformation”website. We had visited the site prior to our conversation, where we saw a strong argument that the Q is slipping further from world-class status, a fact that had not been on our radar. But we didn’t find anything on the site to convince us that our publicly owned facility was approaching functional obsolescence.

Among the claims of deal proponents that trouble us the most is the notion that the Cavs are paying “half the cost” of construction, or $70 million of the $140 million price tag before financing is factored in. The $70 million Cavs contribution is to be paid in the form of increased rent, largely related to the extension of the team’s lease from its present expiration date in 2027 until 2034, or another seven years. The lease extension may be a justification of sorts for the deal but it’s not like the team is paying $70 million for the construction plus rent.

When we asked how much the Cavs are paying in rent now, and would be paying in the future, on an annualized basis, we got some discourse about fluctuations and calculations that basically came across like verbal Three Card Monte.

The conversation ended on pleasantries, even as we sought once again to elicit comment about GCC. The Cavs executive team, we must admit, has a strong zone defense.

Politics as Usual
We have been struck in the discussion over the Q question by the unfortunate Cleveland tendency to personalize issues. Both sides have done this with respect to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who also owns the less than prime online mortgage company Quicken Loans.

Mr. Gilbert is a phenomenally successful businessman, a multi-billionaire. He has been good for the city in several ways. Through his family of companies he has provided thousands of jobs and regularly contributes to various civic causes. Through the same channels, he also donates to a variety of Greater Cleveland nonprofit organizations. And we have it on good authority that without his finger on the scale, Ohio would not have received the most recent infusion of $192 million in federal funds — at least $37 million of which landed in Cuyahoga County — aimed at tearing down our excess of vacant and abandoned homes in our community. (We won't comment on the irony of what role his mortgage company might have played arole in creating some of those vacancies.)

We also take note that by all accounts Mr. Gilbert has been a leader in equal opportunity hiring. By so doing this newcomer has raised the bar to show some of our local leaders what can be done in the arena of equitable hiring and contracting. In this regard he deserves credit for performing instead of cheerleading.

Notwithstanding these feathers in his cap, it should not be forgotten that Mr. Gilbert's most prominent operation — the Cleveland Cavaliers — is a very private business worth a billion dollars. It is a business heavily subsidized by taxpayers. We provide the palace for his operation at a multi-million dollar cost to our municipal coffers and overburdened school system. No one documents the cost of this immense subsidization more accurately or faithfully than our favorite recorder of dastardly deeds, Roldo Bartimole. (Visit here for a sample of his numbers keeping.)

Mr. Gilbert was also given the perpetual right, constitutionally enshrined in state law, to a state monopoly on casino gambling in Cleveland and Cincinnati. In this town that came with certain promises about building a new casino that are likely to remain unfulfilled. Considering the unrequited gift, Mr. Gilbert will always be in our municipal debt as we see it.

Our attitude towards Dan Gilbert should be the same as W. E. B. DuBois' stance regarding Booker T. Washington. To paraphrase a clarion passage from Dr. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk:

 “So long as [Mr. Gilbert does good], we must hold up his hands and strive with him, rejoicing in his honors and glorifying in the strength of this Joshua called of God and of man to lead the headless host. But so far as [Mr. Gilbert attempts to snooker us], — so long as he, or [our elected officials] does this, — we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them.” [1]

The Obama Connection
Barack Obama is a millionaire. Most of us, I suspect, regardless of our politics, don't think about his wealth. I have personally followed his career ever since I saw an obscure news item back in February 1990 about this guy with the
strange name being the first black person ever elected president of the Harvard Law Review. I read and identified with his marvelous reminiscence, Dreams From My Father when it was published in 1995.

Even after his dozen years of public service he still appears the same person I first encountered in that early memoir, which I learned today was an early and significant source of his wealth, which has become a topic of public debate since last week’s report that he was being paid $400,000 to speak at a Wall St. function.

We won't comment here beyond noting that since the pedestrian Gerald Ford began the practice, Jimmy Carter is the only ex-president not to have cashed in on his status in that manner.

An editorial in today’s New York Times leads with the following quote from Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope:

“I found myself spending time with people of means — law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists,” Senator Barack Obama wrote in his book The Audacity of Hope.“As a rule, they were smart, interesting people. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale.” 
He wrote in 2006: “I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met. I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of … the people that I’d entered public life to serve.”

Isn't that the crux of the disconnect we see playing out in the Q debate? Dan Gilbert's management team and uber-lawyer Fred Nance, who ostensibly negotiated this deal on behalf of the public, have no insight or connection to the community
Cleveland councilman Mike Polensek cries out to Cavaliers' brass [first row behind railing}: "You made us BEG!" City Council Meeting, April 24, 2017.
on whose behalf GCC is speaking. And most of the public officials from Budish and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson on down through most members of the county and city councils, have traded in, on this issue at least, whatever notion of public service they may have entered office with. They are apparently more afraid of the downtown deep pockets who can fund their campaigns, or perhaps more ominously, that of an opponent, than they are responsive to the needs of their constituents who sent them downtown as their representatives.

This critique extends to the herd of black leaders — some with real followings, a few with imaginary organizations — who stood and spoke at last week’s disheartening spectacle on the steps of City Hall, with abundant joy about the largesse of the Cavaliers organization. The team offered the equivalent of a mess of pottage in exchange for what should be the birthright of Clevelanders to safe neighborhoods, decent schools, and reasonable life opportunities.

The silver lining in this episode awaits a successful referendum that would overturn the craven decision of elected officials and generate a healthy discussion of community benefits. 

We’d be “All In” for that!

[1] The Souls of Black Folk [1903], Chapter III, "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”, last paragraph.

1 comment:

dickpeery said...

So why hasn't Cleveland been like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Atlanta in linking social services with sports development? We used to do that. The local NAACP led a boycott of Municipal Stadium in 1961 when the Browns played the bigotry named Washington NFL team that refused to sign any black players. The team quickly integrated and ended the NFL's national embarrassment on that score. (Unfortunately, Washington did it by hiring away the Browns' all time greatest pass receiver Bobby Mitchell, but that's a subject for another article.}
Although Cleveland, under Mayor Carl Stokes, led the nation in marshaling local political strength to force corporations to abandon their most outrageous discrimination practices, those efforts waned as former activists became comfortable in the new positions created for them. The Rock and Roll hall of Fame opened in 1995 after Mayor Michael White diverted $5 million from the destitute Cleveland school system to complete the construction. The inaugural parade included marching bands from suburban schools, but not Cleveland because music had be cut from the curriculum for economic reasons. {But again, that's another issue.}
So now we praise Dan Gilbert for supplying us with slot machines we can't afford and he only asks us to pay for an arena that we we don't have the means to enter.