April 12th, 2016

Are we at the lowest point of political leadership since the mid 1960s when white ethnics politically controlled Cleveland? And thought they would coast on. Surprise! It didn’t last a half decade.

Cleveland was a city of 750,000 strong. But also a city showing the decline that was to come.

What to do?

Surely, the behind-the-scene Establishment understood new ideas and leaders were needed. However, the Establishment doesn’t like upheaval. It would much rather manipulate. By keeping its role private. Behind the scenes.

The Cleveland Foundation, always significant, even created and funded a side foundation, the Greater Cleveland Associated Foundation, to deal with urban problems. Its elite members didn’t want to be too closely involved in, as they saw it, “the Negro problems.”

The usually all-important news media – essentially the Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press then – were way behind the times. Missing the boat with all-white staffs. They did suspect the times were changing and that they were lacking. It’s hard to catch up.

Now in 2016 the newspaper and media are feeble and less relevant. Far less powerful than in the 1960s when two profitable newspapers competitively duked it out. The Call & Post, then a power under W. O. Walker, is a mere shadow of itself, leaving a black press enfeebled, too.

In addition, civil rights action was pulsating. Cleveland had a long history of black participation in politics. But the times they were a changing. Minor patronage, small favors were not enough to satisfy the hunger for change.

Cleveland’s black population was rising in number and action as its white populace was beginning to decline and move to the suburbs.

Now we have a similar situation. And again, we’re behind the times. Police and black relations in particular are strained. However, leadership remains absent, bewildered or submissive.

I called then Cleveland “a recipe for violence.” Police Chief Richard Wagner rode into Hough with his personal hunting rifle under a white mayor. Now former Police Chief Michael McGrath was promoted to Safety Director by Mayor Frank Jackson after a horrific 138-bullet police chase ending in the death of two blacks. Is that change?

We see frustration on the national level. Locally too, but mild and lacking organization.

Yet, it is hard to believe that tumult elsewhere won’t touch us here.

White ethnics in the 1960s tried to maintain control just as today the city’s black political leaders try to maintain control. A disturbing similarity.

Control politically, then as now, means jobs, contracts and favors.

However, it always keeps some outside. And frustrated.

The Outsiders today haven’t built up the steam to challenge the Establishment nor the black political leaders.

It seems is only a matter of time for revolt. Challenges will be made.

Problem: We don’t see leaders. Just as the ethnic political leadership of the 1960s seemed befuddled and unable to meet that challenge, today black politicians are too set in their way to see reason for change. Or too well off to want change.

A perfect example was the race for County Prosecutor. Instead of being able to field a black Democrat, Rep. Marsha Fudge and other black politicians backed and help elect Michael O’Malley. O’Malley represents a dubious political clique hardly favorable in the long run to blacks. It was a foolish move. More important, it revealed the short-sightedness of black leadership. And weakness. They didn’t field a strong third candidate against O’Malley and prosecutor Tim McGinty.

It leaves Cuyahoga County government open to a prosecutor with patronage. There is not the attention to the city’s most dire needs on the county agenda. I had to laugh that County Executive Armond Budish used the controversy over anti-discrimination laws in North Carolina to speak out. Budish banned “non-essential” travel by county employees. To North Carolina? What a forceful move!

How lame can a public official get in avoiding dismal situations at his doorstep?

I would not be surprised if O’Malley, along with ally Bill Mason and clique run one of its gang for Cleveland mayor. For some time black politicians have done little to inspire black voters.

City Council in the past shared office space and telephones with reporters. Today they are protected in back offices and supported with staff and paid more than $75,000 a year. Not conducive to seek out change.

Cleveland will enjoy the notoriety of the national news media for the July Republican convention. Barring major rioting (I suspect policing will reduce or eliminate anything like a major Chicago 1968 repetition), the city will have much to show the nation. I say this especially since the 15,000 news media expected will be stepping on each other to produce anything new. However, most will essentially limit themselves to superficial coverage of the city.

They will be guided to the show-off sites of sports venues, a renewed Public Square, the new county hotel, new restaurants, and other hot spots. Empty storefront along Euclid will be covered to hide any possible inelegance. Dismal neighborhoods will be off tours.

Just as the white ethnic power establishment tried to ride out troubles, today black leadership will try the easy way.

Look at Mayor Frank Jackson. You see a leader treading water. A caretaker just as Locher was. There’s talk about a fourth term for him. Jackson, once a man of the people, has become enamored of himself and what he has to say. And it’s not much. His peachiness has become silly.

Those viewed as possible successors seem to be waiting in line. Docile. None of prepared the ground for a run against a self-satisfied and Establishment-satisfied seat holder.

What does it portend? The same as when Mayor Locher – reluctantly elevated from law director when Mayor Frank Celebreeze was called to Washington by President Jack Kennedy—fell into the job.

Locher was left running a city about to explode. And it did.

One more bad incident of the Tamir Rice killing could be the fuse.

The Establishment in the 60s chose as its answer to the obvious decline—urban renewal. It was a great failure. Yet it stirred and destroyed black neighborhoods. It pushed people out without considering where they would go.

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Carl Stokes took advantage. He ran in 1965 as an independent and came close to winning. Two years later he ran as a Democrat and defeated the damaged Locher. With rising black anger he defeated Establishment backed Seth Taft, a Jones Day lawyer, who had moved in from Pepper Pike to run.

Stokes who broke the ethnic stranglehold lasted only two two-year terms. Yet he succeeded in solidifying black political power by establishing the 21st District Caucus (presently Fudge’s 11th District). It had a power base that has been allowed to wither. Black leaders—Stokes brothers, George Forbes, Arnold Pinkney, W. O. Walker with the Call & Post—are all but gone. Black political leaders subsequently allowed the strategic power of the 21st District die.

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When Michael White became mayor, defeating Forbes, he established himself as the main man. Power became personal not organizational. The machine-like creation of Carl Stokes disappeared.

Black political power reflected the old ethnic status—self-serving and personal, not community serving.

Things are sailing along elsewhere. All the major projects desired by the Establishment (read Greater Cleveland Partnership, made up of top corporate/legal/foundation leaders) have pretty much been completed or are in process—P$50 million Public Square redo, $330 million Opportunity Corridor, hundreds of millions on sport facilities, $400 plus million on a new convention center $250 plus million on a publicly owned 600 room hotel and much more downtown development. The Downtown Cleveland Alliance, now with a $6 million annual budget, runs the major part of the city. Do we really need Mayor Jackson or a council?

Big corporate and law power today clearly dominate the city agenda. They control. This is despite the change from white ethnic to black political leadership in the city. Elite power rules. The change reflects no gains by the ordinary citizen.

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It tells you where the emphasis is. It tells you what the Establishment wants. It tells you how the elected politicians bend.

What’s missing? A very lot.

Declining neighborhoods keep festering. Rates of poverty don’t fade. Cleveland’s poverty rate in 2014 was 36.9. Worse, 54 percent of children were impoverished. Infant mortality rates in some black wards persist at Third World rates with 13.6 deaths per 1,000 live births. Less than 1 death was seen as acceptable years ago. A 2016 poverty study by zip code rated Cleveland the “most distressed city” in the nation.

It is distressing. Not unusual, however.

The question remains is there any fight left in Cleveland for change?

It seems so much like the early 1960s. Big problems. Preoccupied or docile leadership. An uncaring business establishment.

The only thing absent is the eruption that neglect and decay usually produce. In the 60s it was riots. Could demonstrators from outside at the GOP convention strike the spark? Possibly. Not likely sustainable, however.

And will Mayor Jackson, as it seems, run for an unprecedented fourth four-year term? Sixteen years of drift. Despite his abysmal reign, the business community likes what it enjoys from him. Further, no one has stepped out to really challenge him in this period of status quo, stale government.

The Plain Dealer, which could be the force for change, seems too absorbed in the quest of a formula to stay alive to be a change agent. It coasts rather than leads.

I hope I am wrong. But I fear this assessment is correct.

By Roldo Bartimole…


  1. Garry Kanter says:

    In this monopoly political party county, unseating an incumbent is *always* a good thing.
    Defeating McGinty was accomplished by the very leadership you say is absent.
    And that’s why I have hope.

  2. Garry: It’s not “always” good if you replace someone with someone not as good. And that’s what I believe happened in the McGinty/O’Malley contest.

    But thanks for your take.

  3. This is a beautiful perspective. John Ettorre provide me with links to your work and I have to say you’re reading my mind. Hopefully I we can meet soon and talk, love to hear more in person.


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