May 14th, 2017

It was eight years ago that I wrote this about Jeff Johnson:

The retirement of Glenville Councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott should mean a return to city hall of Jeff Johnson. With a bit of humility Johnson becomes a strong future possibility for Mayor of Cleveland.

He’s got the guts for the job.

I also wrote of Johnson’s problem:

Johnson allowed his arrogance to throw him off the path of political stardom here when he was videotaped seeming to ask for campaign contributions for political favors. It was sleazy stuff to watch.

As he enters the race against Mayor Frank Jackson he’s been charged as not even being eligible to appear on the ballot because he was convicted of bribery.

Johnson counters that he was not convicted of bribery but extortion in 1998. Not a smart answer. He should stick to his right to run for office, as he already has done.

Johnson’s political career was revived by former Mayor Jane Campbell when she hired him as community relations worker and later brought him into the cabinet as head of that department. Then he won a seat on City Council.

I have watched the tapes used to convict Johnson. They weren’t pretty. The placement of cameras to catch Johnson asking for what he considered promised campaign contributions smelled like a set-up.

Johnson showed his arrogant side and the showboating didn’t help him, especially when it was on tape for TV exposure. And in a dingy basement.

Johnson, I believe, was set up. By what other politician I don’t know but have suspicions.

That doesn’t make what he did right. But it does mitigate the crime.

Johnson’s career came at a particular time of a rough political culture here, exemplified by then Council President George Forbes.

Wheeling and dealing was the ethos of the times. I remember how Forbes operated and set the tone. One example as he tried to get his favored parking lot operator the contract to operate the garage at the site of the Cleveland Press revealed the method. City land was involved.

Developer John Ferchill was sitting in the Council hearing room and tried to make a point from the audience. In stern language Forbes told Ferchill that he best just shut up. Ferchill said not another word.

Meanwhile, in the outer council room, in strode Joe Cole, the guy who put the Press out of business but not before putting the land into a partnership of his. He wanted to see Forbes. His manner said, “Immediately.” It was his land being discussed in the hearing room.

Fannie Lewis greeted Cole and then sent word to Forbes who was having none of it. Cole was told he couldn’t see Forbes. This was hard ball.

None of this was reported in the Plain Dealer, though one of its city hall reporters was covering the meeting.

Forbes favored parking firm eventually won the contract and a garage went up on city land at E.9th and Lakeside.

I tell this story as one of many that attest to the play for pay culture that dominated City Hall. It was how business was done. And no FBI or other justice officials touched it.

In another example of this Cleveland culture, Forbes was indicted for bribery, extortion, theft in office and intimidation in the carnival case in the late 1970s, A judge, sent up conveniently to Cleveland by then Gov. James Rhodes, immediately exonerated Forbes of all charges without Forbes’ defense lawyers uttering a word. Forbes had taken paper bags of cash from carnival operators. The money was supposedly used for “charitable” purposes via council members. Eighteen in all were cleared of charges.

One would never call this time one of purity and good government. That culture was clear to any who wanted to see.

Johnson apparently felt he had the moxie to play, too.

This are no excuses but you can see why a young and ambitious pol watching all this might think that someone who promised a “contribution” should pay up.

It was the accepted way of doing business.

Plain Dealer editorialist Brent Larkin on Sunday brought up the viability of Johnson, citing the past legal troubles.

Larkin, following the Plain Dealer‘s strong desire to re-elect Jackson added of Johnson’s chances, “But he’s in trouble.”

Oddly or maybe not so, Larkin then went after a union that is backing Johnson. The union has run TV ads promoting Johnson.

Larkin oddly wrote:

…. the right thing to do would be for Johnson to tell bosses [notice the word, RB] of the Service Employees International Union that he neither needs nor wants their help. And the same goes for the religious leaders hoping to force a citywide vote on Cleveland and Cuyahoga County’s ill-advised plan to hand Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert about $75 million to pay for a $150 million renovation of Quicken Loans Arena – a building the public owns in name only.

Why if Larkin sees the arena deal, as it is, a bad one for the public why does he want Johnson to spurn help from the Greater Cleveland Congregation? It is distributing a petition with others to allow voters to decide whether the arena deal is clean.

It is not clean, by the way.

Voters have already voted a 20-year extension of the sin tax. It was to raise some $260 million to be split evenly by Cleveland’s three pro sports team’s facilities. That’s about $86 million plus for each team.

Now, however, Gilbert wants another revenue stream for himself of even more than the $86 million. Why wouldn’t the other two franchises demand equal treatment if this passes?

A document provided by the County to me this week shows this funding arrangement:

– County Bonds A (tax-exempt) $35,000,000
– County Bonds B (taxable) $35,000,000
– County Bonds C (taxable) $70,000,000
– Cavaliers cash contribution $900,000
Subtotal Sources $140,900,000

Instead of asking Johnson to break with the church congregation, Larkin should be asking why Mayor Jackson is head over heels for this dirty deal. Jackson for three terms has fed downtown; starve needy neighborhoods.
Larkin has forgotten how to be a reporter but not how to be anti-union or a corporate propagandist.

The city needs a change and new blood. It can only get that with a new mayor.

Anyone—and I am one—who has looked at campaign contributions and seen the repetition of the names of corporate/business/real estate/lawyers who ply favored local politicians with thousands and thousands of dollars—and will in this election—is nothing less than a hypocrite to make this issue with Johnson seem so criminal and despicable.

C’mon, we all know campaigns are fed by people who want favors and the kind of government that aids them. It’s as true as there is a nose on your face.

By Roldo Bartimole…


  1. In the paragraph describing Johnson’s claim of the charge against him there is an error. His claim is that he not convicted of bribery as stated but of extortion, just the opposite of what is stated. I am sorry for the error.

    Roldo Bartimole

  2. Jeff Hess says:


    I’ve made the changes as you requested.


  3. Michael Fiala says:

    So, this is how the world works in politics … you pay to play or, if you’re politic, you get a task force to legitimate the deal.

    It’s no surprise, but what’s the alternative?

    That’s why going to 4 year terms was a mistake for city council and the mayor.

    You need to make sure as often as possible to put the politicians’ feet to the fire to do something (just to throw crumbs) for/to the neighborhoods.

    I have a hard time imagining regime change alters the landscape, but momentarily.

    Yet I keep thinking there’s gotta be a real alternative.

    At least, for awhile, until they get more corrupted than the usual amount.

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