By all rights, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson should face a serious challenger when he runs for his third term this fall. He has been uninspiring both in personality and performance. Under his watch, the political reach his office once projected has lost its grab.
His vulnerability should attract candidates eager to take the office from him. The reality, however, is that Jackson will prevail. It will probably be one of the most forlorn races for public office here since the election of the first mayor in 1836.
The nature of politics in Cleveland’s black community has changed dramatically, especially the quality of its leadership. Say what you will, but when we look back on the likes of Carl Stokes, George Forbes and Mike White, we are considering personalities of dynamic proportion. They represented leadership, particularly in difficult times.
Perhaps it was the era of racial struggle that tempered those men. But today, with the city having a black majority, it is curious that the community has not developed a cadre of leaders that can challenge for the mayor’s office. As one who covered the evolution of civil rights here in the 1960s — with all its turmoil and struggle for political equality — I find it disappointing to follow a story that has lost its meaning.
A politician left unchallenged courts the status quo. Yet no candidates are forthcoming. One reason may simply be that there are more opportunities for minorities today than in Carl Stokes’ era, when politics was one of the few career routes open to black Clevelanders.
What’s more, many talented professionals, black and white, have migrated to the suburbs. Cleveland City Hall is no longer as politically important in Northeast Ohio as in the past. It is no longer the media’s focus.
Worse yet, future leadership in city council has little promise. Witness the case of councilman Ken Johnson, who retired to collect his pension and was promptly reappointed by council in January so he could collect two paychecks from taxpayers.
Jackson will win significantly, because there simply are no candidates who can make a run against him. But the litany of issues a challenger might use against Jackson could be introduced with a drumroll:
• An inept water department that can’t bill its customers properly.
• A fire department where members fashion their own work rules, which don’t always include work.
• Millions of dollars wasted on lakefront planning by a dysfunctional port authority he controls.
• A plan to convert garbage to energy that is all smoke.
• A proposed lighting system that went awry.
• A scheme to make Public Square into a vast lawn.
• A police department that can outshoot the Wild Bunch.
That is not counting the loss of Eaton Corp. The company moved its headquarters to Beachwood after City Hall could not include it in plans for the lakefront — plans that turned out to be a Potemkin village.
Then there was Jackson’s opposition to a reformed Cuyahoga County government. Once, in a City Club speech when he was council president, Jackson called such governmental change a road to “alienation, divisiveness and doom.”
Jackson was right. When voters approved county reform in 2009, it did alienate and doom Cleveland City Hall, because the new county government superseded it in political clout. Jackson ignored the reformers who were desperate for his support and lost an opportunity to broker county help for the city school system.
While Jackson was lauded last year for his efforts to improve and restructure the school system, the mayor also supported November’s levy, a 15 mill property tax on a community that has a 33 percent poverty rate. He ignored the fact that years of tax abatements, granted by city council to downtown developers, helped cripple the school system.
As a politician, Jackson is somewhat enigmatic. His speech is dawdling and ungrammatical, and he is so retiring that he sometimes appears not to have enough verve to deal with a city. Yet, he can balance the budget, which is no small thing.
These days, journalists here are circumspect when considering the character of a politician. Given the recent corruption cases, nobody wants to praise a potential felon. But those who know Jackson well describe his character as honest and thoughtful. Conversely, some question the depth of his drive and decisiveness.
Jackson is surprisingly candid in his remarks. During his first campaign for mayor, he told of his experience as a soldier in Vietnam. He explained how he was able to get a job in supply and avoid the front line. I was struck by his honesty. Most politicians would either embellish their service record or, if undistinguished, ignore it.
Today, in other impolitic and astonishingly honest moments, Jackson will shrug and explain a municipal problem away with the phrase, “It is what it is,” rather than varnish over it with rhetoric.
In recent times, councilmen Zack Reed and Jeff Johnson have been the two politicians most often mentioned as possible mayoral candidates. But both have checkered careers, Reed because of his nightlife adventures and Johnson because of a felony conviction involving a bribe. Johnson is said to be biding his time for a candidacy in 2017.
Most political observers have concluded that a white candidate probably could not win, and though he once showed promise, councilman Joe Cimperman has become a timid officeholder. I’ve been waiting three years now for him to return a call.
Wealthy businessman Ken Lanci, who ran for Cuyahoga County executive and was defeated three years ago, is considering a run against Jackson. But he would be better off panning for gold in the Cuyahoga River than spending his money on a campaign. Driving a $340,000 Maybach, he displays a flamboyance that would hardly endear him to city voters.
While Jackson is said to personally dislike county executive Ed FitzGerald, the two agreed on a deal last summer to ask voters for a 400 percent increase in the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority levy. This appeared to be an effort by FitzGerald to gain Jackson’s support in his contemplated race for governor.
The levy was defeated last fall when suburban voters saw that their tax dollars would be used for projects that were the responsibility of Cleveland City Hall. Some see that attempted shift as evidence of political duplicity on Jackson’s part. The suburbs were asked to shoulder 80 percent of the taxes, while only three of the nine seats on the port’s board represent their interests. Jackson appoints most of the board, and the port authority is a microcosm of his aimless management style.
At best, Jackson’s administration has embraced the status quo. Even key staff members are leftovers from Mike White’s regime, which ended in 2002.
Things are improving downtown, but during Jackson’s time in office, the town has shrunk to less than 400,000 in population. City Hall is receding more and more into yesteryear, becoming just another museum on the lakefront, run by a curator instead of a mayor.