The struggling suburb has seen its share of mayoral scandals — from Eric Brewer’s cross-dressing photos to Emmanuel Onunwor’s corruption conviction. Gary Norton, who will lead the city beginning in January, knows the history but thinks he can make a difference.
Erick Trickey email@example.com
Let’s get this straight: Gary Norton is not the East Cleveland mayor dressed in women’s lingerie in the pictures you saw on the Internet and local TV news.
He’s the guy who beat Mayor Eric Brewer this September. He’s the guy who condemned whoever put out the photos of his opponent in a wig, lipstick and little black underthings. He’s the guy who, when handed a chance to bludgeon his opponent with a handbag full of bricks six days before the election, handed it back.
“Is it worth the distraction it causes our city and our people?” Norton asked as the TV cameras rolled.
Gary Norton is the next mayor of East Cleveland. He is the anti-Eric Brewer.
Norton is a diplomat with a soothingly upbeat temperament. Brewer is a driven taskmaster, intense and impatient. Norton moved East Cleveland’s City Council from chaos to cooperation. Brewer is a character assassin who spent four years feuding with the council and ordinary residents. Norton has connections throughout Cuyahoga County. Brewer is Brewer.
So when Norton went door-to-door or called voters, he says their most common reaction was relief: “Thank God somebody else is running: Somebody qualified, somebody educated, somebody who has common sense,” he says.
So where did those racy photos of Mayor Eric Brewer come from?
Political Activist Art McKoy says he distributed the infamous cross-dressing photos of Brewer before the city’s mayoral election this fall.
“I’m responsible for those photographs,” McKoy says. “I had possession of ’em, but they didn’t come from Gary Norton.”
Brewer declined to be interviewed for Cleveland Magazine’s profile of mayor-elect Norton. But two weeks later, he sent a lengthy e-mail alleging that Norton and his supporters had distributed the photos and implying they had cost him the election. Brewer’s e-mail also alleged Norton gave the photos to Art McKoy, who was arrested by East Cleveland police last Christmas Eve and is awaiting trial on a charge of permitting drug abuse at his former barbershop in the city. (Norton has repeatedly said he and his campaign did not distribute the photos.)
McKoy says he made “quite a few” copies of the Brewer photos and distributed them this August and September. “I showed everyone I could,” he says. Does that include people in the media? “It’s very possible.” Channel 3, the first media outlet to broadcast the photos, reported they had been downloaded from Brewer’s computer. McKoy declined to say who had given him the photographs. “I assure you it wasn’t Gary Norton,” he says.
During his campaign, Brewer bragged about closing down McKoy’s barbershop and claimed drugs were sold there. That infuriated McKoy, who maintains his innocence on the drug charge and says Brewer “initiated” the police’s boarding up the barbershop and spray-painting “drug free” on the boards. Brewer also attacked McKoy’s reputation and his work in East Cleveland, McKoy alleges, “destroying” the East Cleveland Love Fest, a street festival he organized, and the Memorial Wall of Sorrow, which commemorated children and young adults killed in Cuyahoga County.
Brewer “made his reputation from destroying other folks,” McKoy says. “The chickens came home to roost with those pictures. He got what he deserved.”
And why shouldn’t East Clevelanders be fed up with the scandals the past three mayors have brought upon the city? Before Brewer came Saratha Goggins, convicted of manslaughter in the early 1980s for stabbing an ex-boyfriend, and Emmanuel Onunwor, now in federal prison for taking more than $70,000 in bribes.
Norton may be the antidote.
The City Council president projects a calm professionalism. His precise, careful speaking style owes a debt to his former boss, Peter Lawson Jones, the most analytical of the three Cuyahoga County commissioners. But instead of Jones’ lawyerly reserve, Norton — who is 37 and looks younger — comes wrapped in a sunny precociousness that can even inspire maternal pride. (“Such a smart young man!” an older woman exclaimed when he spoke at a council meeting.)
But it’s going to take a lot more than that to be mayor of East Cleveland.
When Norton takes the oath of office on New Year’s Day, right after a midnight balloon drop in a beautiful mansionlike retirement home on an East Cleveland hilltop, he will take charge of a suburb gone wrong — a town with a high crime rate and shrinking budget for police and everything else, where 24,000 residents live among 1,450 vacant and abandoned buildings.
“This is going to be the test of his lifetime,” says fellow city councilman Nathaniel Martin. “East Cleveland is going to be his challenge. It could be his victory or his Waterloo.”
When Norton looked at the pros and cons of running for mayor, the cons were obvious.
“What happens to former East Cleveland mayors?” Norton asks with a grin. “It’s not a good career move.” East Cleveland politics is “a topsy-turvy roller coaster,” Norton says with polite understatement. “It’s not always pretty.”
Scandals and squabbles have fed East Cleveland’s reputation as an unstable, risky place to buy a home or do business. Reversing that is part of Norton’s job.
“He might be the first sane person to represent East Cleveland in the last generation,” says Cuyahoga County treasurer Jim Rokakis. “Unfortunately, he’s not Superman, and I think what East Cleveland needs is Superman.”
GARY NORTON WALKS into the Euclid Avenue McDonald’s, a see-and-be-seen spot in his working-class town. It’s bustling with hurried people grabbing breakfast before work and anchored by older guys sitting near the door and laughing the deep laughs of the retired.
Norton, in a wool trench coat over a Ralph Lauren black turtleneck and black dress pants, is wearing the smile of a guy who won the biggest contest of his life nine days earlier and has almost three months to prepare for an even bigger one.
On Sept. 29, Norton trounced Brewer by a 2-1 margin, winning in every voting precinct in East Cleveland. For most of his four years as council president, Norton had restrained himself, trying to work with Brewer and smooth over the mayor’s feuds with the council — even though, Norton says, “I couldn’t stand him, and he couldn’t stand me.”
Finally, after endless disagreements large and small, and undeterred by Brewer’s reputation as a negative campaigner, Norton quit his job at the county development department in June to campaign full time for the mayor’s office.
Now that he’s beaten Brewer, he forsakes his monochromatic reserve for a splash of swagger, clearly proud of his victory.
“Eric had no clue what he was up against: somebody born and bred to do this stuff,” Norton says, his bacon, egg and cheese bagel forgotten for a moment. “I have the ability to talk to someone face to face and reach deep down inside of that person and touch that place that nothing negative can ever get to.”
A quick scan of Norton’s political DNA makes the genetic markers obvious.
The late U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones lived next door to Norton’s uncle for 30 years. “[She] was like a second mom to me,” Norton says, “a mainstay at cookouts and holidays.”
Supporters liked Tubbs Jones for her friendly energy. She thrived on crowds like your favorite aunt at a family reunion. “She was just Stephanie,” Norton says, “a regular person.” That may be why Norton loves the East Cleveland McDonald’s. As people stop by our booth to congratulate him on his victory, he greets them all like he knows them well — his voice is animated with a “Good to see you! Good to see you, Mr. Marshall!” even though the man only knows him from watching council meetings on cable.
Tubbs Jones also introduced Norton to Peter Lawson Jones, county judge Lance Mason and longtime local organizer Arnold Pinkney, whose strategies Norton used in his “high-touch, not high-tech” campaign.
“They’re a part of my circle,” Norton says. “I’m a part of their circle.”
In other words, Norton is allied with much of Cleveland’s current generation of black political leadership. By mentioning that, he is implicitly identifying himself as their most prominent protégé and possible successor.
And with his election as mayor, perhaps he is.
IF NORTON'S CHOICE of mentors foreshadowed success, parts of his upbringing did not.
Born in San Diego to Cleveland-native parents, Norton grew up in Northern California but spent summers in Cleveland once his parents divorced and his father moved back. Home life grew unstable. His mother often wasn’t around. She, Norton and his younger brother were evicted from several apartments. “We’d go without hot water, gas, electric, for six weeks at a time,” he recalls.
Finally, one fall, his father told 16-year-old Gary and his brother not to pack for California. He enrolled them at Cleveland Heights High School instead. Stung by the winter cold, bitter from saying no goodbyes in California, Norton spent his time alone at the library, studying.
“Unbeknownst to me and my brother, my mom had a drug habit,” Norton says.
She had contacted his father and told him that staying in Cleveland would be better for their sons. Norton’s father understood. “Dad had had a drug problem, too,” says Norton, “but he had gone into recovery. He’d gotten through it, so he knew.”
Living with his father gave Norton and his brother stability. “I was so bitter then, yet so grateful now because it put me on the track to be a responsible person,” Norton says. “Things that should be important to a teenager became important, like showing up for school, doing well in school, going to college and preparing for success.”
The shake-up forced the Norton brothers to be more self-sufficient, says their father, Gary Norton Sr., “because they had been removed from everything they had,” he says. “I was impressed with how well they seemed to have handled that.”
Norton and his wife, Shalom, have three daughters, Kendall, 3, Courtney, 1, and Cameron, 2.
A Heights High research project that fall tipped Robert off to what his son might be destined for. Rather than taking the easier route and interviewing a few nurses at Huron Hospital, where Robert worked, for his research paper on health care, Gary wanted to talk to the head of the emergency room. “I realized Gary related to things on a slightly different level,” Robert says.
Norton says his parents are doing “great” today: Both have long since recovered, both are homeowners, and his mother has remarried. “It’s a success story,” Norton says, a lesson that “failure does not have to be final.”
His own family life is a testament to that fact.
He and his wife, Shalom, principal of Hannah Gibbons-Nottingham School in Collinwood, have three daughters, Kendall, 3, Cameron, 2, and Courtney, 1. His teenage years inspired him to be a good father, he says. “I’m going to be there for my kids and for my wife.”
At times, that’s meant showing up at events with the girls in tow. “He’d have one child on the arm, holding the second one’s hand, with the third strapped into a daddy sack,” says Peter Lawson Jones. “The attention and love and affection and support he gives his three children is even more compelling when you think his upbringing was not idyllic.”
Norton included adorable family photos in his campaign literature, images that had a strong impact in East Cleveland. Martin, the councilman, says many voters told him they like it that Norton is a family man and a homeowner. (Brewer, a divorced father of an adult son, lives in a high-rise apartment tower.)
“I told him he’s like our mini-Obama family plus one,” says Angela Thi Bennett, a Norton friend and former city employee.
Norton shares that sense of himself as a role model. He spent two years studying at Morehouse College, the prestigious, historically black school in Atlanta.
“It was where I was exposed to black leadership, and what makes a black leader, and where we come from,” he says. “I got a complete sense of where I was in history and what my mission is: to make where I am a better place because I’m here. And that you’re blessed by God. You’re not put here by accident.”
But after two years at Morehouse, Norton ran out of money. His father and stepmother, both hospital staffers, were also sending Norton’s brother to college and could no longer afford the private-school tuition. So Norton returned to Cleveland, enrolling at Cleveland State University and working a midnight shift loading UPS trucks to pay his own way.
“That job was the inspiration that made me finish college,” he says. “I slept twice a day, before work and after.”
Brewer used this time in Norton’s life against him, attacking him during the campaign for bad grades in college, claiming his undergraduate transcripts showed he’d failed several classes and eked out a 2.14 grade point average.
“I have two college degrees, period,” responds Norton: a 1997 bachelor’s in political science and a 1998 master’s degree in public administration from CSU. Brewer had hit his opponent where he himself was weak: Norton’s education was a selling point with East Cleveland voters while Brewer — though quite intelligent — has only a GED.
After college and grad school, Norton worked for the county government in Miami, for the Cleveland school district as an assistant to CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and as an executive assistant at the Cleveland Initiative for Education.
“I wanted to be a city manager,” he says.
When he was dismissed from his job at the Cleveland Initiative for Education, Norton volunteered for Peter Lawson Jones’ effort to win the Democratic Party’s 2002 appointment to the county commission. On Tubbs Jones’ suggestion, the victorious Jones chose Norton as an executive assistant. For six years, Norton represented Jones at community meetings and worked in his office on the county building’s fourth floor, helping to write and research Jones’ speeches and keep tabs on the county’s social service programs.
When a seat on city council opened because Onunwor went to prison, and Goggins, the council president, became mayor, Norton decided to run for office himself.
“I looked at the people making decisions and figured I can do at least as good a job as they can,” Norton says. He also felt East Cleveland needed more positive African-American male role models. He called the council members and expressed interest in the vacancy. They appointed him. Sixteen months later, his colleagues elected him council president.
Gladys Walcott, the previous president, says Norton did a good job as her successor, but she wishes he’d been more aggressive in standing up for council when the mayor attacked.
Residents, on the other hand, “see him as young and bright,” says councilman Nathaniel Martin. “They see him as having the potential to move us in the right direction.” But some, Martin adds, “think he’s inexperienced and not tough enough.”
NORTON DRIVES DOWN a one-block street just off Euclid Avenue. It’s lined with tall, wide 1910s-era houses made of sturdy brick, with big friendly porches, good to decent paint jobs and trimmed lawns. You might think you’re in Lakewood if not for the huge boarded-up stone house on the corner with weeds growing wild around it.
“This is the area I really want to point to,” the mayor-elect says, “along Euclid between Case Western Reserve and Superior. These are big, beautiful houses. You could afford them; you could buy ’em. Some of them need tender loving care; some would be in move-in condition or near-move-in condition — nice and old and big and solid.”
Norton sees East Cleveland’s prime location next to University Circle as a great opportunity for growth. New stores and restaurants along Euclid could attract students, university staff and hospital workers, he says, while professors could buy the historic homes nearby.
That’s the hope. The obstacles stand just a few blocks from University Circle, where Norton turns off Euclid onto a ruined street. Nearly every house on one side is vacant. One house’s front doors hang open. Another’s porch roof is collapsed. “Public nuisance,” say signs on most.
Surreally, people still live in nice houses facing the decrepit ones: A man sits on his stoop, taking on his cell phone, as his young daughter putters about the porch. Norton rolls his window down and says hello.
“These have been here for years in similar condition,” Norton laments once the window’s back up. “I’m sick of them. If these things were on my street, I’d have shot somebody by now! I need to get them down as quickly as possible.
“My rule is any house that is either burned out, or the second floor has become the first floor, goes down. That’s it.” (Some houses on the street will be demolished by year’s end, a staffer for Brewer says.)
Brewer had an idea for this area: Circle East, a development of new homes and stores. The city, University Circle, a developer and a nonprofit all tried to make it happen, but the economic downturn halted progress. Norton hopes to get it going again.
East on Euclid, a few blocks past City Hall, we pull up to two huge, empty apartment buildings. One, red and ornate, used to be beautiful. Now most of its windows are bashed out, and the wooden pillars holding up the balconies are splitting and held together by metal bands. The other building, brown and simpler, still has a sign advertising efficiencies and one-bedrooms, but boards on the windows prove otherwise. “All objects of value have been removed,” reads a notice stenciled on the boards.
“This is where I want to employ the county land bank,” Norton says. “It could cost $200,000 to tear this thing down.”
East Cleveland, with an annual budget of $26 million and shrinking, can’t afford that. But the county’s new program for vacant and abandoned properties could tackle the job, Norton says, freeing up the property for low-cost development.
Norton’s long-term answer to the most obvious question he’ll face as mayor — how can East Cleveland afford to do everything you need to do? — is to attract more businesses, more residents, a bigger tax base. Falling tax revenues are hurting almost every area government, but especially East Cleveland’s. The city is mostly residential, and one in three residents are impoverished.
Norton says he needs to attract new businesses to replace those that have left. As if on cue, we pass a shuttered doughnut shop. A Rite-Aid and Kentucky Fried Chicken have also closed recently.
“I need people to start thinking about East Cleveland,” he says. “We got land. We’ve got high-value land at a relatively low cost.”
Businesses that want to move to Cleveland sometimes find politicians want to attach conditions to the government’s cooperation. Norton says he’ll be more flexible.
“If there is a way we can work out that a certain percentage of East Clevelanders get hired for your project or whatever, that’s great,” he says. “But I want you to come to East Cleveland even if those strings aren’t attached. Because if you are in East Cleveland and you make money, the city makes money.”
Until that happens, his short-term answer is to chase every grant and partnership the city can get, from federal, state and county government funding to new nonprofits taking on projects in town to gifts from foundations.
That’s where his experience working in county government may come in. Norton’s last job there, after working for Jones, was in the development department, administering a federal housing program. When he points out a problem on his city’s landscape, he usually knows of a grant that can help. Norton sounds fully briefed about how the county land bank will work: how it can take charge of tax-foreclosed or donated properties and either demolish buildings, improve and sell them, or maintain and hold them until demand materializes.
He wants to ask local foundations to help build a pool for East Clevelanders. He’d like to convince the Cleveland Foundation to resume paying for specialists in city management and finance to work in City Hall — assistance Brewer cancelled when he took office. He says he’s ready to spend a just-awarded $2.2 million federal grant to demolish homes, and he wants to use another federal grant to improve the city’s spotty building and housing inspections.
One of the few mentions of Brewer in Norton’s campaign literature criticized the mayor’s poor record at managing federal housing funds: A federal audit this year called for East Cleveland to pay back between $160,000 and $600,000 in housing grants because of improper or poorly documented spending.
“The resources to save East Cleveland are located outside East Cleveland,” he says. “We have to go get ’em.”
NORTON'S PREDECESSORS have also tried to mount civic comeback efforts and reach outside the city for help.
Brewer almost doubled the size of the police department and got county sheriff deputies to help patrol the city. Most types of crime have dropped during his term. He also fulfilled his biggest campaign promise: After cascading into office on a tide of discontent over high water bills, he negotiated Cleveland’s takeover of the water system. Once-punishing water bills have dropped.
Twice, Brewer even flew to a shopping center convention in Las Vegas to try to attract developers. He failed, but there’s no guarantee Norton will do better.
Voters turned on Brewer because he was too forceful. Watching city leaders on cable access is a popular pastime in East Cleveland, both civics lesson and live theater. For every resident who loved Brewer, the suave fighter who cut their water bill and paved their street, more were horrified to watch him bully the council and turn hostile toward citizen critics at meetings.
“There are a lot of people who voted for Gary solely because he is not Eric,” says Pat Blochowiak, a school board member. She says she supported Norton but wouldn’t raise money for him because he’s failed to follow campaign-finance rules in the past.
Norton did not file reports for his 2005 city council campaign, or any subsequent reports, until June 2009. The Ohio Elections Commission fined him $200 for one violation and $25 per day for the others. The daily fines total more than $34,000 — almost as much as the $40,000 he’ll make as mayor next year — though he can petition the commission to reconsider and possibly resolve the matter for as little as $100 to $500. Meanwhile, a finance report for his mayoral race was three weeks late as of mid-November. Norton says he’ll petition for a rehearing. “I will comply with the law and [file] anything I have to file,” Norton says.
Ask Norton supporters what he’s accomplished, and they praise him for restoring order to the once-volatile council. Then they demur and say the mayor’s lead role and friction with Brewer made it hard for Norton to put his stamp on changes.
This infuriates Brewer supporters. “He’s done nothing for the city but promise,” says Bernice Ewing, who worked on Brewer’s campaign. “People knew he wasn’t doing anything, but when I was walking in his ward, people were saying, ‘Well, he can’t do nothing unless he was mayor.’ They should know better.”
Norton says he improved services by adding funds to fix streetlights and pushing for street repairs. Residents know they can turn to him for help, he says: “Most people in town have my cell phone number.” (He printed it in his campaign flyers.)
Norton’s opponents also try to tie him to the Brewer photo scandal. When the cross-dressing pictures came out in September, Brewer called a press conference and, without offering evidence, accused Norton and his supporters of distributing them. Norton has repeatedly said he and his campaign did not do so.
Brewer declined to speak with Cleveland Magazine. “I’m not inclined to participate in local media interviews at this time,” he said in a message relayed by an assistant. “I’m returning to private life on Dec. 31.”
The photos did not cause Brewer’s defeat, voting returns show. The mayor did better on Election Day than on absentee ballots, which were mostly cast before the pictures were broadcast.
Norton says the scandal embarrassed the city, hurt his effort to run a positive campaign about issues and made his new job harder. “They’ll always be able to say I put ’em out, which makes them think that I’m a dirty politician,” he says.
FOUR YEARS FROM NOW, when his first term as mayor ends, Norton says his efforts to demolish vacant buildings should be easy to see. “Areas that used to be eyesores would now be grass, either available for development or being developed,” he says.
He wants the city to establish the long-term plans most well-governed cities have, for development, zoning and capital improvements. He wants to replace the ramshackle City Hall, built in pieces between 1855 and 1958, but probably won’t have the money until the city pays off debt it incurred to get out of state-declared fiscal emergency in 2006.
By 2013, Norton says, he hopes to “stem the tide of people leaving East Cleveland” and have people “considering, if not choosing, to locate in East Cleveland.” He’s being careful, mixing ambition and realism.
“One of his great challenges is how do you manage expectations?” says Peter Lawson Jones. East Cleveland’s “frustrated and angry residents” are impatient for results, he says, but the city has been declining for decades, so recovery will also take a long time.
The county land bank could tear down hundreds of buildings a year in East Cleveland, says Jim Rokakis. But he’s skeptical that Norton, or any mayor, can reverse East Cleveland’s fortunes.
“The ultimate answer there is to try to work for a merger with Cleveland,” Rokakis says. “Cleveland is a stable government with an established infrastructure of services, an expertise and skill level at senior positions.”
When Rokakis floated that idea several years ago, it got a poor reception in East Cleveland. So Norton’s reaction to it is surprising and groundbreaking.
“If remaining its own city is best for East Cleveland, that’s what we do,” the mayor-elect says. “If a merger is best for East Cleveland, that’s what we do.”
Or, something in between might be best, Norton says, such as Cleveland managing other services for East Cleveland in addition to water. It depends on what Cleveland offers.
“Nothing is off the table that could improve the lives of East Clevelanders,” he says.