HE MOMENT SHE WALKS into the room, it is hers. "I am a politician," Stephanie Tubbs Jones boasts to this roomful of kids, seventh- and eighth-grade student council officers from the suburbs, "and I'm proud of it." Student council is the beginning of politics." She stands before them, erect, the picture of confidence and pride.
They sit here at Brooklyn Middle School, come from Beachwood and Aurora and other very white suburbs. Their teachers are with them, and Brooklyn Mavor John Coyne showed up to say hello. Prosecutor Jones is the only black person in the room. Later, she will say she doesn't even think about that anymore, that she travels around the county so much, speaking in front of so many groups, that she's accustomed to being a minority of one. Watching her connect with these children, almost breathless as she strides between their tables, making such an obvious effort to give them something, anything they'll remember a week from now, she certainly doesn't appear distracted by more somber thoughts.
On the other hand, even her sister says Jones "can really work a room." She doesn't patronize the students.
"You are starting a political life," she tells them, "by representing people in your schools. They have trusted you ... there's an expectation that vour conduct will be above reproach. That puts an extra burden on you."
She asks those in their second terms, "How come you got re-elected?"
"Because," one little blonde states, "I'm popular."
"When you have a chance to tell people why you were re-elected, you say, 'Because I did a good job,' "Jones instructs the group. "I'm grooming politicians here."
Then the tables turn and the students get to do the asking. One wants to know what her next job will be; aware that a reporter sits in the back of the room, Jones appears to make a spot decision: Since the reporter is
probably already aware of the rumors, let's not waste everyone's time dancing around them.
"I'm fluid, trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up," she responds, a subtle reference to those rumors — that she will soon become a federal judge, will soon be U.S. Attorney, will run for higher elective offices. "There are things to be considered about proposals being made to me."
While this story was being reported, Jones made her decision: She will "throw her hat in the ring" for a federal judgeship. One day, she thinks, she just might be the first black woman Justice of the Supreme Court of the
STEPHANIE TUBBS JONES made history when she was elected prosecutor of Cuyahoga County by her fellow Democrats, barely two years ago, by a margin of only 40 votes out of nearly 1,100 votes cast. At 43, she is the first and only black woman prosecutor of a major metropolitan area in the United States. "I don't glory in being first," she says, "but I hope I don't see myself being last."
The job pays handsomely — about $83,000 — but she earns it; she heads a staff of 230, including 150 attorneys, that handles about 36,000 cases a year. Hers is Ohio's busiest prosecutor's office, handling some 28 percent of the criminal cases in the state, presided over by the most judges (34) in the most municipalities (59). She also serves as legal counsel for all elected officials, judges, the county's nine library systems, Olmsted Township, county commissions and boards (such as the Board of Elections), and a staff of 12 civil lawyers reviews all county contracts. Twenty more lawyers work on nothing but child-support enforcement, and five serve in a special drug unit.
Jones can already point to accomplishments. She computerized the department and has begun supplemental training both for her staff and for law-enforcement agencies across the county. "They have to know the law if they want to do a good job," she explains, "and search and seizure, forfeiture, all that stuff changes constantly. We're informing them. The best witness is a well-prepared witness."
There is that view of Jones — the pioneer, the achiever, the bright, personable young woman attorney who, in spite of her celebrity, still lives in Glenville and speaks in terms of "all that stuff" instead of strutting her legal expertise of her high position in conversation.
But the other view — the slightly sinister one, the view that suggests Jones is motivated by more than healthy ambition — cannot be disregarded.
Since Stephanie Tubbs Jones became prosector, her office:
—Appears to be, in effect, ignoring the welfare fraud investigation that was initiated by Jones's predecessor and was described by a former investigator as comprehensive, involving"millions and millions of taxpayer dollars.;
—Likewise did not indict former City Council President George Forbes on those same matters;
—Bargained away the case of Lou Tsipis, former Metroparks director, and three associates whose alleged wrongdoings cost taxpayers $700,000 so that they will serve no jail time;
—Gave similar wrist-slaps to former Shaker Heights Municipal Court Judge Paul Donaldson and his wife and bailiff, Kathleen Leishman-Donaldson, who were indicted together on more than 100 counts of theft; she pled to 10 misdemeanors and received no jail time, and the judge was placed on probation;
—Did not investigate the seven Cleveland City Council members whose expense accounts were found by a newspaper reporter to allegedly to have been abused;
—Did not indict Cleveland Browns football players Reggie Langhorne and Webster Slaughter after they were publicly accused of rape.
Not surprisingly, the observation has been made: If you are a public official or big name in Cuyahoga County, you're mighty happy to have Stephanie Tubbs Jones as your county prosecutor.
Jones's family never expected her to lead such a ferocious existence. "She was quiet," her mother, Mary Tubbs, recalss. "The others would be playing, running, but she'd be sitting on the step, playing with a doll or just watching. You wonder what she might have been thinking about."
Mary and Andrew Tubbs, married for 40 years, still live on the tidy little street off Eddy Road where they moved when Stephanie was in junior high school. "There was one neighbor, Mr. Garrett, who would tell me, 'Mrs. Tubbs, I see something in this girl. She's going to make something of herself, you wait and see.'" She pauses and smiles. "He was so happy over Stephanie."
Jones was not only an exemplary student at Collinwood High School — she was presented 10 academic and athletic awards during the graduation ceremony and won a full scholarship to Case Western Reserve University — she was also the stereotypical "good girl. From the cradle on through, she's been in church," Mary Tubbs says proudly of her daughter, a trustee at Bethany Baptist Church. "Even when she was a teenager, other mothers would call me about some party or event; they'd say, 'If Stephanie's going, then I'll allow my child to go, too.'"
Her sister, Barbara Walker, agrees. "She studied late hours," recalls Walker, an executive with Aetna Capital Management, "and there were no wild times. You did the right thing. You didn't hang out late; you didn't hang out. There were curfews and you abided by those things. I can never remember her getting into trouble of any kind."
Jones began at CWRU as a social work major, but one class in her senior year, "Law as it Relates to the Black Community," changed her direction. She won another scholarship and enrolled in CWRU's law school. After earning her doctorate in law, Jones worked for three years as an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor, then two years as a trial attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Cleveland office.
Her best friends continued to be her buddies from high school and college, and she saw them whenever she could. One day, she remembers, "we were having a discussion about municipal judgeships and the importance of having persons of color on the bench. We looked at each other. At some point that day, I decided — or we decided — that I would run for municipal judge."
She was elected Municipal Court Judge in November 1981. Barely a year later, in early 1983, then Gov. Richard Celeste appointed her Common Pleas Judge in Cuyahoga County — the first black woman in the state to sit on a Common Pleas bench. She was elected the following year, defeating Sam A. Zingale by more than 61,000 votes, and re-elected handily four years later with John Coyne, mayor of Brooklyn and chairman of the county Democratic Party, co-chairing her 1988 campaign.
"I was impressed by her," he says today. "After she came out here and talked a few times, people would greet her, 'Hi, Stephanie!' like she was one of the family. That's amazing in a community that's pretty white. She does grow on people."
Jones's years as attorney for the EEOC, and an earlier stint working for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer Development board, were expedient for grooming networks for suburban supporters. When Judge Mary Cacioppo of Cuyahoga Falls dropped out of the Ohio Supreme Court race in 1990 for health reasons, the Party needed a candidate to run against incumbent Republican Justice J. Craig Wright. Just four months before the election, Jones was drafted.
The Supreme Court race would be her first, and so far, only loss — but it was hardly a setback; more than 1.3 million people voted for her, and she came within three percentage points of unseating Wright, whose campaign was marked by not-so-thinly-veiled racist and sexist remarks. "You have to remember," he told reporters, referring to Jones, "that you are the judge of all the people. You must treat everybody as though they are the same in front of the law ..." — an obvious implication that, because Jones was black or female or both, she was incapable of professional objectivity.
Party leaders knew they had a vote-getter in their ranks. The following year, when longtime prosecutor John T. Corrigan announced that he was relinquishing his kingdom in mid-term after 34 years in that office, there was a movement to see that his son, Common Pleas Judge Michael J. Corrigan, assumed the father's mantle.
But another movement was underfoot, too, led in part by Council President Jay Westbrook, to make Stephanie Tubbs Jones the new prosecutor. Others — State Senator Jeffrey Johnson, Judge Burt W. Griffin — indicated they also wanted the position, but dropped out in time to give Jones their support. When it came time for the Party's Executive Committee of more than 1,000 to cast their votes, it was a contest between Jones and Michael Corrigan.
There was the usual gossip and bickering about who was supporting whom; County Commissioner Mary O. Boyle, always friendly with Jones, had promised her support to Corrigan before Jones entered the race. Boyle returned from a vacation to learn Jones was running, but Boyle was stuck. Some insiders say she still regrets not switching, but Boyle counters that it was a matter of not breaking a promise.
"The part I'm most uncomfortable with is, I probably should have thought about who would run," Boyle says today, "but Stephanie was a judge, so I had kind of boxed her in my mind. I probably would have supported her if I hadn't [already] taken a position — though politically, it would have been tempting not to support anyone."
Boyle makes the point, too, that she did talk to both candidates to inform them they were crazy to want the job, and when she gave Corrigan's nominating speech, she stated that both candidates were well qualified.
Jones won 541 votes, just 40 more than Corrigan, who still says there is "some question as to whether she won," though in the end he decided not to challenge the tally. Voters, he says, were each given an envelope with a blank piece of blue paper in it. When it was time to vote for Corrigan, Corrigan's supporters passed their blue slips down the rows to monitors waiting in the aisles, then the same procedure was followed to cast vote for Jones. There were no written botets, no ballots with printed names, just little blue pieces of paper.
One vote was taken, counted three times. In the first two counts, Corrigan received more votes, but in the final tally, Jones won.
For 34 years, there had been "no reasonable prospect of a new prosecutor coming in," explains Carmen Marino, promoted by Jones to first assistant prosecutor. "Most people, like myself, are career prosecutors. The office got used to being very stable. I think everyone here, when Mrs. Jones started, had been hired by Corrigan — including Mrs. Jones."
None of the attorneys knew whether Jones would enact some sort of political retribution; a good number of her staff had actively campaigned for Corrigan. When she first walked into her office, Jones says, "the tension was so thick you could have cut it with a knife — people didn't know what the hell I was going to do. But the most important thing for me to accomplish was to keep this office moving. I told them, if you stay, my expectation is that you'll be loyal — and I have since told them that I appreciate it."
The "beautiful thing," she addis, is that the day she started, she "already knew 100 people by name — at least." That comfort level was important because within weeks she had to begin campaigning to keep her new office. "I started talking about support for the next election as soon as I got in," she says, "because it was going to be here in a matter of minutes."
But she won the 1991 election and settled in to begin a controversial remodeling of the office ("This isn't about spiral staircases," says one assistant prosecutor who asked not to be named. "It's about prosecuting rapists and murderers and thieves.") and computerizing. Some staff refer to her as "Princess Stephanie" behind her back; others declined to speak for this article because they still fear some form of punishment in the case they would say something that displeased her.
SITTING WITH JONES in Piccolo Mondo at the end of the workday, she seems anything but threatening. Her manner is warm and casual as she orders Vina Sol, a semi-sweet white wine, and oysters and fried calamari appetizers. When the waiter brings a basket of bread, Jones asks for a second helping becore she takes a bite — and every bite is saturated with the delicious lemon oil the waiter places in front of her.
Jones is so personable, in fact, so "regular," that one cannot help but ponder the incongruities between her engaging personality and the stories of power wielding and manipulations. Wherever the scales balance, no one disputes that Jones is a masterful politician.
She has answers for every provocative inquiry. When Gov. Celeste commuted the sentences of eight battered women who had been imprisoned for killing their violently abusive male partners, newspapers reported that Jones joined other prosecutors throughout the state in protesting the commutations. "We have a lot of good things to say about Stephanie Tubbs Jones," says Terry Halfacre, president of the Cleveland chapter of the National Organization for Women, "but that's something we wish she hadn't done. Ohio was one of the few states that didn't allow Battered Women's Syndrome testimony as admissible, and there was an expectation that she would stand with us. We were devastated when she didn't."
Jones responds that she does, in fact, strongly support such testimony and that the prosecutors were not attacking Celeste's position but simply the procedure he followed. "No one's ever said anything about this to me," she responds. "I have never even received a letter. I would be very much willing to discuss why I did what I did — and how much I support the battered women's defense."
Her office has been characterized as the third most powerful position in the state, after the governor and speaker of the House, simply because of the ability to either proceed with prosecution against an individual or agency or to pull back from prosecuting. Looking at the famous cases she has overseen in the past two years — investigations of Mayor White, George Forbes, the Donaldsons, the football players, Metroparks officials and her choice not to investigate City Council members — the county prosecutor's power has never been more clear. This official's decisions affect every person living in Greater Cleveland.
She and her appointees offer answers, too, for her handling of those cases.
On the Donaldsons: Nobody [in the media] looked at the fact that the judge left the bench in conjunction with his plea of guilty," Jones says.
On Webster Slaughter: "If a victim is unwilling to testify, there's really no way in heck I can make a case."
On the Metroparks Director, Lou Tsipis: "We always look for, did they line their pockets? [Tsipis] did not," explains Carmen Marino. "There were some improprieties. If they needed money for advertising, say, he might take it from research or promotion. That type of situation, you're sort of shaky going before a jury."
On the City Council expense-account scandal, Jones echoes her earlier explanations to reporters: "We're not in the true sense, an investigative agency. Our job is prosecuting. To do a truly thorough job on that, we would have to do not just those seven [council members]: we would have to do all 21 and go back seven years — then was there criminal intent? The IRS is looking into it, and other agencies that have the wherewithal. Every illegal act is not criminal conduct: they were working under a system that had been in place."
In other words, Jones seems to be saying, for some select people, ignorance — if they were ignorant of their possible offenses — is a defense.
Regarding the investigation of Mike White's real-estate investments, Jones made both sides unhappy. White's supporters were angry when Jones served him with a subpoena while he was hosting the National Conference of Mayors in April 1991 and scheduled his appearance for the eve of the Democratic Leadership Council meeting here. Jones and White had not been political allies: she voted for George Forbes for mayor of Cleveland (because she was a judge at the time, she could not technically "support" any candidate), and when Jones ran for Ohio Supreme Court in 1990, White refused to support her.
After White testified before the grand jury, there was a rumor circulating that Jones had sent an assistant prosecutor into the grand jury to instruct them not to indict White — and that, in spite of Jones's direction, the grand jury only let White off the hook by one vote.
Jones doesn't want to comment on that rumor, citing "the secret nature of grand jury proceedings," and Steve Dever, the assistant prosecutor handling that case declined to be interviewed. Jones does elaborate on the process, though, explaining that five or six experienced prosecutors sit down before the grand-jury hearings and look at the evidence, punch holes in it —so there aren't instructions to indict or not indict. There are discussions on whether there's sufficient evidence supporting a potential indictment to go to trial and get a conviction.
"The import of what I've been trying to do is bigger than a Mike White or City Council expense reports. I have a responsibility to be decent ... the things the media focuses on are not necessarily the most important decisions I've made."
One former assistant prosecutor who asked not to be named takes a different view: "The lady has a problem with white-collar investigations because she's a politician, not a prosecutor."
No one was closer to Jones's investigative policies than Doug Weiner, at one time the assistant prosecutor in charge of the welfare probe, who was fired by Jones because they could not agree on how the investigation should be handled. "I loved the idea of being a prosecutor, being the guys on the white horses going after the bad guys," he says with a clearly bitter smile. "I never lost a case — 22 white collar investigations and I nailed every one. I was good."
While Weiner is reluctant to speak negatively about his old boss, he concedes that handling the probe according to Jones's wishes would have been, in his view, a moral compromise. Among other objections, Weiner disagreed with Jones's participation in selecting a grand jury for the probe, which targeting Eugene Jordan, her dentist and an old friend. "And because of the stance I took, I've made a lot of money since I left," he says, "just from people who say, 'I want you to represent me because you're not in anybody's pocket.' If I had to do it all over, I wouldn't change anything."
The probe, for what it's worth, proceeds sluggishly, headed by Thomas Sammon, a 21-year veteran of the prosecutor's office. "It's ongoing," he reports. "We're still looking into the providers we originally were looking at ..." One trial, scheduled for January 25th, had just been postponed at press time.
WHEREVER STEPHANIE Tubbs Jones is headed, she'll have plenty of support. Jones has a second sister, Mattie Still, living in California — a cousin, actually, "but we grew up together and as far as I'm concerned, we're sisters." Her "political adviser" is Betty K. Pinkney, who says these days she's still advising Jones to "be honest, think for yourself, and do the best job you can." Her pastor, Rev. Albert T. Rowan of Bethany Baptist Church, is a close friend, and she manages to give time to Delta Sigma Theta, a national women's service sorority.
Not that there is much time to negotiate. Jones also has a family: her 9-year-old son, Mervyn Leroy Jr., who attends Hawken School, and her "biggest supporter," husband Mervyn L., who declined to be interviewed and whose criminal past has been widely reported.
It happened a long time ago: Mervyn was convicted in 1976 of voluntary manslaughter for killing a former girlfriend's cousin. Mervyn testified that the gun went off accidentally when he was shoved into a wall; after serving three months, he was released on shock probation and now operates his own business.
The Joneses had met at a disco. "He likes to say I knocked people over trying to get to him," she says, laughing. The killing happened after the couple were already close and didn't change Jones's view of Mervyn "because we already knew each other well."
Her sister, Barbara, remembers the terrible incident. "I think for any family that would be a difficult situation to deal with or even understand. The apporach I took was, you know this person, you're going to have to reckon with this. Because if a person is hell-bent on doing something, you'd better stand back and let her do it.
"And you know, he's a real neat guy. I love him as a brother and a friend, and she loves him, and they're a family — and it's okay. It's okay."
The couple married in November 1976, and Mervyn's record had "not been a liability," she says mater-of-factly. "And in our society, if we believe in rehabilitation, then when do we let them rehabilitate? He's my biggest supporter; when I was trying to decide what name to use for office — Jones, Tubbs Jones, whatever — you know what he said? 'Use whatever name will get you elected.' Not ever man would be that supportive."
(Jones's scheduler, and former bailiff, Donell Brown, is also a former felon who was once convicted on drug and abduction charges.)
For now, the family lives in a stately looking brick home on Wade Park, flanked by families Jones knew when she was growing up. Soon, though, Jones's career will probably take them from their "real neighborhood."
Jones is going after a federal judgeship. Mayor Mike White, who was unwilling to be interviewed for this article, is said to support her in seeking a high judicial position so that she will not run against him in the future; a federal judgeship can mean political oblivion. Jones, however, responds that she has not discussed a federal judgeship with White.
"I've heard discussions, too, that she could be a U.S. Attorney if she wants it," says Commissioner Mary Boyle. "We've talked about it a little ... I see her on the Supreme Court of the United States." When this reporter referred to that event as a fantasy, Boyle came back with, "I don't want you to call it a fantasy. I want you to call it a potential reality."
Jones was, in fact, approached by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum regarding the U.S. Attorney post and, she says, "passed on that. I felt it was a lateral move."
Jones also believes that becoming the first black woman to sit on the Supreme Court is a perfectly reasonable pursuit: "It's conceivable — but if it's the goal I choose, I'd better accept the federal judgeship right away."
She sees herself not as a woman who has it all, but as one who has "been blessed, like I've been given the opportunity to do whatever I want to do ... I know a lot of people paid dues, sacrificed, lost life and prayed for me to get where I am.
"I believe God has blessed me — and I believe He can take away the gifts he's given me if I don't watch it."