Boxing champion Larry Holmes’ left jab was as powerful as the piston on a steam locomotive. He was far and away the best boxer of his era, but he was forever overshadowed by the previous heavyweight champ, the self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time,” Muhammad Ali.
Congresswoman Marcia Fudge has a similar problem. The leader of Cuyahoga County’s black elected officials, widely acknowledged in Washington as a hard-working and bright newcomer, has struggled at home — outshined by memories of her predecessor with the million-megawatt personality, the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones.
But there’s more at stake than Fudge’s place on the fight card: Her actions over the coming months have the ability to reshape Cleveland politics for years to come. We are at a critical political moment. The one-two punch of our nation’s first black president and the historic overhaul of Cuyahoga County’s government have combined for a potential heavyweight thriller.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Obama’s ascendancy in the presidential race caused a surge of young African-Americans to choose politics as a career. A record 62 people filed to run for Cleveland City Council this past fall, an overwhelming percentage of them minorities. And according to the Pew Research Center, nearly twice as many blacks (39 percent) now say that the “situation of black people in this country” is better than it was five years earlier.
Certainly Obama’s victory has opened a door of hope for young candidates of color, but it remains to be seen how many of them will seize the opportunity by engaging in the hard, sometimes dreary work of grassroots politics. Without significant effort by a lot of new and seasoned talent, Cleveland’s Obama moment may pass us all by.
That’s where Fudge comes in. As a member of Congress, Fudge must organize her district’s street-level politicians and ward leaders into a cohesive force that can be mobilized when faced with important issues. That’s how Charlie Carr, George Forbes and Carl Stokes got things done.
Yet, the power vacuum created by Tubbs Jones’ unexpected death and the steady decline of the previous generation of black leadership have made this tough on Fudge. She must wrangle many disparate personalities, including politicians who secretly feel they would do better in her congressional seat.
Consider a January meeting Fudge organized for 11th Congressional District precinct committee members: The empty seats and sign-in sheets at the Fatima Family Center near the former League Park spoke volumes. Not one person from Kevin Conwell’s Ward 9 (Glenville, Little Italy and University Circle) showed up, and attendance from other wards was almost as bad.
One reason for the low turnout: About 20 percent of the 1,069 precinct committee seats in Cuyahoga County were unfilled at the time, and the percentage of vacancies in the 11th Congressional District was probably higher. Why? Too many hopefuls don’t want to learn the ropes as a precinct committee member or neighborhood activist and work their way up; they feel entitled to start off at the top of the ticket. For example, a December Cleveland State University forum offering advice to young blacks and Latinos seeking civic leadership roles in a transformed county government was sparsely attended by those it was designed to help.
A cursory look at the names on the ballot during the recent mayoral election and the candidates who have filed for the upcoming 11-seat County Council races reveal that many people (both black and white) think they merely have to put their names on the ballot and — presto! — they’re in the business of legislating how other folks live their lives.
Perhaps the competency level of our current officials is one reason these neophytes feel they can so easily win election. Never in recent memory have local black officeholders, taken as a group, been so bereft of talent as this current crop (not to say that some of the whites are much
Of course, there are notable exceptions. Jeff Johnson re-emerged to claim his former Ward 8 City Council seat after a prison sentence for extortion sidelined him from politics for close to a decade. On his first night back in Council chambers, he chastised a department director who was shooting the breeze in the back of the room instead of listening to discussions that affected his department.
According to Zack Reed (another exception), the practice is nothing new. “The reason it goes on is because too many of my colleagues don’t have the courage of their convictions,” he says. “They’re afraid if they really do their jobs, someone at City Hall might get mad at them.
“President Obama asked all of us to step up and do something, to get committed and become passionate about something,” Reed adds. “But a lot of people, both in and out of politics, … obviously didn’t get the memo.”
So who else seems ready to stand up and fight?
Count Fudge in. By the Feb. 18 board of elections filing deadline, she had pushed City Council members and ward leaders hard enough that all of the vacant precinct committee member seats were filled.
The next opportunity will come in the fall when voters elect the new County Council. All 11 seats will be hotly contested, and because only 50 valid signatures are required to get on the ballot, some individuals who have never attended a ward club meeting or otherwise been involved in their community will place their name on the ballot and hope they get lucky.
As one political observer noted, “Hey, the gig pays 45 grand a year, and in these tough times that ain’t too bad for some folks.”
The hope is that talented, hardworking newcomers will throw their hats into the ring even after taking some early political lumps. Curtis L. Thompson II, a former high school track star and Web developer for East Cleveland, lost to Mike Polensek for City Council in November, and Anthony Hairston, a Cleveland State University student, was defeated in his bid to represent Cleveland’s 10th Ward. But they’d make a nice undercard to seasoned pros such as retired Judge C. Ellen Connally for the four council seats in majority-black districts.
That’s why Fudge is so important. She must be the heavyweight who brings them along — even if she doesn’t yet pack the punch of her predecessor.