You only have to spend about 10 minutes in the company of Stephanie Tubbs Jones to understand why she is so popular. The 53-year-old 11th District congresswoman exudes genuine warmth and good humor. She has a down-to-earth demeanor unvarnished by the slickness many politicians acquire.
She arrives at the Lyndhurst Community Center for a fall speaking engagement behind the wheel of her own Mercury Sable, unattended by the entourage of assistants that usually accompanies one of her stature. She chats with voters and reporters as if they were neighbors from the Glenville neighborhood in which she spent her childhood.
She even manages to express supreme self-assurance in a matter-of-fact tone that does not offend. When asked if she thinks she’ll be re-elected for a second term in November, she nods as she applies lipstick and surveys the group of seniors waiting for her.
“I try not to be too confident,’ she says as she slips the lipstick back into her purse. “But I am.” Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, who also serves as Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chairman, remembers that Tubbs Jones’ likeability made a big impression on him back in the early ‘80s, when he was mayor of Bedford Heights and she was a Cleveland municipal Court judge campaigning for a seat on the Cuyahoga County common pleas court.
“Normally, judges are kind of conservative and low-key,” he says. “She was vibrant, strong-voiced, smiling a lot, very personable.”
The daughter of a United Airlines skycap and an American Greetings factory worker blazed a political trail out of the county for other black women to follow. Tubbs Jones was the first African-American candidate to be elected to the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s seat and the first black woman to represent Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is widely assumed that her name recognition, core base of support and ability to draw votes from both the East and West sides of Cleveland would have easily put her in the mayor’s office had she chosen to run for it in 2001.
“I don’t believe she would have had any competition [in the Democratic Party],” Dimora says. “I don’t think any of those folks, especially the top-tier candidates — Jane Campbell, Mary Rose Oakar and Tim McCormack — would have run against her. Campbell publicly stated that if Stephanie Tubbs Jones decided to run, she definitely would not be a candidate. She was emphatic with that statement. Here you have the actual winner of the mayor’s race saying that she would not be a candidate if Stephanie ran for the office!”
Tubbs Jones, of course, chose the U.S. Capitol over Cleveland City Hall. And her early endorsement of political underdog Raymond Pierce lifted the formerly unknown mayoral candidate past the primary and into a tight race with Campbell for the city’s top office.
“That was not an easy decision to make,” Tubbs Jones says of passing on a job that was hers for the taking. “I grew up in Cleveland, had lived in Cleveland all my life. It was something, to be asked to consider running for mayor. On the other hand, I had just assumed a great office as a member of Congress. I had to decide where I could be of most service to the people I represent.”
In Congress, she has been outspoken against predatory home-lending practices and an advocate for increased minority home-ownership opportunities. Similarly, she has introduced legislation to make more capital available for community-based economic development.
Her next goal? To become the first African-American woman on the House Ways and Means Committee.