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Issue Date: May 1974


Ralph Perk’s Flight to Washington

A primer on how to abandon Cleveland and use the "little people" for political ends.
Edward P. Whelan
City government may be going to hell, but Ralph J. Perk has not lost any of his poise. He's looking better than ever — his white boots gleaming, his once singed hair now coiffured and his ego swelling with the helium of senatorial dreams — as he tries to leave Cleveland and its problems behind. The only trouble is, unlike his evangelistic campaigns of the past, Perk's bid for the U.S. Senate is not generating much enthusiasm. It seems that his crusading mantle as a man bent on destroying the evil that threatened his "little people" is wearing thin. And it isn't his enemies who have made it threadbare.

Perk's decision to run for the U.S. Senate has left him virtually alone, separated from supporters who stood by him through a generation of street politics and alienated from the few knowledgeable advisers who once helped out at the hall. They all want him to remain in Cleveland.

Granted, Perk has turned himself into a convincing snake-oil salesman and may make it to the Senate on the strength of his pitch, but in the process, he has lost Cleveland and in his own way leaves behind everyone who helped make him powerful here.

What all this means, of course, is that the business of running a big city and keeping allies has degenerated while, since late last year, the mayor has been flying off to Washington in knit suits and white patent leather boots to meet with Republican strategists, raise campaign money and stay in the best Washington hotels. (Since his decision to run for the Senate, Perk no longer stays at the cheaper fringe motels he once patronized as a working mayor. It's all big-time now.)

"No one smiles here anymore," says a City Hall aide. "We just go through the motions and go home at five o'clock. We used to stay later because we believed in the mayor."

"He's really screwing his little people," says City Council President George L. Forbes. "They're the brunt of a cruel political joke.

"Perk's the shrewdest politician I've ever seen," Forbes concedes, but adds with a twisted smile, "We got a saying down south: •Even the fastest raccoon slips once, and then the dogs are ready.' "

What really exacerbates the situation is that as Perk plays national and state politics, the city is being operated from crisis to crisis with no overall direction. What projects were implemented under Perk are now, for the most part, mired. In essence, when there's no leadership at the top, it is difficult to have inspired workers beneath. Perk has enjoyed playing mayor without being mayor.

The degenerating situation is perfectly illustrated by a West Side businessman who for two months had been seeking a turning lane into the driveway of his small factory. If he didn't get the lane, he told city officials, he would be forced to move his company and its 100 employees out of Cleveland. He telephoned various city commissioners who said they could not authorize such a street change without the mayor's approval. Since Perk was not in town, they couldn't get it. In any other administration, such a decision would have been made at the clerk level, but because of Perk's insistence on hording all power, nothing could be done. And the commissioners were too intimidated to take such authority upon themselves.

Perk's sanctimonious ego was big when he first entered the mayor's office two-and-one-half years ago, but today it has consumed everything, to the detriment of his personal relations and the operations of City Hall.

Even more importantly, it has caused Perk to lose much of the constituency who had given dignity over the years to his political strivings simply because they accepted him at face value, especially when he declared during the last two mayoral campaigns: "All I want is to be mayor of Cleveland the rest of my life."

But the possibility of White House invitations and mixing with the beautiful people was too much, and he couldn't resist.

For all his maneuvering, Perk never counted on what turned out to be the astronaut in the woodpile. And now the mayor is biting his manicured fingernails, for if John Glenn takes the measure of Howard Metzenbaum in the Democratic primary this month, Perk may as well stand aside. He is not a man equipped to run against a hero.

In recent weeks, Glenn's presence has cast a shadow of gloom over everything Perk does. To a few friends Perk has admitted that he would like to recant, but he can't. His ambitions are too strong and the commitment has been made.

Nevertheless, the decision itself is what startled Perk's people; it was, they said, an incongruity, because to them Perk was the man of the hour in 1971, when he railed against four wasteful years of Carl B. Stokes.

And, although he has not really done much for the city and still conveniently uses Stokes as his bete noire, he has remained up until now a symbol of ethnic success, and, to an ever-diminishing number, a symbol of sincerity.

Yet to those who know Perk the Politician, his actions were predictable. He is a man given to facile lying when the situation warrants, and a man whose public pronouncements belie his private actions. A onetime Perk prophet, councilman Dennis Kucinich, a pure ethnic, has turned sour on Perk and now attacks him publicly. Privately he talks about the mayor's intellectual dishonesty and even keeps a scrap-book of Perk's newspaper clippings entitled: "Ralph Perk: A Campaign Guide or I didn't say what you thought you heard I said."

 

In assaying what has happened to Perk and Co. and the city, a brief history lesson is needed. Perk got himself elected by promising he could run City Hall without an income tax increase, with just some good old-fashioned ethnic belt tightening. All the weeds would turn to roses. The message was thinly disguised: Get the Stokes' blacks off the payroll.

People tired of Stokes' brand of politics saw Perk as a fresh alternative, a man who really cared about his city and nothing else. But like others before him, Perk played the political game. In many ways it was more political and more vicious than that of previous mayors, because Perk really had true believers whom he deceived.

He began laying off the blacks, all right, but in their places he hired his own people. The news coverage of Perk's methods never was as brutal as it was for Stokes, or if it was occasionally. Perk simply wrung his hands before the television camera, pleaded innocence, and offered up some dumb aide to the mob.

The key to that success, the key to conning the constituency, is best summed up by Bob Hughes, Cuyahoga County Republican co-chairman, who will be either a goat or a genius in this year of Watergate for promoting Perk's Senate ambitions: "Perk doesn't innovate. He reacts, but he always turns up on the politically right side of an issue. In other words, how can you fight his God Squad?"

Yet, while Perk cut ribbons, sipped tea at card parties, spoke to ladies' auxiliaries about patriotism and escorted Cub Scout troops through his redecorated offices, his hacks were making their own mess of city government, which, in the end, might be reason enough to want to get out of town.

When Jim Dickerson, the mayor's executive assistant who recently resigned because he couldn't take the foibles of the mayor's politics, undertook daily operations of City Hall last year, he found everything disorganized and government subverted to the mayor's whims. In the health department, Dickerson discovered five men on the payroll as nurses and another man, confined to a wheelchair, listed as a courier.

City Hall was chaotic, but it wasn't so bad in the public eye, because the chaos was not black chaos. Besides, when Perk really was in trouble, when his wrists were about to be cut by his political opponents or by the news media, he simply got himself chauffeured over to the newspapers and pleaded with editors for sympathy. (Editors on both dailies who helped Perk get his last endorsement were also conned and thought he would stay in town. They personally tried to talk him out of running for the Senate.) But in the end, even hobnobbing with the news managers in town isn't in itself a healthy practice. Stokes had found his integrity compromised by this practice and abandoned it, thus setting himself up as fair game for the media. As Perk's tenure progressed, problems were seething beneath the surface, kept from exposure only by Perk's running the city on charm alone.

The biggest problem may have been that Perk tried to play ethnic politics too seriously, that is, turning city government into a bureau of employment services for anyone who had an accent.

Thus the ethnic drones — drones is one of Perk's favorite words — were cluttering the payroll as fast as blacks were axed. They were hidden in all departments and given fancy titles, because titles had become status symbols in the administration.

Once, one of Perk's many ethnic advisers strolled into Dickerson's office and asked him to put a cronie on the payroll as an architect.

"What are his qualifications?" asked Dickerson.

"No matter, Dicker," replied the adviser. "He doesn't have a degree, but the title looks good on a business card."

Another time ethnic adviser Vaclav Hyvnar went before a committee formed by Perk to choose a new human resources director. Hyvnar complained that by interviewing the leading candidate for the position, Joseph Furber, a department commissioner, the committee was being unfair to Bodhan Futey, Hyvnar's candidate.

"It's not right for you to interview a man who is better qualified," Hyvnar told the committee, "because he will show the other man up." Dickerson and the committee shuddered at the Alice in Wonderland logic, and Furber won the job. But to keep peace at the Lakeside Avenue League of Nations, a diplomatic face saving was necessary. A job, office and title were found for Futey.

While egos were being massaged, Perk was talking away the city's problems, operating on the philosophy that if enough people showed up at Community Relations Department teas in the City Hall rotunda for the accordion music, all would be well. But as time wore on, the only people nibbling cookies at the parties were city workers roused from their desks.

The rub was that these were the same ethnics — "etnics," to use the Perk pronunciation — who, having switched their Democratic allegiance to Republican Perk and having taken his campaign promises to heart along with the largesse, surely will be banished to the private sector or even welfare rolls when the Democrats recover the hall. (And Democrats are laying plans already. The Cuyahoga County Democratic co-chairmen are sifting through their lists to find a clean mayoral candidate to take on the Republican next year, even, perchance, that the Republican happens to be Perk. Before summer a frontrunner should emerge.)

"Funny thing," says a councilman. "Under Stokes, when I came into City Hall, I thought I was in Tanganyika. Now when I walk in, I feel I'm in Transylvania."

To prop up his broad-based popularity, Perk had to create hobgoblins — insolent cops, nasty black councilmen, freespenders, liberals — and to find enough money to run the city without touching the expanding bank accounts of his lower-middle-class white constituency. He sold off city holdings, such as the sewer system, used bond money to fix chuckholes, for which future generations will pay, and wrenched enough federal revenue-sharing funds from Nixon to borrow a little time.

This year, at 60, his health failing and the prospects of some brutal political battles in the offing, Perk was susceptible to the blandishments of Hughes and set off to leave Broadway for Capitol Hill. His advisers, the ones with whom he would talk at all, pleaded with him to stay in Cleveland. If he wanted higher office, why not run in 1978 for governor, a position that would enable him to dispense thousands of jobs?

But that was light years away, and besides, he might not survive politically, much less physically, and his future was more important than the city's. Hughes, along with the national Republicans, urged him on with the promise of a heavy campaign war chest and a nice job in case he lost. Hughes needs him to offset the Democratic thrust against Jim Rhodes, who has been trying to make a comeback for governor. Some Republicans believe Nixon helped behind the scenes to get Perk in the race, raising the specter that Perk someday might be the deciding vote in the Senate that keeps Nixon in office.

In return, Perk has given Hughes much more control of patronage at the hall, reneging on a campaign promise to make his administration fully bipartisan and alienating all those little Democrats-for-Perk.

This has further angered members of his cabinet, even many who were selected because of their political credentials alone, and drawn them into an almost combative state with the mayor. He does not confide in them, and they carry on their work leaderless.

The situation has become increasingly tense because many of Perk's followers, including cabinet members, job holders, black clergymen and ethnic Democrats, were in the process of forming a coalition to get Perk a four-year mayoral term next year which would have led to the governor's mansion. The group also would have endorsed candidates for other offices. In other words, it would have been Perk's party. The plan fell through after a few meetings when Perk announced his Senate candidacy.

All this has caused uneasiness in Perk's office and increased the tension among his staff. They have formed cliques and often meet secretly to complain about the others, all the time wondering what kind of input Perk is getting from their opposition.


 
On Perk's political behalf, it can be said he has encouraged this anxiety as a means of keeping his power unchallenged, and even some of the most disheartened of his troops will mouth platitudes by rote when the boss is under fire. "I think he is the Abraham Lincoln of the Republican party," said appointments secretary Delores Jardy, hiding her own depressed feelings. "I think he can single-handedly change the party's Watergate image."

Perk has always possessed an inherent distrust of anyone who does not slavishly agree with him, but in recent months it has taken on almost neurotic form, say his fallen advisers. Reporters who regularly cover the mayor insist that Lenny Betts, a black woman whom he hired as a receptionist — she had been a waitress in the Clevelander Club where he often dines — actually doubles as his spy, transmitting to him, or Ina Keegan, his press secretary and last true believer, the comings and goings of newsmen at the hall, particularly noting with whom they have talked. The breakdown in relations with his staff reached a head when Perk made his decision to run for the Senate. During an afternoon cabinet meeting the day before he made the announcement, Perk insisted he had not made any decision. Nothing but rumors, he protested. He didn't even know what office he would seek, if any. The meeting broke up at 4:30 p.m., and as some cabinet members passed through Mrs. Keegan's office, they noticed she was typing the announcement of his candidacy.

Actually since he has been in office, many of the best staff people have left Perk because he has enforced a rigid code that decrees no one should get any publicity but himself. When a program devised by a cabinet member was to be announced, it was Perk who had the news conference, not the man responsible for the project.

When Harry Volk, his "energy czar," was quoted in The Plain Dealer, Mrs. Keegan red-penciled the article and handed the newspaper to Perk, who read it with displeasure. The article had explained favorably how the city was dealing with the energy crisis.

Disenchantment surfaced at the top. Hyvnar, Perk's chief ethnic adviser, recently told another City Hall aide that he had to explain to ethnic leaders the mayor's decision to run for the Senate. "They want him right here," Hyvnar said, "not in Washington. I'm still loyal, but I do my job without any joy."

Even Nick Bucur, the Cleveland Transit System chairman and the man who had formulated Perk's original ethnic strategy, has felt the chilling effect. Bucur believed Perk would, immediately after the Senate announcement, appoint him law director, to succeed the mayor. But that did not happen. "Perk doesn't want anyone to have any headlines but himself," says an aide. "He won't pass the mantle until his own future is safe." Perk's falling-out with Bucur, Volk and Howard Klein, his business adviser, hasn't had the immediate debilitating affect on internal affairs, as did his split with Dickerson, who actually ran the city for the past year.

"Dickerson kept Perk from falling apart," says Forbes.

A street-wise, but intellectual man, Dickerson did everything — everything that wasn't political, that is — for Perk. He coordinated the city's operations and supervised the cabinet and was Perk's only liaison with council. He made friends for the administration when other aides were making enemies. But by leaving such power, Dickerson, a Democrat, exposed Perk's insecurity. Perk cannot accept any staff member showing him up or becoming too powerful, because he feels this diminishes himself as a leader in the public eye. But his reluctance to keep intelligent men around him only shows his own serious administrative and character shortcomings.

Dickerson, in fact, was very upset by Perk's decision to run, a decision made without his top assistant's counsel. "I believed him in October when he said he wanted another term," Dickerson explained. "The people of Cleveland gave him his wishes, and he had a responsibility to them. But he's running out."

Dickerson was given the title of chief of city operations at the urging of James Davis, president of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. Davis, upset that Perk had decided to run for the Senate because it would leave city government weakened, wanted Dickerson to have the authority to make important decisions on overall program planning. Perk protested that Dickerson, as his executive assistant, already had enough power. Davis insisted that Dickerson be asked point-blank how he felt.

Perk summoned Dickerson and in front of Davis asked him if he had sufficient authority to carry out City Hall programs. "No," Dickerson replied, and Perk subsequently and reluctantly gave him the new title. A few days later, the mayor appointed an operations committee of four cabinet members to oversee all city work. Conveniently, Dickerson was left out.

Thus Dickerson fell from grace and resigned to become number two man in the state lottery. In Dickerson's last days at the hall, Perk refused to talk to him, except for perfunctory greetings, Perhaps his fate was sealed when he told Perk after the Senate declaration: "You know those 2,000 people you put on the payroll are going to vote against you, because City Hall is the only place they'll ever be hired."

v In a lame-duck administration, cynics appear everywhere. But in the Perk administration, because of all the high hopes and dashed promises, they have come en masse.

Most of the patronage, once given out in a bipartisan fashion, has gone to control by the Republican party, and Perk brought to positions of power many of his former aides from the county auditor's office, the same men with whom he had been associated in the Logics Corp. mess just a year and a half ago.

"Let's face it," says an adviser whose once bright star has trailed off faster than Kohoutek's comet, "Perk has no talent, other than to get people to vote for him on his integrity, and now, even that has been impugned."

Dickerson sums it up best. "I left," he says blankly, "because I didn't want to ask myself, •Did I stay too long at the fair?' "


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