Politics

Black, White and Blurred

Race is still an issue in big-city politics. It's just not THE issue anymore.
by | September 2001

There is an election for mayor this fall in Cleveland. Nearly a dozen people are running, and, as you might imagine, it is a free-for-all. Packs of politicians are appearing at union halls, churches, sidewalk rallies. Any candidate is likely to turn up in any corner of the city. White aspirants are stumping in the black community. Black hopefuls are working hard for white votes. It is difficult to single out a racial or ethnic standard-bearer anywhere in the bunch.

It's normal urban politics, you might say, except that it's not normal at all in Cleveland. More than 30 years ago, this was the first major city in America to elect a black mayor, and it has been fixated on its racial divisions ever since. For decades, major municipal elections in Cleveland have been about race and very little else. The last time City Hall was genuinely up for grabs, in 1989, the city split straight down the color line, even though the two major contenders were both African American. A blurred racial landscape like the current one represents dramatic political change for Cleveland.

But it is not a change unique to Cleveland. This relaxation of racial politics has been taking place for some time around the country. Cities everywhere seem eager to confound old expectations. There are now nearly 500 black mayors in the United States, a substantial increase over the 314 a decade ago. And of the 11 black mayors in cities with more than 400,000 residents, most were not chosen by black majorities.

Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Denver and Minneapolis--none with a black population greater than 30 percent--all have black mayors. Baltimore, about two-thirds black, voted in 1999 for Martin O'Malley, a white city councilman, to replace the African-American Kurt Schmoke. St. Louis, which is 51 percent black, this year elected a white mayor, Francis Slay, after a campaign that was far less racially charged than the 1997 contest between two black candidates, one of whom had the overwhelming support of white voters.

In Philadelphia last year, John Street--who first made his political name in the 1970s as an activist within the African-American community--became mayor after a contest against a white opponent in which race hardly figured as a subject at all. And this past summer, Los Angeles elected James Hahn, a white candidate who won in large part because of his solid support in the black community. It isn't difficult to make the case for the headline on a story in the Christian Science Monitor a while back, "Racial politics subside in cities."

There is a difference between subsiding and disappearing. In both St. Louis and Philadelphia, the campaigns may have been free of racial opportunism, but the voters themselves split mostly along racial lines; the winner was the one who got more crossovers. And as the Los Angeles mayor's race suggests, it doesn't take much to inflame racial sensitivities: The white candidate won in Los Angeles because of solid support among blacks and moderate and more conservative white voters, which he consolidated by tying his Latino opponent to the cocaine trade, in one of the more blatant racial stereotyping ads in a recent campaign.

So it's not so much that racial politics have abated in America's big cities, it's that they've changed, taken on a new format and new language. Cleveland is as good an example as any. During the tenure of the outgoing mayor, Michael R. White, city government made great progress in discarding its old racial prisms. Still, poverty, unemployment, low-performing schools, an aging population, housing segregation and other urban ills continue to hamper the city, and these are matters that community leaders and city residents do not wish to have forgotten down at City Hall. What they haven't been able to decide yet is whether the race of the person occupying the mayor's office matters in getting the problems solved.

It took this year's campaign in Cleveland an inordinately long time to get started. That is because the entire city had to wait upon the decision of Mayor White, who became the city's second African-American mayor in 1989 and now, after three terms, is the longest-serving mayor in its history. It was initially assumed that there was a black heir apparent--Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who used to be the county prosecutor and now represents much of Cleveland in the U.S. House.

But Tubbs Jones decided not to run, and her decision served to accentuate the racial blurring. There are two announced black candidates, state Representative John Barnes Jr. and Raymond Pierce, a former mid-level official in the Clinton administration, but neither has much of a political base in the city. Barnes won legislative office largely on the strength of voter loyalty to his father, a former city councilman; his only attention-getting role has been as chairman of a roving statewide Commission on African-American Males. Pierce, though he has won respect as a good speaker and hard campaigner, remains essentially unknown to much of the city.

That has left three white candidates free to scramble for black votes, largely on the basis of their history of concern for inner-city social welfare issues. Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jane Campbell, a liberal Democrat, won broad popularity for her oversight of the county's transition to welfare reform and, as a former state legislator, has long-standing ties to the city's East Side, where most African Americans live. Tim McCormack, another county commissioner, also has made a name for himself as a child welfare advocate. Bill Denihan, a public administrator who had been director of public safety under White and director of natural resources at the statewide level, became head of the county's child welfare department in 1999. He won broad respect in that position for setting the politically troubled department on a more even keel.

In the last days before the October 2 primary, no one is quite sure what role race is likely to play in determining the outcome. But the suggestion that racial issues may be just a sideshow is a striking development in Cleveland's political history. To understand how it came to this juncture, it is important to know something about Mike White's 12 years in office.

When White first ran for mayor, no promise he made carried more weight than his insistence that he would treat the city's east and west sides equally--or, as he put it, that he would say the same things on the East Side that he said on the West. For generations, Cleveland was, in essence, two cities separated by the Cuyahoga River. The west side was white and ethnic, the east African American, except for some neighborhoods along its fringes. Not surprisingly, after Carl Stokes was elected as the first black mayor in 1967 and city government began opening up--before Stokes, City Hall had pretty much been off limits to the African-American community--struggles over allocation of the city's resources took on the convenient shorthand of east versus west.

When White first ran in 1989, his opponent in the general election was the African-American president of the city council, George Forbes. Forbes--who now heads the NAACP in the city--was an autocratic leader, and both on the council and in his regular radio show he displayed little interest in treating the concerns of West Siders diplomatically. So when it came time to vote that year, white voters were drawn to White on more than the strength of his argument that there was no place for racial division in running City Hall; it was also, simply put, the fact that he was not Forbes. As Norman Krumholz, a professor of urban affairs at Cleveland State University and the city's former planner, puts it, "People on the West Side were waiting in the weeds to vote against George Forbes."

A starkly race-based election such as that could not happen these days in Cleveland. And this is due in no small part to White's years in office. He demanded solid performance from his employees, and if they didn't deliver, he came down hard on them, regardless of their race. When issues arose that had the potential to push racial hot buttons, White did the unexpected. He lobbied to end the city's long and debilitating experiment with court-ordered school busing, and even allowed the Ku Klux Klan to hold a rally in downtown Cleveland.

As a self-described moderate-to-conservative, White was part of a generation of mayors--along with counterparts such as Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis, John Norquist of Milwaukee and Dennis Archer of Detroit--who shared a belief in running city government efficiently and with a broad public in mind, rather than using it to broker the demands of competing identity groups. This was a collection of politicians who understood, as Swarthmore College political scientist Keith Reeves puts it, that "when you look at folks in these cities, African Americans and Latinos and the whites who are coming back into the cities, at the end of the day they want to make sure their cities are safe, their kids are taken care of, they're going to get a quality education, and the quality of services are such that they believe their tax dollars are well spent." From the beginning, White spoke of Cleveland as a single city and focused his attention on issues with broad appeal: developing its downtown, redeveloping its neighborhoods and fixing its schools.

The result is a place that looks quite different from the one he took over. There is, of course, the famous downtown makeover: new sports stadiums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a revitalized warehouse district. There is also progress on the school front. In 1998 White gained power to appoint the school board--fighting off charges that he was undermining African-American voters by doing so--and three years ago brought in a new administrator, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, from New York; Byrd-Bennett is now widely considered one of the most effective and popular public officials in the city.

Just as important, there are signs that some of the city's neighborhoods are regaining their health. Since 1992, says Community Development Director Linda Hudecek, private lenders have put $4.3 billion into Cleveland's neighborhoods, thanks in part to pressure from City Hall, and the results are evident on both sides of the river: New housing developments dot the city, some of them scatter- site, some of them much like suburban tracts, and they in turn are beginning to spark commercial revitalization.

Not surprisingly, all of this has begun to transform the city's politics. When a city council coup in 1999 ousted President Jay Westbrook and replaced him with Mike Polensek, a council veteran from a once solidly white ethnic ward on the far East Side, the central issue was whether the council had been too compliant in going along with White, whose strong personality and my-way-or-the-highway attitude had alienated other politicians. Race was essentially irrelevant: Each side was racially mixed.

Slowly but noticeably, Cleveland voters have begun dismantling their habit of looking at everything through the filter of race. The progress is subtle: When White ran for his last term in 1997, he did well citywide but lost most of the white precincts on the West Side. "He was dismayed," says his pollster Bob Dykes, "because in some of those areas, in the worst areas for him, he got, say, 30 percent of the vote, while his opponent (a white city council member) got 70 percent. I pointed out to him that when Carl Stokes ran in 1967 and 1969 there were whole wards of the city where he only got 10 percent, and there were a bunch of black precincts where he did not lose a single vote. Not a single one! That's how racially polarized this city was 30 years ago. So is race still a factor in politics? You better believe it. But it's a factor, not THE factor."

Despite all the physical signs of renewal, the 2000 Census was not encouraging for Cleveland. It showed the city losing 28,000 residents during the 1990s, a 5.4 percent drop that took it to 478,000 people; of the 243 cities and counties around the country with more than 100,000 residents, only 17 lost population more rapidly. "One of the fastest-growing groups moving out of the city is the black middle class," says Mike Polensek. "Which should send shock waves, because this city cannot afford to lose the black middle class. And Hispanics on the West Side are moving south and west. Why do people move? Better schools, better housing opportunities, safer streets--all the historic reasons that `white flight' took place. What we have come to realize is it's not white flight, it's economic flight. So this is our decade of decision: We rebuild, we stabilize our neighborhoods, or Cleveland will be the hole in the doughnut."

The truth is, there are two ways of looking at where the city is these days. You can get a sense of this if you drive around the Hough neighborhood, which sits in the middle of the East Side, and was where the 1968 riots began. Hough is one of the more remarkable experiments in neighborhood revitalization anywhere in America. Developers have scattered enormous suburban-style homes--mini-mansions, really--around the neighborhood; they sell for as much as $700,000 and are filled with upscale African-American families. There is a suburban-style shopping center, Church Square, right next to Beacon Place, a market- rate townhome development that is entirely sold out and--without any special efforts having been made--racially mixed.

"The other day," says Mike Cox, Cleveland's parks and recreation commissioner, "I get to 79th and Church Square and there's this young white female walking her dog at 6:30 in the evening. Who would have expected to see that in this part of the city?"

Yet all around the new development is the Hough that Clevelanders have known for decades: miles of beaten-down blocks with boarded-up homes, cratered brick industrial buildings, glum-looking garden apartments with kids playing in weedy, abandoned lots next door, and young men gathered aimlessly on the corner. It is all a suggestion of how far Cleveland still has to go. Charles See, who runs a program for ex-offenders based on the near West Side, probably puts the city's dilemma best when he says, "If I have a thousand-pound weight on my foot and you remove 500 of those pounds, I still feel that remaining 500 pounds quite intensely."

This is the ground on which the mayor's contest is being fought, and many people who have surveyed it, white and black, insist that in many respects race is simply irrelevant. "Our highest unemployment rates," says Ed Rybka, a white city councilman, "are in the African-American community--we need to develop job training, day care facilities, the ability to transport people to where the jobs are--but as glaring as the needs are there, the people who need to have this addressed are black, white and Hispanic."

The Reverend Marvin McMickle, one of the city's most politically active black ministers, says that mayoral candidates sometimes bring up racial issues with him, and he tells them to talk about something else. "That's not the issue," says McMickle, whose Antioch Baptist Church sits in the midst of a mixed poor and lower-middle-income black neighborhood not far from Hough. "There's no other race to relate to if you live in this neighborhood. These neighborhood residents want to talk about jobs, medical care, functional public education, things like that. When was the last time the curbs were replaced here? When was the last legitimate time a small business went in along the main street through Hough? What will it cost to keep neighborhood business owners who are trying to stabilize neighborhoods one block at a time? These issues are citywide."

Yet it's also true that McMickle worked hard to persuade Stephanie Tubbs Jones to run for mayor, and was one of about 100 African- American community leaders who met to plot strategy just after she'd announced she didn't want to leave Washington. To understand this, it helps to see the results of a Gallup Poll Social Audit released in July. That survey of 2,000 people across the country found whites to be considerably more optimistic about race relations than blacks, and blacks growing more pessimistic about progress in such areas as equal housing and equal educational opportunity. In Cleveland itself, there remains an intense awareness among black politicians that there is a limit to how high they can aspire--there are 10 city council positions, a few seats in the state legislature, Tubbs Jones' seat in Congress, and the mayoralty of Cleveland. Winning countywide is difficult, and statewide, they believe, impossible.

It should be no surprise, then, that some African-American leaders still have an abiding conviction that a black mayor will, quite simply, be more attuned to black sensitivities. "What's at stake is not just the prestige of a black mayor but also the power of that mayor to appoint," McMickle says. "It's not just the one position of mayor that's at stake but the many places where the hand of the mayor reaches."

Even these, however, are ambiguous currents. When Tubbs Jones withdrew as White's heir apparent, some black leaders were troubled that there would be no black candidate of citywide stature. On the other hand, they had trouble reaching a consensus on how to proceed, other than by listing a set of issues they wanted addressed--improving emergency services, restoring an inner-city trauma center, creating youth programs, developing a biomedical technology program. A group of white, West Side ministers could have come up with pretty much the same list.

It is a fact of political life in Cleveland that whoever does replace Mike White will have to do it on his or her own. There is no white-run political machine in town, and the one attempt to build a political organization in the black community--begun by former Congressman Louis Stokes--petered out after he retired. White himself is a political loner, and never groomed a replacement--as McMickle points out, "I think Mike could say, `I won this office the hard way, and whoever does it next will have to do the same.'"

As the October 2 primary approaches, there's no question that all the candidates are looking forward to a stronger showing among voters of their own race than across racial lines. But they aren't looking forward to it with anything like the certainty they would have felt just a few years ago. As Charles See puts it, "Of course race matters. But folks rise to a level of sophistication at a time like this: They want to know what is the likelihood of a candidate delivering on what he or she promised. Everyone knows what to SAY these days. We want to know where you've been."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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