El Gallito 

Can the "little cockfighter" prove he's capable of ruling the roost?

When Cleveland City Councilman Nelson Cintron Jr. arrives for a recent breakfast meeting at Michael's Family Restaurant, a small eatery on Clark Avenue near West 25th Street, he's accompanied by eight-year-old Lyonette and six-year-old Lisanette, two of his four children.

On this Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Cintron shares babysitting duties with his ex-wife, Nayra Perez, with whom he is again living. Although the 33-year-old freshman councilman has a full workday ahead that includes a morning interview with a reporter followed by a meeting with a developer, his daughters will remain by his side. So the first order of business is breakfast for his young charges, who climb into a booth of their own, giggling as they slide and bounce across the springy seats.

"Tell the waitress you want pancakes," urges Cintron, seated in a booth across the aisle. "It's OK; she'll take your order."

About to get down to business, Cintron sits at the edge of his booth, keeping a close eye on his daughters.

Cintron made history in November of 1997 by becoming Cleveland's first Hispanic member of city council. But last summer his family life drew more attention, eclipsing the accomplishment and diminishing some of its luster. That's when Perez, divorced from but still living with Cintron, accused him of beating her -- a charge the councilman has denied and one on which a jury cleared him. During the August trial, though, details of his messy personal life made headlines, including Lyonette's dramatic court testimony that "my daddy beat up my mommy."

Within Cleveland's small but growing Hispanic population, which relies on Cintron to carry its voice, the whole affair drew cautious judgment. Outside, his opponents were quick to write him off as a wife-beater, despite the jury's not-guilty verdict. Some of his political supporters privately worried the young councilman's political career might be over.

But a lot can happen in a few months.

Sitting in this unpretentious restaurant, whose paneled walls display pictures of John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and a large portrait of the popular Seinfeld sitcom character Kramer, Cintron is more powerful today than these working-class surroundings suggest. Although he has yet to finish his second full year in office, he now carries the title of majority leader, city council's second most powerful position.

In a remarkable turn of events last month, Councilman Michael Polensek of Collinwood, backed by a majority of his colleagues, including a crucial swing vote from Cintron, ousted Jay Westbrook as council president, ending his 10-year reign. With the change, Cintron became council president's top lieutenant by demanding he be named majority leader in exchange for his support of Polensek.

Cintron's breakfast meeting is interrupted by friendly passersby and restaurant staff who stop to say hello, and by his daughters. Done eating, Lyonette and Lisanette tug on their father's dark suit, then push their way onto his seat before snuggling next to him. Cintron appears comfortable in public with his children, undoubtedly glad to convey the message that his domestic life has made a comeback as well. About his ex-wife, Cintron says he is "working the relationship out." The couple attended Polensek's recent 50th birthday party, and they are planning to move into a renovated home on Vega Avenue. Presently, Cintron and his family live in an upstairs apartment of his mother's house, where they have been together on and off since the election.

With the appearance of domestic bliss and a potentially powerful new position, Cintron is poised to become more than just the city's first Hispanic councilman. But can he become an effective leader? His demeanor suggests he has the qualities that make for good leadership, but also the excess that can hurt him. He is prideful and stubborn, displaying a tendency toward machismo. He fights for what he believes is right, whether he's on target or uninformed. In fact, his willingness to fight has earned him a nickname among Hispanics -- "El Gallito." Loosely translated, it means "little cockfighter."

The origins of this sobriquet vary. Cintron, born in Puerto Rico, says it is from his quixotic runs for office. "People here and in my homeland see that I am not a quitter. When people are seen as a fighter, they are said to be a gallito. It has been proved that I am."

The Making of a Politico

Cintron says his political aspirations have their roots in the mid- to late '70s. That's when, as a child, he got an up-close look at Cleveland councilman and mayoral candidate Dennis Kucinich, who visited his neighborhood and whom he watched on television. "He inspired me as a young person," recalls Cintron. "I liked the level of contact he was having with people. Seeing him working at a young age. He was working for the people."

In 1989, at the age of 23, Cintron took the first step toward Ward 14's council seat held by veteran Helen Smith. Not only was the ward his home for much of his life, it also contained the city's largest concentration of Hispanics -- about 10,000 -- giving him a potential base of voters.

With little money for a campaign, the recently married Democrat borrowed Kucinich's campaign style, relying on a populist message delivered door-to-door throughout the ward, which includes near West Side neighborhoods like Ohio City, Clark-Fulton, Tremont, Detroit-Shoreway, and parts of Archwood-Dennison. He called himself "the fresh idea for Ward 14 . . . the new inspiration" -- a slogan he would resurrect in a later campaign. An obvious underdog, the skinny and bespectacled candidate, whose face was marked by acne, talked his way through the primary, beating Angel Guzman, who had also run for the seat in 1985. Cintron lost the general election by fewer than 300 votes.

The campaign earned him recognition and some respect within the Hispanic community, setting him up for future campaign runs, which the ambitious neophyte politician had every intention of making. "I promised my dad, my wife, that I'd be a councilman," he says. "I knew it was going to be me, and I promised that I would make my dream."

But the recognition and respect didn't pay the bills, and he had little savings. Prior to the election, he had attended Cleveland State University and worked as a spot welder and a cashier in a jeans store on West 25th Street. In 1990, he landed an $18,000-a-year job as a corrections officer with the county sheriff's office, where his father was once a deputy. The stable income would be needed as his family grew. He also set out to make a name for himself in radio, a passion equal to his love of politics.

In 1991 he established a tiny community-based radio station called the Hispanic World Network, a 24-hour Latin music and news service for the city's roughly 25,000 Hispanics. Its signal was accessible only through North Coast Cable, now Cablevision. (The program is no longer available.) While the station produced little if any income, Cintron enjoyed the work and remained dedicated to it. And it gave him status in the community -- especially during elections, when he could identify himself to the media and others as president of a radio station or founder of the city's first Hispanic radio station.

Cintron's interest in radio came from his father, Nelson Cintron Sr., who ran the city's first Hispanic radio show, La Voz del Caribe, on WZAK-FM/92.3, in the 1960s.

Cintron's nickname among family and friends is "Papito," Spanish for "little dad." The name is a common moniker among Hispanic families. "I was like my father's tail," he says.

In 1993, Cintron took a leave of absence from the sheriff's department to get back on the campaign trail. This time around he had a little more money and a slightly better-organized campaign, which concentrated on registering Hispanics and seniors. His shoe-leather effort again earned him a spot in the general election, where he again lost to Smith by a narrow margin.

During the next three years, Cintron and Perez had a third child, but their marriage began to break down, and the two separated. In November of 1996, the couple officially divorced. At the time, Cintron, who had left the sheriff's department in 1994, worked for the Solon-based King Nut Company, where his annual wages equaled about $17,500 a year -- hardly enough to support a family and pay their debts, which included medical bills from the births of their children.

Cintron eventually landed a job in the County Recorder's Office. But he had no intention of staying, because he believed he'd be the next councilman for Ward 14. "Nineteen ninety-seven was my year," he says. "People knew me and were putting their trust in me."

His confidence was boosted by Smith's departure from the race. After 18 years in office, she opted instead to run for mayor, leaving the door open to several contenders. The primary race drew a number of candidates, including Guzman; Rick Nagin, a well-established neighborhood activist who had run for the seat before; Kevin Kelley, a young mental health worker in his first race; and former Cleveland Housing Court Judge William H. Corrigan, who jumped in at the last minute after Smith opted out.

Cintron and Guzman placed one and two, respectively, in that year's crowded primary, ensuring that a Hispanic candidate would make history for no other reason than being elected.

During his general election campaign, Cintron walked the neighborhood -- the mainstay of most council campaigns. Helping him was Nagin, who pledged his support to Cintron the night of his primary loss. Nagin, then chairman of the Ohio Communist Party, had been active in grassroots politics on Cleveland's near West Side for 20 years. He campaigned for Cintron, helping him win some labor support. It was an odd combination in some respects. Nagin, who was much older, held a degree in biochemistry from Harvard University and a doctorate in biology from Rockefeller University in New York City. But he spoke fluent Spanish, and he and Cintron stood together on such issues as workers' rights and limiting tax abatement.

"People underestimate him all the time," says Nagin, who lost to Cintron in three primary elections. "They are surprised when they get to know him."

Cintron also had more support this time from fellow politicians. In the wings guiding him was fiery County Recorder and former Cleveland City Councilman Pat O'Malley.

"I created some literature and gave him advice," says O'Malley, who became friends with Cintron during the 1989 election. "I thought he needed to walk neighborhoods. I brutalized him about walking. If he called me during the day, I'd say, "Why aren't you out walking?'"

Cintron, who was earning the support of labor, used his image as a less-polished and less-connected candidate to distinguish himself from opponent Guzman, who headed the Hispanic chamber of commerce. Cintron painted him as the establishment's candidate. (Guzman eventually received the endorsements of Mayor Michael White and The Plain Dealer, sometimes considered the kiss of death in grassroots campaigns.)

"I was more grassroots. I was only making eight or nine dollars an hour," Cintron says. "I earned the people's respect. I was fighting the establishment."

Cintron received a boost late in his campaign from the icon of anti-establishment and his boyhood political hero, Dennis Kucinich, whose congressional district includes portions of Cintron's ward. Kucinich had remained quiet on local council races, but became upset by literature distributed by Guzman that suggested he had the congressman's support. In response, Kucinich went public with his support of Cintron.

Cintron needed every bit of support he could get, eventually winning the election by just 150 votes. "The victory," Cintron reflects, "shows anyone with ambition can do it. Kids want to be sports players. In my mind, I set out to be a councilman. I feel I accomplished what I wanted."

Although the Hispanic community had its first elected leader on council, and Cintron had made good on his promise to himself and his family, there was little time to celebrate.

Cintron faced several major challenges, not the least of which was winning respect from a Hispanic community whose loyalties during the campaign were split. He had to represent a ward with high poverty levels among not only Hispanics, but blacks, whites, and Europeans. He also needed to build on development created by predecessor Helen Smith, a veteran of City Hall politics.

And then there were personal issues to be worked out.

On the Home Front

Cintron and his ex-wife decided to try to repair their relationship around the time of the election, so Perez and the children -- who had been living in public housing -- moved in with Cintron, who was staying with his mother. Cintron and the family lived in the upstairs apartment, while Cintron's mother, Isaura, and sister, Maria, lived downstairs. In late 1988, under this living arrangement, Cintron and Perez had their fourth child.

Soon, his personal life would overshadow -- at least for a time -- anything he did in public office. Although a jury eventually cleared him of the wife-beating charge, the weeklong trial on the matter filled the local paper and news broadcasts with details that showed the freshman councilman was, at the very least, exercising poor judgment outside the office.

When the allegations were made last June, Cintron had moved downstairs with his mother, because he and Perez were not getting along, although he still spent time upstairs to be with his children.

Perez suspected Cintron was dating their daughters' former Girl Scout leader, Cascade DuSel of Lakewood. Perez had confronted DuSel earlier at the West Side office of the Spanish American Committee, where DuSel worked. Cintron denied he was seeing DuSel, but later admitted in court that he was in fact romantically involved with her. (He told the jury it was his right as a single man.)

On the morning of the alleged attack, Perez found Cintron in the parking lot of the Gold Coast's Winton Place, where DuSel lived, and began pounding on his windshield. "I caught you, you big liar. I'm going to destroy you. I'm going to get you. I'm going to get you," Perez screamed, according to Cintron's testimony in court.

Perez admitted in court that, after discovering the relationship, she threatened to destroy Cintron's political career, but that Cintron had beaten her after a later confrontation over the relationship. Prosecutors introduced photos of bruises on Perez's arms, legs, and face taken the day after the altercation.

Attorneys for Cintron argued that Perez suffered some of the bruises when Cintron's sister tried to restrain her and when Cintron's mother, who collapsed during the exchange, landed on Perez. The other bruises were sustained, lawyers argued, later that day at a picnic, when a packed cooler Perez was carrying on her shoulder slipped and caught her thigh.

The jury believed Cintron's version. After less than an hour of deliberating, it returned a not-guilty verdict.

Even before the verdict, some in the Hispanic community were skeptical of the charge.

"This community was silent. I didn't hear too much. It wasn't gossipy. The people waited till all the facts came out," says Randy Michael, station manager for the Latino Media group, which operates the only licensed Latino radio station, WDLW-AM/1380, and publishes a monthly Spanish newsletter.

"We are very passionate people," adds the group's president, Angel Ramos. "Some things are done in the heat of the moment. [Heated arguments] happen daily in the community. The media blew this way out of proportion. If left alone, they would have worked it out. The only ones looking bad [were] the media. PD and Channel 5 stirred things up."

"I know Nelson and Nayra love each other and the kids more than anything. They have had some problems," says Pat O'Malley. "They were struggling to pay bills and take care of the family. That's not meant as an excuse for domestic violence, but there were some tough times. Every household in America can understand that."

(O'Malley's ex-wife once claimed he physically abused her. O'Malley was never charged with any crime in connection with the allegation, which was made around the time of separation.)

Cintron says the demands of his new job took their toll on the marriage, but that he never abused Perez. "Every marriage has trouble," Cintron says. "My job is very demanding. It doesn't stop making me the best father I can be. Being a councilman takes so much time away from home."

On the Job

When Cintron officially took office in 1998 (he was sworn in by Dennis Kucinich), his first decision as a councilman was a controversial one: the appointment of Rick Nagin as his aide. The move earned him respect and scorn: respect from some City Hall watchers who were impressed Cintron did not make a hire along racial lines; scorn from those who thought he should have. Others expressed outrage over Nagin's ties to the Ohio Communist Party. (Upon accepting the job, Nagin resigned as chairman of the Ohio Communist Party, but is still a member.) Still others accused Cintron of hiring Nagin as a favor to Kucinich, for whom Nagin had campaigned in the past.

"That's not true. Everything that happens, people say I'm controlled by Kucinich," says Cintron. "[Nagin] is a very intelligent guy, and I [saw] in him qualities I need. I needed someone familiar with the ward. Who best than a guy who ran against you?"

Nagin, 58, who lives in the Archwood-Dennison neighborhood, handles constituents' complaints and organizes the ward's two dozen block clubs, which give small groups of citizens access to the councilman on a regular basis. Cintron, who now earns $54,000 annually, is more focused on the development issues in the ward. He says he is trying to build on the commercial-rate housing development in Ohio City created by Helen Smith. But, he is quick to point out, he gives more attention to low-income housing and development in the southern portions of the ward, which he believes were neglected by his predecessor.

Publicly, Cintron boasts of his efforts to secure money for the West Side Market's renovation and Ohio City's new Orchard Grove Park housing project. But critics charge these were started long before he arrived.

"I have input on all these projects, because they are in the ward," Cintron says. "I am responsible for getting the low-income housing components on many projects like Orchard Grove and Stonebridge [in the Flats], where they weren't going to have them before. I've got low-income housing started in other portions of the ward."

John Wilbur, executive director of the ward's Near West Development Corporation, agrees that Cintron has input on all the projects and has been focused on a different set of priorities than Smith was. "Nelson wants project dollars for affordable housing projects," he says. "When we pitch him an idea, he lets us know what he likes and doesn't like, and we haggle. He has committed to projects when we agree."

In City Hall, as within the Hispanic community, Cintron has earned the reputation as a fighter. If he doesn't think a project or issue is right, he often refuses to bend.

"He is a tough negotiator," says Councilman Joe Cimperman, whose Ward 13 shares a border with Ward 14. "He doesn't turn it on and off."

Cimperman says Cintron's recalcitrant stance on issues was no more evident than in his bid for majority leader. Understanding his support was crucial if Polensek was to become council president, Cintron demanded that he be made majority leader and chairman of the public service committee.

He got both.

The decision has had repercussions, namely in his relationship with Westbrook, who stood by Cintron immediately following the filing of abuse charges against him and tried to mentor him. Westbrook has cast the move as a betrayal.

"I like Jay. He is my friend. I put aside friendship to do what I thought was the right thing," says Cintron. "I have a mind of my own. I appreciate anyone who stands by my side. They [media] assumed I would be a free stamp for him. Then they hammer me for not voting for him."

Polensek has also been criticized privately by some colleagues for appointing such a young member of council to the position, which traditionally has been held by more senior members with experience and City Hall savvy.

Cintron doesn't dispute his lack of know-how and sees the position as a way to quickly become an effective leader. "It is a great way and fast way to learn the ins and outs of city council," Cintron says. "It's a big lift for Ward 14 and a big lift for the city."

It is also a source of pride for Cintron, who hasn't been shy about explaining to block clubs and others in the community that he is now majority leader.

What Cintron does with it will depend in part on Polensek, who will ultimately determine the strength of both positions. To do his part, Cintron will have to become a consensus builder, a trait that perhaps will prove even more important in his home life.

Mark Naymik can be reached at mnaymik@clevescene.com.


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