Council President Frank Jackson is one of the most powerful people in Cleveland. He has a say in everything from who lands million-dollar contracts to how many new dogcatchers the city will hire. When he raises an eyebrow or nods approvingly, his colleagues take note.
Trim and bespectacled, his temples flecked with silver, he presides over council like a wise uncle, benevolent yet distant. Though he often dresses in conservative suits, his tall, elegant bearing would make a pitchfork and a pair of overalls seem statesmanlike.
A taciturn man, Jackson took center stage last year when Jane Campbell was elected mayor. Since Campbell is white, city council thought it proper to elect a black president to preserve racial balance.
For that reason, Mike Polensek, the white councilman who had been president for more than a year, decided to step down. "I could've said, 'I'm gonna jump in there and run again,'" says Polensek. "But I felt that council needed to have a black president. And I was prepared to support that."
To fill his shoes, Polensek nominated Jackson, who had diligently represented Central, the poorest neighborhood in Cleveland, for 12 years.
"I truly believed he cared deeply about his neighborhood," says Polensek, who's been a councilman for 25 years. "That, to me, is important. There are people who've come and gone down here, and a lot of them didn't give a rat's ass about their neighborhoods."
To the people of Central, the neighborhood along Central Avenue from East 22nd to East 79th streets, Jackson is practically a saint. He's paved the way for the construction of more than 500 affordable homes where vacant lots once stood. He checks up on old people, cracks down on drug dealers, and organizes residents to fight their own battles against bureaucrats and gentrifiers.
"Frank, he don't tell his constituents no," says 77-year-old Louise Harris, a resident of Central since 1948. "He's a good councilman. I guess everybody say that about their councilman, but we got a good one. We call him 'our Frank.' When his birthday come, we throw him a birthday party. We love our Frank."
His main concern has been rebuilding an area that looked like postwar Dresden by the time 1970s urban renewal (a.k.a. "Negro removal") and 1980s crack cocaine had their way with it.
"I won't be shy," he said when he first ran for council in 1989. "I'm willing to hold up anything that doesn't help Ward 5."
As symbolic protection for the tough times ahead, Polensek presented Jackson with a hard hat and a fatherly note: "Take care of council." The gesture summed up Polensek's leadership style: Fight hard, get your hands dirty, and never let council become a rubber stamp for the mayor.
Perhaps Polensek should have kept the hard hat: A few months later, his protégé turned on him, abruptly asking for his resignation.
To some, Jackson's decision was just politics, a way to make short work of a scrappy, outspoken veteran known for questioning authority.
But to Polensek, it was an underhanded move by a colleague he thought he could trust.
"I endorsed him because I thought he would've been the fairest," says Polensek in retrospect. "I found out differently."
What Jackson lacks in mouth, he makes up for in muscle. "Those are the guys you have to be scared of," warns Hough Councilwoman Fannie Lewis, a colleague of Jackson's since he was first elected. "Them hermits. Frank can be a dangerous man."
In a city where yelling and name-calling are considered vital components of a healthy democracy, Jackson is an anomaly because he doesn't put on a show. But he's still every inch a politician. A complex mix of humility and aloofness, he's both a man of the people and a power-player who's sure he knows best.
As a young man in the 1970s, Jackson was known as one of Central's "Three Musketeers," recalls Louise Harris.
He and two friends, Lonnie Burten and Dave Donaldson, were visible in the neighborhood as tenant organizers fighting for police protection and decent affordable housing. Being so empty and so near downtown, Central was a blank canvas ripe for gentrification, and upscale developers were already clamoring for a piece of it.
The three crusaders had an arduous road ahead. Since the 1920s, Central had been known as a neutral zone where criminals could go to escape the cops. It might as well have had "Free-for-All" written on its section of the map in big block letters.
"People would do something on 55th and run in the projects, and the police wouldn't pursue them," says Harris. Trash pickup was sporadic, and burned-out streetlights could stay that way forever.
"We were the poorest of the poor," she adds. "If they could kill us all, they would. We was in the city, but the city didn't do nothing for us."
From about 1920 to 1950, Central was home to about 65,000 people, mostly blacks, Jews, and recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. It was one of the few Cleveland neighborhoods where landlords would rent to blacks.
As Southern blacks migrated north for the promise of better jobs in factories, Cleveland's black population grew exponentially, and Central quickly became overcrowded. Four or five families crammed into two-family homes.
"This is where you stayed till you got a better job," says Harris. "Then, when you buy a house, you wouldn't buy it down there. You'd buy it out in the suburbs, where kids have good schools."
Central's population plummeted to 13,000 as crack moved in, working-class blacks moved farther east, and block after block of homes and businesses were demolished in the name of urban renewal.
At its lowest point, the area was so thick with drug dealers, Harris had trouble even getting to her apartment door, because they were blocking the way. "You had to ask them, 'Will you please 'scuze me?' to come up the walkway. It was so many out there."
"In the late '70s and '80s, a lot of people were hanging out," says barber Stanley Jackson (no relation to Frank). "It seemed that the values that the older people had, the younger people lost. The mother, father kept their houses nice, but the kids didn't have pride in their houses. They abandoned them or let them deteriorate."
Frank Jackson and Burten both lived on East 38th Street. A clerk in night court, Jackson had grown up on East 38th. Burten, a sociology graduate student who regularly fixed roofs and rewired the homes of his elderly neighbors, stayed at his mother's house a few doors down.
Smart and socially aware, they had seen the neighborhood decline from a bustling, working-class area with movie theaters, restaurants, and shopping districts to a burned-out no-man's-land, attractive only as an illegal dumping ground for tires, trash, and toxic chemicals.
But college-educated Boy Scout types like Burten and Jackson were a rare breed in Central. Their buddy Donaldson, an ex-con who worked in the city water department, was the natural folk hero of the three.
"Dave was the one that got [the activism] started," recalls Harris. "He wasn't soft-spoken nice like Frank. He was more like a hoodlum. He'd go in and bully," making demands on government workers and local politicians.
Every week after cashing his paycheck, Donaldson would walk the projects, handing out food and money to destitute people. With Jackson and Burten, he helped residents organize rallies to draw outsiders' attention to the poor conditions there.
Donaldson couldn't run for office himself because of his criminal record, so he and Jackson campaigned for Burten instead. In 1975, Burten became Ward 5 councilman at the tender age of 30.
"Lonnie got people involved," recalls Dwayne Browder, an instructor at the Lonnie Burten Recreation Center on East 46th. "He went to the high schools and talked to the students. 'You wanna help with the campaign? Well, why not? Meet me down on 38th Street, we'll go from there.' He'd go to PTA meetings and tell people, 'Come to my ward club meeting, and we'll deal with these problems.'"
On council, Burten quickly earned a reputation as a firebrand, suing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for turning a blind eye to neglectful landlords.
"He was a trooper," says Polensek. "I watched him very closely, the way he fought for the rights of his citizens. He saw that his neighborhood was abused, not only by the system, but by some people who lived there.
"I remember one time, he told me, 'Michael, remember, [Ward 5] didn't get like this overnight. It got like this because people looked the other way.'"
In 1981, Burten's house was firebombed. Two months later, a constituent who came to his office, pretending to look for a job, pulled out a gun and shot him in the leg. He always believed the acts were an angry landlord's retaliation for the lawsuit, but that was never proved.
He was reelected three times before dying of a heart attack at age 38. "I always say, 'We killed Lonnie,'" says Harris. "He came in making a fix-up, but we worried him to death."
Donaldson died of cancer soon after. Now there was only one Musketeer left to fight Central's battles.
Jackson first ran for council in 1989, after the interim councilman, Preston Terry III, announced plans for a middle-class housing development in Ward 5 called Nouvelle Espoir.
Jackson thought Terry was too focused on tearing down buildings and gentrifying the neighborhood with fancy French names and the price tags to go with them, rather than building modest homes for working people.
Voters agreed. "Terry, he didn't do anything," says Central resident Inez Thompson, who supervises the soup kitchen at St. Timothy's Church at East 71st and Carnegie. "Frank Jackson was the guy who always had his hand in everything. He walked these streets, let everybody know he wasn't gonna tolerate the drugs and prostitution.
"Anytime you called him with a problem, he would come on your porch and talk to you about it, knock on your door. Any kind of meeting going -- you invite him, he's there. He was raised in this neighborhood. I don't know why he still stayed here. He love it, I guess."
Jackson looks incredulous when asked why he still lives on East 38th, the street where he grew up. "Why shouldn't I? It's my home," he says, as if every 55-year-old man still lived next door to his late mother's house.
Talking about himself isn't Jackson's strong suit. Ask a personal question, and you'll get a sketchy answer, rather than the usual politician's melodrama of how Mom went hungry so the kids wouldn't have to. His father, George, a supervisor at Inland Steel, was once described by Frank's brother, CMHA Police Chief Anthony Jackson, as a disciplinarian, a man who kept tight rein on his four children. He died in 1977.
Jackson's brother Nicholas held several high offices in the White administration and now works as an adviser to Cleveland schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Their mother, Rose, a housekeeper at St. Vincent Charity Hospital, died in 1995.
"Rose, she was a jewel," says Annie Lois Taylor, a Democratic precinct committeewoman. "Peaceful, calm, and loving . . . She was the sweetest little thing, never lost her temper about nothing. Whatever anybody say about her son, you'd never know if she was hurt or not. She's just calm. He got that from her. She was a big influence on him."
Though he's generally known as a bright guy, Jackson struggled with school as a kid.
"I tell you, when I was in sixth grade, I had failed so many times, they wouldn't let me graduate to junior high," he says. "Because I was only taking fourth-grade reading, they put me in a class where the chairs were so small, it was like I was sitting on two of 'em.
"By the time I got in the seventh grade, I was almost 14 years old. And they couldn't fail me anymore. Even if I got all F's, they would've had to pass me. But I wound up getting C's and D's."
After serving in Vietnam, he returned to Central and started taking classes at Tri-C, eventually graduating from Cleveland Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University.
The example of his hardworking, attentive parents, combined with time in the military, probably helped keep him in line, says Jerome Calloway, a former drug dealer who found God and is now a preacher-for-hire in the storefront churches along Central Avenue.
"Frank once told me he was spared the street life, and how he was glad for that," Calloway says. "He said, when he was younger, he used to shine the shoes of the [dealers] on the street. But when he came back from Vietnam, the same guys whose shoes he used to shine were begging him for a dollar."
Coming from Jackson, such personal anecdotes are rare. "He doesn't really lend himself to great anecdotes," says Mayor Campbell. "What I really appreciate is, he comes by my office every week, and we talk about what we need from each other. We don't always agree, but we're both very honest with each other."
Polensek says Jackson is probably the most private person on council. "As long as he's been down here, there's not been anyone close to him. He's very, very quiet, so you really don't know what he's thinking. He's one of the guys I don't pay too much attention to what he says, but watch his actions. Watch what he does, and then you'll know."
Cleveland Municipal Judge Ronald Adrine worked with Jackson in night court in the 1980s, when Jackson was the clerk at the window of the Parking Violations Bureau.
"I think it was maybe a good several months after I met him, before I even found out he was in law school," Adrine says. "Unless you took the time to stop and talk with him, you'd never know he had aspirations. And if you did stop and talk to him, you'd identify immediately that he was not only very bright, but insightful.
"He had an opinion on most things, and his opinions were well thought-out and well reasoned. He usually cut directly to the chase, on the problem and its solution."
After Jackson graduated from law school, then-City Prosecutor Patricia Ann Blackmon hired him as an assistant prosecutor. He ended up being the best assistant prosecutor Blackmon had, never losing a major case.
"Frank is a very quiet, deliberate person, and I just had a sense about him that he would make a very good lawyer and have the skills to try a case, to get the jury to see what he saw," Blackmon says. "A lot of people think he's not there, but he's very much engaged, very strong underneath his veneer."
When he decided to resign to run for council in 1989, she tried to talk him out of it. "He just didn't strike me as a politician," she recalls. "That's the mistake a number of people make. They think the politician's always the one who's talking. But what Frank does is, he listens to what's happening in his community. And once he understood what was wrong, he knew how to fix it, methodically, deliberately."
Though Harriet Spencer didn't vote for him the first time around, by the end of Jackson's first term, the Central resident was a supporter. A talkative sort who's practically a one-woman neighborhood watch on East 77th Street, Spencer liked the fact that Jackson walked the streets of the ward every month. He also frequently checked up on Spencer's mom, who was home alone all day, living next to a crack house.
"She was afraid to even go in her garden," Spencer recalls. The crack house was eventually condemned and torn down, only to make way for illegal dumping and rats. Jackson got that cleaned up, too, in his characteristically methodical way.
"I kept calling him for about a month," says Spencer. "'Mr. Jackson, I can't stand it.' He kept saying, 'We're gonna get it done. We're gonna get it done. Miss Spencer, when we clean this lot, it's gonna be clean.'"
A week or so later, Spencer came home to find a city crew of about 20 hard at work. "My mouth flew open like an alligator," she recalls. "They had every kind of tool that one would need. Even a little Bear Cat. And who is sitting on the apron of my driveway, supervising? Mr. Jackson. When they were done, we could've had a picnic on the grass, it was so clean."
Brian Davis, a homeless activist who's worked with Jackson on housing issues, says Jackson has trained his constituents to speak up for what they need. When HUD tried to demolish hundreds of low-income apartments in Central, Jackson called meetings to explain what was happening: If the apartments were torn down, residents might not be able to get subsidized housing somewhere else. They could end up homeless or living with relatives.
By the time HUD called public meetings on the plans, the residents were organized, angry, and well prepared to speak for themselves. "Every time HUD officials showed up, [the residents] would give them such a hard time," Davis recalls, estimating that 400 to 700 people attended each of those meetings. HUD officials would "take that back to their job: 'This is a priority. We don't want to face these tenants anymore.'"
Ultimately, rather than demolishing apartments, which were run down after years of neglect, HUD decided to renovate them -- a first in an era of demolition.
"Frank really led the effort in the country to change the way HUD approaches affordable housing," says Davis. "He really saw that this was a critical issue, and he proved to many cities that [renovation] can be done."
By educating his residents, Jackson also artfully reminds them what he's done for them. At a recent ward club meeting, he somehow manages to sound self-effacing while telling them how he single-handedly saved their hides from the budget-slashing (yet well-meaning) ogres at city hall.
He explains that Campbell, "a nice lady," wants to cut their favorite city programs, including vacant lot cleanup and the free Dumpster-lending service.
"No Parkworks program, no money for tractors, and no money for neighbors paid to maintain vacant lots," he says, to gasps from the audience. "The gardening program -- it's gone. The show wagon -- gone. The summer lunch program at the rec center -- gone. YMCA and neighborhood center programs the city helped support -- gone. Midnight basketball -- gone."
More gasps. "If you want, I can keep going," he says, noting that he's sure he's forgotten some. What he doesn't explain, until residents' mouths have nearly hit the floor in shock, is that these programs haven't been cut. Campbell had suggested cutting them to make up for an expected shortfall, but they were saved when a city council staff member found a $5 million mistake in the budget.
He's just giving his constituents a taste of what the world would be like without him. "I'm trying to educate you," he says carefully, like a favorite teacher talking to a room full of worshipful sixth graders. "I'm trying to tell you what it means when they do certain things with that budget."
He was also acting in their best interest, he continues, when he dumped Mike Polensek, his former ally, as finance chair. Rather than appointing someone to replace Polensek, he took over the powerful job himself, in addition to his council president duties.
"So now, I run city council," he says, unable to contain his glee. "I can deal with stuff, and I won't have to be watching my back all the time. I can't be in a position to be always wondering what somebody else is doing.
"I'm gonna be the one wearing the jacket. I'm gonna make the decisions. I'm not gonna have somebody in the mix who ain't part of the program."
What Jackson doesn't mention is that he's not looking to share power; he wants control.
Polensek says the firing came as "a complete shock. I thought we had been working pretty well together."
He says that Jackson asked him not just to resign as finance chair, but to resign from council altogether. Junior councilmen Zachary Reed and Martin Sweeney were invited to the proceeding so Jackson would have someone to back him up, says Polensek.
"They tried to reinforce why I should leave," says Polensek of Reed and Sweeney. Polensek was indignant. "I said, 'Who the hell are you two -- you guys just walk in the door and try to tell the old warhorse to leave, when you have no understanding of the institution.' Reed is still trying to find the men's room. They have trouble putting their pants on every day."
Refusing to resign from council, Polensek left Jackson's office feeling utterly betrayed. As council president, Polensek had supported all the funding for new housing construction that Jackson had requested for his ward. Now, the guy he'd given a hand up to had slapped him in the face.
"I got a problem when people break their word. When people amass power for themselves, which I don't believe is in the best interest of the city."
For her part, Councilwoman Lewis says she can run with Jackson "51/49. I can deal with 51 percent and bide the 49. He's somebody that, regardless of the situation, I can always go to. I'm not afraid to knock on his door. He's always held the door for me, and he's always said you gotta do the rest."
He may be quiet, she says, but he's no wimp. When Mike White was mayor, "even though [Jackson] backed the mayor the whole time, Frank didn't do like some of the other councilmen, drinking the mayor's bathwater." He voted against the new football stadium, White's pet project.
Though sometimes their opinions differ, Campbell says she likes working with Jackson because he's direct, determined, and professional. "He'll say, 'Here's what I think,' and you'll say, 'This is what I think.' He backs it up with reasons, and he's willing to listen to your reasons. While you may not agree on one thing, he's always ready to turn around and work on the next thing. He doesn't take this all personally."
He's already fought Campbell on several fronts. When she tried to cut council members' discretionary money, he strongly objected, winning back the funds. When she announced plans for lakefront development, he took extra steps to ensure that any new jobs would go to city residents and minorities.
With Campbell in charge, he'll need that tenacity, says Lewis. "Now she ain't no control freak, but she has an air about her that says control. In a very smiling way, she lets you know that she's in charge, that 'Okay, we gonna do this.'"
So when they disagree, Jackson will be very quiet, and Campbell will be very nice. How civil. Cleveland's winters will seem so unbearably long without a good old-fashioned hair-yanking fight.
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