Stumbling Toward Greatness 

Stephanie Tubbs Jones is the politician who can't lose -- no matter how hard she tries.

This fall, barring revelations that she secretly harbors a lifelong affinity for Pittsburgh or -- worse -- has become a Republican, Stephanie Tubbs Jones will win a third term in Congress. Victory over her challenger, Patrick Pappano, is likely to be more lopsided than the last time Tubbs Jones was on a ballot, when she collected 85 percent of the vote.

There's an obvious reason for this: The sum of people who've actually heard of Patrick Pappano could fit inside a Plymouth Volare.

But there's another reason, too. Tubbs Jones is the most popular politician in Northeast Ohio. Over the last 20 years, she has lost exactly one election. Two years ago, a Plain Dealer poll found that she was the only person who could plausibly beat Cleveland Mayor Mike White, if he decided to run for a third term.

Never was her stature more apparent than last year, after White decided to step down. As Tubbs Jones dithered over whether to seek the job, many of the county's most prominent politicians were forced to put their ambitions on hold. For weeks, the tone of the mayor's race approximated that of the campaign for class secretary at Horace Mann Middle School: I'll only run if Stephanie doesn't run. If she's in, I'm totally not even going to, like, think about it.

That kind of juice usually results from a particular stew of personality, experience, and instinct. But Tubbs Jones owes her sway to a different stash of goods: There are probably few more likable people in public office. If power paralleled kitchen-table charm, surely she'd be President. "She sucks up the energy in a room," says a former assistant prosecutor who worked for her. "She remembers everyone's name. She asks you about your mother, your sister, your spouse, your cousin."

"You're not going to find someone voters are more personally attracted to," admits state Representative James Trakas, head of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party.

It's all the more remarkable, considering the other main thread in Tubbs Jones's career: the uncanny ability to flout almost every convention of modern politics. She has a railcar full of personal baggage, few legislative triumphs, and an ambiguous relationship with the media. In the last 14 months alone, she managed to piss off Jane Campbell supporters, alienate one of her district's most powerful constituent groups, and display a near-Reagan level of detachment from an organization she was supposed to be leading -- a group that struggled to explain how it spent $117,000.

Yet her star continues to rise. This spring, when the state Democratic Party was looking for a candidate who might force Republicans to awaken Bob Taft from his cryogenically frozen state, her name was at the top of the list.

Tubbs Jones, in fact, may be one of the country's most unique elected officials, a singular prodigy of anti-political political genius. She is the woman who can't lose -- no matter how hard she tries.

Exhibit A: The Baggage Compartment

There is little wonder why Tubbs Jones got into politics. Her life story reads like an Up With People tract, a testament to book learning, hard work, and clean living.

The daughter of an airport skycap, she did well in school and won a scholarship to Case Western Reserve. After completing law school, she got a job as an assistant county prosecutor, then went to work for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1981, after lamenting the paucity of black judges, she decided to run for the municipal court bench. A little more than a year after she won that election, Governor Dick Celeste appointed her to an open seat on Common Pleas Court; she was the first black woman in Ohio to serve there. Eight years later, she narrowly won the Democratic fight to succeed John T. Corrigan as county prosecutor.

In 1998, when Lou Stokes retired, after 30 years in Congress, Tubbs Jones decided to be his replacement. "I felt like I could do more in Congress, on the policy level, to impact what happens in Cuyahoga County," she said at the time.

Her rise, however, has been shadowed by a weighty personal history. In 1975, her future husband, Mervyn Jones, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for killing a former girlfriend's cousin. He was released on shock probation after serving three months and married Tubbs Jones not long after.

Then there's Donnell Brown. For years, as Tubbs Jones hopscotched from judge to prosecutor to congresswoman, Brown worked as her bailiff, personnel manager, and scheduler -- despite convictions, years before, on felony drug and abduction charges.

The local media has spilled freighters full of ink about the two men, and not without reason. It's the kind of baggage that would derail a less-determined politician -- particularly one who made her way through the ranks of the criminal justice system. Yet it has never affected Tubbs Jones's bids for office. "Her constituents have shown a propensity for forgiveness," says a local politician. "That's how issues go away."

If anything, the issue has only served to reinforce her credibility. Refreshingly candid, Tubbs Jones has never shied away from talking about her family, wearing her devotion as a badge of honor.

"It's not been a liability," she once told Cleveland magazine about her husband's criminal record. "In our society, if we believe in rehabilitation, then when do we let [people] rehabilitate?"

Exhibit B: Running for Cover

Though few question it now, one of the more curious moves in Tubbs Jones's career was the decision even to run for Stokes's seat four years ago. For all the prestige of working on the national scene, Congress can be hemlock to a promising future. It's hard to forget that two of its most powerful members -- Denny Hastert and Tom DeLay -- enjoyed previous careers as a wrestling coach and a pest control salesman.

"It didn't broaden her political base at all," says Mary O. Boyle, former county commissioner. "If anything, it narrowed it. As anyone with a cursory knowledge of history knows, it is very difficult to take a seat in the House of Representatives and cast yourself on the national scene."

It wasn't as if Tubbs Jones had no options. In 1996, she easily won a second term as county prosecutor, a post many consider one of the most powerful jobs in Ohio. She had bounced into the job after a surprisingly strong showing in a 1990 statewide race -- narrowly losing out on a Supreme Court seat to an incumbent judge. By the mid-1990s, she was a darling of the Democratic Party; she had her pick of races.

Instead, in 1998, she decided to take a page from the Ricky Gutierrez handbook, Succeeding a Local Legend: How to Be the Source of Perpetual Dissatisfaction. For 30 years, Stokes burnished his halo and brought home the bacon to the people of the 11th District. As chairman of the über-powerful House Appropriations Committee, he delivered huge piles of federal money in the form of roads, bridges, buildings, and programs. It's no accident that his name is on several buildings in town.

If Tubbs Jones had any doubt about the magnitude of succeeding Stokes, she had only to call her Democratic colleagues. "She had some big shoes to fill," explains Jimmy Dimora, head of the party in Cuyahoga County.

Echoes Boyle: "She had to fill the shoes of a legend."

Or, as state Senator Eric Fingerhut recalls: "She had to fill some really big shoes."

Apparently, Tubbs Jones had some big shoes to fill.

When she got to Congress, though, she had to start from scratch. Not only did she arrive without the 30 years of experience and seniority Stokes has amassed, but she also would be a member of the minority party. "She picked a bad time to go," says Trakas, barely containing a chuckle. "She's a liberal partisan Democrat in a Republican world."

But for a politician facing such a long climb -- Tubbs Jones has repeatedly said she wants to be the first African American woman on the Ways and Means Committee -- she has looked remarkably eager to meander off the path. For weeks last summer, she hemmed and hawed over whether to enter the mayor's race. In December, she conspicuously flirted with the idea of running for governor. And despite her statements otherwise, there are plenty of people who still think she's interested in a federal judgeship. "Even to this day, I think that's her ultimate goal -- to become a federal judge," says Dimora.

The wanderlust extends beyond the political want ads. Tubbs Jones has kept a curious schedule for anyone looking to maintain down-home credibility. In the last six months alone, she has visited Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, and United Arab Emirates, despite the fact that her work seldom touches foreign policy. She serves on the banking, small business, and ethics committees.

Tubbs Jones has always said she's in Congress "for the long haul," and that she isn't trying to replicate Stokes's career. For now, at least, there's little danger of that happening.

"When you follow a legend, nothing you do is going to be better than them," says Trakas. "Frankly, she hasn't been able to get from out of that shadow yet."

Exhibit C: The Anti-Mike White

There is little mystery to why people like Tubbs Jones. She is warm and charming, a natural schmoozer who makes people "feel like they can walk up and hug the congressperson," as she likes to say.

Even so, her Oprah-esque qualities have long been foil to a consistent complaint: that her personal skills obscure a middling record. In Common Pleas Court, she was among the least efficient judges. In 1988 and again in '89, she carried more overdue cases on her docket than anyone else on the bench.

As county prosecutor, she was sometimes the object of bitter ridicule from within her own ranks. She was mocked for remodeling the office. She was criticized for being disorganized, for being more politician than prosecutor, for not being aggressive enough. "People sometimes joked about there being two public defenders," says a former assistant prosecutor. "There were some people who never respected her."

But Tubbs Jones also left a notable legacy. She modernized the office, in both substance and spirit. She gave women and minorities opportunities they'd never had. "She was a breath of fresh air," says Carmen Marino, Tubbs Jones's former first assistant, who worked in the office for more than 30 years. "She was a wonderful lady to work for."

Her record in Congress is similarly mixed. She has carved a niche in housing and economic issues, and beaten the drum against predatory lending. Earlier this year, she introduced an act that would help nonprofits and faith-based groups involved in development efforts. In May, she brought several congressional colleagues to Cleveland for a housing summit held at CSU. "She's a hell of an advocate," says Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman, who's worked with Tubbs Jones on several issues over the last year.

Yet on most issues, Tubbs Jones has yet to make her mark. Her supporters are quick to point out that she has neither the seniority nor the party affiliation to effect much change in Congress. "Most of the issues we deal with, they're long-term issues, they're complicated," she says. "They're not the kind of things you can stand up on television, talk about, and get resolved . . . It takes a long time to get any legislation through, especially when you're in the minority."

Yet even compared to her junior Democratic peers, she doesn't stand out. In her first two terms, she has sponsored a dozen pieces of legislation, most of which aren't destined for the Congressional Hall of Fame: redesignating the South Euclid postal service facility as the "Arnold C. D'Amico Station"; recognizing the historic significance of Triple-A Ohio's 100th anniversary; providing for an increase in funding for research on uterine fibroids. After four years, her one triumph is a law she co-sponsored that provided more funding for child-abuse prevention programs.

Even her staunchest supporters don't spout much enthusiasm for her legislative efforts. "I think she's done a decent job," says George Edwards, head of the Black Trades Council. "She hasn't done enough yet, but in due time, I think, she'll do a lot."

Trakas puts it a little less optimistically: "I think she's still getting her sea legs when it comes to her representation, what kind of things she's going to take on," he says. "I think she's pretty typical. She has an average record."

Exhibit D: The Invisible Woman

In interviews, Tubbs Jones can be effusive and engaging, but she has never had the reputation for being greedy about recognition. Unlike colleagues who drool at first sight of a television camera, she seems as if she could do without the fuss. After arriving in Washington, she didn't have a press secretary for a time. Even now, when working with reporters, her office can be charmingly inept.

But while her modesty may be unique, it's not always wise. Never was that more apparent than in February 2000, when the bankrupt Primary Health Systems announced that it was selling all of its Cleveland-area hospitals. Four facilities -- St. Michael Hospital in Slavic Village, Mt. Sinai Medical Center-East in Richmond Heights, Deaconess Hospital in Old Brooklyn, and Mt. Sinai Hospital in University Circle -- would close their doors.

The plan drew howls of protest, as activists, politicians, and patients decried the loss of community-based health care. Representative Dennis Kucinich and members of city council held marches, corralled the media, and implored the mayor to help. Tubbs Jones met with Cleveland Clinic officials, huddled with other politicians, and moved around the edges. "She's sometimes very stealthy," says Cimperman. "She was very supportive. She just did it in a different way than Dennis."

The problem was that nobody knew about it. Her name wasn't in the paper. Her face wasn't on TV. Mt. Sinai's closing would affect thousands of poor and moderate-income black residents on the city's East Side. It looked as if they had a whisper for a congresswoman.

Though he never mentioned her name, no one doubted whom former Council President George Forbes was talking about when he wrote a scathing op-ed piece for The Plain Dealer excoriating "black leaders" who "were not there to speak for black health care."

By the time Tubbs Jones held a town-hall meeting about the hospitals, it was late March, and residents at the forum bashed her for "jumping on the bandwagon." It didn't help that she pooh-poohed anger about Mt. Sinai, telling the crowd that "the easy issue is to talk about one hospital. The harder issue . . . is health-care delivery."

"I think it really blindsided her," says Edwards.

The episode remains the biggest PR blunder of Tubbs Jones's congressional career, and she has been far more vigilant about her exposure ever since. She was highly visible during LTV's fight for survival. And she got serious face time, thanks to the House Financial Services Committee, which has been investigating the corporate scandals du jour: Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing. "I get frustrated that I don't get as much exposure as many of my colleagues do," she says. "But I'm doing the job I came to do. I'm not here to get press coverage. That said, I have done some things to get a little more exposure."

It is folly to judge performance on the basis of press coverage, of course. The two are often inversely proportional. But the Mt. Sinai mess defined Tubbs Jones's charmed existence. For anyone else, the incident could have been poisonous. You can just hear the campaign-ad voiceovers: "What kind of person doesn't fight for a hospital? . . . Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones."

But for her, it was just a bad day at the office. "People in her district know what she's doing," says Edwards. "She can't do something about everything that's going on."

Exhibit E: Everyone Doesn't Love Raymond

On the last day of August last year, Tubbs Jones made the most anticipated announcement of the campaign to replace White. She declared that she was backing former Clinton administration official Raymond Pierce in his race against County Commissioner Jane Campbell.

Though Tubbs Jones and Campbell had been friends for years, the endorsement wasn't a shock. Pierce was smart and driven, a man who had come back to Cleveland to run for mayor after living in Arkansas and Washington. He is also black.

The endorsement itself did not rankle Campbell's supporters; it was Tubbs Jones's explanation of why that did. "I did not raise the issue of color," she said when announcing her decision. "I raised the issue of experience, and I believe that Raymond Pierce is the best candidate to lead the city of Cleveland."

To more than a few of Campbell's backers, Tubbs Jones's rationale was ridiculous. Campbell had spent years in local politics, as a state senator and a county commissioner. Pierce had never held office, hadn't lived in Cleveland for a decade, and was clearly at a loss about some of the issues facing the city.

Indeed, after the announcement, one had to look no further than inside the pages of The Plain Dealer to see its polarizing fallout. Editorial Page Editor Brent Larkin bashed Tubbs Jones for her "laughable" explanation. "When race entered the picture, loyalty and history got tossed in the trash," he wrote. The next day, Metro columnist Sam Fulwood III took on Campbell -- for her reaction to the decision. "What was Jane Campbell thinking?" he wrote.

It was Tubbs Jones's Rosebud moment, a single incident that captures the whole of her promise and burden. If few people expected her to endorse Campbell, few also expected her to stumble so completely over the situation's racial subtext. "There's a lot of ways you could've handled it that people would have been fine with; the way she did really rubbed people the wrong way," says one local Democrat. "It looked like she thought people were stupid. It's just a false statement, to say that Pierce had more experience than Jane Campbell."

These days, people on both sides say the issue is now ancient history. "Jane and I were friends before the election, we were cordial during the election, and we are friends afterward," says Tubbs Jones.

Yet she also has no regrets. If she had to do it again, she says, she'd make the exact same endorsement, the exact same way. "I supported Raymond Pierce because I believe he was the best-qualified candidate to serve as mayor of Cleveland," she says. "Raymond had more administrative experience than Jane. People wouldn't focus in on that."

Exhibit F: With Friends Like Stephanie . . .

As Lou Stokes had done before her, Tubbs Jones has strongly supported Israel in Congress. It only made sense. The 11th District is home to more Jewish voters than any district in the state.

Yet Tubbs Jones has never let conventional wisdom get in the way of a chance for people to wonder: What planet does she live on?

On May 2, the House voted on a non-binding resolution to support Israel's fight against terrorism. It was a typically productive piece of work for Congress: No money was being spent; no resources were being provided. In practical terms, it had the same effect as declaring June 15th "Stamp Out Bad Spelling Day."

Its symbolic value, however, was enormous -- especially to Jewish voters wondering just how committed America was to supporting Israel.

Tubbs Jones didn't vote for the resolution. Nor did she vote against it. She voted "present."

It was, to many Jewish voters in her district, damn near unfathomable. "We were shocked," says Dr. Louis Malcmacher, a board member of the Cleveland Jewish Community Federation. "We've worked with the congresswoman on many other issues. We haven't always agreed, but we felt she was a pretty clear supporter of Israel."

The backlash was instantaneous. The Jewish Community Federation asked to meet with Tubbs Jones. She was bashed in the local Jewish press. "Stephanie Tubbs Jones has proved one of three things," went a typical letter in the Cleveland Jewish News. "She may have rejected the Jewish agenda. She may not be smart enough to understand the Jewish agenda. Or Jewish organizations and her Jewish contributors have failed to communicate our agenda."

But the vote turned out to be only half the problem. In June, after meeting with members of the Jewish community, she decided to write an op-ed piece in the Cleveland Jewish News. The intent was to clarify her vote; the effect was to alienate voters all over again.

Tubbs Jones argued that her actions had nothing to do with Israel. "The resolution was brought to the House floor though the use of a procedural mechanism that circumvented the normal process of debate and deliberation," she wrote. "Congressional intervention in the delicate negotiations of early May was ill-timed and undermined the United States' ability to broker a peaceful resolution in the region."

Needless to say, those who disagreed with her position didn't want to hear about the technical maneuvering inside Congress. It distilled the issue down to a dispute over Robert's Rules of Order.

"She attempted to say she voted present as a way to protest the procedure," says Gerald Chattman, a Case Western law professor who has known Tubbs Jones since she was in law school. "I know her to be a street-smart woman, a good politician. If the issue were important to her, she never would have done that. She should have just come out and said she weighed the issue . . . That would have been fine."

Had she kept quiet, the whole thing probably "would have faded away," says an East Side politician. Instead, Tubbs Jones's urge to explain ended up drawing more howls than the actual vote did. State Senator Eric Fingerhut (D-Shaker Heights) took the unusual step of criticizing her in print, saying he was "disappointed with my colleague, my friend, my congresswoman.

"I felt my constituents needed to know that I did not agree with that position taken by the elected officials in my party," says Fingerhut.

Despite the fact that it could cost her both votes and financial support, Tubbs Jones says she would not have changed her vote. "My record is clear on my support for Israel. People don't want to hear this, but I did what I thought was right."

For once, however, Tubbs Jones may have done herself irreparable harm. There's no danger of her losing her seat, but Jewish voters are increasingly questioning whether she deserves their support. It "was a really bad strategic move," says Trakas. "She really dug herself a hole. And I don't think she understands how deep it is."

Exhibit G: Don't Follow the Money

It was not a good spring for Tubbs Jones. In April, a former staffer was killed in an auto accident in Virginia. A month later, there was the eruption over Israel. Also in May, The Plain Dealer reported that the political action committee Tubbs Jones heads, BEDCO -- Black Elected Democrats of Cleveland, Ohio -- filed its campaign finance reports 18 months after they were due. More important: The group could not account for how it spent $117,000 that the Ohio Democratic Party had passed its way in 2000 for get-out-the-vote efforts.

Less than a week after the story broke, the secretary of state ruled that a trio of state lawmakers who were given the most money -- C.J. Prentiss, Shirley Smith, and Claudette Woodard -- would have to give it back. (In August, the decision was effectively reversed when the Ohio Elections Commission found that the money was not subject to the state's campaign finance laws.)

Not surprisingly, Democratic officials tried to play down the controversy by saying the whole thing had been blown out of proportion: "Deep down, people feel that BEDCO didn't do anything wrong," says Dimora. "What they did was exactly what they've done in the past, and there was never any issue with what they've done in the past."

Tubbs Jones had little to do with the nuts and bolts of the controversy; she'd received none of the money, and she wasn't in charge of filing the reports. Yet her distance from the dirt was exactly the problem. It showed how little the group had done since she'd become its leader.

Formed by Lou Stokes in the early 1990s, BEDCO was supposed to nurture the power it had taken black politicians decades to attain. Under Tubbs Jones, however, it existed mostly in the realm of letterheads and P.O. boxes. Meetings seldom took place. Money wasn't raised. "The organization itself may not be doing a lot of things that people think it should have," she admits. "But members of the organization have done much. Now what I think is that, every time I do something, I need to put BEDCO on it."

The explanation is classic Tubbs Jones: cautious, correct, and vague as vanilla yogurt. And it might seem like a strange answer, coming from any other local politician. If organizations are only the sum of their individual parts, what's the point in having political groups? What's the point of the Democratic Party?

But Tubbs Jones has never been like anyone else. Charming and dedicated, she is the politician voters love to love. And BEDCO, as with almost everything else in her world, is just another bump on her path to her preordained greatness.

Asked if Tubbs Jones could ever be defeated, George Edwards laughs. "Not unless something dramatic happens," he says, then pauses. "And I don't think even then."


More by Andrew Putz


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