Take Their Word for It 

How Arnold Pinkney & Co. swung the tide for a political unknown.

Ray Pierce campaigns with the help of a longtime political machine. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Ray Pierce campaigns with the help of a longtime political machine.
Fresh off the phone, Ray Pierce bounces into the room. "I just turned three undecided voters around!" he declares with the boyish excitement of a political rookie.

Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, seated nearby, doesn't say a word. The promise of three new converts leaves her unmoved. By day's end, Pierce will need 20,000 votes in the mayoral primary. Getting them won't be easy.

Unless you count his years as a Clinton bureaucrat, Pierce has no experience in politics. He moved back to Cleveland only a year ago, and in a recent poll, 39 percent of voters didn't even recognize his name. Yet, with a dearth of name-brand black candidates, the East Side political elite picked him to maintain the black majority's hold on the mayor's office. Their message is simple: Pierce is a good man. Take our word for it.

Across the hall, above his Stokes Boulevard insurance agency, campaign director Arnold Pinkney examines the latest voting tallies. He is deliberate and imposing, gray ringlets scattered in his hair. Though he twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the 1970s, he has a reputation, dating back to the '60s, as a man who can mobilize votes.

It's 11 a.m. on Primary Day, and Pinkney has 75 volunteers roving "each side of town, northeast and southeast," with 50 more in between, knocking on doors and rallying people at street corners. At each polling station in wards 1 though 10 -- more than 200 in all -- someone is handing out Pierce literature for a few bucks an hour.

Pinkney knows his side of town well -- knows that East Siders tend to vote after work while West Siders vote before, knows to start the day by sending extra workers to Ward 5 along Kinsman Road, where turnout is always low. He scoffs at polls based on 600 voters that show his man behind. "We've contacted 10,000 people. I think that's a much better poll."

Down the hall, Larry Brisker leans back contentedly in his chair. He's wearing jeans, sunglasses, and a fishing hat. "The War Room" reads a sign on the wall, next to illustrations of a tank and a fighter plane.

Brisker, a former political science professor, has been Pinkney's numbers man since the 1970s. Figures fill his computer screen and paper taped to the walls. They're Brisker's estimates of how many people will vote in each East Side precinct (and some on the West) by 10 a.m., noon, 2, 4, and 7 p.m.

How does he know? "It's sort of an art," he says with a smile, pointing to his head as if to say, It's all up here.

Throughout the day, workers hand Brisker turnout tallies from the Board of Elections and the campaign's own counters. Where voting is light, he calls for a blitz.

Betty Pinkney, Arnold's wife, handles the phone blitzes. By mid-afternoon, her workers are cajoling voters in four wards. "Have you voted today? Do you need help getting to the polls?" Field coordinator Michael Taylor dispatches roving vans with volunteers to the streets of Ward 4, south and west of Shaker Square, to roust people from their homes.

The blitzes are aimed at countering Pierce's lack of a political past in Cleveland. Campaign literature touts his experience as a corporate, labor, and civil rights lawyer; as a U.S. Department of Education administrator; as a man capable of leading Cleveland's school system, wooing new businesses, running a government.

But the literature, none too subtly, also makes a point of billing those behind the campaign. "People you know! People you respect! People you trust! endorse and support Democrat Raymond C. Pierce," reads a poster poll workers hand to voters. Seventeen black faces dominate the poster -- Tubbs Jones, Pinkney, legislators, ministers. The message is clear: If you don't know him, trust us,, and vote for him anyway.

At Pierce HQ, it goes without saying that the get-out-the-vote drive, so focused on the East Side, is aimed almost entirely at blacks. There's no use blitzing someplace like Ward 12, which includes Slavic Village, Brisker says. "Where you have a lot of ethnic names, it's wasting time to call. They've got about six or seven different candidates to choose from."

So, as Pinkney drops by voting locations in his silver Infiniti, he sticks close to home. In Fairfax, he shakes hands and asks for votes. Most residents recognize him.

"I've been knowing you for years," one woman says.

"How come you're not running?" another asks.

"Too old," Pinkney says.

He chats up poll workers -- finding out who needs more fliers, who never got lunch delivered.

The candidates' one-day armies look bedraggled. A few men have wild hair and rheumy eyes that hint of lives on the street. While volunteers man the polls on the West Side, East Siders usually expect to get paid for their lonely 13-hour shifts. Many poll workers are poor, unemployed, and on welfare, Pinkney says.

But they aren't particularly loyal. In Glenville, a man handing out Mary Rose Oakar fliers asks Pinkney for a job. "You better get your fingers crossed that Mary Rose gets elected," Pinkney replies with a smile.

At the next stop, a Pierce worker comes up to Pinkney's car. "The folks who work for Mary Rose Oakar say, 'We're voting for Pierce,'" he reports.

Back at the office, Brisker is even more relaxed. It's 4 p.m., and turnout looks good. The phone banks report that more than half of those called support Pierce. "If that's the case, we're in the finals," Brisker says.

The blitzes run until 7:15. Sound trucks roam the city. "Raymond Ceeee Pierce. For mayor! Of Cleeeeveland!" a deep-voiced man intones over African drumming as his truck rolls through Shaker Square.

A few hours later, in a Holiday Inn ballroom, a hundred or so supporters rest their feet at tables or stand near two TVs waiting for Channel 3's election results.

Sudden shouts break out, and the crowd rushes to the screens. Pierce has shot into first place. The audience is giddy, and a DJ cranks up old soul music -- Sam & Dave, the Chairmen of the Board. He ad libs over the songs: "He's educated! With degrees! He went all the way to D.C.!"

Few notice when Jane Campbell slips back into first place; Pierce's 29 percent finish is better than anyone expected.

A crowd rushes to Pierce at the ballroom door, then surges and twirls around him as he heads for the stage, Tubbs Jones and state Senator C.J. Prentiss trailing behind him. At the back of the procession, smiling only slightly, walks Arnold Pinkney.

Pierce steps to the podium, holding his young daughter. The crowd cheers and breaks into the civil rights anthem "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." Then someone starts another cheer: "Arnold! Arnold!"

"I'm overcome with gratitude," Pierce tells the crowd. "It's been a hard-won journey."

A few minutes later, as Pierce talks to TV reporters, Pinkney accepts quiet congratulations.

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