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The Eye Of The Storm 

Will Peter Lawson Jones Be Swept Up By The Winds Of Change

Cuyahoga County's three wise men convene for yet another Thursday morning in the fourth-floor boardroom with the view of the "old" convention center, staring coolly around the room as they glide toward their conveniently musical chairs. It's Peter Lawson Jones' turn to act as president of the Board of County Commissioners these days, and as he squeezes past fellow Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, he briefly sets a hand on Dimora's shoulder.

Dimora seems to soften under the touch, then grins appreciatively and peels back his sail of a suit coat. The commissioners' weekly show begins.

Typically, Dimora is the jocular master of ceremonies, but since that whole federal investigation thing happened, he's been reserved, and his colleagues have tried to fill the void. When good wishes are sent to the wrestler son of a county worker competing in the Beijing Olympics, Commissioner Tim Hagan floats a quip: "I understand Jimmy was his sparring partner."

And Lawson Jones spikes it: "I thought that was for sumo wrestling." A few weeks ago, that would have been Dimora's joke.

When two dozen high-schoolers, who spent the summer learning computer skills while working for a local entrepreneur, bring the commissioners book bags to thank them for their support of the program, Hagan asks, "Do I have to disclose them?" Lawson Jones wags his head but can't contain a tiny grin. Dimora, stone-faced, huffs a little more than usual but doesn't flinch.

To some degree, these three politicians are going with their favorites every time; it's what you do, which means the losers will always be vocal - and speculate. And those seeking to climb aboard the board are sure to cast blame for the insider trading that has seemingly created so much corruption and confusion.

This year, it's Lawson Jones in the electoral dunk tank. And thanks in large part to Dimora's troubles, Republican challenger Debbie Sutherland has a fistful of tickets to it.

"They're going to take one brush and try to sweep everybody out," says Lawson Jones. "And I'm not going to allow that kind of hurtful politics. I won't allow her to portray me as someone I'm not."

Growing up as "the oldest of one child" of successful and nurturing parents was the first of Lawson Jones' many blessings, all of which keep on giving in his 55th year. His late father, a chemist who ended up as an administrator and athletic director at Myers University, and mother, a teacher turned truant officer who now lives with her son in Shaker Heights, instilled in him the values of commitment to family and to achievement. "We always had what we needed, so in that regard we were lucky, but there was never a focus on materialism, on conspicuous consumption," he says. "I've never been tempted by the monetary perks, and that's served me well … especially now."

After his younger years in the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland, participating in a variety of sports and clubs, he spent his time at Shaker High much the same way - flowing freely between various cliques in the famously integrated school system. At the urging of his folks, he always worked in his spare time for extra cash.

"Only three things really interested me as a kid: professional sports, acting, and government and public service," he recalls. "Well, I was never good enough to be a professional athlete, I don't think I've got the chutzpah to make it as an actor, so that left me with one option, and that one, thankfully, left me with the best opportunity to positively impact the community."

In 1975, he went to Harvard to major in government. After graduating, he took a year off from school to work for the Carter-Mondale campaign, then entered Harvard Law. Juris doctorate in hand, he returned to Shaker and within a year was running for city council.

Since then, the upward trajectory has only steepened. Ohio House of Representatives. Shaker vice mayor. Candidate for lieutenant governor. (An almost absurdly detailed accounting of his achievements and accolades can be found at bocc.cuyahogacounty.us/lawsonjones.htm.) After Commissioner Jane Campbell was elected mayor of Cleveland, Governor Bob Taft appointed Lawson Jones to finish her term, with Dem boss Dimora's blessing, of course.

He's the only African American member on a board of county commissioners in Ohio. Currently, it's his turn to serve as president of the Cuyahoga County board.

In addition to holding down such an unwieldy fort these days, he's still proudest of being the creator of the Ohio Fatherhood Commission as well as the Cuyahoga County Fatherhood Initiative, both of which help single fathers flourish.

"Money is truly not my motivator," he says. "If it was, I'd be doing corporate law right now. We're here on Earth to make a difference, a better place for us having been here. You can believe me or not. Anybody who knows me on any level, that's the conclusion they come to."

James Levin - local lawyer/writer/director/founder of Cleveland Public Theatre, the Gordon Square Arts District and, most recently, Ingenuity Fest - has known Lawson Jones since Byron Junior High. "He was more straitlaced, but he didn't just hang around straitlaced people," recalls Levin. "He was always a real honorable guy, somebody who could move in various circles without having to be two-faced. Nobody felt Peter was one guy when he was with the student council types and another guy when he was playing basketball at the gym. He's not like that."

As a politician, Lawson Jones has been a friend to the arts in the region, says Levin; as an East Side state rep, he helped find funding for Levin's CPT, on the West Side, and went on to champion the cause of county funding for all performing arts venues. He was the first elected official Levin called when Ingenuity Fest was forming. The county coughed up $100,000. And not since Commissioner Tim McCormack, whom Hagan pushed from office in 2004, has there been a politician willing to go against the flow when he believes it's misdirected, Levin adds. On the relatively rare occasions when the commissioners do not vote in unison, Lawson Jones is almost invariably the dissenter.

Important examples: He wanted to go with a revamp of the Ameritrust building for a new county office building, while his colleagues wanted to spend $40 million more to start fresh. (Today, Lawson Jones brags about how a developer recently agreed to take the building off the county's hands, at a virtual wash, to fashion a boutique hotel, proving his assertion that the building was a jewel worth preserving.) And he split when Dimora and Hagan were in lockstep behind a $7.4 million contract for Precision Environmental Co. for asbestos cleanup at the building, even though their price came in nearly $1 million higher than the lowest bidder, a Missouri firm that Lawson Jones believes would have done just fine. And most notable, Lawson Jones wanted voters to decide whether to raise the county sales tax to help pay for a new half-billion-dollar (and counting) convention center. Hagan and Dimora didn't want to wait.

"I just knew when I voted against the sales tax that I'd bought myself an opponent" in the next election, he says. "The business community had voted 'yes.' The PD had voted 'yes.' My colleagues, 'yes.'"

Unfortunately for Lawson Jones, his opponent now has so much more to work with.

Later the same day that nearly 200 federal agents raided county offices as well as Dimora and County Auditor Frank Russo's homes, Lawson Jones told the media what he said that he knew. Yep, millions of dollars in county contracts and economic-development loans had been doled out to at least a handful of businesses that the federal government suspects may have been giving Dimora, Russo and possibly others illegal thank-yous.

The matter forms the center of a public corruption probe that seems to be just as much about greed and entitlement as it is about deep-discounted landscaping or plumbing work. (Russo sets property values and he runs All State Realty.)

"State law permits no-bid contracts under $50,000, and we're doing them under $25,000, so we're being stricter than state law requires of us," says Lawson Jones. But rules are such malleable things. One company, Doan Electric, has been a recent recipient of 15 contracts valued under $25,000. Lawson Jones vowed to restore public trust and seek a "full accounting," though he didn't really shed light on anything he would actually do. Later in the week, he held a rally for the county's 9,567 workers; about 50 showed up. He says he told them to hold their heads high.

Later that day, he admitted to a friend in the media (Tom Mulready at coolcleveland.com) that, years ago, a contractor tried to hook him with a quick succession of bribes, and he didn't take the bait. Asked about it later, he refused to elaborate on the specifics.

"I was being tested to see if I could be part of the program, whatever that program was," he says. "But the fact is, it's clear that if you ever succumb, you're owned by that person and the friends of that person. And you are never your own man again. I try to vigorously honor the memory of my father, the teachings of both my parents, and I never want to embarrass my family. That would do it."

Of course, he didn't report it either.

"I handled it by declining it," he says. "That's all that was needed to be done. I never thought that [reporting the bribery attempt] was necessary. If it happened regularly, it'd be one thing. But that was an isolated incident in a public-service career that's now gone on 20 years. My refusal made all the statement that was needed to that individual, and whoever was trying to test me through that individual."

More grist for the Republican mill.

"I absolutely would have called my police chief and told him what happened, and we'd have pursued it from there," says Debbie Sutherland from her perch on the patio at a Westlake Panera Bread. She's got the demeanor of a schoolteacher, all-business and motherly by turns. Easy to smile - and to bark.

Mining for a metaphor, she continues, "If you're a kid on the playground and there's like 10 kids out there and, all of a sudden, two or three kids start fighting, you have a decision to make: Do you go and break it up, or do you walk away? He's back on the playground, walking away."

But wouldn't the actual subject of the investigation be a more appropriate foe? Or the colleague who votes with him in mimicry nearly every time? Dimora's not up for reelection until 2010, she says. And Hagan is too entrenched (450,000 votes last election to Lawson Jones' 271,000). Besides, she says, Lawson Jones, as president of the board, "should have closed the barn door on the way out of the barn."

"I'd like to run for this position once and reform it out of existence," says Sutherland, who until recently was the leader of the county's regional-minded Mayors and City Managers Association. "I think all of this mess that has gone on just shows that our structure of government is broken. If you have a broken structure and then you have people running it who are incompetent and potentially dishonest and corrupt, then we've really got to do something. This doesn't work any longer."

She'd like to see an elected executive take over a leaner county government (she's proposed cutting $75 million and nearly 700 "bloated hiring hall" jobs in the first year), while a manageable City Council more fully represents Greater Cleveland. Lawson Jones is just as guilty as his colleagues of standing in the way to such changes, she says.

She and area Republican leaders also criticize Lawson Jones for not demanding that Dimora step down, even though it's widely assumed that Dems are waiting until they can appoint Dimora's replacement. And they believe that the county should also be investigating its own operations, even with the feds currently rounding up evidence of their own. It's something that would at least seek answers, they say, to some seriously vexing problems. That's a lot of ammo Sutherland's unloading at function after function. "This city is listed as one of the poorest, most crime-ridden cities, with such massive population loss," says Steven Backiel, executive director of the county Republican Party. "So by picking [the incumbent], what are these folks voting for?"

An August push poll asked prospective voters whether they'd vote for Lawson Jones if they knew he had accepted $25,000 from a firm doing business with the county. This refers to a particularly generous campaign boost provided in 2002 from the Richard E. Jacobs Group, which for the past several years has been in competition with Sam Miller's Forest City Enterprises to see which can land the new sales-tax-supported convention center and medical mart. Both men have given generously to all three commissioners and their predecessors.

Miller, with a long-telegraphed nod toward his Tower City location from the area's largest chamber of commerce, now seems to have won that war. But both men, of course, have fared well in deals with the county, which bought from Jacobs the asbestos-laden Ameritrust albatross - and from Miller some contaminated East Side land that the canny developer had picked up for a song at public auction, just before Mayor Mike White announced that it would be a terrific site for a new juvenile justice center.

Just past 3 p.m., sporting the white-collar uniform he practically lives in these days, Lawson Jones pulls into the parking lot of Karamu House, a short block from the construction site for that new juvenile justice center. The day's public meeting was over in a little more than an hour, but the closed-door executive session drifted on, as usual, well into the afternoon. He puts his lunch, a still-uneaten salad packed in plastic, on the roof of his electric-blue Chrysler 300M, license plate "PJay." His Bluetooth chirps away as he ambles inside with his hands full. The phone stays busy for much of the nearly two hours he is here. Media mostly. Colleagues. Supporters.

"They just wanted to know that I hadn't been implicated in this [federal investigation]," he says. "I do know that it has the potential to make people a bit squeamish."

When a PD reporter calls a few minutes later to ask Lawson Jones about the push poll and the Jacobs contribution, Lawson Jones asks back, "Listen, if they had more than that, don't you think they'd have snagged me up in this thing too?" After he hangs up, he continues with this line of defense. "Don't you think that I'd have been the first person they trotted out? It's never easy to say no to powerful people, because every time you do, there's consequences. But you have to sometimes. On the county building thing, I had Forest City and Sam Miller … on one side and the Jacobs Ameritrust building on the other, and I knew we'd have to tell one of these affluent, well-heeled groups that they had to walk. That doesn't mean you always have to say no to powerful people either. Don't we wish Rockefeller had stayed? Don't we wish George Steinbrenner had stayed? Sometimes, the private and public goals coincide, and that's when good things happen."

Not surprisingly, Miller and Jacobs have given generously to Karamu House and are listed as two of last year's top givers.

Aside from managing trophy-winning teams in the Cleveland Baseball Federation, Lawson Jones says Karamu is his "primary civic commitment." It merges so much of what he loves about the world - theater, children, preparation, flair. He always makes time for Karamu.

"He's a man who keeps his word," says Vivian Wilson, a Karamu staffer. "He shows up, and he doesn't show off."

On one side of the sprawling building, Lawson Jones convenes with executive committee members, while on the other, Karamu Artistic Director Terrence Spivey rehearses choreography with children who are in the upcoming production of The Jungle Book. He and Lawson Jones sparked a friendship around the time Spivey caught The Family Line, a play about dashed dreams doing damage to a black man, which Lawson Jones wrote, directed and starred in for Karamu in late 2005. Then Spivey heard Lawson Jones talking about his love for the writers Ed Bullins and LeRoi Jones. "That's when I knew," he says. "I was like, 'If this guy knows Ed Bullins, I have to work with him.'"

He picked the politician to star in last January's Bourbon at the Border and has already given him star billing in next January's House With No Walls, the final part of Tom Gibbons' trilogy of plays on racial politics. "I told him, there's no way I can do it until after the election," says Lawson Jones, who's picked up stagecraft again after a 28-year hiatus.

Spivey notes, "Usually, you see the artists turning politician, not the other way around, but it works. Of course, they say that lawyers and politicians make good actors, but it's different for him. He's genuine, one of the most giving people I know. He's more committed than a lot of the seasoned actors I work with."

"He makes time, and not just onstage but with fund-raising and behind-the-scenes stuff," says Karamu Executive Director Greg Ashe. "You don't see it, but he helps this organization thrive. He carves this time out of his busy schedule. Sometimes he's on the phone the whole time we're meeting, but at the same time, he's constantly making his presence known."

At Karamu's public meeting this day, a variety of patrons give props to the growth-minded programming, while leaders promote their upcoming Hall of Fame ceremony. Then they announce an ambitious plan to link up with the new juvenile justice center to foster a renaissance in arts offerings for some of the region's most troubled youth. Intuitively, Lawson Jones pledges his devotion by setting a personal goal of $75,000 in fund-raising this year. "I'll make up the difference if I have to," he says to scattered "Ooos" and "Aaahs."

A while later, Howard Lewis, founder of the Cleveland-based Family Heritage Life Insurance giant, is congratulated for his $10,000 gift. After an authentic-sounding explanation for his company's benevolence, Lewis, on his way to catch a flight, adds, "And boss [smiling widely and pointing to Lawson Jones at the back of the room], it's great to have somebody like you in our hip pocket." Lawson Jones acknowledges the comment with a little wave and an expression that's equal parts grin and grimace. The room giggles nervously.

It's 5 p.m. as he makes his way back to his car, past a gaggle of children playing basketball and braiding hair. "Hey Mayor!" one of them yells. Lawson Jones chuckles. "That's not a job I aspire to," he says.

He once fancied a run for governor some day. Now, he's "not so sure. I've got an 8-year-old at home still, and this whole county commissioner thing … I can't really think about anything else right now that far down the road." Though he's hinted at being interested in the recently vacated seat left by late Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, he wouldn't comment until after her memorial ceremony on whether that's a possibility.

All this reminds him of the new play he's just now starting to punch out, a political thriller he's already named Bloodless Jungle. "Politics is like being in the jungle," he says. "You just never see the blood."

HE'S BEEN UP SINCE 6 today, like every weekday. Still, most nights, especially now with a campaign to run, he's at this fund-raiser or that function. Then he'll stop off at Roetzel & Andress, his downtown law office, to answer more of his 100 daily e-mails and calls. Going on midnight, he's done.

"If you watch him in a parade, he's not walking and waving; he's jogging," says his executive secretary Stella Miller, who's worked with him for two decades. "I can show you his schedule. He's the busiest person on this floor. And I'm not saying this because he's my boss and friend. It's true." After a union fund-raiser, the commissioner meets wife Lisa at the Shaker Democratic Club potluck, a bolstered meeting, with clubs from Pepper Pike and Beachwood in attendance. Lawson Jones is the guest of honor. In political terms, this club is as close to preaching to the choir as Lawson Jones can get.

After some rousing words about Barack Obama and unprecedented party pride from the club leader, Lawson Jones has a chance to warm up his platform spiel. He bad-mouths a Sutherland radio comment about how the federal investigation is good for her campaign, then points to accomplishments, like the county's stellar bond rating, the second best in the state, which "means we've been good stewards."

He touts prized county programs he helped to see the light of day and then branches out to Cleveland's beacons of hope in general: PlayhouseSquare. The Cleveland Clinic. Downtown revitalization. He goes over what he calls his "Four I's": integrity, industriousness, innovation and independence. He claims to follow each tenet with religious zeal, like his new hero, Obama. "He sends such a powerful message to the disenfranchised and dispossessed, that if you work hard, you take care of your families and communities, that in the end, anything they dream is within reach," says Lawson Jones.

It's inspiring talk, rhetoric mostly - but that thespian's bass has every word sounding like part of a sonnet. Rain is lashing down outside, a sudden storm that came out of nowhere, and it's keeping him from moving on. Lightning flashes and booms. He and Lisa wait in the emptying hall. He had plans to go to a Stylistics concert in Oakwood, but surely the rain will spoil that fun.

After a short lull, he grabs a plate of food, covers it with another and sprints to the car, right behind Lisa's SUV. They part with a subtle grin that says more than new couples can understand, and he's off toward his late-night routine at the law office. "I really wanted to see the Stylistics," he says, shaking his head. "But I've still got work to do." Then the rain clears as quickly as it came, sweeping the dingy Cleveland streets a little cleaner than before. "See?" he says, "Just a little rain, that's all."

He rubs his eyes, rolls his head left and right at a red light. He won't admit to feeling stressed. Busy? "Hell yeah. But there's a certain peace in this, knowing I'm doing a good job, knowing the people will see it that way."

dharkins@clevescene.com

More by Dan Harkins

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