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Forbes: From Rise to Irrelevance
The first era of black leadership in Cleveland was loosely bookended by two events — one famously historic, the other infamous.
The first was the 1967 election of Carl Stokes as the first black leader of a major American city. His victory contributed to the rise to power of his ally, Cleveland City Councilman George Forbes, who became council president in 1974, and Stokes' brother Louis, who was elected congressman from Cuyahoga County's east side in 1968.
The second was in 1987. With Carl Stokes first a TV newscaster in New York and later a Cleveland municipal judge, and Louis Stokes in Washington, Forbes had built a political machine that dominated not only the black community, but the city. And in 1987, he demonstrated his aversion to challenges to his authority by pitching a chair at young councilman Jeffrey Johnson, then 29.
Just a few years later, his concerns about challenges from a younger generation became reality when he ran for mayor against his former protégé, Michael R. White, in 1989 — and was solidly trounced, ending his long career in politics at age 58. White became Cleveland's longest-serving mayor and its dominant political figure until he retired in 2002.
Forbes left city council in 1990 and in 1992 was elected president of the NAACP of Cleveland. On November 14 of last year, he earned a tenth term leading the local branch of the venerable civil-rights group. He was portrayed in a Plain Dealer story as a "reluctant" leader who "agreed to complete his second decade of service."
The story went on to say that Forbes' priority was getting jobs and contracts for minorities at Cleveland's downtown casino, and that the board felt no one else had the contacts to do this. With deep ties to the powerful business elite, forged during his 16 years as council president, Forbes unquestionably still wields influence. But he is 79 years old.
"Why isn't George Forbes grooming a younger person, setting up introductory meetings with people for a new president, setting up meetings with the mayor?" asks Sharon Cole. And many would ask why Cole isn't part of those conversations. She worked for Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Cleveland City Councilman Eugene Miller before running for Cuyahoga County Council. She's now a deputy chief of staff for County Executive Ed FitzGerald.
"George Forbes does have great relationships," she says. "He opened the doors for minority contractors when he was on city council. I believe he's made great strides in opening the door to the American dream. I wish he opened doors for younger people."
(Forbes did not respond to interview requests for this story.)
Norton suggests that the NAACP's — and Forbes' — priorities may not always be in line with the community's needs, reflecting an earlier era when civil-rights violations demanded the sort of pressure Forbes excels at applying.
"[East Cleveland] is a community Forbes and the NAACP should be concerned about," he says. "[Cleveland NAACP Executive Director] Stanley Miller takes some interest in the community, but he would have done it anyway because of the man he is.
"I have two pictures of the NAACP: their relative absence from the Huron [Hospital] trauma center closing and them standing in the Warehouse District, blasting police for beating a college student — and it turns out there's a video showing what the officer says is true," he says, referring to the well-publicized fracas that erupted over the summer of 2010. "The NAACP would rather be involved in that than in something where black people could die."
Former Young Dem president Curtis Thompson, who attended the NAACP election meeting and voted along with members of his family, points out that The Plain Dealer failed to note that Forbes staved off a challenge from attorney Lawrence Floyd by only 12 votes out of 129 cast — not exactly the landslide the paper implied.
"It was very close," he says. "For someone to say he's the end-all for the black community — most of the folks I grew up with don't know who he is. They were born in 1980, 1982, 1983. Terrell Pruitt, Nina Turner, Julian Rogers — these are the folks young people know."
And he believes it's time to clear some space for them.