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The Age of Mentorship
Forbes' interest while in office was clearly not in grooming successors — other than perhaps White, who could be considered a mentor's nightmare come true. And in fact, there was logic to keeping power centralized at a time when slots for African Americans in office were carefully rationed by those with power in the larger community.
"Historically, there have been so few opportunities for African Americans to wield a position of authority that they have jealously guarded it," says Peter Lawson Jones.
"Forbes held down any black leaders," says retired journalist Roldo Bartimole, who wrote about the local political scene for four decades. "He's not going to mentor anyone. His whole game is to keep [others] down so he's the only one they can go to. He beat up on all young black council people for years [who] showed any sign of being a possible leader."
Still, Forbes — and the Stokes brothers and their ally, Arnold Pinkney — had an impact on the younger generation, even if he did not actively encourage them. And White's generation — now in their 50s and early 60s — began to change that model.
Johnson, 52, was reelected to Cleveland City Council in 2009 after a fall from grace that led to a prison sentence for fund-raising chicanery. Despite having to duck that chair, he admires Forbes and looks to him as a role model in some respects. But he credits White for providing him with his basic political schooling.
"I met him in 1981, when I was in law school and spent three years as an informal intern," says Johnson. "I organized parades, put out a community newspaper, delivered food baskets. I never had an official internship, but the streets are also an internship."
Through White, he got to know Forbes and Louis Stokes, who, along with White, he calls "my biggest influences." When White left city council to move to the state legislature, he left his council seat to Johnson.
"By the time I got elected, my relationship with Lou and George was such that I could sit in meetings and they would talk to me about politics," says Johnson. "They taught me a lot informally. But I came to a point in my life where I wasn't going to toe the line on everything. And [Forbes] ran city council, and he was a strong, aggressive leader."
As controversial as White eventually became after his closest ally, Nate Grey, was sent to prison on bribery charges, most of the younger political aspirants cite him as an influence or inspiration. State Senator Nina Turner, 43, got her start working on grassroots efforts alongside the late Ward 7 councilwoman and civil-rights activist Fannie M. Lewis; she later worked with White. "He wasn't only my boss, but I consider him my mentor as well," she says of the former mayor. "I learned extraordinary lessons working for him."
Turner, too, has been cited as an inspiration and mentor by many just a bit younger than herself. "Nina is an inspirational person and wonderful speaker — but so am I," quips Norton. "She inspires and uplifts people to bring out what is best in them."
Turner believes her generation is doing a better job of guiding others than those who preceded them.
"We tend to take more of the younger generation under our wing," she says. "I try to be very approachable. Any person who asks me to mentor them, I will do that. I'm not thinking in the back of my mind they might take me out. They might! The premise has to be, how does one give back and assure that the African American community in particular is left in good hands?"
Two other names are constantly mentioned as mentors by the younger leaders: the late 11th District Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (who died in 2008 at age 58) and Lawson Jones, 57. Many of the ambitious, educated, motivated young blacks looking for a place on the political scene cite them as mentors or inspirations. Gary Norton cites both. "We have to celebrate Forbes, [but] he didn't have a farm team," says Norton. "Peter Lawson Jones has a farm team. He encouraged us to excel by his own example and walk of public service." Of Tubbs Jones, Norton says she was "like a second mother."
When asked about Northeast Ohio's black leaders of the future, Lawson Jones rattles off a long list of names that includes Norton's.
"If you — especially as an African American — haven't tried to institutionalize your knowledge, you have failed," he says. "You have to translate it into something that endures. It's important not to be afraid of leadership for the future, but to groom it. In the past, there have been people who feared it and blocked it. I would hope that one of the people I helped could become the next county executive, member of congress, or governor."
Tubbs Jones' attitude was similar, says Sharon Cole. The time she spent working with the congresswoman helped steer her where she wanted to go. "In our first conversation after she hired me, she said, 'What do you want to do and how can I help you do it?' A lot of times, when I would talk to her about being in Congress, she would say that she was the caretaker of the position. It didn't define her. If it doesn't define you, why would you be scared to be a beacon to those who come after you?"