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The New Black 

A young generation of leadership cools the flames of its fiery forefathers

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Outsiders & Upstarts

Guidance in Tubbs Jones' generation was hit-or-miss. State Senator Shirley Smith, 60, wasn't in any pipeline when she ran for city council against Roosevelt Coats in the early '90s.

"I was so green, I didn't know anything," she remembers. "My campaign staff — none of us knew anything. We didn't know where the bodies were buried; we didn't know who was who. I think it made an impression on me to be a little bit more educated about the process in terms of where to start, how to get involved. I think that would have made a greater impact on where I landed as opposed to where I did land."

Later, when Smith ran for state legislature, Coats backed her.

That grassroots model still works for people like Pernel Jones Jr. When he and his wife got married, they debated whether to stay in the East 73rd and Cedar neighborhood where his funeral home is located or move to the suburbs to get away from the rampant drug activity. They decided to stay.

"I would come out of the funeral home and run [the drug dealers] off, but they would come back the next day," he says. "So I started attending Councilman Frank Jackson's meetings. I told him I wanted him to clean it up. He said, 'I'm going to put you on the neighborhood Weed and Seed initiative.' We transformed the neighborhood."

With a taste of grassroots politics but no deep political connections, the young funeral director decided to run for office himself. Ultimately, his door-knocking paid off with a seat on the new county council.

Most of the younger political aspirants are more seasoned. They have worked on campaigns or run for office. They have been active in the Democratic Party (very few of Cuyahoga's blacks skew Republican). They have been on civic boards and joined fraternal organizations. Gary Norton worked on Raymond Pierce's failed mayoral campaign. Julian Rogers joined the Young Democrats and the Cleveland Heights City Club, among other civic groups. In 2006, he ran for state representative, losing in the primary to Boyd.

"When I ran in 2006, it basically put me on the radar screen," he says. "Even though I lost, it taught me a lot about how to run a campaign and gave me exposure to other folks. Once people know you have an interest in running, your name gets put on lists in people's minds as someone who could fit a particular office."

And he's already looking to mentor the next generation. Twenty-four-year-old Anthony Hairston, now the elected leader in Cleveland's Ward 10, was Rogers' county council campaign manager.

Curtis Thompson worked for former Mayor Jane Campbell during summer breaks from college. He points out that most of the county's leaders, past and present, have passed through Young Democrats, including Prosecutor Bill Mason, South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo, Cleveland City Council President Marty Sweeney, former Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and his wife Peggy Zone Fisher, County Executive Ed FitzGerald (a former group president), and even — gulp — disgraced County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.

Like Rogers, he's looking out for the generation behind him. "My whole motivation is to help the next generation that comes after me, which is pretty much what everyone should care about," he says. "You can't take it with you. My father was a Mississippi sharecropper; he had 18 brothers and sisters. Everything he did was so I could go to school. His chorus was, 'I want his standard of living to be higher than mine.'"

But it hasn't always been easy persuading the establishment to be more age-inclusive. During Rogers' time in the Young Dems, they were barred from meeting at Democratic headquarters.

"I think it was personalities, but the symbolism of telling your Young Democrats group they can't be there says something," he says.

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