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When George Forbes is depicted as the end of an era in black influence, despite an army of young hopefuls, perhaps what's being bemoaned is a lack of one strong leader — a single go-to person who speaks for the whole community. To State Senator Nina Turner, it's not leadership that's lacking; it's that the leadership model is outdated.
"I think in the 21st century, we need a collective model. In the black community, there had traditionally been a single-leader model. It's also how the people outside the community judge black leadership. When we limit who those leaders are and who has the right to execute, it can stunt the growth of other leaders, and it seems to happen only in the black community. White communities aren't asked who is their single leader; black communities are."
To Jeff Johnson, the office defines the go-to leaders. "We would not be having this conversation if Stephanie Tubbs Jones were still alive," he says of the late congresswoman, whose enveloping warmth, outgoing personality, and constant presence in the community made her a commanding figure. "For me, the paradigm continues to exist. It will never be outdated."
But he acknowledges that it has shifted.
"Back then, you had a party boss, and everything went through him," he says of the Forbes era. "When it came to City Hall, he could make a call and make it happen. We didn't have the dispersed power you have today. But I think there will always be a hierarchy because of the political reality that someone will always have more constituents. So the mayor [of Cleveland] and the congressperson are always on top. But there was never one leader who did everything."
Tubbs Jones' successor in Congress, former Warrensville Heights Mayor Marcia Fudge, was semi-anointed by the old guard — Lou Stokes, Pinkney, and Forbes — in a closed-door meeting that provoked controversy. Some viewed it as a final attempt to shape the future of local political leadership. If Fudge is not as powerful as Tubbs Jones, Johnson says, it's simply because she hasn't been in office long enough to build her base.
"You hear folks do an analysis of how the model has changed," he says. "We have two leaders [Frank Jackson and Marcia Fudge] who are quietly effective."
Johnson also has a cautionary word for a generation of eager upstarts like he once was. "I don't want to see cookie-cutter leaders coming out of that generation. They all have similarities in that they all went off and got a college-level education. I don't think that's necessary. There's also the Fannie Lewis community-activist model. I don't want people to think that education by itself creates a ticket to leadership. Working in a campaign helps you, but true leadership is in the community in years when there's not a campaign. You also learn on the streets."
As Gary Norton sits in his office and fields city business, he reels off a long list of people who inspired him. There are the usual suspects — Tubbs Jones, Lawson Jones, etc. — as well as a former Cleveland State professor and the civil-rights-era activists who were his professors at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His list of peers whom he respects runs just as long, from Rogers to Cole to Dow and on; talk a few more minutes and he'll tack on a few more he forgot.
"These folks — I lean on them. We talk. We laugh," he says. "If things in the future aren't shaped by us, who will they be shaped by?"