"He was impressive. It was hard to tell him no," Walker remembers. Full of "passion and commitment," Pierce wanted to learn about education, desegregation, and civil rights. He had just arrived from Cleveland, following his father, who had come to build houses during Arkansas's construction boom. Pierce went straight to Walker, who had spent two decades as the lead lawyer on the never-ending case that forced the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
For two years, the young Pierce soaked up Walker's experience, working on some education cases, but mostly defending job discrimination victims. The whole time, says Walker, Pierce talked about returning to Cleveland, to help improve education and race relations and fight poverty in the city.
"I did see he would have a career in politics," says Walker, but "I never thought he would actually be mayor of Cleveland." Walker was used to seeing black leaders come from the upper middle class, not families whose parents worked with their hands.
But at each step in Pierce's career, his intelligence and self-confidence, his way with words and people, have persuaded his superiors to let him take leaps, to trust him with tasks and authority usually given to those older and more experienced. Each time, say his old bosses, co-workers, and friends, he's proved himself worthy.
Now, Pierce is trying to take the biggest leap of all. He wants to be mayor of Cleveland. To get there, he has to convince voters to choose him over a well-known, well-financed veteran of local politics. This time, his critics say, he's reaching too high, he doesn't know the city's politics and issues well enough to be mayor. Next Tuesday, tens of thousands of voters will size him up and decide whether to give him one more big promotion.
If you've heard Raymond Pierce speak, even briefly, chances are you know he was born and raised in Cleveland. His parents, Carl and Kathleen Pierce, each worked two jobs -- he at a paint factory and driving cabs, she as a beautician and at an X-ray machine manufacturer -- to give their kids a middle-class home in the southeast corner of the city. Though they never went to college, they wanted their kids to grow up smart and successful, says Carl's brother, Claude.
"[Raymond] and his sisters always said to me when growing up, 'Uncle Claude, I want to get an education so I can make money.'" Pierce went through the Cleveland schools' honors program, but when he started bringing home C's in high school, his alarmed mother quickly got him accepted at Hawken, a private school in Gates Mills that was offering scholarships to talented black students from the city. He went on to Syracuse University, where he met his future wife, Diane, then to law school at Case Western Reserve University.
At his first job in Little Rock, Pierce was assigned to a huge class-action suit against the Missouri Pacific railroad. Co-worker Lazar Palnich says Pierce had an uncanny ability to relate to the railroad men suing the company. He remembers Pierce befriending a train engineer who'd been hazed for being black, then fired. Pierce patiently listened to the engineer's story and used the details to discredit the company's stated reasons for firing him, winning the man the chance to drive trains again. When Pierce applied to LTV, his former rivals, the railroad's attorneys, wrote him letters of recommendation.
At LTV, Pierce's bosses quickly put him on a fast track, impressed with his talents, says company spokesman Mark Tomasch, who worked with him in the government affairs office. He was rotated through different offices, from labor relations to the law department.
Now that Pierce is running for mayor, he often claims he helped LTV get out of its first bankruptcy. Asked how Pierce did that, Tomasch emits a sound between a gasp and a scoff. Pierce was just part of a team, Tomasch says: Everyone in LTV's corporate offices was working to save the company.
He does, however, give Pierce full credit for one achievement. When LTV asked Cleveland for tax abatements to help modernize a plant, the city asked LTV to find a way to aid the Cleveland schools in return. Pierce created the LTV Science and Technology Institute, a summer math and science program for 10th-graders, taught by Case Western professors and LTV managers.
Around the same time, Pierce became chair of the local NAACP's education committee, which was struggling with the 15-year-old Cleveland desegregation lawsuit, especially the much-hated plan that bused students across town for racial balance. Pierce claims he "led the charge" to end busing in Cleveland by authoring a position paper against it and successfully pushing fellow NAACP members to support a school district plan that cut back on it.
But Pierce's role is bigger in his own mind than in the memories of former NAACP leaders. Ex-chapter president Marvin McMickle remembers advocating an end to busing, and since Pierce worked on education under him, "That's certainly something he would have been aggressively speaking about. I don't remember it, but that's because I'm getting old."
George Forbes, who succeeded McMickle, says Pierce did some good work on the issue, but the judge in the case, not the NAACP, was the driving force that ended busing.
Though Pierce stresses his hometown connections, his greatest success came when he moved away.
He knew Bill Clinton from his years in Little Rock, so he joined Clinton's 1992 campaign for president. When Clinton won the presidency, Pierce sent his résumé to Washington. Leslie Thornton, then deputy chief of staff for the Department of Education, remembers his job interview.
"He was smart, seemed like a go-getter, and seemed like he had good political instincts and ties." She liked his professional polish, friendliness, and reputation at LTV. He was hired.
When Pierce is accused of not having the experience to be mayor, he stubbornly points to his seven years in the Clinton administration, where he was the Department of Education's deputy assistant secretary for civil rights. That made him the No. 2 official in the office that enforced civil rights laws in schools.
Tomasch of LTV remembers Pierce calling him soon after he started. "He said, 'Hey, Mark, remember how we used to joke about Washington, how screwed up it was? We didn't know a tenth of it.'"
The Office of Civil Rights, neglected under Republican rule, was a mess. Morale was low. In fact, some of its own employees had joined a discrimination suit against the Department of Education. The satellite offices around the country didn't have e-mail yet; some were close to being fire hazards. The training budget was only about $50 per employee. Everyone in the disorganized office of 850 people now reported directly to Pierce, who was in charge of day-to-day administration.
Pierce began reorganizing and motivating, resolving cases faster, fighting for a bigger budget. Under him, three satellite offices won Al Gore's "hammer award" for reinventing government.
Pierce also took charge of long-standing legal disputes that pressed several states, including Ohio, to improve their treatment of historically black public colleges. Sometimes he personally negotiated with state officials. By the time he left Washington, his office had reached agreements with seven out of eight states. "I was really impressed with Raymond's ability to pull the two sides together," says former Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
Pierce says the hardest case to resolve was Ohio's. The state had clearly neglected Central State University, a small, mostly black college near Dayton, he says. At first, the state refused to do anything to help the school, which was millions of dollars in debt. Its entire board of trustees was fired, and some lawmakers wanted to close it. But Pierce's office insisted Central State was underfunded compared to other state schools. Because of the pressure, the state helped the school reverse severe cuts in staff and has promised to help build a new science building, university center, and college of education, says John Garland, the school's president.
Last year, Pierce settled a dispute with then-Governor George W. Bush's office over two historically black Texas colleges. His office argued that Texas had underfunded the schools since the Jim Crow era.
Pierce "deals with issues like this, and he still smiles," says his former boss Norma Cantu, who was assistant secretary for civil rights. "He's a people person, a very forgiving and gentle person, but he doesn't give up."
Art Coleman, another Office of Civil Rights official, calls Pierce a master at defusing conflict.
"Before we'd go into a meeting with a large group, where it seemed like there would be a crisis, he'd say, 'Art, calm down. Let's think through this slowly and carefully and pace ourselves. We have to lead calm, and that means representing calm.'"
The administration noticed his talent.
"He got known to me, the secretary's office, and I think the White House, too, as a go-to guy," says Thornton, who became the Department of Education's chief of staff. She relied on him to locate experts among the education bureaucracy, while the White House would call to make sure a school the President wanted to visit wasn't under investigation for serious civil rights violations.
Toward the end of the Clinton years, Pierce began to think about life after Washington. He applied for the job of New Orleans school superintendent in 1999 and was one of the top three candidates. The search committee was impressed with his credentials, says committee member Edith Jones, but decided a Marine Corps colonel, Al Davis, would be a better "drum major" to inspire a turnaround in the schools.
So, last year, Pierce decided to return to Cleveland and run for mayor. He bought a home in Slavic Village's Mill Creek development and campaigned full-time, armed only with a sense of mission. Pierce talked to everyone from ministers on the East Side to Republicans in West Park. But most assumed White would run for reelection, and they didn't want to help a new face take him on.
"Raymond called me two or three times a month for five months, just staying in touch," says Marvin McMickle. "I said, well, if Mike runs, I'm with the mayor."
Then White shocked the city by announcing his retirement. People waited to see if Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones would try to succeed him. Pierce kept calling power brokers like McMickle.
"If Stephanie runs, I'm going with Stephanie," McMickle told him. "It wasn't until July when Stephanie got out, and I said, 'Well, gosh, let me think about it.'"
Even then, few gave Pierce a chance. "He has no political experience in Cleveland. He would have been a better candidate for City Council," wrote The Plain Dealer's politics reporter in early July.
But Councilman Joe Cimperman started hearing a lot of buzz about Pierce's hard work campaigning. How did you get so many of your bumper stickers on cars? he asked Pierce one day. Pierce said he campaigned at gas stations, carrying stickers and a rag. When people agreed to support him, he cleaned off their car's bumper and put a sticker on it himself.
Eventually, Pierce's perseverance and Washington credentials impressed some powerful people. Tubbs Jones endorsed him at the end of August, and so did Coalition 2001, a group of black power brokers. County Commissioner Jane Campbell, who had hoped Tubbs Jones would support her for mayor, accused the congresswoman of choosing Pierce because of his race.
Tubbs Jones insists she thought Pierce's work in education would help him as mayor. "All the polling that you do says that education is a high priority," she says. She believes Pierce's experience at LTV and in Washington will help him "engage with corporate Cleveland," bureaucrats, and lawmakers. "Everybody says the next mayor has to be one who's capable of bringing all of these sectors together." So what if he hasn't run for office before? she asks. Neither had Hillary Clinton or Jesse Ventura. "You have to start somewhere." And after working in the Office of Civil Rights, he has "the administrative capability to be a manager and leader of the city."
But some observers still grumble that Pierce is popular because many black Clevelanders are intent on electing another black mayor.
Arnold Pinkney, Pierce's campaign director, says the main reason he supports Pierce is that he thinks "the city of Cleveland needs a manager more than it needs a politician at City Hall." But another reason, he says, is that the city has a black majority.
Pinkney acknowledges race played a role in the support from Coalition 2001, which interviewed several possible black candidates. The group took two unanimous votes, he says: first to endorse a black candidate, then to endorse Pierce.
In the primary race, all 10 mayoral hopefuls agreed on most major issues, so personal attributes took on more importance.
You know the issues, Pierce told the crowd at the City Club debate a week before the primary. What distinguished the candidates was something else. "None of these plans are worth pursuing without leadership."
His message -- that he'd been a leader in his professional career, that he could manage and attract top talent, that he wasn't beholden to special interests -- resonated with supporters who packed his victory party on primary night. It didn't bother them that he hadn't run for office before. If anything, it helped.
"He's the only person coming on board who doesn't have any baggage," said Ada Averyhart, who worked the polls for Pierce.
A young woman named Nicole, who wouldn't give her last name, said Pierce's work as a civil rights lawyer would help him as mayor. "It's not so much [that I want] a black mayor as a mayor who can identify the issues with our city, which is majority black," she said. Cleveland is "one of the top 10 most segregated cities in America. We need someone who can address those concerns."
Amy Hurd, a county government employee, is volunteering for Pierce's campaign, "first and foremost because he's a black man," she says. She says it's no different from Irish or Jewish voters supporting their own. "Across the country, what [office] do black people get to hold besides a mayor's seat?" Most of Cleveland's worst problems are in black neighborhoods and schools, and Pierce can understand those problems, she says.
Hurd also admires Pierce's ease with voters. "He woos people. He can connect." When she met him, at a community meeting, he asked if she'd heard of a candidate for mayor named Raymond Pierce. He revealed his identity only later. "To me he's kind of like an innocent person . . . his nose is not up in the air yet."
It's mid-October, and Pierce is shaking hands outside a Tops supermarket on Lorain Avenue. A feisty old lady introduces him to her tiara-wearing granddaughters, five and nine years old, who've just won some kiddie beauty pageants.
Pierce agrees the girls are pretty, but tells them to work hard in school. Then they can be like his wife, he says: "Pretty and smart. That's a deadly combination."
Pierce's charm goes over well with voters both black and white. With an unforced enthusiasm, he glides over the awkwardness of accosting people in a parking lot. He helps one woman get a big cake into her car. People recognize him, and some compliment him on his performance in a recent debate.
In the primary, Pierce's get-out-the-vote efforts, and his votes, were concentrated on the East Side. But his volunteers say voters in this neighborhood near West 110th Street are open-minded.
"I watched you the other day on TV, and I liked you," Carla Graham, an Ameritech repairwoman, tells Pierce.
"There's a certain air about him. He's so laid-back," Graham says later. "I hate to admit it, I'm a prejudiced person," but that doesn't stop her from voting for black candidates. She says she voted for Mike White, and she plans to vote for Pierce.
Still, as Pierce talks about Cleveland, there are moments that remind you he's been back for only a year. One man tries to encourage Pierce to come out against the conversion of the old West Tech High School into apartments. There are only three high schools left on the West Side, he notes.
Surprised, Pierce asks to borrow a pen to make a note of it. It shows that he's humble -- and really listening to voters -- but also that he hasn't heard about the West Tech redevelopment, which is already under way with the blessing of the mayor and the ward's councilman. He's still relearning -- or simply learning -- the politics of the city.
A larger example, and one issue in which he clearly disagrees with Campbell, is the county's plan to build a new juvenile detention center at East 93rd and Quincy. The plan includes cleansing the site of asbestos and PCBs. Angry activists have protested the plan, saying the center shouldn't be built on a toxic brownfield -- despite the county's promise to clean it up.
Because of the "highly significant community opposition," Pierce says, "I'm for identifying a new site." He isn't sure where.
He's asked if he knows it took 15 years to decide on the site. He doesn't. "That's shocking," he says.
Pierce's critics claim his plans and promises are vague. Former mayoral candidate Bill Denihan, who endorsed Campbell after losing in the primary, says even though he attended several candidates' forums with Pierce, he still doesn't know what Pierce would do as mayor. One of Pierce's slogans promises "real change," Denihan notes, but "I don't know what that change represents."
If Denihan thinks he's vague, Pierce says, he should read his position papers. But a side-by-side look at Pierce's and Campbell's position papers shows that Campbell's go into more depth, with more ideas about what she'd do as mayor. On economic development, for instance, both candidates want to build a new convention center and encourage new-technology companies. Pierce has an eight-point plan that includes tax incentives to bring businesses back to Euclid Avenue, but Campbell has a dense 22-point plan full of projects like workplace literacy programs and a regional marketing partnership.
"Learning this town is a process," says Rodney Jenkins, a spokesman for Campbell. "He's probably just beginning that process."
At Mt. Gillion Baptist Church on a humid mid-October Sunday, Pierce sits in a front pew, bouncing his head to the music. Ushers pass out fans to help parishioners cool off. The Reverend Freddie Brown, wearing heavy black robes, has a microphone in one hand, two Pierce for Mayor fliers in the other. When he introduces "our next mayor," the organ swells, and the congregation breaks into applause. Pierce joins the minister on the altar and gives him a hug.
To the crowded church, he repeats the message he's spread before mostly black audiences for months: that he's followed the path to success his elders laid out for him. "I'm that young man you told to keep his nose clean, go to school, and make something of himself. I did what you told me to do," he says. "You kicked the doors down to corporate America and made it possible for me to walk through."
Then, anger tinges the normally upbeat candidate's voice. "Even in the midst of all of these gigantic health-care facilities that are making marvels and marvels of medicine, we still live in a town that has high rates of emphysema, breast cancer, colon cancer, and heart failure. That's obscene. [A] hospital in my town is not going to operate any kind of health-care facility in the city of Cleveland where the people who need that health care can't even pay for it."
A week later, driving from one handshaking event to another, Pierce again talks of improving health care. "I want [the hospitals] to take a look at all the investment they have done building these palatial mansions in the suburbs and reinvest a small percentage of that back in the city to help us create a new network of community health-care facilities."
How will he force the hospitals to help Cleveland residents? He says he'd hold up economic assistance from the city, and possibly even building permits, to force the hospitals to increase their charity care.
How will he make good on another of his campaign promises, of bringing more affordable housing to Cleveland? He says he'll use tools like investment tax credits, a housing trust fund, and bond pools. He'll also convene an "affordable housing summit" of experts. "There are many people in this town working on these issues who are a lot smarter and more experienced with them than I am. I'm not going to sit here and make you think I have all the answers. I know I'm a leader. I'm the type of person who listens to people and gets things done."
Of course, any mayor benefits from hiring and consulting talented people. But Pierce's talk of relying on others for guidance highlights the fact that he has little political experience in the city. So he has to run on his vision and technocrat's skill, and ask voters to take a leap of faith -- to trust him to eventually figure out the details.
Which could easily be enough to win, if Pierce had a lesser opponent. Instead, he's running against Campbell, another charming technocrat with a sense of mission, who's spent years cheerfully mucking through the details of juvenile justice, welfare reform, and tax abatements in Cleveland. Pierce insists he knows as much about city government and politics as she does, but when he's asked to back that up, he's left arguing that Campbell hasn't distinguished herself on the county commission.
Still, friends and allies warn, Pierce has surprised people before.
"People underestimated him when they said, 'He can't win in the primary,'" says McMickle. "I would never underestimate a guy who can come from last place to almost beat the front-runner."
And even if he falls short, it's hard to imagine, with his career full of daring leaps, that this is Pierce's last bid for leadership.