Unfortunate Son

Will Mount Pleasant embrace a penitent Zack Reed?

Lavender tie, pin-striped suit, freshly manicured hair — Councilman Zack Reed arrives for lunch at Ocean Wave on Kinsman Road with every detail in place.

This is Sober Zack Reed, the immaculate politician who sips water with lime and speaks passionately about fixing his broken city.

As he launches into his favorite topic — turning Kinsman into the new Harlem, a tourist spot for African Americans — he seems a long way from the drunken playboy who shows up in grainy Channel 19 videos and passes out in his BMW.

This Reed spent $50,000 on off-duty police officers to patrol Mount Pleasant and had bricks thrown into his car windows for publicly blasting drug dealers. His local community organization installed sidewalk surveillance cameras to scare thugs from the street corners. And he raised hell to make sure black workers were hired to build the new A.J. Rickoff elementary school.

Over lunch, he speaks of incentives to lure businesses to the area, noting the redesigned storefront for Henry's Cleaners at 116th, the new foot doctor across the street, and fresh bricks on the sidewalk that are meant to conjure images of African heritage.

"We are going to bring back the same neighborhood that I had growing up," he says.

You want to believe him. In this city, in this part of town, even the smallest steps forward are cause for celebration. That's immediately evident as soon as you step outside.

Boarded windows. Beggars camped out in doorways. Security gates pulled over entire half-blocks of stores, as if prison bars contain the ghosts of former prosperity. This is the other Kinsman Road, the one you see if you're not Zack Reed.

The side streets are worse, offering tours of sagging balconies, peeling paint, and plywood windows that speak of abandonment.

There are no Wal-Marts here, no Starbucks or Giant Eagles. Just a Save-a-Lot and an abundance of dollar stores, payday lenders, barbershops, and churches. Beverage stores have replaced the corner mom-and-pop baker or butcher. The occasional Chinese or barbecue restaurant offers a forlorn sign of neon life in a funeral march of brown and gray.

This is the neighborhood where last April, Damon Wells defended his home from a pair of teenage robbers by killing one who'd brandished a gun on his front porch. It's also the neighborhood that nurtured some of the teens accused of beating lawyer Kevin McDermott when he was out for a stroll in nearby Shaker Heights.

"If you look up and down this street here, it's like Siberia," one Kinsman shop owner says. "There's no money in the community. There's no jobs. There's no industry."

The shopkeep refuses to provide his name, lest he get less cooperation from the city "by being real about the problem." But his gray-flecked beard and worry lines attest to decades of struggling to do business on Kinsman, where business isn't good. His windows have been broken; bars now cover them. Even when his store is open, he keeps his front door locked.

In his eyes, Councilman Reed is part of the problem, just another pretty politician practicing a game of three-card monte.

"I'm tired of him," says the shopkeep. "It's like the shell game. He shows you things, and then you look at it — it's not there."

Those off-duty cops Reed hired only show up during the day, the man says. And every time he runs to the convenience store, there's still someone trying to sell him weed. He compares the Afrocentric bricks and fancy storefronts on 116th Street to the Euclid Corridor project — "a joke."

"The leadership is not doing anything to keep the community from drowning."

Decades ago, he remembers serving customers who were auto workers, doctors, and judges — professional men who could afford gifts for wives and girlfriends. They've all moved out, lost their jobs, or don't feel safe shopping here anymore. When he scans the street, he can almost understand why so many people here prefer to invest their money in the next high. "When you sober up, it ain't too pleasant what you're looking at."

Walking out of jail, smiling as he ducked microphones jammed in his face — anyone watching Zack Reed that day in 2006 likely saw him as just another Cleveland politician. We're accustomed to seeing our public servants transformed into criminals on the evening news.

There is, of course, a big difference between driving drunk and pirating the public treasury. Still, in the land of low expectations, Reed was doing his best to meet them.

His path to prominence follows in the same tradition of patronage and favors that bred so many of his colleagues. It began in the '70s, when Councilman Bill Franklin asked Reed to pass out political fliers on his paper route. After college, he worked on Lee Fisher's state Senate campaign. Fisher repaid him with a summer job cleaning highway rest stops at ODOT.

His rise would continue through a string of low-level patronage appointments. Congressman Louis Stokes first caught a glimpse of Reed when the future councilman was teaching teenagers to beautify parks. "He was conscientious, he was bright, and he was a definite leader," Stokes says.

It wasn't long before Reed was rubbing shoulders with the power brokers of Cuyahoga County, like commissioners Tim Hagan and Jimmy Dimora, former Cleveland Mayor Mike White, and former Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne. But he wouldn't find his role model until he took a job running a youth apprenticeship program for rebuilding public housing in San Francisco. That's where he met Mayor Willie Brown.

As speaker, Brown had ruled the California State Assembly with near-mythical power. He was an equally outsized personality while serving as San Francisco's first and only black mayor, famous for his Italian suits, extravagant hats, and hitting the nightclubs and the women with equal vigor. Brown's motto: "You gotta look the part."

It was a persona Reed would take as his own — so much so that in the years to come, it was tough to tell if he genuinely cared about his neighborhood or was simply playing the role of earnest politician.

Back home in Cleveland, Reed attached himself to lesser role models. He came of age during the Mike White era, when rampant corruption was justified as long as roads were paved and stadiums were built. Even today, Reed still calls White the second-best mayor Cleveland's ever had — after Tom Johnson, who led Cleveland in the early 20th century.

He also went to work for Ronnie Davis, the former financial chief at the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, who was later accused of helping his boss, CEO Claire Freeman, steal thousands of dollars from the agency. (Davis would eventually plead guilty to a misdemeanor and agree to pay back $5,500.)

But ask Reed about these men today, and he'll dismiss the allegations against both as racially motivated. "You can't tell me these white politicians ain't doing the same thing," he says.

His response is telling. He's not incensed that people stole money his constituents so desperately need. He's galled that others stole more and were able to get away with it. And he can't see the correlation between all this theft and how Mount Pleasant has come to so closely resemble Beirut.

Reed officially became the neighborhood's servant in 2000, when he was appointed to replace retiring Councilwoman Odelia Robinson. Over the next few years, he earned a reputation as a refreshing voice of protest in a body known for rubber-stamping more legislation than it reads. He challenged the county's convention-center sales tax, criticized school officials for not gathering community input on construction, and derailed a plan to make people pay for late-night parking downtown. Four years ago, his name was even being tossed around as the requisite black candidate to run against then-Mayor Jane Campbell.

In a council so low on energy that it often seems like a diabetic ward, it wasn't hard to stand out.

"At least he's trying to do something," says Councilman Mike Polensek, who rivals Reed for the body's most outspoken member.

Still, it was always difficult to tell if Reed was legit or merely hunting headlines. It's clear that he sees himself not as a humble servant to an East Side wasteland, but as the handsome prince of a budding kingdom. He wears $500 suits, drives a BMW, and likes to call himself the Bill Clinton of Mount Pleasant. He has a fondness for women of all stripes, and even friends admit his addiction to white women may rival his addiction to alcohol. During his hard-partying days, he never seemed to mind his reputation as Mayor of the Warehouse District.

In retrospect, they were all signs of a politician about to fall.

The video images are gray and blurry, but Reed's trademark suit and glasses are unmistakable. His arm is slung around a young lady, who gazes off in the other direction as he kisses her neck. Then they are dancing, pelvis to pelvis, as his hand drifts toward her ass.

Channel 19's hidden cameras had followed him that Friday night in 2006 as he stumbled through West Sixth Street's bars. The report even claimed that at one point, Reed went behind the bar and mixed himself a drink "when service apparently was too slow."

It wasn't exactly a breaking exposé. Reed's partying had been well known for years, even before he was pulled over in 2005 when leaving the Warehouse District, too drunk to recite the alphabet. Anyone who spent much time on West Sixth likely had a Zack Reed story.

J.P. Riccio, a regular at The Mercury Lounge, used to spot Reed at least once a week, cocktail in hand. "Gettin' wasted! What else?" Riccio laughs.

"I used to see him every night I was out," remembers Jim Trakas, former head of the county GOP, "being alone and making a fool of himself."

From the red-tinted lights and $8 cocktails at Liquid Café to the pulsating techno at Mercury, Reed's routine was well known. He was always alone and often seen sidling up to the ladies.

In his inebriated haze, the charm of his political persona disappeared. He became a classic Pity Date — the high-school class president who imagines himself a stud, while the popular girls laugh behind his back.

That was evident one night last summer at The South Side in Tremont, where Reed became the unwitting star of his own Saturday Night Live skit. Hovering alone near the bar, Reed was doggedly pursuing a horde of tall, crushingly beautiful women — the kind with an unwavering sense of their own supremacy.

He would coax them out to the tiny dance floor, offering his hand as if he were Denzel, though his stiff, drunken stumbling was more Steve Urkel. At one point he even fell on the dance floor. But minutes later he was courting his next victim, while her friends giggled and snapped photos with their cell phones.

To make matters worse, Reed was an impractical drunk. He kept partying and kept getting caught driving home in his trademark BMW. Soon after the Channel 19 exposé, he was busted. Then, in November 2007, police found him on Kinsman, passed out in his car with the engine running. He's now awaiting trial on DUI charges that could land him in jail for six months.

The latest episode was enough to scare Reed into rehab. He went to the Cleveland Clinic for 28 days, emerging with a Bible in hand and a commitment to the 12 steps. Over Christmas, his aunt died of complications related to alcoholism, and he vowed not to meet the same fate. He finally understands that he can't be both a respected politician and a drunken playboy.

"I have to give up alcohol," he says. "Me and alcohol can't coexist."

But the damage may already have been done. Cleveland isn't a town that condemns people for their intimacy with bar life, yet some in his ward are simply tired of waiting for him to grow up. In a city desperate for relief, the man leading the charge can't be desperation personified.

"You'll see him maybe during a parade or on the news," says a cashier at one Kinsman Road store, "or if you're one of the lucky people to see him passed out in his car. I saw him twice."

"You tell people your councilman's Zack Reed, and they laugh," adds a Kinsman business owner. "If he doesn't care about himself, what does he care about anything and anybody else?"

But here, on a frigid January afternoon with the wind pummeling the corner of 116th and Kinsman, they love him. People honk and wave as Reed takes a stroll around the block.

"How's Mom?" asks a guy carrying a handful of clothes into Henry's Cleaners. "Mom's in the hospital," Reed explains. (She has heart trouble.)

Reed's in his element in the role of Man of the People. He organizes free summer concerts in Luke Easter Park. At Christmastime, he erects a billboard that wishes constituents "Happy Holidays from Councilman Zack Reed."

As he walks, he talks of remaking 116th Street, selling foreclosed homes to police officers and firefighters, and luring a coffee shop to the space next to Henry's Cleaners. He wants to find investors to build higher-priced housing around 93rd and Union, and says that crime has declined since surveillance cameras were installed in the neighborhood.

"He's making changes out here," says Eugene Parker, a longtime friend and owner of a Kinsman barbershop. "It takes time. He can't do it overnight, like everybody would like for it to happen."

Reed no doubt faces a mammoth task. Mount Pleasant was in decline long before he arrived, and City Hall's lethargy suggests any reversal will be accomplished on his own. But he insists change is coming.

At least five more storefronts are slated to be renovated by the end of this year, including two day-care centers, a barbecue restaurant, and a beauty salon for children. The Kinsman commercial strip, he declares, is "clearly coming back . . . This is a journey. It's a long-term journey."

These days, talk of mayoral aspirations has given way to questions about whether Reed can even hold onto his job. But he's planning to run for re-election next year. So far, he's retained the support of the Democratic power brokers.

"I still think that he's a young man who has a bright future," says Stokes. "He's obviously someone who thinks. He's out of the box."

"He was considered the most outspoken black member of city council, and possibly the most aggressive and passionate," adds Polensek. "And I don't think he's lost that much."

Former Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne understands politicians with wild streaks. Police once found him passed out in front of a stranger's house with his pants around his ankles. The greater issue, says Coyne, is whether that wildness can be tempered. "There's nothing wrong with Zack's talent. The only question is can he stay sober and can he operate a motor vehicle properly?"

Other veteran East Side Council members are protective of Reed, speaking in tones reserved for a child who has gotten into some mischief, but is sure to mend his ways. It's easy to forget this is a 46-year-old man they're discussing.

"He's a struggling young man with a problem, and I just pray for him that he'll be able to overcome," says Councilwoman Fannie Lewis.

"I think just the mere fact of what happened, and he's still respected as the councilman for that area, speaks volumes for him," adds Councilman Roosevelt Coats. "That means he has the confidence of the people."

But other friends offer words of warning. If he doesn't shun his old ways, Mount Pleasant is bound to produce a younger, savvier version of him, who won't have much trouble taking Reed out.

"There's only so much rope people are gonna give you before you hang yourself with it," Trakas says.

Back at the Ocean Wave, Reed is finishing his chicken soup. After nearly three hours of talking, he's still going strong. He talks about his quest to find a wife and have kids, although he admits, "I think I found out my wife's not in a bar."

He doesn't have driving privileges, so he travels now by RTA. But even without his BMW, he's still devoted to the role of suave councilman. At the end of lunch, he stands up. "I think I'm gonna go get a haircut," he announces.

He just needs a ride.