A Question of Style

Why the mayor needs a makeover

KRS-One With DJ Lush, MC Caddy Cad, Poets of Another Breed, 7-Up, Zeb, Lovenug, Centric, Ground,and Shut 'Em Down (Reemycks, Curry, and Beond). Saturday, May 27, at Peabody's DownUnder
It's a little past 7 on a cool Thursday morning, and East 105th Street is gradually stirring to life. Children make their way to school while their parents wait for rumbling RTA buses to take them to work. Most of the storefronts are still closed, including the B&B Restaurant, a nondescript greasy spoon just south of St. Clair. Silver metal shutters are drawn over the windows, and the large glass door is bolted shut to the general public.

But when you're a regular, not to mention the longest-serving mayor in Cleveland history, exceptions are made. So inside, accompanied by only an assistant, waitress, and short-order cook, Michael White sits huddled in the rear of the restaurant, back to the wall.

Powered by little more than a few hours' sleep, a few sips of coffee, and the single-minded determination that is paradoxically both his strength and biggest weakness, White works with his eyes down, talking on a cell phone and jotting notes on a yellow legal pad. Despite the police cruiser sitting across the street with two uniformed officers watching the restaurant, one can't help but think of mob movies, with the don sitting in the shadows, facing the door for fear his enemies will come barging in.

The scene is also emblematic of where White finds himself politically these days -- cornered and cloistered, a solitary figure surrounded by only a few trusted aides.

White has always had a go-it-alone style. And for the past 10 years at City Hall, it worked. Whether because White enjoyed peace with other politicians and the business community or simply because they were willing to tolerate him to get what everyone in town wanted -- Gateway, the Rock Hall, the return of the Browns -- projects got done, and the city prospered.

But behind the scenes, there has always been another Mike White -- one the public seldom sees. The one who bullies top staff members. The one who brooks no dissent. The one who cuts deals in private.

Interviews over the past month with dozens of city employees, former aides and campaign workers, business leaders, and state, local, and county politicians paint a picture of an irascible personality who has soured other politicians and driven away qualified staff. White's style, they say, keeps him from forming alliances that would help his projects reach fruition. He tries to do everything himself, and if things go wrong, blames others.

The frustration with White finally built up to the point of open revolt -- most notably, in the council insurrection in November, when Mike Polensek orchestrated a coup ousting Jay Westbrook as council president. By then, White was beleaguered on several fronts: He was at war with the cops. Big projects had stalled. Relationships benefiting longtime friends like Nate Gray and Fred Nance were starting to come under scrutiny.

Since then, White's problems have only multiplied: Cost overruns at Cleveland Browns Stadium. A running battle over the expansion of Hopkins Airport. No consensus on building a new convention center. An embarrassing political setback in the fight over St. Michael Hospital. Unanswered questions about civil service exams.

And now, two potential scandals are simmering. City Council is poised to launch an unprecedented investigation, complete with subpoenas and affidavits, to pin down responsibility for the botched 1998 civil service exam. And in a pending lawsuit against the City, a national engineering firm has finally put in print what many in town have been whispering for years -- that White manipulates City business to enrich his friends.

At a time when his administration is taking on water from all sides, it would be natural for White to turn to his friends and allies for help. But White has alienated almost all of his political allies. In many cases, they're the ones lodging the most damning allegations.

Even Sam Miller, the Forest City executive who has served as the mayor's longtime political benefactor, confidant, and adviser, admits White's personality is making his job difficult. "If Michael had a little bit better people skills, I would say his job would be much, much easier," Miller says, adding optimistically, "I believe he's going to acquire them, because he has no choice."

But you'll never hear that from White, who insists nothing has changed in his world. Over the course of two interviews, one at City Hall and the other in the Glenville neighborhood where he grew up and still lives, White comes across as unconcerned about his critics -- who, at one point, he compares to "fleas and ticks." Depending on your perspective, he is either a man completely at peace with who he is and what he's doing, or the last man in town to realize he's isolated and in deep trouble.

"I am a what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy. I am the same today as I was in 1977, when I ran for council," White insists. "Two people have given me Machiavelli [to read]. I got to chapter two. It's not my style. I'd be a lot better off if I was like Machiavelli. But I'm very straightforward, I'm very direct, and I've always been that way."

White can be charming and funny. But it doesn't take much to see flashes of his other personality, when he's combative and vindictive, heaping scorn on his adversaries with a vigor that is disconcerting.

White claims his critics -- people like Polensek, former protégé Bill Patmon, and local Democratic Party head and County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora -- attack his personality because, on substantive issues like crime, city services, and new home construction, the city is moving in the right direction. He launches into what he calls his "facts, performance, personality" speech, asserting that, when opponents can't beat you on your accomplishments or job performance, they'll attack your personality.

"Aha! Let's distort his personality. Let's put in an element of intrigue about how he treats people. Let's put in wisps of cronyism, which are as yet unproven," White says over a breakfast of cereal, milk, toast, and coffee. "Because then, you don't have to have the facts, and you don't have to have the record. You can just slash and burn a person. And you know what? That's where the gold is, politically speaking."

He concludes with a wink: "They can't beat me on facts, they can't beat me on performance, so they're trying to beat me on personality."

What White won't say, or perhaps doesn't realize, is that it's a fight his opponents are starting to win. The mayor still has 19 months in office and remains the favorite, should he seek reelection next year. But that point is moot if he can't find a way to work with his critics, who seem to be growing in number daily. Unless White can find common ground with City Council and the county commissioners and the business community, expansion at Hopkins will lag, and the convention center will never get built. And not just the citizens of Cleveland, but all of Northeast Ohio will suffer, if the region stalls and descends into Rust Belt irrelevance.

As White himself put it at a May 9 press conference: "A house divided will ultimately fall. The problem is, when this house falls, it will be crashing on the heads of the citizens of the city of Cleveland."

Even among the lower ranks of city employees, White seems to have used up his goodwill. When the two African American officers sitting in the cruiser across the street from the diner learn that an emerging reporter has just interviewed the mayor, one laughs dismissively.

"Don't believe all his shit," he says.

"I don't owe him a damn thing."

At another time, under another council, the civil service exam controversy might have gone away after a few days. But in this new era, council wants to know why the City overpaid for a test that was so mishandled that not one of the 2,125 people who took it has been hired. White's handling of the crisis, and his subsequent comments about one of his longtime advisers provide a telling look at the mayor's style.

At the May 9 press conference, White responded to the upcoming investigation by suggesting that former Public Safety Director William Denihan and City Personnel Chief Joe Nolan were responsible for the decision to award the contract to Coleman & Associates Management Consultants, a Dallas company that submitted the highest bid, but had never produced a written police entry exam.

It was a stunning pronouncement -- particularly in the case of Denihan, who worked for White for nine years and was viewed as one of his most capable and trusted advisers. Now head of the County's Department of Children and Family Services, Denihan left White's employ in 1998 with an impeccable reputation.

"Any rotten job they would give to Denihan, and he would perform with distinction," says one business executive. "To have [White] turn on him like that, it's just awful."

Polensek, the mayor's most vocal critic, calls the situation "classic" Mike White.

"It's all about style. It's all about attitude," Polensek says. "If it's good, he did it. If it's bad, someone else did it. It's Bill Denihan's fault now."

White claims he never "turned" on Denihan, but simply noted that any investigation of the exams should include the people who were in his cabinet at the time, like Denihan and Nolan. White also subsequently said his comments were distorted and that he has taken responsibility all along for the botched tests.

Denihan himself was outraged by the mayor's accusations. Unlike most former city employees, he has fired back at White, claiming the mayor is involved in virtually every decision, major or minor, made at City Hall.

"I think it's sad the mayor does not accept responsibility for decisions that he made and continues to make," remarks Denihan, who says he will gladly testify before City Council about his role in the civil service tests. "If anybody thinks that decisions are made in his administration without his knowledge -- well, that's just ludicrous."

In a lengthy interview, Denihan portrays the mayor as a micromanager and confirms the widely held perception that White runs his staff by fear and intimidation, to the point where it has become difficult for him to attract qualified staffers. There was speculation before every cabinet meeting, Denihan says, as to which department head would draw the mayor's abuse.

"It was a negative environment," he says. "I think there is a certain amount of dignity and respect that you have to have for the people reporting to you. You don't degrade them, you don't belittle them, and you don't try to destroy their spirit in front of . . . other people -- especially their peers. He seemed to have a propensity for wanting to belittle and demean a person's spirit and worth. And it was totally unnecessary."

When confronted with these allegations, White refuses to discuss them. Told that Denihan is demanding a public apology, White snaps: "I don't owe Bill Denihan a damn thing. You can quote me."

Let me tell you what Denihan said about your management style.

"I don't need to hear what Bill Denihan said," White says.

Well, let me try anyway.

"I said I don't want to hear it. Do you have a question?"

Do you run your staff through fear and intimidation, embarrassing people, and unnecessarily degrading them?

White tries to turn the tables with a long, thoughtful answer about how members of his staff have been "degraded, embarrassed, and disrespected by City Council." There is some truth in the charge. Since Polensek seized power, council's treatment of White's staff has been childish at times. Finance Committee Chairman Bill Patmon, for example, publicly scolded mayoral press secretary Brian Rothenberg simply for talking to a reporter during a hearing.

White argues again that it makes sense to include people like Denihan and Nolan in civil service exam hearings, since they were part of his administration at the time. But then, instead of letting the issue go, he exhibits the win-at-all-costs, get-the-last-word persona that so many people criticize. He gets nastier and more personal, implying that Denihan manipulated the 1996 test results to get a high-ranking police officer's relative on the department roster.

White keeps pushing -- asking why, if he's such a terrible guy, Denihan came to his golf outing last year, had his picture taken with the mayor, and talked to White after dinner?

Maybe because White is the mayor.

"Mayor or not, I didn't make him come to that golf outing," White says. "I didn't make him stay for dinner. He had no obligation to me."

So you're not denying Denihan's allegation about how you treat your staff?

"I gave you my answer," White says.

But you're not denying it?

"I said, Why would a person who thinks so negatively of me be so willing to come and support the things that I'm doing if [his allegations] were true?"

Maybe because you're the most powerful man in the city.

"There you go, buying into the BS again. What you don't understand," White says, then pauses. "First of all, let me deal with Denihan. It's unfortunate that someone of Mr. Denihan's caliber now has to stoop to out-and-out lying to get his name in the newspaper. That's my retort. That's my retort."

"They couldn't produce a beaten wife."

White's petulance makes it easy to forget that, 11 years ago, he was viewed as a different kind of leader, a "new Democrat" before the term was in the lexicon. His politics were progressive enough to attract supporters like the "Oberlin 7," a multicultural mélange of idealistic college students who moved to Glenville to work on White's quixotic first campaign for mayor. Until then, White was virtually unknown to anyone except political junkies and the Glenville residents he represented in City Council and the state senate.

White graduated from Glenville High School and Ohio State University, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees and became the school's first African American student body president. Soon after graduation, then-Cleveland City Council President George Forbes hired him as a council clerk.

In 1977, White was elected to City Council. He and Polensek were sworn in to their first terms together -- a fact both men are quick to note.

White impressed fellow councilmen with his intellect and drive, and was named chairman of the Community Development Committee. There were also flashes of the hardball style that 20 years later would alienate so many on council. In recognition of his skills as a cutthroat politician, White was given the nickname "Mike the Knife."

Those skills came in handy when once, in the late '70s, Forbes's political adversaries tried to oust him as a council president while he was out of town. White squelched the rebellion. "He saved my ass," Forbes recalls now with a laugh. "By the time I got back, [White] had whipped everybody's ass."

Neither man was laughing last summer, long after they had become bitter political enemies and were publicly feuding over White's handling of the Ku Klux Klan rally. No better measure of the enmity between them could have been drawn than the disastrous summit meeting at the Shoreby Club, which ended with Forbes being restrained after throwing a chair and other objects at White.

In 1984, White was elected to the state senate and appointed Jeffrey Johnson to replace him on council. (In a notable flow of succession, Johnson later moved on to the state senate and appointed Patmon to fill his slot on council.) Despite his solid credentials, White was viewed as a long shot when he ran for mayor in 1989. The crowded field was full of credible candidates like Forbes, Benny Bonano, Tim Hagan, and Ralph Perk Jr.

Tom Andrzejewski, a political consultant who worked on White's first mayoral bid, remembers a poll early in the campaign showing that White had just 29 percent name recognition. "Two-thirds of the people in the city had never heard of him, much less had any kind of opinion of him."

But White hit the streets with a coterie of talented campaign workers and an ambitious agenda that focused on education, housing, economic development, race relations, and crime. And he consistently outshone his better-funded opponents in debates.

"He had the clearest vision of what he would do as mayor and what he thought was important to the city of Cleveland," says State Senator Eric Fingerhut, who managed the campaign and is one of White's few current supporters in public office.

White finished second to Forbes in the primary, leading to a runoff election in November 1989. Andrzejewski remembers the unstated theme of the campaign as "If you want to beat George Forbes, vote for Mike White. We targeted white neighborhoods with a significant Jesse Jackson vote [in the 1988 presidential primary]. White people who would vote for black candidates -- that's the base Mike White won on."

Still, he didn't win the nasty campaign without enduring whispers and allegations of being a wife-beater and slum landlord. White sees a commonality between that ill-tempered battle and his current fight, with critics making attacks that he says aren't based on facts. "Everybody accused me of being a wife-beater; they couldn't produce a beaten wife."

White's first term is viewed as an unqualified success. He helped sell county voters on the Gateway package and led efforts to attract the Democratic National Convention that, while unsuccessful, increased the city's profile nationally. He strengthened the city's land bank program and strong-armed banks into increasing their lending to neighborhood projects. The city's bond rating improved.

White's second term -- he won reelection in 1993, facing only token opposition -- also had its share of achievements. The opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the bicentennial celebration made Clevelanders feel good about their city. White pumped millions of dollars into the city's recreation centers, and new home construction grew.

But White's second term also brought changes to his cabinet. LaVonne Sheffield-McClain replaced Darlene McCoy as chief of staff. Former employees say the emergence of Sheffield-McClain, who eschewed McCoy's shuttle diplomacy for a more confrontational style, changed the administration's relationship with council and, to a lesser extent, the corporate community.

Staffers and cabinet members like Paul Patton and Chris Carmody began to move on to other jobs. Some were lured to better-paying, less-stressful positions in the private sector. But others were simply driven away by Sheffield-McClain.

During a Public Safety Committee hearing earlier this year, Councilman Michael O'Malley characterized turnover at City Hall as so bad that it's created instability within city government. Andrzejewski agrees, noting that, when Carl Stokes was elected mayor, the city was a mecca for young, progressive people who wanted to work in government.

"The talent at City Hall has been seriously depleted," he says.

White claims that turnover at City Hall is no worse than it is at most large corporations. "The reality of it is that we attract a lot of very smart, hardworking people, and we can't pay any of them what they deserve," he says. "Every one of them who've been here for three, four, five years, they've gone on to bigger and better jobs."

Still, White's star was rising. Glowing stories about Cleveland's renaissance began to appear in out-of-town newspapers. National magazines like Time and U.S. News & World Report hailed him as "one of the most popular and successful" Democrats in the country.

White needed all that popularity and power as the sun began to set on his second term, and he suddenly faced an enormous challenge.

"I can get a deal with anybody."

When Art Modell appeared on a stage with Maryland Governor Parris Glendening and current Browns owner Al Lerner on November 5, 1996, to announce that the team was moving to Baltimore, it caught Cleveland like a sledgehammer to the groin. White took that anger and crystallized it, becoming an unlikely spokesman for all that was wrong with pro sports.

Whose fault was it that the Browns moved? Not even the principals can answer that question definitively. But members of the Modell camp in Baltimore insist that it wasn't the one-sided betrayal portrayed in the aftermath of the announcement. Yes, Modell made a series of monumental mistakes and poor decisions, they say. But he left Cleveland only after becoming convinced that White was not serious about renovating the old Municipal Stadium.

According to one member of Modell's staff, White continually dragged his feet in negotiations with the Browns owner. "The mayor met with Art in January of 1994, right after he was reelected to his second term. During [autumn of 1993] he said to Art, "I'll take care of [the stadium], but let me take care of this election, and we'll meet right after the election.' So in January, he and Art met, the mayor said, "I understand your problem, thanks for your patience, I'll get a solution for you in a couple of months.'

"So January passes, and it's going to be April. April passes, and it's going to be August. For the next year and a half, whatever deadline [White] set, he broke, never coming up with anything. The history of negotiations between Mayor White and the Browns was a history of deadlines set and never met."

White also fumbled the ball, according to the Modell camp, by failing to include other relevant entities, like the State and Cuyahoga County. "It was part of his need to control everything," the staffer says. "We weren't supposed to talk to council, we weren't supposed to talk to the County."

White dismisses the claim, rattling off a litany of times he tried to reach a deal with Modell. "By now I think we all know that the Art Modell matter was never about football," White says. "The man had a losing franchise that he'd damn near bankrupted, and he was looking for a bailout. That's why he went to Baltimore."

White deserves credit for pressuring the NFL into rewarding the city an expansion franchise. But once again, he couldn't let the issue go, lashing out at the people he perceived as Modell's allies.

Cleveland-based Jones Day Reavis & Pogue, one of the largest law firms in the world, had represented Modell since he came to Cleveland in the 1960s. The firm was also tight with White -- one story only half-jokingly suggested a secret tunnel running between City Hall and the Jones Day office, so White could consult with the firm on every major move. Dennis Lafferty, a Jones Day administrator, served as chairman of White's reelection committee, tapping his connections in the corporate community to raise more than $1 million for the mayor's war chest.

When the City tried to block Modell's move in court, Jones Day defended Modell, fulfilling a professional obligation to its longtime client. But White took Jones Day's actions personally. He publicly criticized the firm and privately badmouthed it. He refused to reappoint Lafferty to the board of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority -- a move Lafferty interpreted as payback, prompting him to resign from White's reelection committee the day after the snub. What's more, White stopped going to the Greater Cleveland Growth Association's annual meetings, which were chaired by Jones Day managing partner Patrick McCartan. (White says McCartan stopped inviting him to the meetings.) Either way, to the business community, the message was clear.

"[White] wiped away any relationship with Jones Day, and Jones Day has a relationship with virtually every leading company in town," says one Cleveland business executive. "You've got Pat McCartan, who is the acknowledged leader in this community, and you're going to try and rub his nose in it? If you're going to go after that guy, who will you not go after?"

Business executives, notorious for hiding when the firing starts, will not criticize White openly. But when it came time to put money on the table, it was clear where their loyalties lay. When New York entrepreneur Howard Milstein wanted to recruit Cleveland executives in his ownership bid for the expansion Browns, he turned to McCartan, who in turn enlisted a who's who of Cleveland's corporate power brokers.

Joining Milstein and McCartan were David Daberko, chairman and CEO of National City Corp.; Mal Mixon, chairman and CEO of Invacare Corp.; Bill Sanford, chairman and CEO of Steris Corp.; Michael Horvitz, a Jones Day partner and president of the Cleveland Museum of Art; and Joseph Gorman, CEO of TRW Inc. and chairman of Cleveland Tomorrow.

White was left standing alone with Lerner -- the very person who had engineered Modell's move to Baltimore.

White says Jones Day's representation of Modell was the equivalent of "turning their back on Cleveland." He notes Jones Day still represents Modell and accuses McCartan of pushing a plan for a regional airport, which would hurt Hopkins.

"Every time I look up, this firm is doing something to hurt Cleveland and its citizens," the mayor says.

White says all the talk about his personality and accusations of power plays are irrelevant. "Know two things about me: I am African American, and I know how to get a deal. And I can get a deal with anybody," he says, rattling off the compromises he's struck while in office: Gateway. The return of the Browns. Deals with Continental Airlines. The pending move of the Crawford Auto/Aviation Museum to the lakefront.

"I can do that dispassionately, I can do it in a businesslike way, I can do it in a detached way, with anybody."

But there's a city full of politicians and businessmen who disagree.

"I don't have a rollover personality."

If there's one politician who would seem a natural ally for White, it's Council President Mike Polensek. Both men were raised in tough East Side neighborhoods, are products of Cleveland public schools, and have been called political street fighters. They even have similar builds -- short and coiled, with faces that have gotten just a bit rounder since their early campaigns.

Polensek often eats breakfast at Fanny's on East 156th Street. It's about five miles and a world away from the B&B, and not just because the council president orders fried eggs and sausage patties -- decidedly more artery-clogging than White's high-fiber fare. All day, Fanny's is full of cops from Cleveland's nearby Sixth District headquarters. Many of them stop to say hello to Polensek or at least nod in acknowledgment. It's a marked contrast to White, who is despised by the cops.

Polensek was once a White supporter, pointing out that his mother handed out campaign literature for White at the polls during the 1989 campaign. Now he can talk for hours about what he perceives to be White's flaws. Since taking power in November, Polensek says he's been deluged by calls from business leaders who say they can't work with the mayor.

"How can 21 members of City Council, the business community, the labor community, the media all be wrong?" he asks. "His whole demeanor, attitude, the way he treats people -- we've all experienced it."

Polensek is obviously frustrated by years of being on a subservient council, and some of his anger can be written off as political posturing. But it's clear White has failed to bring the council president into the fold and establish a working relationship, as George Voinovich and Forbes did in the 1980s. On the contrary; instead of forging an alliance with Polensek, White lobs Molotov cocktails across the hallway. In a recent issue of Cleveland Life, White accused the council president of "wiping out" the committee chairmanships of six African American councilmen, a charge Polensek says amounts to race-baiting.

"Race-baiting? I just stated a fact. Half the council leadership was African American before he came. Now only two are left," White says. "Mr. Polensek put together a little cabal of 11 people. It is noticeably absent of African American leadership."

Both black and white politicians around town scoff at the assertion, noting that committee chairmanships are typically promised as part of the coalition-building process. "To the victor goes the spoils," says Forbes, the local NAACP head who knows a thing or two about racial politics. "It's nothing about race; it's about hard-core politics."

Polensek notes his leadership team includes three African American chairs and a Hispanic as majority leader. Moreover, he finds the timing of White's comments suspicious.

"He floats it out there after six months, because he ain't getting his way," Polensek says. "We have a well-running and operating council, and that's the bottom line, and I think that disturbs him more than anything. It was a wonderful council when nobody raised any questions to the things he did, or those of us who did raise questions were in the minority."

Which underscores another similarity: Neither man backs down. As White himself says, "I don't have a rollover personality."

That doesn't sound like a guy looking to make a deal.

"They don't have the guts."

If there was ever an example of how the dynamic between White and council has shifted, it was the Finance Committee hearing in late April on cost overruns at the new Browns Stadium. For more than two hours, Polensek, Patmon, O'Malley, Tim Melena, and Ed Rybka vented years of pent-up frustration by grilling White's staff and attorney Fred Nance about construction costs, which are now anywhere from $50 million to $80 million to $100 million over budget, depending on whose numbers one believes.

Patmon looked exasperated, trying to corner Nance and new Parks Director Nicholas Jackson on questions about which account funds came from and to whom the City still owes money. In a later interview, Patmon says he began questioning his support for White as early as 1995. His misgivings grew with the Klan rally last summer and were confirmed during the recent St. Michael Hospital controversy.

"My sense is that there's not accountability -- that he's not as accessible as he once was," says Patmon, who represents White's Glenville neighborhood. The confrontational tone of the hearings, Patmon says, was intended to send a message: "Quite frankly, it means there will be no more blank checks."

White says council was well aware of the stadium costs, through meetings its consultants had with Diane Downing, the project manager. Of course, that was during a time when council was totally compliant -- a fact White conveniently ignores.

"City Council supported every decision we made," the mayor says. "So don't watch it the whole time, get all the reports, know what's going on and then, when it's over, say, "Ahhh! If only you had talked to me, everything would be all right.'"

The bickering could go on for a long time -- and probably will. Patmon has promised more hearings, and there are plenty of contractors who still have not been paid. But given this level of infighting over a project that cost $314 million (White's figure) or $352 million (council's figure), how in the world will they ever agree on an airport and convention center, whose tentative price tags are $1.4 billion and $560 million, respectively?

It's a point that was not lost during the April hearing.

"The next project will be approached very differently. There will be gnashing of teeth and accusations of moving too slow," Rybka said. "But we will never again be accused of not understanding construction or of asking the wrong questions."

The airport provides the mayor's critics with another example of how his personality has impaired his job performance. For the past eight years, White has sparred with the city of Brook Park and his counterpart, Mayor Tom Coyne, over acquiring land to expand Hopkins.

The problem is, there isn't much space for a Hopkins expansion. Cleveland would like to tear down the International Exposition Center, which sits adjacent to the airport in Brook Park. But Brook Park needs the IX Center, which is viewed as the key to economic growth for the tiny suburb.

In 1994, Cleveland filed suit against Brook Park, claiming its zoning regulations hinder the airport's growth. A federal judge disagreed, precipitating a 1997 compromise in which the two cities swapped land and cash, giving Cleveland the property necessary for the first phase of airport expansion.

But the IX Center is still in contention. Coyne was preparing to secure it by eminent domain when the City of Cleveland purchased it for $66.5 million. So now the two cities are in court again, fighting over who has legal right to the facility.

"It has cost us millions because of his inability to sit down and resolve an issue that is one of the economic engines that help drive this region," Polensek says. "There is no reason we should be in litigation."

Coyne agrees. "If you would have told me I'd spend six years of my life in court with the City of Cleveland, I would have never believed it. At some point you have to come to a compromise and work something out. We've tried to work this out for years and gotten no cooperation [from White]."

From Brook Park's squat, one-story city hall building, Coyne sounds a familiar suburban lament: White refuses to involve all the players in the region in his decision-making process, he says, then expects all of them to toe the line when he's ready to act. Coyne claims involving more people would result in better decisions.

White responds with a variation on "facts, performance, personality" that suggests political gamesmanship is at least a two-way street.

"I want you to check the facts, because once again, if they can't deal with the truth, they lie," White says. "It was Mayor Mike White in 1991 who called for mediation [on airport expansion]. It was Mayor Mike White who, in 1991, went to the Growth Association and asked them to hire an attorney to mediate. It was Mayor Mike White who went to the business community [in] late 1992 . . . and asked them to bring both sides together. Now does that sound like somebody who just wants to fight?"

Maybe not. But White's propensity to get personal rises with little provocation when he's asked about progress on the proposed convention center, a project that demands at least some level of City-County funding and cooperation. County Commissioner Dimora, who has also found White difficult to work with, has said the County -- which is still paying for the Gateway complex -- will not join in a plan to build a convention center until White and council come to an agreement about where it should be built.

White starts on the subject by calmly reciting the start-and-stop history of the project. Then he goes personal.

"The problem is the commissioners don't have the guts to put it on the ballot," White says. "You know, at the end of the day, somebody's gotta have some guts, put their career on the line and go forward and say to the community -- just the way we did with Gateway, same way we did with the Browns, same way we're doing with the lakefront, same way we're doing with the airport -- this is for the good of the community. But don't accuse me of having a bad attitude because you don't have the guts to stand up and be a leader in the community, which is pretty clear about the county commissioners."

Another important bridge firebombed by Mike White.

And therein lies the problem. His scorched-earth approach means White loses, whether he's right or wrong. Even when the facts are with White -- and the facts are with him more times than his critics would admit -- White can come across as arrogant and mean-spirited. The mayor likes to argue that perceptions don't matter, but it's clear that the current perception of his personality is affecting the reality of his job.

There's also another perception plaguing White -- that most major city projects enrich his friends. It's a rumor that's been whispered everywhere from the dining room of the Union Club to barstools on East 185th Street. And now it's in the form of legal action.

Last year, the City filed a lawsuit against URS Greiner-Woodward, an international engineering firm that designed the $49 million parking garage at Hopkins. The City claimed an exit was too low and sued to recover the costs of modifying the garage, which took one month to do.

But the City spent 19 months arguing with URS over how to make the modifications, during which workers from Etna Parking, owned by close mayoral friend Nate Gray, worked around the clock directing cars to alternate exits. Last month, URS filed a countersuit against the City, claiming that White purposely took a more time-consuming and expensive course of action to benefit Gray and Etna Parking.

White brushes off the charges. "I cannot comment, because it is a lawsuit, but I can tell you that it will be defeated in court," White says. "That lawsuit is replete with lies by an architectural firm that cheated the City of Cleveland."

It will be interesting to see if White follows through on his threat to fight URS in court. If the City and URS, represented locally by former U.S. Attorney Patrick McLaughlin, do go to trial, it means Nate Gray will have to sit through depositions and testimony, answering some difficult questions about how much City business has gone to his companies -- and why.

"Do I look like I'm worried?"

White seems to think of himself as the Pied Piper of Cleveland politics, setting his own course. He doesn't shmooze much and isn't active in the local Democratic Party. He guards his privacy ferociously and spends many of his weekends gardening at his second home in Newcomerstown, two hours south of Cleveland.

"I'm at the point where I'm going to do what I think is right. I'd like everybody to love me, I'd like everybody to say, "Wow, he's really doing a good job.' But at the end of the day . . . I go home with myself and God, my wife and my children," he says. "I'm always going to be able to look them in the face and say I did the right thing."

In White's view, that means everything from starting a soccer league for kids in Cleveland to protecting the constitutional rights of the Ku Klux Klan. But if his handling of the Klan is, as he claims, a testament to how different he is from other politicians, then so is St. Michael. To this day White says he has no regrets about the deal he struck with the Cleveland Clinic to keep the struggling East Side hospital open with limited services. He's right when he points out that University Hospitals, hailed as a neighborhood savior, earlier closed St. Luke's. And St. Michael still faces an uphill battle to remain a viable full-service hospital.

But at the very least, wouldn't life have been easier for everyone -- including White -- if he had consulted with council before entering into negotiations with the Cleveland Clinic? Instead, White was relegated to the sidelines as Polensek, Rybka, U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich, and Councilman Joe Cimperman, among others, scotched the Clinic deal and were hailed as heroes for saving a hospital in Slavic Village.

Cimperman believes White tried to do what he thought was right with St. Michael, but his solitary style doomed him. "It's impossible to do the right thing when you're doing it alone," he says, "because when you're confronting systems and corporations that are bigger than any one person, you need your friends to come help you out."

The fact is, White no longer has political friends and allies to help him out.

Andrzejewski, the political consultant, says it's undisputable that Cleveland is a better city today than it was 11 years ago, and White deserves much of the credit. But those 11 years don't count for much as White confronts this new political reality.

"He's never really been a good coalition builder. In fact, very much the contrary," Andrzejewski says. "It's tough to find a public official that's really enamored of him, and that's part of his downfall. He goes it alone, and you can't. You've got to have alliances."

Dimora credits White's accomplishments, but poses a question of his own. He notes that, when elected officials announce they're running for office, it's customary to hold a press conference. "If he had a press conference with his friends and elected officials around, who the hell would be there?"

It's an intriguing question. But it doesn't bother the mayor, who seems utterly nonplussed by all the criticism swirling around him these days. White is convinced the nitpicking and fighting -- "all that crap I deal with at City Hall" -- doesn't matter to the average Clevelander.

"I can only tell you that our [polling] numbers look good," White says matter-of-factly. "Do I look like I'm worried?" Not in the least. "You know why I don't look like I'm worried? Because I'm not." Maybe Mike White's not worried. But God knows, the rest of the town is.

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