Absolute Cintron

Cleveland's first Hispanic councilman may be toppled by his own.

The Lizzie McGuire Movie
Nelson Cintron may well have good answers for his - many critics, but the councilman isn't talking. - Walter  Novak
Nelson Cintron may well have good answers for his many critics, but the councilman isn't talking.

The list of guests invited to the Hispanic Roundtable's Leadership Breakfast is stacked with heavy hitters. There's a judge. County officials. Lawyers and bankers. Businessmen.

But not Cleveland's lone Hispanic councilman.

It's not that Nelson Cintron doesn't want to go. He does, badly. Cintron's lawyer even wrote the breakfast's speaker, Greater Cleveland Growth Association chief Dennis Eckart, to protest Cintron's omission.

"If you are truly interested in hearing about Hispanic issues [then] you will need to broaden the list of those being consulted," attorney Vincent Gonzalez wrote.

But Eckart had nothing to do with the guest list. The event was arranged by José C. Feliciano, a partner at Baker & Hostetler. And Feliciano, considered one of the most influential Hispanics in town, doesn't like Cintron much these days.

"I personally have great frustration with him, and it's growing," he says. "Being elected the first Hispanic councilman in Cleveland is an important victory and a historic one, but quite frankly, Nelson has not lived up to the expectations this community has -- and should have."

It's a common sentiment among Hispanic leaders. Many have long supported Cintron, at least tacitly. Now they've had enough.

"What you're seeing is disappointment in the fact that, when his name pops up, it isn't with positive things," says Adrian Maldonado, director of the county's Office for Procurement and Diversity. "There is some concern, and there's definitely been some conversation about what to do with him."

Sister Alicia Alvarado, who calls Cintron "an embarrassment," admits that these same leaders are eyeing an alternative candidate for 2004. "At this point, he's a stumbling block we'll have to go around."

Cintron, 36, has been a councilman for almost six years. In that time, he's been accused of beating his wife, abusing his girlfriend, and owning both a bar cited for drug activity and an unregistered handgun.

It's only getting worse. Channel 5 recently caught Cintron on tape, apparently promising future business to a real-estate appraiser in exchange for inflating the value of his home. The station's report suggested that Cintron was involved in loan fraud.

Then, at a council meeting last month, he threatened to punch City Parks Director Jim Glending.

Cintron's baggage could fill a Mayflower truck. "He's just getting into mistake after mistake," says Joe Santiago, who ran against Cintron in 2001. "People are starting to get fed up. They're asking, 'How many chances do you get?'"

But as activist Alex Sanchez points out, it's difficult to say whether the resentment is restricted to the leadership caste or permeates Cintron's West Side ward as well. After all, in 2001, Ohio City reelected him by a 2-to-1 margin.

"There's no way you'll know if people have lost faith in him until the next election," Sanchez says. "It doesn't matter what anyone says, unless they get to vote for him."

Some residents wonder whether his recent run of bad press is an anti-Hispanic conspiracy. "When a guy gets attacked so many times, and there's nothing new and nothing sticks, there are going to be questions," says Leo Serrano, director of the Spanish-American Committee. "You have to wonder: Is this a vendetta, or is this something real?"

Yet there's little doubt that Cintron's influence with the powers-that-be is on the wane. "They're freezing him out," says one observer, and no one bothers to deny it. His attorney's desperate plea to Eckart only generated guffaws from those who had been invited.

Meanwhile, City Hall is accepting applications for a full-time Hispanic liaison on its Community Relations Board. By default, many Hispanics who need help have gone through Cintron, regardless of their ward. City officials insist the new position isn't a slap at the councilman or attempt to reduce his pull -- but some insiders wonder if it isn't a way to take him out of the loop.

And Cintron clearly lost a political battle this spring, when the Puerto Rican Festival and Parade moved from Tremont to downtown. City officials had suggested the move, saying that the festival needed more room for safety reasons. Cintron took it personally.

"It would be a gross insensitivity to single out the Puerto Rican community and relocate its annual festival," he wrote to Mayor Campbell. He also took a shot at Councilman Joe Cimperman: "I cannot understand how Councilman Cimperman, who is not Spanish, can try to dictate to the Hispanic community where to locate its annual festival and parade."

The city's suggestion, Cintron concluded, "goes against the wishes of the festival committee and main organizations of the Puerto Rican community."

Well, not exactly. While Cintron called the move "demeaning and insulting," the festival committee was quietly meeting with city officials to facilitate it, says Santiago Feliciano, the committee's attorney.

"We saw this as an opportunity to showcase our culture in a much larger forum," says Feliciano. "Nelson can certainly voice his opposition as a councilman or a citizen, but the decision is made by the board."

Meanwhile, Cimperman's involvement seems to have cost him no political capital. Says Hector Vega, an artist who lives in Cintron's ward, "I think Joe Cimperman should become Hispanic. He could be José Cimperman."

Part of Cintron's problem is that he has attempted to represent not just his ward, but Hispanics everywhere. It's not entirely his fault: As the first Hispanic councilman, he stands for something bigger, whether he likes it or not.

But Cintron has also sought it out. His plea to Eckart makes it clear: Even with his recent troubles, he still wants to be a community leader, not just the Ward 14 guy.

It's an ambition that quickly retreats, however, at any sign of criticism. When Scene requested an interview with Cintron, his lawyer Gonzalez called back instead. Cintron could be heard in the background, piping up with occasional suggestions.

Gonzalez was far more interested in shooting the messengers than discussing their complaints. "Just on the basis of who you're talking to, none are city leaders," he says. "None live in the ward or have any long-term investment in the area. These are not people who we feel are legitimate leaders in the community whatsoever. Other than that, I'm not interested in responding."

Gonzalez does raise an interesting question: Just who is a legitimate Hispanic leader? The media and the supposed leaders themselves have long thrown around such titles, as if one person can speak for an entire race, and as if race somehow brings with it unified interests. It's also fair to say there's a disconnect between people like Feliciano -- who grew up in Ohio City, but now lives in Chagrin Falls -- and the newer, poorer immigrants, who have settled south of Lorain Avenue.

But even while Cintron and Gonzalez reject the Old Guard, they offer few alternatives. Pressed for their thoughts on who can speak for the Hispanics of Ward 14, Gonzalez mentions Jazmin Lugo-Torrez, Cintron's choice to fill a municipal judgeship. But Lugo-Torrez is a Republican who just moved to Cleveland -- from Wadsworth, no less. Gonzalez names someone else, then corrects himself. "Oh, maybe she doesn't live there anymore."

Nonetheless, Gonzalez is certain that Feliciano and company don't speak for Hispanic Cleveland: "These people are of no interest to me and of no interest to Nelson Cintron Jr. Let them stick to the suburbs. God bless them. We have no other comment."

Over the next two days, the phone starts to ring. First it's a grocer, then a union guy, then a pastor. They've heard -- not from Cintron, of course -- that Scene is working on a story, and they want to make sure they're quoted.

"We are going to be standing by him," says Luis Torrez, who owns Rico's Mart on Lorain. "He supported us when no one else does."

Yet there's no doubt that Cintron has left a taint on Hispanics, however unfair. Maldonado says he hears the same question every time he meets with non-Hispanic businesspeople and politicians: "What's up with your councilman?" Never mind that Maldonado himself is a councilman in Berea.

"We don't have to live in Cleveland to make a decision about him," Maldonado says. "We have an obligation to spank our own. If he's going to say that he represents the Hispanic Free World in Cleveland, he's gotta take the beating on the head when he messes up."

When Cintron gets in trouble, he has a tendency to hunker down and let supporters demonize the enemy. When neighbors fought to shutter his bar, he argued that it was because he was Hispanic -- never mind the drug bust that occurred there. Now, supporters like Hugo Urizar, who heads the Hispanic Political Action Committee, suggest that frustration with Cintron has nothing to do with his ethical troubles -- he's just caught in a turf war between Puerto Ricans and newer immigrants from Central and South America.

The strategy has been effective, but it may be losing credibility.

"I want to see a Hispanic in there," Alvarado says. "But he comes from a culture that's very family-oriented. Community is important to us. That's why we take this to heart. He's responsible to this community as well."

"I really wanted to see the guy succeed," Maldonado adds. "But what do you do? It's like a child you have to rein in. You do everything you can. But at some point, do you boot the guy out of the house?"

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