Frank Talk

Our mayor is almost useless — and almost certain to win again

I nearly spilled my coffee when I read that Mayor Frank Jackson accused Columbus of playing politics with our kids by making it hard to fire inept teachers. My surprise was in seeing that Jackson finally said something meaningful, but my cynicism told me he was merely politicking himself.

The next mayoral election is still more than a year away, but the murmurs about who will oppose Jackson are beginning to circulate. Will it be Zach Reed or Jeff Johnson? Nina Turner or Bill Patmon? Or the faint white hope, Joe Cimperman?

It probably won't matter. If the election were held today, Jackson would prevail in what might be the most meaningless race in the city's history. Meaningless because the office of mayor here no longer matters. Frank Jackson helped make it that way.

In the last half-century, three dynamic political figures drove the city. They were all black, and they were all the antithesis of their ethnic counterparts — mayors like Ralph Perk and Dennis Kucinich, whose reigns turned back the clock on Cleveland.

The three black leaders — Carl Stokes, George Forbes, and Mike White — shared a desire to make the city a better place for black people. And in order to do that, they had to make Cleveland a better place for everyone. Their actions took many forms, some good and some bad. But you knew who was in charge.

Frank Jackson leads more like Mayor Ralph Locher, a guy who, in 1962, took over a city that was on the verge of change like it had never experienced. Locher was a decent fellow, and like most of the community, he had no idea that conditions were so bad for blacks that we rested on the brink of violence.

Jackson doesn't face the same kind of strife, but he is similar to Locher in that he balanced an ailing budget and was clueless about the change that took place on his watch — change that will affect the city forever.

Early on, Jackson claimed he supported regionalism. But it was just lip service to the good-government folks who clamored for change. Like Locher, Jackson failed to sense the gathering storm when Issue 6 calling for a new county government appeared on the ballot. By overlooking the significance of the move and failing to seek a new role for the city, he did what the ethnic mayors did best: embraced the status quo. Only this time, the status quo may have doomed his city's political future.

Already, County Executive Ed FitzGerald and the County Council are stealing the headlines from city government with efforts at reform and transparency. It's far too early for euphoric notices, but FitzGerald & Co. appear to be fashioning a government the likes of which this region hasn't seen in a century.

If the county needed extensive reform, the city may need it even more. The hiring hall over at the water department gave way to a gusher of incompetence and a mounting wave of public anger. Better that it be taken over by the county, which couldn't do any worse.

Jackson was behind a waterfront development plan that wasted time and millions of dollars on an idea that was finally deemed "not viable" by Peter Raskind, an unpaid advisor who realized what Jackson never did after only a few days on the job. The experience revealed that the region would be better off if the county took control of the port too.

Raskind was summoned again to count the problems over at the Cleveland schools, which under the mayor's guidance have produced a succession of managerial disappointments. Sadly, this is one institution nobody wants any part of leading.

The city's safety forces continue to diminish, while suburbs like Woodmere, Orange, Pepper Pike, and Moreland Hills have twice the protection they need. A regional approach to safety clearly would benefit Cleveland, and perhaps an enterprising mayor would have found a way to make it happen by now.

What does it tell you when Peter Raskind can walk off the street with more common sense than all of city hall? It tells you Frank Jackson is out of touch, just no more so than the voters who will reelect him.

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