Hangin' with Mother Hough

Fannie Lewis is Cleveland's scrappiest politician. But is she still a tireless fighter -- or just tired?

The House of Mirth
It's 10:15 a.m. Time for Fannie Lewis, matriarch of Cleveland's Ward 7, to order around the garbagemen.

"Hi, how you doing?" she hollers out the window, in her slightly Southern, completely ear-splitting accent, to the men in denim. "Listen, my wastebasket's sitting in the corner of my yard. The little bitty garbage can should sit in the front of the yard. The big one, turn it over. Thank you. How you guys doin'?"

"Pretty good," answers one. "Thanks for that gift certificate you gave us."

"Bless ya," she says, eyes twinkling behind thick glasses.

The guy gets in a good-natured dig at his partner, who missed out on the gift certificates. "I told him, 'It pays to come to work.'"

His partner blushes. "Oh, I don't care," he tells Lewis. "I'm just glad to live in your ward."

"Well, next Wednesday, if I'm at home, I'll remember to give you one, okay?" she says. "I got some extra ones. Bless ya. I love you guys."

The Queen of England, with her horse-drawn carriage and scepter, should be so smooth. But Her Highness's manicured, bejeweled hands never had to claw their way to the top.

Ward 7 Councilwoman Fannie Lewis is the closest thing Cleveland has to a flesh-and-blood folk hero. She's famous for her quick wit and her sharp tongue, her ability to fire a single sentence that can simultaneously lighten the mood, quote scripture, and flatten the poor schmuck who stands in her way. And everyone -- friend, foe, potentate, peasant -- is fair game for being that schmuck. Because when it's time for a tongue-lashing, Lewis doesn't waste precious seconds considering the target's pedigree, alliances, or personal grooming habits.

"I can still remember my first council meeting," senior Councilman Mike Polensek reminisces. "I got in an elevator, and Fannie was in there, yelling at this councilman," a minister. "She was all over him. She went up and down him. When she got off the elevator, I said, "Who was that?' And he said, 'Young man, that was Ms. Fannie Lewis. I can assure you, you're gonna get to know her.'"

Lewis wasn't even a councilwoman then. She was a neighborhood activist, famous for silencing scrawnier souls to steamroll her point through.

"I remember her and my father being the two loudest people at meetings," says Rosa-Linda Demore-Brown, whose dad, Thomas Brown, worked with Lewis on a grassroots neighborhood-improvement program called Model Cities in the 1960s. "If they weren't angry at each other, they'd get together and tear up on somebody else. Circle the wagons."

Overcrowded, trash-strewn, and demoralized, the post-riot neighborhood of Hough needed an outspoken leader like Lewis. If it weren't for her, plastic surgeons in pink shirts might be playing through on East 68th and Quimby, where the Fatima Family Center now stands. Business leaders once wanted to raze the neighborhood for a golf course. But first, they had to go through Lewis. And the only hole in one she'd allow was the one she chewed in their backsides.

"She completely turned a neighborhood around," says Councilman Bill Patmon, who, like most on council, has known the wrath of Lewis firsthand. "Her legacy will last generations."

Her name might live on, but Lewis is now 76 years old and in her 22nd year in office. Her admirers call her a tireless fighter who saved the neighborhood from literally being wiped off the Cleveland map. Her detractors contend that she makes increasingly careless decisions, falls asleep at meetings, and holds so tenaciously to power that her successors are doomed to live in her shadow.

She has made her mark, not by waving a magic wand, but by beaning people on the head with its sheet-metal star.

During a luncheon at the Hough Multipurpose Center, the conversation wanes -- until someone mentions that a local writer has penned a play about Fannie Lewis's life.

Lewis, who had been looking rather crumpled beneath her black velvet hat, promptly perks up.

"Oh, you gotta see that!" she exclaims. "The Fannie Story. There's a Fannie song. Yeah. It's a tear-jerkin' play. I cried myself. It's been on TV. They play it all the time on Channel 35.

"They researched it. They had an old Fannie and a young Fannie. The older woman that played me moved in my ward, she was so enthused. She played it like she had been knowing me all my life. And that young girl -- how in the world she got my traits down!

"They did good. They played that mean streak. I was in the South, and I didn't like what the white folks was doing to the black folks. There was a bunch of boys around our neighborhood; I always had to fight with 'em. And my sister was teasing me one day, and I got at her with an ax." Lizzie Borden would be proud -- although Lewis didn't kill or maim her sister, just chased her.

Raised in a religious family, Lewis grew up in Tennessee during the time of poll taxes and segregated drinking fountains. "Those were the bad times," says the councilwoman, who's now single-handedly raising five of her grandchildren.

In Tennessee, she worked in a laundry after school as well as in the fields, where workers picked up to 300 pounds of cotton per day. Trained as a cosmetologist, she married Carlee Lewis at age 19. After Carlee returned from a stint in the Marines in 1951, the couple moved to Hough to escape the oppression of the South. They lived in a roach-infested hovel belonging to a relative until they could afford a place of their own.

The hardship didn't end with the acquisition of a two-story house on Star Avenue, where Lewis resides today. A framed, sepia-toned picture of Carlee, young and handsome in his Marine uniform, still hangs on her memento-covered living-room wall. "Heh, heh, heh," she laughs. "Ladies' man. That's my ex-husband. God's gift to women, so he thought." They separated in the early 1960s, finally divorcing in 1972.

She found herself alone, trying to support five children on the salary of a shirt-presser. "Oh, I just didn't know how I was gonna make it," she says. "I was getting fired every time I turned around" for making smart remarks. "I was a hard worker. But I was very withdrawn. Didn't talk to nobody, didn't visit nobody."

She met her lifeline on one of her many walks to the store: Lugenia Dixon, a precinct committeewoman who lived on East 66th Street. "She jump-started me into politics," says Lewis. "She saw something in me she thought was worth building. She told me the way to straighten out my life was to get involved, rather than sit around and moan about what I couldn't do. She kept bugging me to go places. She'd work me to death -- at street club meetings, community meetings, political rallies."

Lewis still had a child in diapers. "She'd say, 'Bring the baby with you.' I got to be known as 'The Lady With the Baby.'"

She landed a job with the Neighborhood Youth Corps, counseling children who had dropped out of school, then toiled as a social worker for the county. She earned a reputation among clients as a straight-shooter. "That's where I found out that welfare workers are human," she says. "Yes, they have a tough job. It was bad. Listening to people's problems all day long. But I learned that people don't have babies to get checks."

To put her sons through college, she eventually took a better-paying gig with Gallup Polls. Going door-to-door, she got to know more of her neighbors. By then, she was already well established as a citizen activist.

Long before she held elected office, Lewis would be called on to handle neighborhood crises. Hough resident Annie Greene remembers Lewis as the area's unofficial ambassador during the Hough riots in 1966. "Nothing moves without Fannie," says Greene, who served for many years as Lewis's precinct coordinator. She points to a pink house across East 82nd Street. During the riots, the house caught fire, and "The National Guard came in, saw the flames in the window, and busted in there. Somebody called Fannie, and baby, she was there," questioning the guardsmen and calming the crowd. Her picture showed up in the next morning's paper.

During her activist period, Lewis told The Cleveland Press that she had nearly completed her memoirs. The working title was "Levels of My Life" or "My Life in the Cesspool." She also had her first notorious run-in with Council President George Forbes, who prevented her appointment to the RTA Citizens Advisory Board because his arch-rival, then-Mayor Dennis Kucinich, had nominated her. "I will not be shunned or shucked aside," Lewis declared at the time.

She made the leap from concerned citizen to political candidate during urban renewal, a phenomenon popularly known among blacks as "Negro removal." Entire residential blocks in Hough were demolished practically overnight to accommodate vague plans for residential and corporate development. But development didn't follow demolition, and the remaining residents were confronted with weedy, empty lots where their neighbors once lived.

Lewis first ran for council in 1971. "I wanted to help homeowners stay in this neighborhood, close to downtown, close to the lake, to University Circle. Close enough to walk. That's what I've always wanted to maintain. I've walked all my life. That's why my legs is giving out." Friends recall her striding some 50 blocks down Superior to work, decked out in a dress and tennis shoes.

What really fired her up, though, was that Star Avenue had a standing appointment with the wrecking ball. Half the street had already been torn down. Her half was next. "I was protecting my house," she says. "That's what kept me running. I didn't want to move no more. I don't like to move." She ran for council five times, finally winning in 1979.

Former Council President Forbes, who now considers Lewis a "dear friend," remembers campaigning for her opponent, then-incumbent Councilman David Collier. "She never let me forget that. I'm sure if you mention my name, she'll tell you that I was out there opposing her." When Lewis encountered Forbes on the campaign trail, she instructed him to lay off her turf and go back where he belonged.

Wednesdays were Councilwoman Lewis's ward days. She'd hop on her three-wheel bike and tool around the neighborhood, dressed in a brightly colored dashiki. She held classes for the precinct representatives, teaching them whom to call to cut through red tape.

She didn't have to tell them to wield her name like a set of nunchakus.

"That was a given," says Greene, a diminutive, sprightly woman in her 70s. "That was really powerful then.

"I've always thought she was the most wonderful councilwoman," she adds. "No matter what you asked her, what time of night, she'd put her feet on the floor, and she'd be ready."

Martha Ka, another former precinct representative, remembers Lewis leading self-esteem and political science classes for teens at the Soul Palace, a local gathering place. "She would have people from everywhere in her ward," Ka marvels. "It would be jam-packed in there."

But Lewis was greeted coldly by the downtown machine. "George Forbes and Louis Stokes and Carl Stokes and David Collier," she recites. "Those are the men that caused me to be in council. They were rough, and they were mean. 'You're a welfare mother, you're a nobody. Go somewhere and sit down.' You had to have determination to be there."

Even after Lewis and Forbes declared a truce over breakfast at Juanita's Restaurant, Forbes was no pussycat. When Lewis refused to rename Hough Avenue "Mt. Sinai Drive" (and effectively wipe the word "Hough" off the city map), he gerrymandered the hospital right out of her ward. "They changed the boundaries within the year," recalls Lewis. "You're only supposed to change boundaries during redistricting, and we had just had redistricting."

Another time, Forbes sent Lewis on an "educational fact-finding mission" to China with civil rights leaders Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm. Lewis was thrilled to make the trip. "I ain't been anywhere, you know, and suddenly, I'm with a wealth of fine, elite women." But when she returned, she realized she'd been shanghaied. The proposed Church Square shopping center, a sparkling oasis in a sea of blight, had been maneuvered away from its planned site in Hough and placed in Councilwoman Artha Woods's ward. "He sent me to China so he could pass the vote," says a still-indignant Lewis.

Yet Forbes, she felt, was better than his adversaries on council. Lewis had campaigned on the promise that, if elected, she'd support a coup against Forbes. But she soon changed her tune, casting a dissenting vote in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Forbes in 1984. Years later, she tried to prevent Forbes critic and Councilman Jay Westbrook from being elected to the council presidency. "I told him he was weak," Lewis says.

Having campaigned tirelessly for Lewis in the 1970s, Westbrook had promised Lewis the chairmanship of the Public Health Committee in exchange for her vote. She didn't vote for him, but he won anyway. He wasn't about to appoint Lewis to Health Committee chair.

Though she had backed out on her part of the deal, Lewis continued to covet the chairmanship with an unreasonable zeal. Trying to strong-arm Westbrook into surrendering it to her, she filled five buses with her irate constituents and led them downtown to confront him. Though they caused a stir, he didn't give in.

Had it not been for Lewis's antics, Hough might have starved for outside attention. When a local paper mistakenly reported that no one lived in a public housing complex scheduled for demolition, Lewis and her supporters draped long lengths of sheets from the windows. "That way, the rich people could see what was going on. That yes, people are living here," says Greene.

Greene also engineered an image change for Lewis. "Fannie used to dress tacky," she says. "I remember one time, city council was going on a trip. I was standing there, and I heard Artha Woods tell Fannie, 'I know you're going shopping for some clothes. A councilwoman should look halfway decent.' I turned to [Woods] and said, 'Shit, you don't look like nothing.'"

A seamstress, Greene started making Lewis some smarter outfits. "The only thing I couldn't stop her from doing is not combing her hair," declares Greene, a no-nonsense great-grandmother who keeps a Fannie Lewis scrapbook. "But I did get her to get a haircut. I made her an appointment once a month, and I'd say, 'You supposed to go today.'"

If Lewis's dream for Hough included the scent of freshly cut grass, it was coming from well-tended lawns, not a rich man's putting green. Heralded on the front page of The Cleveland Press, the proposed golf course was to stretch from East 55th Street some 50 blocks east to Ansel Road, running north from Chester to Superior. When Forest City developer Sam Miller and his cronies pitched the plan, Lewis "got out her driving iron and sent them sailing," recalls Westbrook.

"I had a plan when I went into council," Lewis explains. "I drew a map of the ward and showed how we were surrounded by all of this development, over to the lake. How we were right in the middle of downtown, the Cleveland Clinic, and University Circle. And whatever in the middle was important. One part of my plan to save [Hough] was to make sure people didn't lose their homes."

Land speculators had already approached many Hough homeowners, warning them that, if they didn't sell at bargain-basement prices, the city would take their land by eminent domain for a Cleveland Clinic expansion. Shifting into crisis mode, Lewis took her ward map to the people. She informed them that they lived on prime property that they had every reason to fight for. She organized a resident-run Land Bank, so voters could decide the fate of vacant lots. Few residents caved in to real-estate swindlers. To show their gratitude, they made her an institution, overwhelmingly reelecting her time and again.

"I think people trust her," says Ka. "It's like Heinz ketchup, like any other popular name. She's proven herself. She's revitalized the neighborhood. People want that."

"She'll be in council as long as she lives, if she wants that," speculates Forbes. "No one will ever beat her. Who's gonna run against Fannie? How you gonna beat Fannie? She's like tar. She hangs on and doesn't let go."

Meanwhile, Lewis was again completing her memoirs. She marched into the wealthy-white-male bastion known as the Union Club, demanding that business leaders scrape together the money to cover cost overruns on a cluster of subsidized, middle-income townhouses that would be known as Lexington Village. She didn't leave until she had $185,000 in pledges.

By the close of the 1980s, she'd locked horns with then-State Senator Mike White, who was campaigning for mayor against Forbes. Lewis was a Forbes supporter. White broke protocol by handing out campaign literature at Lewis's ward club meeting.

"You don't come in her ward club with campaign stuff," says Greene. "Usually, Fannie will say, 'Excuse me,'" yelling at the interloper from across the room. "But with Mike White, she didn't say a word. She went straight up to him and said, 'What are you doing here? Don't leave nothing here.' He had an attitude, and she did, too. And he's had an attitude ever since."

White, whom Lewis has publicly called a "liar" and a "demon," declined to be interviewed for this story. "That's good," remarks Lewis. "Normally, he'd say something bad about me."

As for her memoirs, which have had about "10 different titles," they remain a work in progress.

Lewis became a devout Christian in 1962. Perhaps because she's spent so much time in church since then, she has a special knack for catching a few winks during, say, Ephesians Chapter 2, verses 1-4. During the funeral of a Hough drug counselor, she sits beside the altar, visible to the entire congregation. As the pastor reads, her head starts to droop. The more he reads, the more it droops. Just as he reaches the tail end of the passage, she jolts awake, chiming in beautifully with an earnest "Amen."

"I do a lot of meditation," Lewis explains later. "One hour of meditation is worth two to four hours of sleep. I can meditate anywhere now. If I'm real tired, I can meditate sitting up in a meeting somewhere. I can get about 10 minutes. It's not sleeping. It's putting yourself back into step; letting your mind drift."

Amid the chaos of running a ward and raising grandchildren between the ages of 9 and 21, she squeezes in Bible study every day. "Sometimes I study in the bathroom or after the kids have gone to bed. Or when I wake up very early in the morning."

Lewis's official day begins about 6 a.m., when the phone rings with frantic constituents calling from jail or council members hoping to jaw with her before she leaves the house. It ends around midnight, or "whenever I stop answering the phone."

At 9:30 a.m., she's still in her robe, barefoot. Her ankles are thick with age, her feet ringed with calluses. Sitting on the teal chenille couch with the cigarette burn, phone glued to her ear, she's trying to untangle some school mess her 17-year-old grandson Jake is in. "But the kids jumped him," she insists. "How's he supposed to defend himself?" Her other line rings. "Hold on a minute. Hello, yeah, hi, who is this? Lou, I've had five people dying since last Thursday. What can I help you with?" Yet another ring. "This is Miss Lewis. What is your problem, hon? Just because your name got drawn doesn't mean you got Section 8. Call me tomorrow -- I have a funeral to get to today."

Dressing takes about an hour, between phone calls and visitors. During this process, she transforms from a frail, stoop-shouldered grandmother with a saintly nimbus of gray hair into Councilwoman Fannie Lewis, a political magnate in a black swing coat and conservatively heeled pumps, a fetching black cap, and a pocketbook full of paperwork.

One of the morning's visitors is Arthur Fayne, a large, dapper man in a cream-colored suit. A prot´g´ of Lewis's, Fayne recently headed the troubled Hough Community Council and is in the process of leaving town. But today, he's supposed to drive Lewis to the funeral, since she doesn't drive. Plans have changed, however. Jake has been sent home from school for the day, so Fayne will pick him up and take him to the funeral.

Fayne says that, when he was a wayward teen, Lewis was the only adult he looked up to. She was his mentor in a summer program at St. Thomas Aquinas School. "You were scared of her, but she had a sense of humor," he says. "She had compassion. But she never let you talk back to her."

Did she ever embarrass him in public, as she's democratically done with just about everybody else? "Probably . . .," he hesitates. "Not really."

The phone rings again. "Yeah, he got embarrassed," Lewis butts in, chuckling to herself. "I don't know when it was, but out of 40 years, I know that he did. Sometime probably in front of his wife."

Lewis's grandson, Jake, like many teenage boys, has a face frozen in stoic complacency. Tall and thoughtful, he seems like a nice kid, but he's closed off, so adults can't read him. A year from now, when he turns 18, he'll be a man and can speak for himself, he seems to be expressing through gritted teeth. But right now, the less said, the better.

Cynthia, Jake's mother and Lewis's youngest daughter, has been struggling with drug addiction for much of her life. Lewis's eldest son, Early, is in prison for attempted murder. Like many single parents, Lewis has little time for subtlety. Friends like Fayne and Lois Ali, an apartment manager in her ward, are often on call to baby-sit when she has a meeting or gets dispatched to any number of ward emergencies. Sometimes, she'll take her grandchildren to political functions with her.

A recent Wednesday night rally for school vouchers has Lewis's granddaughters distributing patriotic buttons, meeting agendas, and programs left over from last year's neighborhood pride celebration.

Besides relatives and friends, any able-bodied bystander can get sucked into Lewis's orbit. At the voucher meeting, a speaker from Madison, Wisconsin, happens to be standing dangerously close to a heavy cardboard box full of files. You can see the wheels turning in Lewis's hoary head. "Young man, carry that for me, will you?" she yells in his direction. Sheepishly, he obliges.

As for those who don't, Councilman Joe Cimperman once got an earful because he opposed Lewis's push to convert the old Richmond Brothers building on East 55th Street into a county jail. Among other creative names, she publicly called him a "Judas goat." They've since made amends over a Bible and a hug-filled meeting with her constituents.

Councilman Bill Patmon has two favorite Fannie sayings: "If you're out in the middle of the lake, and there ain't no boats around, and a boat full of snakes passes you by, I guess you've gotta get in that boat." And "When you're fighting, you don't look to see what you pick up to hit a fellow with. You just pick it up and hit him."

Polensek, who calls Lewis "my political godmother," says she is the last of a dying breed.

"George Forbes taught me that, without votes, I couldn't change the color of the men's room," he says. "Fannie and I were tutored under that legacy. What you see with her is what you get. No fanciness."

Lewis's latest battleground is Washington, where the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the school-voucher case. A zealous supporter of vouchers, she was portrayed last year in Salon magazine as a "maverick Democrat . . . refusing to wait any longer for politicians and educators to improve a system that has been awful for a very long time." Recently, she teamed up with pro-voucher attorney Clint Bolick for a two-on-two debate against a pair of Harvard University "experts."

"Fannie did most of the talking," says Bolick. "I spent most of my time sitting back and smiling. She was the voice of the real world."

But could it be her last crusade as councilwoman? "As far as quickness in the mind, she hasn't lost a step there," says Forbes. "But her gait is slowing. Age catches up with you."

"She easily forgets now," observes Annie Greene. "She's got so much on her mind. The last six or seven years, she's had high blood pressure. I think she's getting tired of fighting."

"This project was part of the plan we had for the neighborhood," reads a sign in Lewis's backyard. "The Lord gave us the vision. Anybody protesting is working for Satan. Anybody who questions this sign can call Fannie M. Lewis."

Lewis posted the sign in the yard of an incomplete "dream home" in her ward. The house was boarded up when the contractor went belly-up. When the subsequent court battle was at least partially untangled, she took the sign down. Now it awaits the next fracas. "I paid $400 to have that sign made," Lewis imparts. "I'm not getting rid of it."

Some Hough residents wonder where the protest posters were when their neighborhood hospital, Mt. Sinai, closed down last year. Mt. Sinai was the only East Side hospital that was open to everyone, regardless of insurance. Annie Greene's first child was born there. Greene's husband had his kidney removed there. And when Lewis had to be hospitalized for high blood pressure, she was admitted there.

"It's easy to go and raise hell, but what have you done for us lately?" wonders George Edwards, head of the Hough-based Black Trades Council. "Why wasn't she on guard when they closed down Mt. Sinai?"

That same year, leaders in Cleveland's Slavic Village banded together to save St. Michael Hospital from being bought and shut down by the Cleveland Clinic. Triumphant photos of gleeful politicians hoisting their arms in victory were plastered all over the local papers.

In Hough, there was no such celebration. Lewis didn't muster up her typical take-charge spirit for that battle. "Mt. Sinai isn't in my ward," she says. "It's in Craig Willis's ward. I did try to address the issue, but Mr. Westbrook said we needed to let Craig deal with it, it's in his ward. That's crazy." Westbrook, it appears, wasn't too weak to silence Lewis this time.

As for Willis, "He fumbled, didn't he?" she scoffs, attributing his inaction to the fact that TV news reporters had caught him on camera living in a house that wasn't in his ward. "He was so busy trying to save himself, he couldn't save very much." Willis says he would have tried harder, but he had no advance notice that the hospital was closing.

To Lewis, home ownership is the future of the neighborhood. And so are the youth. Growing up in Hough, Arthur Fayne was one of her favorite charges. Fayne again called on her years later, fresh from college graduation with a degree in psychology.

"He came by to thank me, said he wanted to get involved in the neighborhood," recalls Lewis. "I said, 'Arthur, I like what you do. You gotta be the next councilman.' I thought, 'This is gonna be the next man to take my place.'" She made him the director of the Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center and appointed him the head of the Hough Community Council, a neighborhood empowerment group.

But as head of the council, Fayne led an ill-fated bus trip intended to introduce schoolchildren to African American historical sites in the South. Fayne had the buses bypass the monuments in favor of an excursion to Disney World. When word got out, the city refused to fund the trip, and Lewis was left holding the bill.

The city temporarily cut off Fayne's salary while investigating claims of financial mismanagement. With his paycheck in limbo, Fayne was about to default on his brand-new $175,000 home in Hough. To help the family, Lewis hired Fayne's wife, Gina, as her assistant.

"I can't answer to nothing Arthur did," says Lewis. "I guess it was late when I realized he had gotten off the beaten path."

Fayne has also been accused in a federal lawsuit of missing more than 100 days of work in a single year. But probably the most direct embarrassment Lewis absorbed on Fayne's account happened when he failed to pay a delinquent $4,000 water and sewer bill. Although Lewis owned the house, Fayne managed it and was responsible for paying the bill. His lapse resulted in a front-page headline in The Plain Dealer's Metro section that read "Lewis Behind on Water Bill."

Fayne has since lost his house. He says he is taking a job with Ford Motor Co. in Cincinnati, but he still lives in Cleveland, and his wife still works as Lewis's assistant.

"People thought I was so close to Arthur, I didn't see what was wrong," says Lewis in retrospect. "I think I put an X on his back that made it hard for him. He got beat up politically. I tried to help him where I could, because of our working together and him going to be the next councilman. I feel bad about it now. That's the politics of government. You gotta be strong. And he wasn't as strong as he thought he was."

Another, more visible mess in Ward 7 is the stretch of unfinished, boarded-up dream homes dotting Chester Avenue, the neighborhood's promenade. Priced in the $100,000 to $500,000 range, the homes were to be subsidized with government funds from the ward's community development coffers. But the builder, Triangle Development Corporation, didn't have the financing to pay its contractors for already-completed work. When the company defaulted, families that had already shelled out deposits on their dream homes were left wondering if they'd ever get to move in. Triangle's CEO, Albert Edwards, also was convicted of writing $32,000 in bad checks to contractors.

Lewis says she was always slightly suspicious of the company and would never support such a shoddy enterprise. But letters with her signature on them state otherwise. According to the letters, she was "committed to work in harmony" with Triangle, which had her "full support." Lewis, however, says she made no promises, and that the letters are forged.

Triangle leaders also claim that Lewis duped them into beautifying her ward in exchange for a $300 million development contract that was never delivered. Side projects such as painting a school building and paving a parking lot for the councilwoman drained their resources and ultimately bankrupted them, they claim. They are suing Lewis and other Hough leaders for $1.4 million. Yet they have produced no written documentation that they actually performed any such tasks.

Lewis says she didn't make any promises; she just thought they were being extra helpful. "There was just something about Al Edwards," she says of her latent suspicions. "He was too eager to do stuff."

In the spirit of Lugenia Dixon, Lewis says she has groomed "a lot of people" for the role of her successor, "and none panned out." The latest hopeful is Rosa-Linda Demore-Brown, a lifelong Hough resident who says Lewis is "coaching" her.

Lewis's coaching style might be more accurately called micromanaging. At the recent voucher rally, Demore-Brown was supposedly in charge. But Lewis, sitting in the audience, couldn't resist blurting instructions from her chair. "Rosa-Linda's in training," Lewis announced to the group. "Very intensive training."

Demore-Brown says she plans to run for the Ward 7 council seat in 2005. "We've talked about it, and she's given me her blessing," she says of Lewis.

If she can just survive the next four years of volunteering for Lewis, she might be up to the task.

Demore-Brown rattles off all the volunteering she's done so far: She serves as Lewis's community liaison, directs the Welfare Reform Initiative in Hough, and facilitates the Hough Community Council. When constituents call Lewis with "concerns or complaints not of a political nature, she gives the call to me." She's helped mothers get their children back and old people get better locks on their doors.

But after Arthur Fayne, Lewis isn't getting her hopes up.

Lewis says that she's always run for office to save her house. That she's still running to save her house.

"She came in with an agenda," recalls Westbrook. "I think it's the rebuilding of housing in the ward, then completion of the League Park [housing development and renovation] and completion of retail redevelopment. Oh, she's got lots more work to do. Three more terms, I definitely would say."

But can she last that long? "She's not as outspoken as she used to be," says Annie Greene. "She's quiet. She's tired. She's tired of fighting. She says God is the one holding her up."

There are people who'd like to take Lewis's place, but as long as she runs, she'll win, predicts Greene. "Even if she sleeps in council, I believe she still will win."

When she dies, Lewis plans to be cremated. "I want my ashes spread out over Hough," she says. "On 79th and Hough." Even then, the wind might stir her up.

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