Judgment Day

A young councilwoman faces her ward's great expectations.

29000 Center Ridge Road, Westlake
Colleagues describe Merle Gordon as bright and talented, but quiet. - Walter  Novak
Colleagues describe Merle Gordon as bright and talented, but quiet.
On the busy floor of Cleveland's city council chambers, members schmooze with the public after a February meeting. Some are friendly, eager handshakers, some polite and businesslike, but none as shy and subdued as Merle Gordon, who represents part of Old Brooklyn. When someone mentions this fall's elections, she responds with a neutral remark, but her voice seems tinged with dread.

Already, rumors have it that Barbara Pringle, term-limited out of the state House of Representatives after 18 years, will try to take Gordon's council seat this fall. And on this night, already-declared candidate Bennie D'Agostino, an ex-cop from the Old Brooklyn beat with Elvis hair and strangely feminine eyes, sits in the audience, watching the proceedings like a hawk sizing up prey.

Seven months later, in next Tuesday's primary, four challengers are taking her on. It's a tough race for an unusual Cleveland politician. Colleagues and others describe Gordon as bright and talented, but also quiet; her constituents debate whether she's friendly or aloof. While most council members are outgoing, ambitious, and eager to brag about their ties to their wards, Gordon grew up in the suburbs and wasn't even sure she wanted the job at first.

So the race in Ward 15 is about more than whether Gordon has done a good job. It's also about whether it takes a typical politician's personality to survive in office.

When Gordon visits two senior-housing complexes one recent afternoon, her demeanor is different from what it was at the February meeting. Warm and friendly, she remembers many residents by name.

Today, she's at the Crestview housing project to reassure dozens of upset seniors that, when a wing of the complex closes, those who want to stay can move within the building. Sharply dressed, sporting a tan blazer, Gordon, 31, is the youngest face in the crowd. Residents and a security guard compliment her appearance, in the gallant but slightly parental way of older people drawn to youthful poise and promise. At the Spring Hill Villa complex, a thin woman with long, still-blond hair hugs Gordon, kisses her cheek, says, "Let's make our grand entrance together," and sweeps Gordon into the residents' meeting.

But her charm doesn't work everywhere. In a subdivision near Spring Hill Villa, lawn signs for Gordon's opponents outnumber hers. Gordon says she had the main road into the neighborhood built so residents didn't have to pass a landfill every day. As she drives by the dirt-topped mound, she says she pressed inspectors to crack down on its owner, until he covered and cleaned up the eyesore. Still, she says, some in the subdivision "say I haven't done anything for them."

Though Gordon grew up in Lakewood and went to college in Massachusetts, she's been working in the ward for seven years, first as an aide to her predecessor, James Rokakis, then taking over when he became county treasurer in January 1997.

"It happened to be fortuitous for her," Rokakis says, though "she may not think so by the time this election's over."

Initially, Gordon was hesitant about the scrutiny that comes with being on council. "I was 26. It was a huge responsibility," she says. But after she helped Rokakis interview other possible successors, he convinced her that she knew the ward better. (She moved to the neighborhood at about the same time she joined council.)

At City Hall, Gordon has a reputation for being quiet at full council meetings, but aggressive as chair of the public health committee. She's tackled unexciting but important tasks: pushing the White Administration to improve its air-pollution division, convincing council to increase AIDS-prevention spending by almost a million dollars a year.

But that probably won't matter in this election, when Gordon faces the eternal criticism challengers throw at council incumbents: She's out of touch with residents and doesn't return phone calls.

Like any incumbent, Gordon replies she's on the phone every day, out in the ward all the time. But the attacks carry more sting in Ward 15, where her challengers seem to have serious support and one is a veteran lawmaker.

"I don't want to say anything that's not nice about this girl," sighs Barbara Pringle. But soon, the former state rep does just that. She says elected officials, from council members to state legislators -- she won't say who -- encouraged her to challenge Gordon. And she says "a lot of people" complain Gordon was "very standoffish, sometimes snippy" when they called her for help.

The description leaves Gordon at a loss for words. Her bespectacled eyes widen, and she smiles strangely. It's hard to know whether she'll laugh or cry.

No one's ever characterized her that way, save one belligerent caller, she says. She refers to the thank-you cards that decorate her office. She says people skills are among her strengths. And she doesn't think of herself as quiet.

So why is Gordon in trouble?

"She's tried her best in her second term," says Bill Montville, a contractor who lives in Ward 15. "[But] she seemed to have developed an aloofness about her."

On the other hand, "maybe after Jim, my expectations of a councilperson's abilities were too high." Once, his heat got cut off when he was out of town. He called Rokakis, who paid the bill. "Maybe we got spoiled."

Like voters in many towns, Clevelanders seem to expect their council member to be an all-purpose troubleshooter, police dispatcher, and one-person anti-crime vigilante.

A woman named Rose has been campaigning with her friend, council candidate Maria Sucion. Rose says residents in one neighborhood, upset over drug deals, complained that "they never see Merle Gordon. When you see drugs, you never see her around."

Pat Davis, who put up a sign for candidate Brian Hodous, says Gordon never returns her calls. What did she call about? "Bikes stolen off my front porch," she says.

Paul Jenkins also put up a Hodous sign. He says Gordon sent a letter saying the police would patrol his street more to catch speeders -- but he hasn't seen more cops.

Andy Gerda, on the other hand, says he convinced a dozen neighbors to put up Gordon signs. Once, a city inspector refused to help Gerda's neighbor with his flooded basement. The man faced a $4,000 repair bill, until Gordon got a second inspector sent out, who found the problem was a broken city main.

"She's doing a hell of a bang-up job," Gerda says. "A lot of people think a councilwoman can perform miracles."

Gordon says her favorite part of the job is "doing something for somebody that I knew they need to have done," but she's candid about the worst aspect. "It's frustrating when something happens that's out of my control, yet people are looking at me to have control -- not make it rain or whatever," she says, referring to homeowners with flooded basements whom she couldn't assist. "It's never-ending. I go home at 10 or 11 p.m., and I'm still checking messages [from] people who need help."

Being on council can make you lose your mind, says Rokakis. "You're answering phone calls all day long: service complaints, neighbor squabbles, people wanting to voice opinions about Mike White . . . You are [in a] role of healer, social worker, and confidant."

In other words, it's not enough to fix every problem you can. You have to convince people not to blame you when city workers don't do their jobs. And you have to convince people who demand the impossible to vote for you anyway. That requires an extraordinary personality, a magic mix of bad-ass authority and feel-your-pain charm.

Does Merle Gordon have all that? The answer comes at the polls next week.

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