Pretender to the Throne

He's been called a slumlord, a deadbeat, and worse. But in East Cleveland, O. Mays is the man who would be mayor.

Raising Helen
Sitting in a City Hall office, dressed impeccably in a black pinstriped suit and a collarless button-down shirt, O. Mays is describing how he, an East Cleveland city councilman, came to be cruising a crime-ridden East Side street in the wee hours of the morning.

"I was looking for a particular address," Mays says, his voice a gravelly whisper. "I'm driving slow, looking for the number."

It was just after midnight on May 4, 2003. Mays had visited his mother and was dropping off some clothes that a friend left in his car, he says. It was dark. He was having trouble finding the house.

Then a man who looked to be about 20 years old approached the car. "What's up?" he asked.

Mays asked for directions, he says, but the man acted like he couldn't hear him. The man came closer and noticed the police booster sticker on Mays's car.

"Are you the police?" he asked.

No, Mays told him.

The next thing the councilman knew, the man had snatched open the door, jumped into the passenger seat, and was pointing a gun at his head, Mays says.

The councilman grabbed the gun. The man fired two shots. One struck Mays in the left hand; the other missed. Mays wrestled the man out of the car. "I drove off," he says. "I stopped. I got angry and saw my blood. I backed up to get him."

By then, the mysterious man had melted back into the shadows.

The councilman went to his home in East Cleveland, washed the blood off his hand, and drove himself to the hospital. He alerted police, but provided little useful information. "I couldn't identify him," Mays says. "I didn't want to put the wrong person in jail." The man was never apprehended.

Mays was left with a scar below his pinky and a smaller one in the webbing of his hand, where the bullet made its exit. The scars are nearly imperceptible, overshadowed by several Super Bowl-sized rings and long, unmanicured fingernails.

The councilman takes obvious pride in relating his tale of heroism. Yet weeks later, when a reporter calls to ask the make and model of the car he was driving that night, Mays is strangely tight-lipped. "That's not necessary," he says.

To hear Mays tell it, it is also unnecessary to talk about the many scandals that have left scars on his reputation.

He refuses to address the thousands of dollars in back taxes and fines that he owes to the cash-strapped city he helps lead. Or the accusations that he's a slumlord who uses public office for his own self-interest.

He certainly won't discuss the most recent and incendiary accusations: that he was once accused of molesting a child at gunpoint and that he has been falsely claiming the college transcript of a serial killer as his own.

"I don't like people in my business," he says. "I've always been that way, my whole life. I don't like people prying."

None of this derailed Mays's political ambitions. As city council president, he was next in line to be mayor. With the indictment of Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor, Mays's ascension to the city's loftiest throne looked like a foregone conclusion.

That is, until last week, when Council Vice President Mildred Brewer unexpectedly led a coup that deposed Mays. Still, Mays remains undeterred and is considering a run for mayor next year.

All of which only adds urgency to the question: What is O. Mays hiding?

Mays was born "Otis," but prefers the initial "O." Like the unpronounceable symbol that Prince briefly adopted, the letter "O" fits the man.

Mays is unusually protective of his privacy. "I really don't like talking about myself," he says. "I'm just not a narcissistic person." He's muddied the record on even basic biographical details. Anyone attempting to discern the facts can quickly become lost in O's maze.

Take, for example, the seemingly simple question of when he was born. In October 1995, when Mays first ran for the East Cleveland City Council, he refused to tell The Plain Dealer his age. Public records offer a variety of possibilities. On a Cleveland schoolteacher application, he listed his birth date as October 14, 1941. His military records, which are part of the same employment file, list it as October 14, 1940. When Scene asked him when he was born, Mays responded, "Now you're getting nosy, aren't you?", then answered: "1944."

Whatever the year, he was born in San Francisco, he says. His mother, Sadie, was a schoolteacher; his father, Arthur, a minister. At a time when the only jobs open to blacks were "preachin' or teachin'," as the old saying goes, young Otis had more ambitious plans. He was a bookworm who earned the nickname "Doctor" because he aspired to a medical career, he says. "I loved school."

Yet Mays is remarkably reticent on the subject of his education. Asked where he went to college, Mays is evasive. "I'm gonna reserve that," he says, then tries for a joke: "I don't want to open any door, because I still owe some college bills."

Did he go to graduate school? "I told you I'm not gonna tell you," he insists. "Just say I have a higher education."

His personnel file from his years as a Cleveland schools substitute teacher includes a claim that he earned a bachelor of arts degree from Bluffton College, a liberal arts school in Northwest Ohio affiliated with the Mennonite Church. This turns out to be false. "He doesn't have a degree here," says an assistant registrar. But Mays did earn 60 credits from the University of Colorado and 4 from Kent State, according to those schools.

Asked how he came to live in Northeast Ohio, Mays says that in the late '60s or early '70s -- he can't remember when -- he visited a cousin in Akron and noticed that the Cleveland schools had openings. He got a job as a sub. "And the rest is history," he says, quickly dispensing with another subject he'd rather not discuss.

According to school records, Mays worked as a sub from 1971 to 1984, mostly teaching vocational education. He was given high marks on evaluations. Alfonza Butts, who worked with Mays at East Tech High School, remembers him as "firm but fair" and well-liked by pupils. "They thought of him as a friend," Butts says.

In the sunset of his teaching career, Mays began investing in East Cleveland apartment buildings. "He withdrew his retirement money to buy property, thinking that he was gonna get rich, renting property out here," says Evelyn Raglin Jones, a 78-year-old community activist who has known Mays for decades. "I think that he thought he was going to make a fortune, and then it didn't pan out as well as he thought."

Indeed, court records show about a dozen liens and foreclosures filed against Mays, mostly by banks and tax collectors. The cases stretch back more than a decade. The most recent was filed last month by the county treasurer. Mays owes more than $3,600 in back taxes for his building at 1838 Van Buren Road, where he lives. If he doesn't pay, it could be sold out from under him.

Mays has long blamed his real-estate problems on others. Concerned that there was no way for landlords to screen tenants, he organized scores of homeowners, apartment owners, tenants, and business associations into an advocacy group. Butts remembers politicians coming to the group for endorsements.

"I never had any idea he would end up in politics, but he always had an interest in the city," Butts says. "We'd always discuss about the blight and deterioration of the properties in East Cleveland, how that could be eradicated."

The homeowners' group gave Mays a prominent voice in city affairs. In April 1993, he was interviewed for an article about then-Councilwoman Jacqueline Gillon, who had failed to pay city income taxes for the previous three years. "If [Gillon] owes taxes, she shouldn't be legislating for others," Mays said at the time. "What's good for the goose is good for the gander."

He couldn't have known that a decade later, he would be a city councilman and would be criticized for owing $17,602 in taxes and penalties on four properties he owned. By then, his tune would change: "Just because you're an elected official doesn't mean you don't fall short in areas," he explained to The Plain Dealer. "I never put myself above the people."

Mays has weathered scandals that would have sunk most politicians, but East Cleveland is no ordinary city. John D. Rockefeller summered at a sprawling estate here a century ago, but time has not been kind to the struggling suburb of about 27,000. The 1960s brought white flight, followed by middle-class black flight, both of which bled the tax base. The city has been under state fiscal-emergency control since 1988.

In the mid-'80s, state auditors discovered that three city commissioners and the finance director had billed the city several thousand dollars for airline tickets, hotel rooms, and other expenses as part of a junket to Las Vegas. A municipal judge and an ex-finance director were convicted of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.

By the 1990s, the city was desperate for a new leader, and Mays seemed to fit the bill. "He was a very dynamic young man," Raglin Jones says. "We didn't have black people in our government at that time, and [he was] trying to get inroads."

After several years playing the role of gadfly with his housing organization, Mays made his first run for council in 1995. "What I guess motivated me to move into the political arena is that I saw this city in its heyday and saw it beginning to deteriorate," he recalls. "I saw that I had something to offer and I could make a difference."

He lost that election -- Mays says he neglected his own campaign to push for Onunwor's election to council -- but two years later, he landed a seat of his own.

Not long after, the scandals commenced. Mays owned a building on Roxford Avenue that the city considered an eyesore. A fire had burned through the second floor two years earlier, and Mays had done little to fix it. He was fined $500. It added to the $1,500 he had accrued in code violations on his properties.

Yet Mays had run for office promising to help law-abiding landlords. The media found the hypocrisy too fertile to resist. "That an official sworn to uphold the laws of this city would so casually flout them is disgraceful," read one editorial.

Mays fed the furor a few months later when he proposed a moratorium on boarding up houses and businesses with code violations. A Plain Dealer editorial declared it a "display of rank self-interest," and added that it was "time that Mays' political career was demolished, since he clearly has no intention of bringing it up to a recognizable code of honor."

Even the mayor, whom Mays helped get elected, spoke out against the measure. "How can a slum landlord, who happens to be a councilman, put forward legislation telling us to stop boarding up houses?" Onunwor asked. "I'm not going to waste my time with this foolishness."

If Mays was embarrassed by the scolding, it didn't change his behavior. Later that month, the city shut off the water at two apartment buildings he owned. Mays owed more than $3,000 for water bills dating back more than two years. The city eventually restored his service, but only after Mays ponied up $600.

He responded by pushing through legislation making it more difficult for the city to turn off water service. Today, he counts it among his greatest accomplishments.

Mays's actions didn't seem to hurt him with voters. He easily won reelection in 1999 and 2001. It is the nature of East Cleveland.

"Communities in economic distress can adopt a kind of 'us against the world' mentality," says Thom Yantek, a Kent State political science professor. "They can view the media as part of the establishment. They can end up trusting their gut instincts. And their gut instinct is, 'These [politicians] are people we already know. They're our neighbors, so even though somebody's telling us they're not good for us, we don't trust those somebodies that are telling us that.'"

Mays had never been a shrinking violet, but he was growing more bold. He had shown no qualms about rewriting laws for his own benefit and would soon prove equally willing to use political power to attack those who criticized him.

In October 2001, just weeks before the election, Mays convinced Municipal Judge Neal Cox to lower the bond for his 25-year-old nephew, Michael Madison, who had been charged with attempted rape. Madison was accused of dragging an 18-year-old woman behind a house to rape her -- only to be interrupted by police.

Madison claimed the act was consensual, and Mays apparently believed him. "He's not a liability to this community," the councilman said of his nephew. "I would view him as an asset."

Madison subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison.

Mays's judicial activism frustrated Deputy Safety Director Charles Teel. Noting that Mays had also lobbied for lower bonds in several drug cases, Teel publicly criticized the councilman. "It's time for it to stop," Teel told a reporter. "He feels he's above the law because he's an elected official."

As if to prove Teel correct, Mays responded with legislation to eliminate Teel's job. Mays denied the action was retaliatory, claiming that a city as small as East Cleveland didn't need a deputy safety director. But by then, Teel was fed up. He resigned and became an investigator for the county prosecutor's office.

In February 2002, Mays twice barred city housing inspectors from an apartment building he owned when they tried to investigate a tenant's complaints about poor living conditions. A Plain Dealer editorial declared that voters should "Show O. Mays the door." Reelecting Mays "would only convincingly signal that the city doesn't want or deserve better."

Voters decided Mays suited them just fine and reelected him again in 2003. Underscoring his victory, city council members unanimously elected him council president last January.

A few days later, it was reported that Mays owed $17,602 in delinquent taxes. But this didn't seem to trouble the residents of East Cleveland, where owing back taxes is practically a requisite of public office.

"A whole lot of us in this city are not paying our taxes," Raglin Jones says in Mays's defense. "He's in the same boat as most black men in this city."

The council presidency put Mays first in the line of succession for the mayor's job. Four months later, news broke that Onunwor had been indicted on numerous counts of bribery. Suddenly, there was a very real possibility that Mays would be the city's next mayor.

Emmanuel Onunwor was elected mayor in 1997 and reelected in 2001. With his lilting Nigerian accent and pedigree as the son of a tribal ruler, Onunwor lent an air of nobility to the office. He also offered wonks the ready punch line that East Cleveland was as third-world as Nigeria.

Onunwor governed with equal parts energy and self-righteous piety. A glowing Cleveland Magazine profile in 2002 portrayed him as a fearless, hands-on leader who patrolled the city's streets, taking the local drug boys to task and handing out cards that promised jobs and self-affirmation.

Yet there was another side of Onunwor more in keeping with East Cleveland tradition. Not long after the story was published, word leaked that a grand jury was investigating him. On April 22, federal agents arrived at City Hall to arrest him. Onunwor was led into U.S. District Court in handcuffs five hours later.

He stood accused of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in secret payments from companies doing business with the city. If convicted on all 22 counts, he faces up to 20 years in prison. He pleaded not guilty.

Mays witnessed the mayor's arraignment and left with Onunwor in a city car. "The only elected official in that city that went to see what was happening firsthand and to stand by the mayor's side was O. Mays," says Cecelia George, who dates Mays and was fired from her job as community-development director because of federal indictments accusing her of steering city contracts to relatives in exchange for kickbacks.

The mayor's fall from grace was another crippling blow to a city already on the verge of disaster. East Cleveland is struggling to close a $1 million hole in its budget through layoffs and pay cuts. It is so poorly run that even basic services are left undone. Leaky pipes have at times cost the city about half the water it buys. Chronically sloppy accounting means that the city never seems to know where its money has gone. And the Municipal Court recently admitted that it had failed to pass information to the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles for almost two years, letting more than 8,000 traffic violators off the hook. Increasingly, East Cleveland has become Ohio's answer to Kabul.

"The structure is so entrenched in terms of the way politics is done . . . I just don't see any transformation except if you had a larger group of middle-class people move into the city," says John Holm, a political science professor at Cleveland State University.

Having Mays next in line to be mayor hardly offered a chance for change. But even as the feds were readying their indictment against Onunwor, Mays was facing fresh scandals of his own.

On January 13, the Cleveland Challenger -- a scrappy tabloid run by political operative Eric Brewer -- splashed Mays's name on its front page with the headline "A Dirty Secret." The accompanying story lived up to the tawdry promise: Recently unearthed records from 1979 showed that Mays had been sued for allegedly sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy at gunpoint.

Mays's reaction when the Challenger called him for comment was a far cry from the banal lexicon employed by more seasoned politicians: "Look, mothafucka," he was quoted as saying. "I told you I don't know anything about that. If you mothafuckas print that, I'm going to sue you, the newspaper, and Eric."

Less than a month later, the Challenger was back in the councilman's face with an equally outrageous scoop. "Serial Lies," screamed the headline, which was accompanied by a picture of Mays next to a serial killer who, for added drama, was described as being "HIV-infected."

Inside, the Challenger revealed that Mays was passing off as his own the Bluffton College transcript of murderer Samuel Dixon, who used the alias "Otis James Mays." Dixon had murdered four people in California and sexually abused their dead bodies in 2002. He is serving out four life sentences in prison.

Editor Eric Brewer has a history of playing politics the way the '76 Raiders played football: smashmouth and dirty. He has long used the guise of reporting to lash out at enemies. After losing to Onunwor in the most recent mayoral election, Brewer devoted barrels of ink to attacking the mayor and his confederates.

Quite naturally, some in East Cleveland suspect that Brewer's hit pieces have more to do with knifing a rival than with impartial journalism. "The Cleveland Plain Dealer never picked up on any of that and reprinted or wrote that smut," says George, the former community-development director.

Yet public records seem to support the Challenger's claims.

Court files show Mays was indeed sued by a mother who accused him of forcing her son into his car at gunpoint and sexually abusing him. The case was settled, but the file doesn't offer specifics.

Mays's personnel file from his time as a substitute teacher includes a form he signed, agreeing to let the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction release records for a pre-sentence investigation, but it doesn't specify what crime he committed. If there was a record, it has been sealed or expunged, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Investigations.

And the assistant registrar at Bluffton College confirms much of the Challenger's reporting that Mays has been using the serial killer's college transcript.

All of this provides more questions than answers, but Mays is unwilling to illuminate his history.

"If you want to talk about this other garbage, I'm not going to dignify it with an answer," he says. "I'm not going to give it validity. I'm not going to waste my time in trying to refute what I call garbage, or untruths that people print in the paper."

Mays then threatened to end the interview if any further questions were asked on the subject.

Yet nosy reporters aren't the only ones calling for an explanation.

"He's working for the public, and he's in the public's eye, and he should answer those questions," says Bishop Beuford Taylor of Greater Community Temple Church of God in Christ in East Cleveland. "When the paper comes out and states that your council president has been involved in things that are illegal, and the character is in question, he needs to speak out and let the people know if they're true or not."

Through it all, city council seemed to be standing behind Mays. Council Vice President Mildred Brewer, who is not related to Eric, conceded in an interview several weeks ago that she didn't think Mays was a good leader, but made no apologies for her role in electing him council president. "My thing is, every time O. Mays run, he's been elected," she said. "The people elect him."

Even then, however, there was a movement afoot to oust Mays, and last week the plan reached fruition. Brewer led a coup by three city-council members, who bounced Mays from the presidency and replaced him with Councilwoman Saratha Goggins. Apparently, the media's message had finally gotten through.

"We had to neutralize what's going on in this city," Council Vice President Brewer explained. "We need to stop the newspapers, the TV, and all this stuff."

When Mays arrived for a photo shoot at City Hall last week, he hid beneath a baseball cap from his native San Francisco. He looked more like a street hustler than a city councilman.

His cell phone rang and Mays answered it. "And whom shall I say is calling?" he asked. Apparently, Mays didn't like the response, so he pretended he wasn't himself. He does this fairly often.

A photographer took only a few pictures before Mays called an end to the shoot, snapping, "That's enough. That's enough."

Asked if he was bothered by losing the presidency, he professed not to mind. It's not personal, it's just politics, he said. Besides, he's planning to run for mayor next year and win the job the old-fashioned way.

That can only mean more media scrutiny, but Mays says he still has no plans to publicly address the scandals that have dogged his political career.

"The media cannot define me," he says defiantly. "I know who I am."

He may be the only one. And he's not telling.

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