Gary Norton's inner sanctum in the fraying, nondescript office building that passes for East Cleveland City Hall looks like the workspace of any busy executive. Its walls are covered with evidence of the mayor's passions: photos of his wife and three daughters, an Ebony magazine cover featuring Barack Obama, mementos from his fraternity.
In the middle of a modest conference table are lucite backgammon and chess sets. Norton doesn't play on taxpayer time; they're just there to keep them from the hands of his active toddlers and to keep himself from piling papers on the table.
Norton was elected mayor of the challenged city — "95 percent black, 95 percent poor," he says — in November 2009. He was just 37. Prior to that, he served as president of city council for four years.
"Within an hour, I can meet a homeless drug addict or a CEO," he says. "When I pick up the phone, I never know who it is."
In addition to economic challenges, he faces the challenge of changing the view of his city as being run by grifters and opportunists. His immediate predecessor was Eric Brewer, a pot-stirring independent journalist who made national headlines when photos of him in women's underwear surfaced during the campaign. Prior to that, Emmanuel Onunwar's eight years in office ended in 2004 when he was sentenced to nine years in prison on corruption charges.
If it's not exactly a track record of greatness, Norton hopes to break the mold. Armed with a master's degree in public administration from Cleveland State, he's worked in the budget office of Miami-Dade County, Florida; as an assistant to former Cleveland schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett; and as executive assistant to former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones. He's served on civic boards, and he's been a Big Brother. In his neat suit and tie, he's a well-spoken, professional man.
Norton is just one of a new generation of black politicians who hope to lead Northeast Ohio into the future, building on the legacy of the groundbreaking generation that rose to power with Mayor Carl Stokes in the late '60s. Those leaders — Stokes, his brother, former Congressman Louis Stokes; former Cleveland City Council President George Forbes; Carl Stokes' campaign manager and later Cleveland school board president Arnold Pinkney — are all aging or, in the case of the former mayor, gone.
Ask around, and you'll get a long list of other eager young contenders. There's Julian Rogers, the 37-year-old county council member. Sharon Cole, 41, who ran against Rogers for county council. (Each one names the other as a possible future star.)
There's computer scientist Curtis Thompson, who at 28 has already been president of the influential Cuyahoga County Young Democrats and ran for Cleveland City Council against Mike Polensek. There's Anthony Hairston, who boasts that, at age 24, he is the youngest ward leader in Ohio. There's 42-year-old funeral home director Pernel Jones Jr., who, after narrowly losing a couple of Cleveland City Council races, won a seat on county council. Terrell Pruitt and T.J. Dow are two young guns on Cleveland City Council.
They've got college degrees and advanced degrees, they've worked on campaigns and joined — or started — organizations. They've run for office, and some have won. They've grown up in the post-civil rights era believing they can serve the whole community, not just the black community. They're hoping to change the view of what African American leadership is — or can be. And so far, they're doing just that.
Forbes: From Rise to Irrelevance
The first era of black leadership in Cleveland was loosely bookended by two events — one famously historic, the other infamous.
The first was the 1967 election of Carl Stokes as the first black leader of a major American city. His victory contributed to the rise to power of his ally, Cleveland City Councilman George Forbes, who became council president in 1974, and Stokes' brother Louis, who was elected congressman from Cuyahoga County's east side in 1968.
The second was in 1987. With Carl Stokes first a TV newscaster in New York and later a Cleveland municipal judge, and Louis Stokes in Washington, Forbes had built a political machine that dominated not only the black community, but the city. And in 1987, he demonstrated his aversion to challenges to his authority by pitching a chair at young councilman Jeffrey Johnson, then 29.
Just a few years later, his concerns about challenges from a younger generation became reality when he ran for mayor against his former protégé, Michael R. White, in 1989 — and was solidly trounced, ending his long career in politics at age 58. White became Cleveland's longest-serving mayor and its dominant political figure until he retired in 2002.
Forbes left city council in 1990 and in 1992 was elected president of the NAACP of Cleveland. On November 14 of last year, he earned a tenth term leading the local branch of the venerable civil-rights group. He was portrayed in a Plain Dealer story as a "reluctant" leader who "agreed to complete his second decade of service."
The story went on to say that Forbes' priority was getting jobs and contracts for minorities at Cleveland's downtown casino, and that the board felt no one else had the contacts to do this. With deep ties to the powerful business elite, forged during his 16 years as council president, Forbes unquestionably still wields influence. But he is 79 years old.
"Why isn't George Forbes grooming a younger person, setting up introductory meetings with people for a new president, setting up meetings with the mayor?" asks Sharon Cole. And many would ask why Cole isn't part of those conversations. She worked for Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Cleveland City Councilman Eugene Miller before running for Cuyahoga County Council. She's now a deputy chief of staff for County Executive Ed FitzGerald.
"George Forbes does have great relationships," she says. "He opened the doors for minority contractors when he was on city council. I believe he's made great strides in opening the door to the American dream. I wish he opened doors for younger people."
(Forbes did not respond to interview requests for this story.)
Norton suggests that the NAACP's — and Forbes' — priorities may not always be in line with the community's needs, reflecting an earlier era when civil-rights violations demanded the sort of pressure Forbes excels at applying.
"[East Cleveland] is a community Forbes and the NAACP should be concerned about," he says. "[Cleveland NAACP Executive Director] Stanley Miller takes some interest in the community, but he would have done it anyway because of the man he is.
"I have two pictures of the NAACP: their relative absence from the Huron [Hospital] trauma center closing and them standing in the Warehouse District, blasting police for beating a college student — and it turns out there's a video showing what the officer says is true," he says, referring to the well-publicized fracas that erupted over the summer of 2010. "The NAACP would rather be involved in that than in something where black people could die."
Former Young Dem president Curtis Thompson, who attended the NAACP election meeting and voted along with members of his family, points out that The Plain Dealer failed to note that Forbes staved off a challenge from attorney Lawrence Floyd by only 12 votes out of 129 cast — not exactly the landslide the paper implied.
"It was very close," he says. "For someone to say he's the end-all for the black community — most of the folks I grew up with don't know who he is. They were born in 1980, 1982, 1983. Terrell Pruitt, Nina Turner, Julian Rogers — these are the folks young people know."
And he believes it's time to clear some space for them.
The Age of Mentorship
Forbes' interest while in office was clearly not in grooming successors — other than perhaps White, who could be considered a mentor's nightmare come true. And in fact, there was logic to keeping power centralized at a time when slots for African Americans in office were carefully rationed by those with power in the larger community.
"Historically, there have been so few opportunities for African Americans to wield a position of authority that they have jealously guarded it," says Peter Lawson Jones.
"Forbes held down any black leaders," says retired journalist Roldo Bartimole, who wrote about the local political scene for four decades. "He's not going to mentor anyone. His whole game is to keep [others] down so he's the only one they can go to. He beat up on all young black council people for years [who] showed any sign of being a possible leader."
Still, Forbes — and the Stokes brothers and their ally, Arnold Pinkney — had an impact on the younger generation, even if he did not actively encourage them. And White's generation — now in their 50s and early 60s — began to change that model.
Johnson, 52, was reelected to Cleveland City Council in 2009 after a fall from grace that led to a prison sentence for fund-raising chicanery. Despite having to duck that chair, he admires Forbes and looks to him as a role model in some respects. But he credits White for providing him with his basic political schooling.
"I met him in 1981, when I was in law school and spent three years as an informal intern," says Johnson. "I organized parades, put out a community newspaper, delivered food baskets. I never had an official internship, but the streets are also an internship."
Through White, he got to know Forbes and Louis Stokes, who, along with White, he calls "my biggest influences." When White left city council to move to the state legislature, he left his council seat to Johnson.
"By the time I got elected, my relationship with Lou and George was such that I could sit in meetings and they would talk to me about politics," says Johnson. "They taught me a lot informally. But I came to a point in my life where I wasn't going to toe the line on everything. And [Forbes] ran city council, and he was a strong, aggressive leader."
As controversial as White eventually became after his closest ally, Nate Grey, was sent to prison on bribery charges, most of the younger political aspirants cite him as an influence or inspiration. State Senator Nina Turner, 43, got her start working on grassroots efforts alongside the late Ward 7 councilwoman and civil-rights activist Fannie M. Lewis; she later worked with White. "He wasn't only my boss, but I consider him my mentor as well," she says of the former mayor. "I learned extraordinary lessons working for him."
Turner, too, has been cited as an inspiration and mentor by many just a bit younger than herself. "Nina is an inspirational person and wonderful speaker — but so am I," quips Norton. "She inspires and uplifts people to bring out what is best in them."
Turner believes her generation is doing a better job of guiding others than those who preceded them.
"We tend to take more of the younger generation under our wing," she says. "I try to be very approachable. Any person who asks me to mentor them, I will do that. I'm not thinking in the back of my mind they might take me out. They might! The premise has to be, how does one give back and assure that the African American community in particular is left in good hands?"
Two other names are constantly mentioned as mentors by the younger leaders: the late 11th District Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (who died in 2008 at age 58) and Lawson Jones, 57. Many of the ambitious, educated, motivated young blacks looking for a place on the political scene cite them as mentors or inspirations. Gary Norton cites both. "We have to celebrate Forbes, [but] he didn't have a farm team," says Norton. "Peter Lawson Jones has a farm team. He encouraged us to excel by his own example and walk of public service." Of Tubbs Jones, Norton says she was "like a second mother."
When asked about Northeast Ohio's black leaders of the future, Lawson Jones rattles off a long list of names that includes Norton's.
"If you — especially as an African American — haven't tried to institutionalize your knowledge, you have failed," he says. "You have to translate it into something that endures. It's important not to be afraid of leadership for the future, but to groom it. In the past, there have been people who feared it and blocked it. I would hope that one of the people I helped could become the next county executive, member of congress, or governor."
Tubbs Jones' attitude was similar, says Sharon Cole. The time she spent working with the congresswoman helped steer her where she wanted to go. "In our first conversation after she hired me, she said, 'What do you want to do and how can I help you do it?' A lot of times, when I would talk to her about being in Congress, she would say that she was the caretaker of the position. It didn't define her. If it doesn't define you, why would you be scared to be a beacon to those who come after you?"
Outsiders & Upstarts
Guidance in Tubbs Jones' generation was hit-or-miss. State Senator Shirley Smith, 60, wasn't in any pipeline when she ran for city council against Roosevelt Coats in the early '90s.
"I was so green, I didn't know anything," she remembers. "My campaign staff — none of us knew anything. We didn't know where the bodies were buried; we didn't know who was who. I think it made an impression on me to be a little bit more educated about the process in terms of where to start, how to get involved. I think that would have made a greater impact on where I landed as opposed to where I did land."
Later, when Smith ran for state legislature, Coats backed her.
That grassroots model still works for people like Pernel Jones Jr. When he and his wife got married, they debated whether to stay in the East 73rd and Cedar neighborhood where his funeral home is located or move to the suburbs to get away from the rampant drug activity. They decided to stay.
"I would come out of the funeral home and run [the drug dealers] off, but they would come back the next day," he says. "So I started attending Councilman Frank Jackson's meetings. I told him I wanted him to clean it up. He said, 'I'm going to put you on the neighborhood Weed and Seed initiative.' We transformed the neighborhood."
With a taste of grassroots politics but no deep political connections, the young funeral director decided to run for office himself. Ultimately, his door-knocking paid off with a seat on the new county council.
Most of the younger political aspirants are more seasoned. They have worked on campaigns or run for office. They have been active in the Democratic Party (very few of Cuyahoga's blacks skew Republican). They have been on civic boards and joined fraternal organizations. Gary Norton worked on Raymond Pierce's failed mayoral campaign. Julian Rogers joined the Young Democrats and the Cleveland Heights City Club, among other civic groups. In 2006, he ran for state representative, losing in the primary to Boyd.
"When I ran in 2006, it basically put me on the radar screen," he says. "Even though I lost, it taught me a lot about how to run a campaign and gave me exposure to other folks. Once people know you have an interest in running, your name gets put on lists in people's minds as someone who could fit a particular office."
And he's already looking to mentor the next generation. Twenty-four-year-old Anthony Hairston, now the elected leader in Cleveland's Ward 10, was Rogers' county council campaign manager.
Curtis Thompson worked for former Mayor Jane Campbell during summer breaks from college. He points out that most of the county's leaders, past and present, have passed through Young Democrats, including Prosecutor Bill Mason, South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo, Cleveland City Council President Marty Sweeney, former Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and his wife Peggy Zone Fisher, County Executive Ed FitzGerald (a former group president), and even — gulp — disgraced County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.
Like Rogers, he's looking out for the generation behind him. "My whole motivation is to help the next generation that comes after me, which is pretty much what everyone should care about," he says. "You can't take it with you. My father was a Mississippi sharecropper; he had 18 brothers and sisters. Everything he did was so I could go to school. His chorus was, 'I want his standard of living to be higher than mine.'"
But it hasn't always been easy persuading the establishment to be more age-inclusive. During Rogers' time in the Young Dems, they were barred from meeting at Democratic headquarters.
"I think it was personalities, but the symbolism of telling your Young Democrats group they can't be there says something," he says.
When George Forbes is depicted as the end of an era in black influence, despite an army of young hopefuls, perhaps what's being bemoaned is a lack of one strong leader — a single go-to person who speaks for the whole community. To State Senator Nina Turner, it's not leadership that's lacking; it's that the leadership model is outdated.
"I think in the 21st century, we need a collective model. In the black community, there had traditionally been a single-leader model. It's also how the people outside the community judge black leadership. When we limit who those leaders are and who has the right to execute, it can stunt the growth of other leaders, and it seems to happen only in the black community. White communities aren't asked who is their single leader; black communities are."
To Jeff Johnson, the office defines the go-to leaders. "We would not be having this conversation if Stephanie Tubbs Jones were still alive," he says of the late congresswoman, whose enveloping warmth, outgoing personality, and constant presence in the community made her a commanding figure. "For me, the paradigm continues to exist. It will never be outdated."
But he acknowledges that it has shifted.
"Back then, you had a party boss, and everything went through him," he says of the Forbes era. "When it came to City Hall, he could make a call and make it happen. We didn't have the dispersed power you have today. But I think there will always be a hierarchy because of the political reality that someone will always have more constituents. So the mayor [of Cleveland] and the congressperson are always on top. But there was never one leader who did everything."
Tubbs Jones' successor in Congress, former Warrensville Heights Mayor Marcia Fudge, was semi-anointed by the old guard — Lou Stokes, Pinkney, and Forbes — in a closed-door meeting that provoked controversy. Some viewed it as a final attempt to shape the future of local political leadership. If Fudge is not as powerful as Tubbs Jones, Johnson says, it's simply because she hasn't been in office long enough to build her base.
"You hear folks do an analysis of how the model has changed," he says. "We have two leaders [Frank Jackson and Marcia Fudge] who are quietly effective."
Johnson also has a cautionary word for a generation of eager upstarts like he once was. "I don't want to see cookie-cutter leaders coming out of that generation. They all have similarities in that they all went off and got a college-level education. I don't think that's necessary. There's also the Fannie Lewis community-activist model. I don't want people to think that education by itself creates a ticket to leadership. Working in a campaign helps you, but true leadership is in the community in years when there's not a campaign. You also learn on the streets."
As Gary Norton sits in his office and fields city business, he reels off a long list of people who inspired him. There are the usual suspects — Tubbs Jones, Lawson Jones, etc. — as well as a former Cleveland State professor and the civil-rights-era activists who were his professors at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His list of peers whom he respects runs just as long, from Rogers to Cole to Dow and on; talk a few more minutes and he'll tack on a few more he forgot.
"These folks — I lean on them. We talk. We laugh," he says. "If things in the future aren't shaped by us, who will they be shaped by?"