When Andrew Watterson's job, sustainability director for the City of Cleveland, was elevated to a cabinet-level post in September, I e-mailed Mayor Frank Jackson's press office to arrange an interview with Watterson. Lots of people in Northeast Ohio care about sustainability issues, and lots of people, for better or worse, do not read the PD (which, unlike Scene, had been alerted in advance). At the time, it never crossed my mind to add such obvious statements to my request, but maybe I should have.
Nearly a month passed before I got any response — and that was to ask if I could wait three more weeks. I declined. You gotta draw lines somewhere. My intent, however, is not to complain but to make a point. Media strategies come from the top. Deliberately or not, the heads of governments set the tone for how their subordinates deal with attention, starting with whom they hire and how close those aides are to the inner circle. Some leaders love give and take, some consider every question a hostile act.
And then there's Frank Jackson.
The pejorative nickname "Inaction Jackson" is not fair, but it's hung around because it's catchier than the more accurate "Excessively Modest Jackson." The man seems almost pathologically averse to attention, whether positive or negative. When speaking publicly — which he's had to do more in recent months, while seeking re-election — he often seems vaguely detached. Not aloof, exactly, but resigned, as if anxious to get back to his desk and the real work of being mayor.
He said as much in an interview on WCPN in September. When asked about a criticism leveled against him, that he is not a vocal cheerleader for his city, he replied, "If that's all they have to criticize ... I can tell you that if I would be like other people want me to be, Cleveland would be far worse off. ... I will tell you that if it's a question of style or substance, I will always take substance."
But who says it's an either-or, the interviewer asked. Look at President Obama ...
"Again, I don't compare myself to anybody," said Jackson. "I compare myself to whether or not the job is being done, whether or not Cleveland and the people of Cleveland are better off as a result of what I do. And I will take criticism on style any day, and I will never sacrifice substance."
With all due respect, Mr. Mayor, you're missing the point. The voters didn't elect you to manage the city. They elected you to lead it. And leadership, like it or not, involves no small amount of style.
There is no overstating just how screwed up Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was in 1990, when I moved there. The mayor's office was still occupied by the lamest of lame ducks, Wilson Goode, to this day remembered primarily for two disasters: approving the bombing (by police helicopter) of a row home where an armed radical group was holed up, resulting in a fire that took out an entire city block; and at the end of his second term, allowing the city to come within mere weeks of bankruptcy.
For years after taking office in '92, Goode's successor, Ed Rendell, would often compare the city's condition at the time to a cancer patient with a gunshot wound to the chest. The latter represented the fiscal crisis; the former, everything else — middle-class flight, crime, joblessness, struggling schools, racial tension, etc. But despite facing challenges of biblical proportions, Rendell — a New Yorker by birth, it's worth noting — appointed himself the city's chief ambassador, not just to the world, but to it its own infamously cynical and self-loathing residents.
Rendell's press secretary could be snide and unhelpful, but it didn't matter. Rendell was the type to show up for the opening of an envelope, as the old joke goes. When you needed a comment, all you had to do was check his daily public schedule (faxed to newspaper offices every morning) and track him down. Rendell was on the go most of the day, every day, cutting ribbons, shaking hands, taking questions and talking up the city to anyone who would hold still long enough. He loved the city and seemed to believe fervently that part of his job was trying to convince everyone else to love it too.
And damned if it didn't work. Through sheer force of will, Rendell laid the groundwork and set the tone for a downtown renaissance that was built by savvy developers, painted by poor artists and bought or rented out by the first wave of a new type of resident, who valued living in a place with an identity. Suddenly it was cool to live in Philadelphia, and that coolness attracted filmmakers and TV producers, and that exposure attracted still more residents, each bringing something else to the party. Sure, there were still typical urban problems, but they no longer chased away everyone with just enough for a down payment on a house in the 'burbs. When you walk the crowded sidewalks of a vibrant downtown, anything seems possible.
Many factors, large and small, contributed to Philly's resurgence in the '90s. But I've always believed that it all started with Mayor Ed Rendell's endless, passionate bragging.
In the same interview in which he dismissed style as the enemy of substance, Jackson was asked about his accomplishments in his first term. "Well, we balanced the budget. We've reduced crime. We've identified all of our neighborhoods and positioned them in a way that we invest in these neighborhoods based on what their assets are and their challenges are. And there's probably many other things that I can't think of right now."
He devoted five words — one of them "well" — to his most impressive accomplishment, managing this ailing city's increasingly desperate finances. Then he rambled for 28 words about positioning neighborhoods or something; I follow the news pretty closely, and even I had only a vague sense of what he was talking about.
Then the kicker: "Probably many other things that I can't think of right now." What?
That's what I said, out loud, in my car, listening to this. How does the leader of a major American city leave his office — for an interview, no less — unprepared to talk about his accomplishments?
Modesty has its time and place. This isn't one of them. Look at cities that have weathered shifting demographics and declining economies better than we have — are they modest about it? How many Chicagoans have you met who'd trade their Magnificent Mile for our demureness? When is the last time you heard anyone, from anywhere, speak admiringly of Clevelanders' constraint?
Jackson's modesty is as much a part of him as his earnestness and work ethic — I get that. But these are traits, not physical characteristics, and traits can be modified when circumstances dictate. One of the things I've learned in this very difficult year — the first in my nearly two-decade career in which I saw colleagues laid off — is that the price of keeping your job during a recession is taking on new responsibilities and pushing yourself past the boundaries of your comfort zone.
So I humbly submit to Mayor Jackson that it's time to start bragging. Loudly and in public, where everyone can hear you. It's time to become the unabashed cheerleader that your city desperately needs. Delegate the day-to-day stuff and get out among the residents of your city. Then visit other cities where the people have funny notions about what goes on here and need to be assured that their cars and investments are safe downtown. Teach the residents of the suburbs why they need us as much as we need them.
Celebrate every small victory like it matters, because it does. Demand accountability for every failure. Surround yourself with people who ask "Why not?" Challenge them, and demand that they challenge you. Develop a vision — not a plan, not a proposal, but an honest-to-God vision — and challenge all of us to meet you there.
Stop managing, Mayor Jackson, and lead.