Tuesday, December 8, 2009

JEFF JOHNSON'S SECOND CHANCE

Posted By on Tue, Dec 8, 2009 at 12:39 PM

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Comeback politician Jeff Johnson has heard all the clichés about his “fall from grace” and his “crash-and-burn.” But the 51-year-old political veteran promises, "I’m not going to be a Greek tragedy.This isn’t going to be the end of the story.”

The newest chapter in Johnson’s notable saga begins next month, when he's sworn in as Cleveland’s Ward 8 councilman. With his win over appointed incumbent Shari Cloud in November’s election, Johnson completed a return to politics that started soon after his 1998 conviction for extortion.

Johnson launched his once-stellar political career in 1984 at the age of 26, following in the footsteps of mentor Mike White. He cultivated an arrogant, headstrong style of leadership during stints on Cleveland City Council and in the Ohio Senate. How cocky was he? George Forbes once threw a chair at him after a heated argument. (Johnson described the incident for Scene's “Glenville Redux,” April ’09).

Johnson had his eye on a U.S. congressional seat, but those plans dissolved after the feds busted him for shaking down a local grocer for campaign money. After spending 15 months in federal custody, Johnson worked to reestablish himself: he landed a community relations job in Jane Campbell’s City Hall, founded his own community and political affairs consulting firm, and eventually became executive director Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. He had his case expunged and has regained his law license.

At a recent NAACP forum at Cleveland State University, a man in the audience outwardly declared that he was happy to see Johnson in office again, drawing applause from the crowd. At a recent meeting with Scene at a St. Clair diner, patrons repeatedly approached Johnson to congratulate him and seek advice. As he drove a reporter around his ward, one man flagged Johnson down to complain about a crumbling brick porch at a nearby vacant house.

Johnson’s ward includes parts of Glenville and the Superior-St. Clair neighborhoods, and he has a sweeping vision for a sector of town with its share of housing and social problems. He plans to encourage more volunteerism and build a coalition between local ministers in his ward to get more people engaged. He’d love to see a store-front revival on East 105th Street. He even wants to get the out-of-order clock at the Glenville Towne Center shopping plaza working again.

The veteran politician says that he’s not going to City Hall to be a “rubber stamper,” and political observers like Roldo Bartimole are looking for Johnson to bring a contrarian’s view to a council that moves in unison with Mayor Frank Jackson. In July Roldo wrote: "So I want to remember the Jeff Johnson I knew. And I want him back at City Hall, hopefully more mature. But hopefully still cocky enough to speak out as I heard him do before. That’s because Cleveland needs some sparkle. Needs some tension. Needs some hope. Needs some vision."

Johnson still projects a healthy degree of confidence, but says the brashness and arrogance are under control. “I’m definitely wiser and stronger,” Johnson says. "I think I know how to resolve issues with aggression, but without confrontation.” — Damian Guevara

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