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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

George Forbes, Champion of a Free and Independent Press?, To be Celebrated by Western Reserve Historical Society

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2018 at 1:05 PM

click to enlarge George Forbes chilling before his official remarks, (9/19/18). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • George Forbes chilling before his official remarks, (9/19/18).
"Without a free and strong media, the country would deteriorate overnight," said former Cleveland City Council President George Forbes Wednesday morning. "I recognize that now, and I recognized that when I was in public office. If we don't have a strong press, democracy couldn't exist."

The statement was a surprise coming from Forbes, whose famously hostile relationship with the press was plastered on Cleveland front pages through the 1980s, a decade through which he reigned over City Council with an iron fist. His relationship with the media was so strained, he said, because reporters and editors were always trying to tell him what to do.

"And I figured I knew more about what I was doing than you did," he said.

Forbes, who seldom appears in public these days, offered brief remarks Wednesday at the Western Reserve Historical Society as part of a media presentation to promote a weekend of events in October that will celebrate Forbes' life and legacy. WRHS President & CEO Kelly Falcone-Hall observed in an introduction that those who "truly understand Cleveland history" know that Forbes was "by far the most powerful" individual who ever presided over City Council. 

"He's a political giant," she said, "a Cleveland icon."

The weekend of Oct. 13-14 will include a big-ticket ($150) dinner and salute to Forbes, with proceeds benefiting the history center's African American archives. Sunday, Oct. 14, WRHS will open its doors to the community for a daylong celebration, (12-5 p.m.).

Forbes has also donated his personal papers to the museum. Forbes' daughter, Helen Forbes-Fields, who's chairing the celebration committee alongside her sisters and a Who's Who of public and private dignitaries, quoted her father in a statement.

"It is my hope that the legacy of my works and dreams for the city of Cleveland, and the upliftment of black people in particular, can be used as a catalyst for positive growth, in my community and beyond," she read. 

In follow-up questions, WRHS told Scene that Forbes' papers are currently being processed and inventoried, so it's still unknown what all is included among them. Once the processing is complete, the material will be accessible in the research library and organized in an online catalog.

Forbes spoke only briefly. He expressed his gratitude to WRHS and said he'd save his reminiscing for the event on Oct. 13. He admitted that he's lost a step, and part of the reason he so rarely makes public appearances anymore is because he knows he's not as sharp as he once was and doesn't want to embarrass himself. It was during a Q&A that he was asked about his relationship with the media.

"We had a combative relationship," he said, and went on to describe a meeting with former Plain Dealer publisher and editor Tom Vail regarding reporters covering local politics. "I said, sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong, and sometimes I fool them. It wasn't something that was deep-seated, it just happened. You win today, tomorrow I win. And we call it square. I think you all enjoyed it, and so did I. Let me say this: The Plain Dealer went out of business the moment I left City Hall."

Forbes' longtime friend and Chief of Staff (from 1983-1989), Jon Ferrell, spoke as well. In a moving tribute, he said that out of the public spotlight, Forbes was one of the most open and approachable leaders he'd ever known.

"Most of you know him a little differently," Ferrell said. "There was always a flame raging just beneath the surface within him. But it's constantly misinterpreted. It's an impatient and often frustrated demand for justice, dignity and equality.... He said what needed to be said long before people were ready to hear it."

Ferrell recalled that through Forbes' advocacy and stubbornness, 20 percent of construction jobs during the downtown construction boom spawned by generous tax abatements were promised for black people. Even though the city had no leverage to negotiate with BP, in Ferrell's account of the BP Tower meetings, Forbes remained adamant about the diversity requirement.

"Doing the difficult, ugly, thankless work," said Ferrell, "is the vastly underappreciated hallmark of his legacy. If you question my use of the word legacy, would any major firm today dare to invest in Cleveland without including community economic benefits in its proforma? The answer is no."

(Ferrell would certainly do well to ask the Greater Cleveland Congregations about community economic benefits.) 

Former Councilman Benny Bonnano also spoke. He marveled at Forbes' ability to deal so firmly with an unruly city legislature during an era of boisterous personalities.

"Think about it," Bonnano said. "He had to deal with me, Jeff Johnson, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Polensek. It was like herding cats. It was just impossible to get [anything] done. But George did."

click to enlarge Benny Bonnano, reminiscing, (9/19/18). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Benny Bonnano, reminiscing, (9/19/18).

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