Leadership: Cleveland’s Quiet Mayor

Normally when politicians go to groundbreaking events, the kind where they all put on hard hats and pretend to shovel, they usually make speeches about how great this new development will be for the city. That’s not the case for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.

Mayor Frank Jackson (photo: City of Cleveland Photographic Bureau)

When he took the podium last month at the kick-off for a new convention center and medical device showroom, he spoke for just 90 seconds.

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“Even though it’s not a panacea,” he said at the event, “it is an essential part of what we plan to do for downtown Cleveland.”

Mayor Jackson is not a man prone to hyperbole. One of his famous—or infamous-phrases is, “it is what it is.” Some call him the quiet mayor. He doesn’t crave the limelight.  At that same event, new Ohio Governor John Kasich called Jackson “humble.”

How often do you hear that of a politician?

“Some days you get the feeling this town doesn’t even have a mayor,” said Mike Roberts, a journalist in Cleveland since 1963. He says the mayor’s personality is his downfall. When there’s a crisis or event, the mayor is rarely out in front.

“It takes him a while to realize something has happened in the city,” Roberts said.

Mayor Jackson (left) at the groundbreaking for the Medical Mart

You get the sense here that some Clevelanders are yearning for a big personality mayor, like Chicago’s Richard Daley who can bulldoze his way to progress. Longtime Cleveland councilman Mike Polensek is in that group.

“You talk to folks in Chicago when I’ve been there, what do they talk about when they speak of Daley? ‘Tough guy, his way or the highway.’ But they’ll also tell you great passion,” Polensek said.

Mayor Jackson’s answer: “Then they need to find another mayor,” he said in an interview with Changing Gears.

The tall and lean 64 year old was first elected in 2005. We sat in his spacious office for over an hour as he dismissed critics who say he’s not enough of a cheerleader for Cleveland.

“I could cheer all day long and talk about the great assets and not have a balanced budget and what difference does it make,” he said. “It has no substantive impact for Cleveland.”

Jackson sees himself as the antidote to those politicians who talk a good game and don’t get anything done. He says he is getting a lot done. Construction has begun on over $1 billion worth of developments including that convention center and a casino. And, despite the punishing recession, his administration managed to balance Cleveland’s budget with no layoffs, service cuts or tax hikes.

“Mayor Jackson has surprised everyone with his ability to manage in this incredibly challenging environment,” said Chris Thompson of the Fund for Our Economic Future.

If Jackson’s vision for the city is realized, he says investments today will make people want to live in Cleveland again. That would be quite an accomplishment. The city has been hemorrhaging population for decades. Some leave for the nearby suburbs; others leave the region altogether.

“At one time we were compared to Chicago,” said Councilman Polensek. “It was New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Those were the three players.”

But that was before the Great Depression, and the decline of industry, and the rise of new modes of transportation. Now, Cleveland barely makes the top 50 most populous cities. Polensek says that’s because of more than just happenstance.

“What happened? We had a lack of vision.”

The history of Cleveland leadership is a story of diffuse power. There were leaders popular in the ethnic communities, or in the minority communities, or among union laborers. But there were few times when leaders spoke with one voice and one agenda.

There were high points like electing the nation’s first big city black mayor: Carl Stokes in the late 1960s. And then a decade later, a low point when a young Dennis Kucinich was in charge when Cleveland fell into default.

George Voinovich and a series of mayors spent the next few decades getting the city’s finances back in order.

But in the background, there was another undercurrent: corruption. Sometimes at City Hall, but even more so among leaders in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is just one of 59 municipalities.

The two-year investigation brought down one of the county’s three commissioners and the auditor. Fed up, voters decided to not just throw out the leaders, but the whole form of government: replacing the three commissioners with an executive and 11 member county council.

“I think all of that corruption and all of that scandal really kind of has a chilling effect even on those who want to go into public leadership because who wants to get involved in that kind of situation?” said Ed FitzGerald.

Ed FitzGerald

As it turns out, that man does. FitzGerald is Cuyahoga County’s first chief executive. He took the helm last month as voters trusted him to restore faith and function in the county. Historically, the county’s role has been to fund human services and the prisons. But FitzGerald is trying to increase the county’s role in the region’s economic development. Journalist Mike Roberts says it could be the beginning of a shift of power from Cleveland’s mayor to the county executive.

“We’re going to have the leader that you’re going to look at and the leader that’s going to form the immediate future is FitzGerald,” Roberts said.

Mayor Jackson at an event against changing Cuyahoga County's government structure.

It’s perhaps symbolic that the Medical Mart and Convention Center under construction sits right between the downtown offices of the county executive and the city mayor. It’s a sign that, for now, both agree Cleveland still matters. Both leaders say they have a good working relationship.

But with Cleveland still the anchor of this region, it’s Mayor Jackson who today has the most power to get things done. He says his style is what the city needs right now.

“I’m effective at this time in the history of Cleveland, in the environment we live in, both social and economic,” Jackson said.

And, if Cleveland ever clamors fora big personality, he says he’ll exit stage left.

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