Mayor Michael R. White Interview, Parts One – Five (video)

white-celebrates-gateway  mike-white-1989

Part One Link is Here

Part Two Link is Here

Part Three Link is here

Part Four Link is here

Part Five Link is here

Michael R. White was Mayor of Cleveland from 1990-2002. He was interviewed for Teaching Cleveland Digital on July 24, 2013. Cameras by Jerry Mann and Meagan Lawton, Edited by Jerry Mann, Interviewed by Michael Baron. © 2013 Jerry Mann and Teaching Cleveland Digital.

Part one covers Mayor White’s formative years in the Cleveland neighborhood of Glenville, living in Cleveland during the election of Carl Stokes in 1967 and White’s election as the first African-American Student Union President at The Ohio State University in 1973.

Part two covers his work with Columbus Republican Mayor Tom Moody, his return to Cleveland, working with and learning from Council President George Forbes and his election to Cleveland City Council.

Part three covers the 1980’s in Cleveland when Mayor George Voinovich and Council President George Forbes were in power. White then speaks about being elected Mayor of Cleveland, and his first challenge as Mayor: the baseball team wants a new ballpark, so White spearheads the Gateway development.

From Wikipedia:

White, who grew up in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, began his political career early on during his college years at Ohio State University, when he protested against the discriminatory policies of the Columbus public bus system and was subsequently arrested. White then ran the following year for Student Union President and won, becoming the college’s first black student body leader. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1973 and a Master of Public Administration degree in 1974.

After college, White returned to Cleveland. He served on Cleveland City Council as an administrative assistant from 1976 to 1977 and later served as city councilman from the Glenville area from 1978 to 1984. During his time in city council, White became a prominent protégé of councilman George L. Forbes. White then represented the area’s 21st District in the Ohio Senate, serving as a Democratic assistant minority whip.

In 1989, White entered the heavily-contested race for mayor of Cleveland, along with several other notable candidates including Forbes, Ralph J. Perk Jr. (the son of former Cleveland mayor, Ralph J. Perk), Benny Bonanno (Clerk of the Cleveland Municipal Court), and Tim Hagan (Cuyahoga County commissioner). Out of all the candidates Forbes and White made it to the general election. It was the first time two Black candidates would emerge as the number one and two contenders in a primary election in Cleveland history.

In Cleveland, incumbent Mike White won re-election against council president George Forbes, who ran as the candidate of black power and the public sector unions. Angering the unions by eliminating some of the city’s exotic work rules, White presented himself as pro-business, pro-police and an effective manager above all, arguing that “jobs were the cure for the ‘addiction to the mailbox,'” referring to welfare checks. [1]

White ended up winning the race receiving 81 percent of the vote in predominantly white wards and 30 percent in the predominantly black wards.


Why Mike White Shouldn’t Be Forgiven The Scene January 10, 2002

Why Mike White Shouldn’t Be Forgiven
The Scene January 10, 2002 The link to original is here
He built a lot of stuff. He’ll be remembered as a great mayor. He’s still an S.O.B.

The resurrection started before the burial. On May 23, Mayor Michael White announced that he would not seek a fourth term. After serving 12 years — longer than any mayor in Cleveland history — it was over. He was going to spend more time with his children. He was going to be a “full-time husband.” He had done what he came to do.Who could argue with the man? Consider the school system, the crime, poverty, the unemployment that ravaged Cleveland in 1989.

Consider downtown: No Rock Hall. No Gund. No Jacobs Field.

Consider the Warehouse District: It actually had warehouses.

Cleveland wasn’t so much a city in 1989 as it was a post-industrial approximation of one, a rusted-out hulk of its mid-century self.

Then along came White, more genetic aberration than career politician, a pure shot of single-minded will, a control freak of Napoleonic proportions. Hell, it seems silly to even talk about a “White administration.” It felt like he was running the place by himself, or at least trying to. This is a man who called his staff together at 1:30 a.m. on the night he was first elected. Not to celebrate. To start working.

“The mayor gave his life during those 12 years,” says Bill Denihan, who worked for White for almost a decade. “Good, bad, or indifferent, he gave all of himself.”

And there is much for which he can be proud: the stadiums, thousands of new homes, the resurrection of the Browns, the hope of a resuscitated school system, the passage of the bond levy. “History will look upon him more than graciously,” says Tom Andrzejewski, a consultant who worked on White’s first campaign. “The facts speak for themselves. Just take a look at what he’s done.”

Yet the darkness was never far from the light. White had to take credit for every triumph, avoid blame for every misstep. Vindictive as a second-rate crime boss, cruel as the weather, he went out of his way to retaliate against his enemies, to silence his detractors, to shut out anyone who wasn’t sufficiently loyal. Even friends weren’t immune to his churlish tactics. More than a few times, allies found themselves suddenly cut off, without word or explanation, wondering what they had done to incur his ire. “There’s just a whole generation of people who need counseling because of him,” says Councilman Joe Cimperman.

During the last two years of his tenure, White’s meanness became his calling card, the cloud he could never get out from under. Airport expansion, relations with the police union, tussles with city council — everything, it seemed, was about him. He had evolved into the city’s most reliable asshole, a designation he seemed intent on keeping to the end. Just 10 days before he left office, he forced the city’s top two prosecutors to resign. Their apparent crime: speaking of the mayor in less-than-glowing terms to Jane Campbell’s transition team.

But the nasty reputation never tempered the mayor. If anything, it fueled his sense of persecution, widened his blind spots. In an interview with Scene in June 2000, White responded to critics who said he managed by intimidation and fear: “Aha! Let’s distort his personality. Let’s put in an element of intrigue about how he treats people, because then you don’t have to have the facts, and you don’t have to have the record. You can just slash and burn a person.”

No doubt Mike White’s reputation will not suffer very long. Over time, the depth of his cruelty will fade into the soft focus of history. It won’t be long before he’s described as driven, dynamic, and uncompromising, rather than petty, despotic, and spiteful.

In some ways, the resurrection has already begun, starting on that day in late May when he said he’d never run for office again. “He is leaving the same way he governed, with the courage of his convictions and individuality of a true leader,” beamed former congressman Dennis Eckart in The Plain Dealer.

With his tenure ending this week, it is now the season for Mike White retrospectives, those exhaustive, exquisitely boring stories on the complexities of man and office. Overlooked is the fact that Mike White isn’t all that complex. He was elected. He built a lot of stuff. He wasn’t very nice. But there are reasons he should never be forgotten — or forgiven.

Reason I: Unyielding Loyalty Shown to Longtime Employees

Mike White has given much to the people of Cleveland, but perhaps his most important contribution came in the field of human resources. For 12 years, White ruled City Hall with such tyranny that he could write his own self-help manual: The 7 Habits of Highly Malevolent People.

“Those that leave city government ought to be his strongest supporters . . . jumping up and down, saying, ‘You know, I worked for White, and I know what he can do,” says Denihan, who served nine years as safety director. “Just the opposite is happening. He’s got a couple of hundred people out there who had executive positions saying, ‘I know what Mike White is like, and believe me, you don’t want to see that kind of management occur in this city again.'”

Denihan recalls the feeling of dread that would fall on members of White’s cabinet each Wednesday, when they would gather for their weekly meeting. “Folks would be thinking, well, whose turn in the barrel is it this time?” Directors would be singled out and torn apart for any reason. In May 2000, Joseph Nolan, the mayor’s former personnel director, told The Plain Dealer he decided to resign after watching White belittle and then fire the two highest-ranking employees in the Health Department in front of their stunned co-workers.

But leaving White’s employ didn’t necessarily mean people were free. Denihan and Nolan discovered that in the spring of 2000, when White’s HR acumen was at its zenith. Controversy had erupted over the police entrance exam. Eighteen months earlier, more than 2,000 people took the test in the hopes of eventually joining the Cleveland police. By March of 2000, however, the city was still unable to hire a single candidate, because Coleman & Associates, the company hired to grade the tests, had muffed the job so thoroughly.

Coleman was the most expensive, least experienced company to bid on the job, and council wanted answers as to why it had been selected. When council announced an investigation and complained that the mayor’s office was stonewalling, White held a press conference. Yet rather than take responsibility, the mayor promptly turned into a version of Hogan’s Heroes‘ Sgt. Schulz. He knew nothing, nothing about how Coleman was chosen for the grading.

Instead, he pointed the finger elsewhere: at Nolan, Denihan, and former Civil Service Commission Secretary Cynthia Sullivan, none of whom worked for him anymore. “People I believed in, people I trusted, made errors,” said White. “Ask them the questions.”

White’s attempt to evade responsibility was as revealing as it was depressing. Nolan and Denihan had been two of the mayor’s most loyal and competent employees. Each thought he had parted company with White on decent terms. And neither had a significant role in the fiasco.

Yet White wasn’t satisfied with simply impugning reputations. After Denihan fired back, speaking openly about the way White treated staffers, White offered a simple explanation: Denihan was a liar. “It’s unfortunate that someone of Mr. Denihan’s caliber now has to stoop to out-and-out lying to get his name in the newspaper,” he told Scene.

To critics, White’s treatment of Denihan was only the most glaring example of his vindictiveness. “That’s his demeanor,” says Councilwoman Fannie Lewis. “That man destroyed a lot of people around him. He don’t take no prisoners.”

Reason II: Extraordinary Efforts to Help the Homeless

In politics, even more so than in life, one is defined by one’s enemies, a maxim that’s never been more applicable than in the case of the mayor. In November 1999, Mike White met the enemy. And the enemy was homeless.

In an effort to protect citizens as they shopped the mean streets of Tower City or roamed the wilds of the Flats, White ordered stepped-up police patrols during the holiday season. The target: shoplifters, muggers, and “other criminals,” whose nefarious deeds seemed to consist of sleeping on the sidewalk.

“Basically,” says Brian Davis, executive director for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, “he wanted to criminalize homelessness.”

Cops were ordered to tell homeless people to move. If they refused, they could be arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Since it was the season of giving and sharing, police were kind enough to hand out information cards telling the homeless where they could find shelter. The information turned out to be highly useful for those lucky enough to snag one of the city’s few emergency shelter beds — less so for the thousands of others for whom no beds were available.

The policy was a far cry from White’s campaign posture in 1989, when he promised he would “not settle for Cleveland having one person on its streets without a place to stay.” But it was hardly the first time his policies toward the poor were more punitive than progressive. In 1994, the ACLU sued the city in federal court on behalf of four homeless men who said police picked them up around Public Square and dumped them miles away. (The city denied this was official policy, but eventually settled the case.) That same year, police charged a man for distributing The Homeless Grapevine because he did not have a $50 peddler’s license. The city soon stopped enforcing the policy, and a federal judge eventually ruled that requiring a fee was an unconstitutional restraint on speech.

To no one’s surprise, the controversy over the police sweeps was also settled in court. Just before Christmas, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Matia issued a restraining order barring police from ordering homeless people to move. The following February, the city and the ACLU reached a settlement. The cops wouldn’t remove people unless they were actually disturbing the peace.

By that time, however, city attorneys were in full revision mode, denying there ever was a policy to remove the homeless from sidewalks — though three months before, the mayor said one of his goals was “curtailing the practice of sleeping on sidewalks.”

Reason III: Wise Use of Lakefront Property

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if city leaders notice, but Cleveland is on a lake. A pretty big one. Residents seem to enjoy this. They like to look at the lake, walk along its shores, watch the sun set over its horizon. And, crazy as it may seem, some people even use the damn thing — for fishing, boating, swimming, dumping old tires.

The concept that citizens might actually want access to the region’s most valuable natural resource wasn’t a priority during White’s tenure. During the last 10 years, the city has plopped down the Rock Hall, the Great Lakes Science Center, and Browns Stadium along North Coast Harbor “like so many pieces of unrelated urban furniture,” in Plain Dealer architecture critic Steven Litt’s memorable phrase.

Granted, White didn’t have a lot of help in this department. For decades the lakefront has been seen as a tool to harness industrial muscle and not much else. In Chicago, 85 percent of the lakefront is publicly accessible; in Toronto, it’s 75 percent. Cleveland, by comparison, has just 40 percent open to the public, much of which is at Edgewater Park. Only recently have city leaders awakened to the idea that our most valuable land might have better uses.

Still, if there is one unpardonable sin in recent lakefront development, it’s Browns Stadium. In 1996, when the NFL promised White that Cleveland would get a new franchise, White promised the NFL a new stadium.

From the beginning, White preferred the site of the old stadium, saying that it had served football fans well for 64 years. The NFL, of course, got what it wanted: a steel-and-glass marvel mostly paid for with public money (originally slated at $247 million, the current price tag is well over $300 million), and Cleveland got stuck with a beautiful stadium on some of the city’s most valuable property. It’s used fewer than 15 days a year.

“He was the great planner, and we all know every planning decision was his decision,” says Councilman Mike Polensek. “And we’re going to pay the price for it. We’re going to pay a price, severely. I look down upon a stadium that’s only used for eight games a year from my office — on a piece of land that should have never been used for a stadium.”

Reason IV: The Ghengis Khan Theory of Public Relations

It has long since been forgotten, but there was a time when Mike White didn’t think The Plain Dealer was run by beady-eyed jackasses bent on his destruction. He just thought it was run by beady-eyed jackasses.

During his first term, coverage was largely positive. The PD‘s editorial page cheered his every move. “He got a free ride,” says Polensek.

The tide began to turn in the mid-’90s, after White won his second term. The PD wrote stories about city contracts awarded to mayoral cronies. It looked at his role in Art Modell’s decision to leave town. It scrutinized stadium costs.

Then, in May of 1999, new editor Doug Clifton arrived from The Miami Herald. A gruff former Marine, Clifton clashed almost immediately with White over access to public records. The mayor took Clifton’s insolence as a sign: The paper was out to get him. He began publicly denouncing its stories. He refused to talk to PD reporters. He had his press office tip off other media to the paper’s records requests.

The PD hammered White over the city’s troubled Finance Department, over his autocratic management style. But it didn’t always conduct itself as a beacon of dignity. Early last year, it reported that the diminutive White was having foot surgery for a condition called “hammertoes.” Reporter Christopher Quinn couldn’t help but remind readers — twice in one story — that the malady usually affects middle-aged women after a life of wearing high heels.

It mattered little by that point anyway. White had already decided to “phase out” The Plain Dealer, going so far as to throw a PD reporter out of his May 23 press conference announcing that he wouldn’t run again.

Politicians bitching about newspapers is nothing new, of course, and White has skin thin enough to be offered at communion. Even so, his decision to cut off The Plain Dealer should go down as one of the more lead-headed moves in mayoral history. “He’s a public official, and the emphasis is on public, not on official,” says Andrzejewski, who worked as a PD reporter before hooking up with White in 1989. “I think he always has not had a good understanding of that, or a good understanding of the responsibilities that go along with that.”

Whether White likes it or not, The Plain Dealer is the chief conduit to the public’s understanding of what’s happening in town. In many ways, it decides what is and isn’t news. The television stations follow its lead, and public policy often treads in its wake. While it may have scored him easy points with those who distrust or resent the paper, for White to stop talking meant he essentially stopped talking to his constituents.

“I don’t think it was ever possible for him to think of our coverage as fair,” Clifton told Scene last year. “What he perceives as fair is totally without a critical component. That’s not fair to me; that’s not fair to our readers.”

Maybe that’s what White wanted all along — to be mayor in a lab, to run a city without critics, without dissent, without citizens. Judging by the latest census numbers, it seemed to be working.

Reason V: Willingness to Share Credit

Sometimes, it takes drama for a leader’s innate qualities to emerge. When the St. Michael Hospital crisis called, White’s ability to alienate everyone around him came shining through.

In February 2000, Cleveland Clinic announced its intent to purchase the Mt. Sinai Integrated Medical Campus in Beachwood from the bankrupt Primary Health Systems for more than $60 million. As part of the deal, the Clinic also planned to purchase Mt. Sinai Medical Center-East in Richmond Heights and St. Michael Hospital in Slavic Village, and shut them down.

The plan effectively locked out other buyers who might have kept the two facilities open and drew howls from patients, activists, and city council members. “We’re talking about people’s lives and their neighborhoods and primary health care for the working poor and moderate-income people,” Polensek railed at the time.

It’s the kind of fight tailor-made for politicians: a faceless corporate behemoth vs. residents desperate to maintain community hospitals — the kind of thing Dennis Kucinich drools over in his sleep.

Yet when the deal was announced, White said he could do nothing to stop it and that the city shouldn’t be in the hospital business. At the same time, he was privately negotiating with the Clinic to keep some limited services at St. Michael.

White’s subsequent agreement was assailed for not going far enough to save the facilities, and it was eventually thrown out in bankruptcy court. The only thing it did was confuse critics and fans alike, who found it hard to understand how a master pol could be so clumsy. Whatever his intent, White was pushed into a corner by Kucinich & Co., who made it look as if he was siding with the Clinic over the neighborhood. Says Lewis: “Look how far he went out for the Browns. Why couldn’t he have done that for Mt. Sinai and St. Michael Hospital?”

In retrospect, the whole thing seems a bit silly. White and his critics wanted the same thing — to keep the hospitals open. But White’s inability to share credit, his unparalleled skill at alienating all those who could help, doomed him. He was a victim of his own personality — a situation captured with stunning clarity at a council meeting during the battle.

“The chambers are filled,” recalls Cimperman. “Council members are making speeches. It was intense. Congressman Kucinich was back, making a speech for one of the first times since he was mayor. Mayor White can’t stand down from a fight. He’s got to be there, even if he’s not saying anything. He walks over to the lawyer who was representing us, who was sitting inside the well, taps him on the shoulder, and says, ‘Get out of here. You can’t sit inside the well,’ and goes back to his seat . . . To me, that just captures the lost potential. You’re in the middle of a situation that you can be a hero on, and your personality won’t let you do that. Instead, you tell our attorney to get the heck out of there. What, are you absurd? It’s ridiculous.”

Reason VI: Saving the World From Cleveland Cops

The low point for White’s administration may have come in July 1999, when the mayor held a press conference to address what he called the most serious crisis he faced since taking office: allegations of white-supremacist groups operating inside the Cleveland Police Department. The proof was as vague as the charge was incendiary: racist graffiti in district stations, white officers wearing star-shaped pins, others sporting Elvis tattoos.

The Warren Report, it wasn’t.

At the time, White was being ravaged by the police union and black leaders for accommodating the Ku Klux Klan’s wish to hold a rally here. The investigation into police racism was seen by cynics as a ploy to shore up support in the black community.

Though the inquiry was completed within weeks, it was eight months before White released the results. In a 92-page account, the Internal Affairs Division found nothing more than hearsay and gossip. Though the report was sandwiched within a stack of arrest statistics, complaint reports, and other data that implied bias on the part of individual officers, the conclusion was clear: There were no organized hate groups inside the CPD.

Such news would normally be embraced. Instead, White called a press conference to bash reporters for suggesting he was the source of the initial racism charges. When asked in retrospect if he’d have done anything differently, he responded in triplicate: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”

Normally, such tactics could be chalked up to rank opportunism — hardly an uncommon sin in city politics — and easily forgotten, except for one reason: Gerald Goode. In mid-July 1999, Goode, a no-nonsense, by-the-book sergeant in the Fourth District, asked fellow black supervisors about a pin he’d seen on a white officer. Thinking it might signify an anti-government group, Goode asked if anyone else had seen one like it.

Yet his simple curiosity was soon blown beyond recognition. Days later, when White held his bizarre press conference, he cited, among other things, racist pins as evidence of organized hate groups operating within the CPD.

Though the IA report yielded nothing, White made no effort to atone for the damage he had unleashed eight months earlier. “It’s the one piece of unfinished business,” says Bob Beck, president of the Patrolmen’s Association. “Never once, even after he was proved wrong, did he apologize.”

By that point, it was too late for Gerald Goode. At the end of October, he killed himself.

Michael R. White Era as Mayor aggregation

1 The Michael R White Interview (video)

2 Mayoral Administration of Michael R. White from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

3 Michael R. White From Wikipedia

4 Cleveland Reacts to Call For Unity (Philadelphia Inquirer 10/26/89)

5 Stepping Down – from Cleveland Magazine

6 “State of the City” Address Delivered by Mayor Michael White at Cleveland City Club Feb. 7, 1997 (Audio)

Stepping Down – from Cleveland Magazine

Article about the Mayor Mike White era from Cleveland Magazine December 10, 2007

This link is here

Stepping Down

Nearly 12 ears ago, Mike White rose to power in an upset victory as his supporters chanted, “Long live the king! Long live Mike!” White stunned Cleveland once again this May 23 by announcing he would not seek a fourth term as mayor. The day


The mayor wakes at 5 a.m., without an alarm clock, on the day he will announce the end of his reign in Cleveland.Instantly alert, he turns to wake his wife JoAnn. They have planned the day, practically down to the minute, and Mike White wants them to start it together. He’s surprised at how calm he feels. Neither nervous nor emotional, just prepared. Battling a bit of a cold, he showers, dresses and has a cup of coffee.

Today’s the day, he thinks. Let’s do this. At 5:30 a.m.. White calls his press secretary, Brian Rothenberg, telling him to be at White’s East Boulevard home at 7 a.m. Other key staff members are told to arrive at the same time. None of them know what to expect. Whenever Rothenberg has pressed White about running again, the mayor has flashed his wide smile, but said nothing.

By necessity, the mayor’s family knows more. So that they could make plans to attend the announcement. White and his wife began calling relatives two days earlier. Other than family, only three people know of White’s decision: his “guardian angel,” Sam Miller of Forest City Enterprises; his “other sister,” Carole Hoover, former president of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association; and his chief of staff, Judith Zimomra.

Nobody else expects the day that will follow.

After 12 years as mayor, five as a state senator and eight as a Cleveland city councilman, White plans to announce that he will never again seek elected office. The man who began his career campaigning for Carl Stokes as the age of 13 — passing out literature and cleaning bathrooms in campaign headquarters — has spent three terms in the same office Stokes occupied as Cleveland’s first black mayor. Despite his power and self-professed love of the job, White claims he’s ready to leave.

Brilliant. Tyrannical. Compassionate. Vindictive. Nurturing. Aloof. Each of these adjectives has been used to describe White. In reality, he is a cocktail of them all-— a blend of both good and bad that is reflected in his emerging legacy. He’s considered by many to be the energy that fueled Cleveland’s decade of progress. More recently, he’s helped pass a levy to repair the city’s public schools and has battled to jump-start the expansion of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. But he’s also been accused of failing to deliver to the city a new convention center, bungling plans for the lakefront and frustrating business and community leaders with a leadership style that leaves no room for second opinions.

in his past and said little about his future. Most of all, he surprised just about everyone, shaking Cleveland’s political landscape in nine words: “I will not seek re-election to a fourth term.”


The telephone rings just as Cleveland schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett steps out of the shower. It’s the mayor, saying he needs to speak with her.

“Well, when?” she asks.

“I’m at your front door.”

Byrd-Bennett looks out the upstairs window and sees the mayor on her front steps, holding her newspaper. Her hair uncombed and wearing no makeup, the CEO of Cleveland schools comes downstairs to let him in. He’s wearing a double-breasted suit and white shirt. She has on a robe and slippers.

The two sit down at the kitchen table, a vase of yellow roses between them. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately,” the mayor tells her. “You know how I feel about you personally and professionally. You know the respect I have for your work. But I’ve come to a decision. I’ve decided I will not seek a fourth term.”

Byrd-Bennett looks out the window into the sunny morning, then turns to the mayor.

“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” he assures her. “And I wanted you to know and I wanted you to know why. Are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” she answers.

“You know that we’ll continue to talk and I’m not going to leave you hanging.”

“I know that.”

The two sit for a moment longer before White stands up. She gives him a hug and he leaves the house.

White’s children do not attend Cleveland Public Schools, which, though improving since White took control of the school board in 1998, still rank 545th out of the 549 school districts in Ohio (Dayton is the only big city that fared worse), according to 1999-2000 performance standards released by the Ohio Department of Education. The hope is to gain momentum, especially with the infusion of $380 million from the bond issue that s passed May 8 and with the continued leadership of Byrd-Bennett.

But nothing is a given. Byrd-Bennett’s contract expires in 2002, with an option to extend it to 2004. Whether she renews in 2002 will be depend, to some extent, on who the next mayor of Cleveland is. “It’s such a partnership ” she explains, “such a strong relationship that you have to have.” There is much at stake. According to the agreement that gave Cleveland’s mayor power to appoint the school board, voters will have an opportunity in 2002 to either axe the arrangement or approve it indefinitely. Byrd-Bennett, who strongly supports appointed, not elected, school boards, says White’s successor will play a big part in the 2002 vote.

“Whoever is the next mayor will have to clearly make some decisions about whether they support this system of governance,” she says.

White’s faith in Byrd-Bennett has always been absolute. Later that day, he tells a room packed full of people at his announcement: “If this is not Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s last job, something is wrong with us.” From the driveway of Byrd-Bennett’s house, White calls his two youngest children from an earlier marriage at home — 8-year-old Joshua and 11-year-old Brieanna. His fourth wife, JoAnn, has two children from a previous marriage — 22-year-old Katy and 24-year-old Christopher — whom White considers his own. The older children were told about the announcement the night before, but White decided to wait till the morning to tell the little ones.

The news, he says later, “Didn’t really sink in.”

“When you’re 8 and 11, you don’t quite really know what it means when your father’s the mayor. For all their life, I’ve been the mayor.”

Back home shortly after 7 a.m., White joins his staff and continues to execute his plan. With a list of 45 names and phone numbers in front of him — all people he wants to tell himself before his 10 a.m. announcement — he starts dialing.

Using his home phone and two cell phones, he works the lines with help from his staff, ending one conversation and immediately beginning the next. He calls former staffers who have remained on good terms, the few council members he still counts as allies, old friends and the loyal few who helped him win in •89.

One of his friends is on his tractor when White calls. Another hears wrong and begins to congratulate him. Others scream into the phone, begging him to reconsider. On the way to make his announcement at Glenville’s Miles Stan-dish Elementary School — his former grade school — he’s still making calls,

“I had used a fairly laborious, time-consuming and complex process of getting to my decision,” White explains in an interview held three weeks later at Voinovich Park. “I’m the kind of person … when I get to my decision, I’m very relaxed and calm about the decision.”

After graduating from The Ohio State University, White got a job working as a housing aid for then-Columbus mayor Tom Moody. He used the experience as a learning tool, not a steppingstone to a better job in a city that wasn’t his own. “Some people are willing to succeed anywhere,” says Jerry Gafford, then chief of staff for Moody. “Mike wanted his achievements to be in Cleveland.

“He always kept telling me that sooner or later he was going to have to go home to Cleveland. It was very much on his mind,” remembers Gafford, who tried to convince the young man to stay in Columbus. “He came in one day and said, •I’m leaving now. Don’t try to stop me. I’ve got to go, Jerry. I’ve got to go home.’ ”

White returned to Cleveland in 1976, serving first as an assistant to then-council president George Forbes, then winning a council seat himself. In 1988, he decided to chase what he calls “the only job I ever wanted.”

The mayoral campaign started out promisingly — White’s East Boulevard home was packed full of supporters during strategy sessions — but when then-mayor George Voinovich announced he would not run for re-election, a slate of strong contenders joined the race, including Forbes.

“All of a sudden, Mike’s support disappeared,” remembers state Sen. Eric Fingerhut, White’s campaign manager at the time. “It went from people being jammed in his basement to four or five of us.” By the time he made his official announcement, his supporters were so few that one of White’s staffers recruited her father and some of her friends to create the illusion of an audience.

But White has always been deft at dodging the odds. As an underdog for student-body president at Ohio State University, his campaigning cut short by a serious case of the chicken pox, he nonetheless won the election — with the slogan “Give a shit.” (He followed his own advice, becoming so enraged at one meeting that he allegedly threw a gavel across the room.)

That same doggedness propelled White above the pack in 1989. He went door to door, hosted teas and got up early to ride buses all morning with commuters — whatever it took. If he had a free minute, he’d find a grocery store and campaign there. “His one-on-one connection with people is just excellent,” Fingerhut says. “It was one of the great grass-root campaigns. You just knew he was going to be the next mayor.”

It’s almost 10 a.m. and a room full of people wait in the auditorium of Miles Standish. White’s father and wife are in the first row and the audience is packed with directors, cabinet members and staffers. A few Cleveland powerhouses — Greater Cleveland Growth Association CEO Dennis Eckart, Byrd-Bennett and former Rep. Louis Stokes — dot the audience, but elected officials are scarce; councilman Zachary Reed suspects he is the only office-holding politician in attendance.

Outside the school, Plain Dealer politics reporter Mark Naymik tries to enter, but the door is locked. He bangs on the door; no one answers. Finally, he makes his way inside through an unlocked classroom, taking a place among members of White’s administration sitting in the seventh row. But White’s scorn for the PD infects even this occasion.

“You can’t be here,” one of White’s people tells Naymik. “This is a private affair.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Naymik responds. “Do what you have to do.”

Naymik eventually agrees to go outside to talk and is never let back in, despite the fact that it’s a public building and every other media outlet has been invited by the mayor’s office. (Naymik found out about the meeting from metro editor Mark Russell, who heard the news on the radio while driving to work.)

Naymik is outside the building when White takes the podium, following an introduction by Louis Stokes. White tells the audience he is “a child of Cleveland” and thanks a long list of people for their support over the years.

“I want you to know I love you all,” White tells the group. “I thank you for hat you have given me. I have given you Far less than you have given me. If I live to be 150 years old, I could never repay you t for what you have given me. You have given me an opportunity to serve. You have given me an understanding of life. You have given me a belief in humankind beyond what any of you could realize.”

White is scheduled to be at a Convention & Visitors Bureau lunch honoring him for his tourism efforts. Instead, he spends his lunch hour and early afternoon in the library behind the auditorium at Miles Standish, meeting first with family, then staff members.

A half-hour later, somewhere downtown, a separate meeting begins. (Dennis Eckart, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, explains later that the group included a “very interesting collection of business and community leaders,” but he won’t say who and declines to say where.) The group had planned to discuss an economic-development initiative, but the agenda changed — without a single word or phone call exchanged — as soon as White made his announcement.

No one is late today; the gossip’s too good, the opportunity to speculate too tempting. “Were you there?” people ask each other. “What did you hear? Who’s running?”

For the past several months, Cleveland’s unofficial pundits — a loose alliance of business and community leaders — have been lamenting the breakdown of the public-private partnership in Cleveland. Chances are good that some of them are the same people in this room. The same people who were desperately searching for another candidate when it was assumed White would run again.

The same people White says he doesn’t much care to have as allies.

“My world may not be the Union Club and it may not be a golf course,” White explains later. “I may not be kissing every businessman’s ass who thinks I ought to kiss his ass. •Cause that’s not of my ilk. That’s not what I aspire to.”

Though White sometimes talks like a political lone ranger, Eckart says he’s found the mayor to be cooperative and accommodating. “I have asked, on behalf of the business community, a variety of things to move [airport negotiations] forward — a dozen difficult things for the city to do,” says Eckart, who describes his duty as being an “honest broker” between politicians and business leaders. “There is not one instance that the mayor said no.”

In fact, Eckart says he hasn’t seen White do anything to jeopardize the spirit of cooperation that led to Cleveland’s comeback. “I have no objective evidence at all of that in my personal relationship with the mayor,” he states.

But that doesn’t mean Eckart hasn’t heard the complaints. “I have talked to any number of other business folks who, 11 seconds into the conversation, would say, •Let me tell you about 1993,’ and recount some story about the mayor.” He even arranged to meet with one man, who had publicly complained about the mayor, to see if he could understand his perspective.

“I said, •When the mayor turned you down, what did you do?’ ” Eckart remembers.

“What was there for me to do?” the man shot back.

Plenty, is the answer Eckart most I commonly gives. Lobby City Council. Air your complaints to The Plain Dealer’s editorial board. Call the Growth Association. “The reality is that one entity — even if it is a very powerful entity — told you no and you quit. What does that tell me about your idea or about yourself?”

County commissioner Tim McCormack offers a more piercing assessment of what’s happened in Cleveland during the last few years. “People just left,” he says. “They just decided that it was not worth the aggravation.”

White seems untroubled by accusations that he has alienated people. “In my business, when things are going well, everybody is your friend,” he says. “But when things don’t go well, it’s an empty ballroom for one.”

He will not, however, divulge any names of those he feels have betrayed him. “I wouldn’t answer that question if you put a gun in my mouth,” he says.


At 4 p.m., editors from The Plain Dealer meet to discuss what will fill the front page of the next day’s paper — an easy task today, though the specifics must be hammered out.

“The field of candidates grows, I’m not kidding, by the minute,” city editor Jean Dubail tells the group.

In the hours following White’s announcement, a half-dozen potential candidates express interest in taking his place, including former Cuyahoga County child welfare director William Denihan; county commissioner Jane Campbell; councilmen Joe Cimperman, Bill Patmon and Mike O’Malley; and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who will ultimately decide in early July not to run.

In order to show “maximum strength,” county commissioner Tim McCormack goes a step further. Just hours after the announcement, he stops by the board of elections to file petitions, followed by a visit to Plain Dealer editor Douglas Clifton. “McCormack clawed his way into Doug’s office to get a heads-up,” Dubail reports.

When another editor asks what White’s post-office plans are, Dubail replies: “He’s going to open a PR firm and be our adviser on public records.”

The joke provokes a few laughs, but White’s battle with the PD is a serious one, pitting First Amendment rights against allegations of libelous coverage. The paper has sued White over delayed — or nonexistent — access to public records. White claims the paper has intentionally tried to defame him.

The epic feud was played out in a single act earlier today: Incited by what he saw as a calculated attempt to annihilate his influence, the mayor of Cleveland banned a reporter from the city’s only daily paper from attending an announcement — held in a public building will change the course of the city.

The mayor does not dispute these facts. When asked if he believes it was a violation of Ohio’s open-meeting laws to kick Naymik out, he replies: “It doesn’t matter.”

He then launches into Mike White logic, which says that once you’ve been wronged, you have just cause to bend the rules. ” The Plain Dealer has willfully, purposely and premeditatedly tried to destroy the most important thing to me, which is my name and my integrity,” White says, gaining momentum. “They’ve done it with forethought and they’ve done it without an absence of malice. On the day I was announcing my retirement, they were not going to be in the room. I don’t apologize for it. I don’t believe I made an error. And if I had to do it again at this very moment, I’d throw him out again.”

Clifton, the PD’s editor, says his paper never targeted White. “My approach to editing a newspaper is that you give strong, assertive coverage of bodies of government,” he explains. “Whatever happens, happens.”

Though White’s office reportedly asked for extra copies of the May 24 newspaper. White will not say whether he was pleased or displeased with the article that ran. “They covered me,” he says stoically.

But was it fair coverage? “They covered me,” he repeats. White’s contempt for the paper is so intense that, later in the interview, he casually refers to Clifton as “Bushman.” Asked to clarify, he responds that anyone who hides in the bushes spying on people deserves such a name, topping his accusation off with, “And that’s for the record.”

Clifton explains that the reference stems from his days covering one time presidential hopeful Gary Hart. For the record, he adds, “There were no bushes,” and he has no nickname for the mayor.

White says he never had a problem with any other newspaper, but cannot provide an explanation as to why he’s having such a hard time with The Plain Dealer.

“This is a special case,” White says slowly, relishing the word “special” in a way that definitely suggests there’s some element of this combat he enjoys.


White sits in his office, turning his attention to the more mundane duties of the day. It’s past 5 p.m., but there are papers to sign, phone calls to return and legislative agreements to hammer out — seven months of work left to do.

The rest of City Hall is quiet. A few people stand talking just inside the main entrance, but the halls are largely deserted. Councilman Zachary Reed is the exception, moving silently through the building as he walks to his car to retrieve a briefcase.

It was seven hours ago that White announced his retirement, but the junior councilman is still dazed. “For me, not only is he a mentor of mine,” Reed says, then pauses as if struggling to regain his train of thought. “I’m still in shock … that’s why I can’t seem to get my words together. He’s not only a mentor of mine, but a friend.”

Reed was one of only four council members out of 21 whom White thanked during his speech earlier in the day. Council used to be much cozier with the mayor when Jay Westbrook was its leader, but a 1999 coup catapulted Mike Polensek to the position of council president. With the change in leadership, White’s control began to crumble, as did his relationship with Polensek.

Elected to council in the same year, 1977, Polensek and White once enjoyed the camaraderie that sprang from that connection. In fact, when White first ran for mayor in 1989, not only did Polensek work the polls, he also recruited his mother to help.

Two decades of politics devoured that friendship. In his retirement speech, White specifically thanked a total of 26 people — plus God — and acknowledged nearly a dozen others. Polensek was not mentioned. All of which makes the council president wonder if he made a mistake by campaigning for White so many years ago. “There have been times I asked myself, •Did I do the right thing?’ ” Polensek says.

He notes that the relationship has become “more cordial” since White announced he’ll be stepping down. “We’ve talked more in personal terms about our families,” Polensek says. “I have a little bit more insight into his perspective, which we had not talked about in the past.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” he adds. “You never really get to know [politicians] on a personal level. You always try to wear a hardened shell. You build up this reflective shield. You try to come across like you’re indestructible.”

But that doesn’t mean one can shed their armor completely before the battle is over. After talking about how he wishes White well and how “we are all God’s creatures,” Polensek sounds a subtle warning.

“My message has been: We have an opportunity to really focus in on the neighborhood projects, the reinvestment projects in our neighborhoods,” Polensek explains. “As I said to him in the mayor’s office as late as last week, this has got to be the priority. The next six months will tell the real story on Mike White.”

And if White doesn’t cooperate? “There could be some…” Polensek pauses, searching for the right words, “…differences of opinion.”


In his life after politics, White, who turns 50 this month, may be a consultant, a gentleman farmer, a professor or an author. He may raise llamas, help children or do nothing. He may live in Glenville or in Newcomers-town, where he and JoAnn have built a second home. He may travel to places his wife has recently visited, such as Israel and Thailand, or he may stay in Ohio.

All of the above have been speculated, but they are nothing more than guesses. The mayor’s not saying.

When asked what he plans to do next, he cuts the question short: “Haven’t the foggiest idea.”

What are the possibilities?

“There’s a period behind that,” he says, referring to his previous answer.

How does he think he’ll adapt to a slower pace?

“There’s a period behind that,” he snips. “I said, •Haven’t the foggiest idea and there’s a period behind that.’ ”

Will he still make Cleveland his primary residence?

“There’s a period behind that.”

A safe question: gardening. Does he see himself spending more time growing tomatoes? “There’s a period behind that.”

He will say not one word about his future. His voice rolls with passion, however, when talking about his past, especially about how he never sold the city or its residents out and how he feels he can leave office with a clear conscience.

“It’s not about just running till you die,” he explains. “The only thing I wanted to do was serve as mayor, and I’ve done that. And I’ve tried to do it as best I know how. I’ve tried to be as honest as I know how and I’ve always told the truth about it. Even when people didn’t want to hear the truth.

“This isn’t the real world,” he says, glancing at the Rock Hall and Browns Stadium from his perch in Voinovich Park. “The real world was at Luke Easter [Park] yesterday when I cut that ribbon and those little kids could get in a brand-new pool and they had a wading pool just like the suburbanites. The real world is being able to cut a ribbon at a new housing development. The real world is when kids are able to go to school and the glass isn’t falling and the heat isn’t off and a child in the 11th grade doesn’t have to put a coat on to take a test. That’s my world.”

On the night of May 23, White returns to his world at about 8 p.m. to spend a night like any other. On the way there, he passes his old elementary school; his father lives just a half mile away. By 11 p.m., the day has worn on him; his voice is hoarse and his objective accomplished.

The mayor closes his eyes and quickly falls asleep, ending his last day as a man with a political future. Or so he says.

Whether there’s a period behind that remains to be seen.


Cleveland Politician Interview Series

Cleveland Politician Interview Series

Click on each to view

George Forbes Interview

James Rokakis Interview

Louis Stokes Interview

George Voinoch Interview

Michael R White Interview

The Michael R White Interview (video)

mike-white-1989   white-celebrates-gateway  white_michael_1978

Part One Link is Here

Part Two Link is Here

Part Three Link is here

Part Four is here

Part Five is here

Michael R. White was Mayor of Cleveland from 1990-2002. He was interviewed for Teaching Cleveland Digital on July 24, 2013. Cameras by Jerry Mann and Meagan Lawton, Edited by Jerry Mann, Interviewed by Michael Baron. © 2013 Jerry Mann and Teaching Cleveland Digital.

From Wikipedia:

White, who grew up in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, began his political career early on during his college years at Ohio State University, when he protested against the discriminatory policies of the Columbus public bus system and was subsequently arrested. White then ran the following year for Student Union President and won, becoming the college’s first black student body leader. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1973 and a Master of Public Administration degree in 1974.

After college, White returned to Cleveland. He served on Cleveland City Council as an administrative assistant from 1976 to 1977 and later served as city councilman from the Glenville area from 1978 to 1984. During his time in city council, White became a prominent protégé of councilman George L. Forbes. White then represented the area’s 21st District in the Ohio Senate, serving as a Democratic assistant minority whip.

In 1989, White entered the heavily-contested race for mayor of Cleveland, along with several other notable candidates including Forbes, Ralph J. Perk Jr. (the son of former Cleveland mayor, Ralph J. Perk), Benny Bonanno (Clerk of the Cleveland Municipal Court), and Tim Hagan (Cuyahoga County commissioner). Out of all the candidates Forbes and White made it to the general election. It was the first time two Black candidates would emerge as the number one and two contenders in a primary election in Cleveland history.

In Cleveland, incumbent Mike White won re-election against council president George Forbes, who ran as the candidate of black power and the public sector unions. Angering the unions by eliminating some of the city’s exotic work rules, White presented himself as pro-business, pro-police and an effective manager above all, arguing that “jobs were the cure for the ‘addiction to the mailbox,'” referring to welfare checks. [1]

White ended up winning the race receiving 81 percent of the vote in predominantly white wards and 30 percent in the predominantly black wards.

© 2013 Jerry Mann and Teaching Cleveland Digital.


Teaching Cleveland Digital Media by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


The Michael R White Interview (video)

mike-white-1989white-celebrates-gatewaywhite_michael_19781979 CSU                                                                                                                                                                      

Michael R. White was Mayor of Cleveland from 1990-2002. He was interviewed for Teaching Cleveland Digital on July 24, 2013. Cameras by Jerry Mann and Meagan Lawton, Edited by Jerry Mann, Interviewed by Michael Baron.

The 5 segments of the Michael R. White interview:

Part one is here

Part two is here

Part three is here

Part four is here

Part five is here

© 2013 Jerry Mann and Teaching Cleveland Digital.

Teaching Cleveland Digital Media by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Cleveland in the 1990’s – Mike Roberts

Michael D. Roberts was a reporter for The Plain Dealer in the 1960s and covered many of the events in that decade including the Vietnam War. He later edited Cleveland Magazine for 17 years.

The .pdf is here

Cleveland in the 1990’s
By Michael D. Roberts

The decade of the 1990s arrived like the sun bursting through a winter’s gloom. Hope and optimism reigned over the region as Cleveland prepared to celebrate its two- hundredth birthday, in 1996, an event commemorating the triumph and travail of an American city in its maturity.

A sense of pride that had not been felt in years seemed to abound, and it was only right that the changes in the city should be lauded nationally with Cleveland being designated an All American City in 1993. It was the fifth time the city had won the award since 1949.

However, by 1990, the population in the city fell by 68,000 persons, or 11.9 percent in ten years to just slightly over a half- million people, dropping it to the 23rd largest city in American. Forty years earlier it had been the sixth largest city in the country.

Meanwhile, the decline brought with it a population sprawl across the region that left the original inner ring of suburbs in the early stages of decline. The sprawl in Northeast Ohio was caused by an excellent highway network, cheap gasoline, inexpensive land and a desire for suburban living. Later, a deteriorating school system in Cleveland and the movement of jobs away from the central city added to the exodus.

The sprawl now extended beyond the original ring of suburbs into a secondary grouping like Solon, Avon and Concord. It was pushing even further into an exurban grouping of scattered communities that reached beyond the bounds of Cuyahoga County.

And with the population shift went income. Between 1990 and 2000 per capita income rose from $14,601 to $22,321 in the region. In Cleveland it went from $9,258 to $14, 291. But the disparity between income in the city and the suburbs had widened by $2,687 over the last decade.

Civic and business leaders applied a new strategy to revitalizing the Cleveland. Millions had been spent on urban renewal with out appreciable success and now a different idea took shape. The idea of making Cleveland a destination city, a place that would attract visitors and in turn, stimulate downtown with some of those suburban dollars.

The set-piece of this strategy was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an idea that circulated in the early 1980s and gained such momentum that it ended up in a struggle with the New York recording interests over its location. Based on the legend that Cleveland was the cradle of rock and roll in the 1950s, the city won out in a vigorous national competition capped by a poll in USA Today that supported its selection in 1986.

Radio station WMMS—named for nine straight years by Rolling Stone as the best rock station in the nation—played a key role locally in the drive to bring the rock hall here where today it has drawn more than eight-million visitors since it opened in 1995 on the lakefront, just west of East 9th Street.

The Great Lakes Science Center was constructed next to the rock hall and other buildings like the Key Tower, the tallest building in the city, and a totally renovated Tower City, gave promise to a new downtown. No project appealed more to the future of the city than Gateway, the complex that housed a new baseball stadium and arena.

But amid the scent of progress, were whiffs of despair. After 90 years on Public Square, The May Company closed its downtown store in January of 1993.

The once proud banking house of Cleveland Trust—which was founded in 1894, weathered the Great Depression and went on to become the symbol of the city’s financial establishment—found itself burdened by bad loans in the wake of a collapsing real estate market. It was forced to merge with the venerable Society Corporation in 1991. Cleveland Trust had become Ameritrust in 1979 when it became a nationally chartered bank.

Also, there were those who warned that the financing of many projects was akin to mortgaging the city’s future because millions in tax abatements were being issued as incentives toward another effort at saving and reviving downtown. Others argued that the neighborhoods and the poverty stricken were being overlooked in the rush to promote business.

Also, there remained the ever-increasing reality of Northeastern Ohio’s place in the global community. The region was no longer an entity to itself, a citadel of manufacturing and commerce with a talented and well-paid work force. The world was shrinking as was Cleveland’s place in it.

In 1980, manufacturing in Northeastern Ohio counted for 26.3 percent of the jobs. By the end of the decade, 18.4 percent of those jobs had been lost because of the global workplace. With the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, even more manufacturing jobs bled off in the region as another 7.6 percent went by the wayside.

A national foundation survey of American manufacturing cities noted that only in Cleveland did it find executives who were virtually unanimous in blaming the city’s floundering economy on global competition.

As the 1980s began, the area hosted 12 Fortune 500 companies. In a little more than a decade, that number would dwindle to seven.

A Brookings Institute study found Cleveland lacking in entrepreneurial spirit, a condition that was first detected following the Depression when the large, surviving companies took on a conservative management style.

Another unseen dynamic that would play out later was the disappearance of the influence of the major law firms like Jones Day, Squire Sanders, and Baker Hostetler. From their inception early in the century, these firms had produced an intellectual reservoir that, in effect, could and occasionally did, act as a shadow government.

Often mayors would quietly draw upon the legal and corporate talent to assist with governmental problems. There were always special interests at stake and they often intermingled with the pro bono work of the law firm. While they continued to exist, the truth was there was less and less business here and the future lay in their offices elsewhere.

The media was in flux, too. By 1990, the area was served by only two major daily newspapers. The Akron Beacon Journal to the south of Cleveland, and The Plain Dealer in the city and the suburbs. Smaller, suburban dailies as well as a host of community weeklies existed to both the east and west.

Television had matured and found its place as a medium that could deal well with news that was easily captured visually, but it struggled with substantive issues. By now the print and electronic media had carved out their niches and attempted to service them to the reader or viewer satisfaction.

The internet had arrived, an oddity at first, but a technology so far reaching that it would not only alter global communications, but the way we lived. The traditional media—both broadcast and print—would enjoy its last decade of dominance before facing the challenge that the internet represented.

If the loss of the influence of the law firms on the city was noticeable, the loss of competition that the two newspapers generated had a palpable effect as well. The Cleveland Press, the most robust newspaper of its time, ceased publishing in 1982, leaving the market to the morning Plain Dealer.

The vacuum left by The Press generated the evolution of smaller publications that tried to fill the void. Cleveland had always been a secondary journalistic town, the two newspapers hostile to any attempt by any publication to enter the market. While other cities enjoyed an alternative press, Cleveland supported only the most sketchy efforts.

On the other hand, in the 1950s and 1960s, radio first, and then television enjoyed a national reputation from programming and providing talent that would find success in larger markets. Later the dwindling population and the impact of cable television would affect the market share that national advertisers sought, shifting their spending elsewhere.

Against this backdrop, a city struggling to reinvent itself, a victim of the global economy, with the loss of corporate and civic leadership, and a media in metamorphosis, emerged Michael Reed White, the 55th mayor of the City of Cleveland, a man destined to serve longer in that office than any predecessor and a man who, more than anything, challenged each obstacle, issue and personality he encountered.

He was clearly the dominant figure of the decade not only in the city, but the county as well. Traditionally, the mayor of Cleveland was recognized as the leading politician in Northeastern Ohio. A lot of this had to do with the city being the focal point of politics, economics and culture for the region.

While the suburban population was steadily increasing, its political clout was dispersed and unfocused as a crazy-quilt of 59 political entities existed in the county. For the past half century there had been efforts and movements to create a county or regional approach to governance. But the prevailing political forces ignored reform.

While cities, towns and villages had local governments, there existed a county government which was essentially an administrative body that collected taxes, and ran a variety of agencies and a criminal and civil court system. It was the job of three county commissioners to allocate monies to these agencies.

There were eight elected county officials who ran their offices as they saw fit. They reported to no other government official. Over time each office—the clerk of courts, the auditor, treasurer, recorder, engineer, sheriff, prosecutor, and coroner—built its own political apparatus.

This form of government was nearly 200 years–old and ill-suited for a county so complex in nature. It had no legislative capability and was prone to political manipulation with an impotent check and balance system.

Historically, the political power of city hall outmatched that of the county, and when Mike White came in office his presence was such that he was regarded as the mayor of the county.

White was the first generation of minorities to reap the full benefits of the civil rights era. Born in 1951, he grew up in Glenville in the 1960s, and proclaimed as a youth that someday he would be mayor of Cleveland. He went on to Ohio State, became the first black Student Union President and returned home to work as an assistant to Cleveland City Council before becoming the councilman for Glenville from 1978 to 1984.

While in council he became a protégé of George Forbes, who reigned as council president, and was the most prominent black political figure in the city. White later served in the Ohio Senate.

In the beginning, following his overwhelming victory in the mayor’s race over Forbes in 1989, any knowledgeable political observer, be they party member or political writer, gave White such high marks that he was thought to overshadow the legendary Carl B. Stokes, America’s first black mayor.

It was White’s turn, at 38, to consolidate those gains and further integrate black fortunes into the city while building the kind of government that would attract new businesses or at least retain jobs. The early days of his administration were marked by energy and enthusiasm. Arriving at work at 6 a.m., he impressed businessmen who saw him bounding up the city hall stairs at that early hour.

He exuded so much promise that he made the opening of his decade luminous along with the building and the visible progress that the city appeared undergoing. Articulate, passionate, intelligent, a black man representing a new generation, Mayor Mike White seemed to possess it all.

A poll taken in 1992 showed that 77 percent of whites interviewed believed that White had improved race relations in the city.

White came into office the recipient of much of the efforts that Mayor George Voinovich and Forbes had made in laying the ground work for Gateway and instilling confidence in developers like Richard Jacobs and Forest City, both of whom had made substantial investments in downtown.

White was a micromanager. And at first his efforts along these lines were both amusing and impressive. Driving to city hall he would see a pot hole and order it repaired by day’s end. He directed the erasure of graffiti and would rile against lazy municipal workers or shoddy work. He seemed to dedicate his energies to single- handedly lifting the city from its lethargy to a higher station, one that not only would exalt him, but all those who shared life here.

As time passed, it appeared that for every strength White possessed, he was cursed with a fault. His anxious nature to achieve was blunted by suppressed anger that could erupt at a moment’s notice. He would dismiss those who disagreed with him as if he were divine.

He created enemies over the merest issue, complained bitterly about the media and seemed constantly at war with the police department. Conversely, he was fiercely loyal to old friends, particularly Nate Gray, who was a life long companion and twice his best man.

The first major issue that White faced was the passage of a 15-year sin tax to underwrite the Gateway project that was to house both the professional basketball and baseball franchises. It was intended to develop the old Central Market area.

The tax was a county-wide issue. White worked hard for its passage which won by a scant 51 percent. City residents, opposing the use of public money for professional sports, voted it down. It was carried by suburban voters.

Also awaiting White was the paralyzing issue of the Cleveland school system, caught up in the throes of bussing for more than a decade. Its cost, the population drains from the city and the basic inability to educate was a burden of increasing magnitude.

By 1991, some black leaders were questioning the value of bussing. The activist Reverend Marvin McMickle asserted that white flight made bussing irrelevant, pointing out that transporting blacks cross town to sit in classrooms that were already 71 percent black made no sense. Other black leaders disagreed, but nearly everyone conceded that the schools were in disarray.

The Cleveland school board had become so politicized and contentious that its very existence was inhibiting progress. Over time, White used drastic measures on the school board, finally securing control over it by supporting a panel of candidates of his choice for office in 1993.

In his first term, the White administration had built more new houses in the city since the Korean War, talked the banks into investing $600 million in the neighborhoods and boarded up 500 drug houses in the city.

White negotiated concessions from the labor unions serving the city, and balanced the budget without raising taxes.

His critics maintained that he had done nothing for mounting unemployment and that his strident manner had created unwarranted friction in reaching his solutions, unnecessarily alienating many in the community.

The unemployment situation was at 7.5 percent in Northeastern Ohio between June of 1990 and June of 1993. Cuyahoga County lost 35,000 jobs in that period. The majority of these jobs were in the city. Later White would assert that his administration had created 10,333 jobs in the first five years of his office.

As the mayor concluded his first term, there were no serious challengers seeking to unseat him. The race in November of 1993 was one of the most inconspicuous campaigns in city history as David Lee Rock, a political unknown, told voters that he would arm the police department with submachine guns if elected. White won going away.

In December of 1993, amidst the anticipation of the opening of Gateway in the spring, Mike White made ominous mention of an unmentionable thought. There appeared to be other cities attempting to lure the Cleveland Browns from their birthplace.

There was reason to believe White’s observation. Attempts to build a new domed stadium in the 1980s had failed. Discussions dealing with the renovation of Municipal Stadium had been inconclusive, and Art Modell had shown no interest in being part of Gateway.

Modell had been one of the city’s great champions and benefactors since he bought the Browns in 1961. There was something strange afoot, but most fans could not believe that their beloved Cleveland Browns would leave town.

In the past, genuine alarm had been raised when rumors of the Cleveland Indians circulated and, on at least one occasion in the 1960s, a move to New Orleans had been cut off at the last minute. Part of the impetus for Gateway was a warning by Major League Baseball that the Indians needed a new stadium if it was to remain in Cleveland.

The National Football League had become dominated by men of means, millionaires who bought into the game as a pastime or hobby. The truth was time had by passed Art Modell. Once one of the league’s great innovators, Modell was no longer in a position to compete with these new elite owners for whom money was no object.

The pettiness of Cleveland politics had derailed efforts to build a domed stadium while other cities were erecting facilities of such magnitude that, in comparison, Municipal Stadium appeared worn and tired, a relic from the Iron Age.

Modell was aided in his deliberations by his friend, Al Lerner, who had made millions in the credit card business and came to Art’s aid by becoming an investor in his troubled holdings.

Lerner made his money in Baltimore and was now living in Cleveland. It was his desire to own a team in the NFL and he had done spade work to that end in Baltimore which had lost its team to Indianapolis in 1984.

For Cleveland’s suffering sports fans, 1995 would prove to be the best of times and the worst of times. The year started out with the task force assigned to study the Browns situation recommending that Municipal Stadium be refurbished.

On June 1, White announced that he supported a 10- percent parking tax. Five days later the Browns broke off contact with the city, Modell citing a need to give the community time to collect its thoughts and study its resources.

Sports fans continued to follow the story unaware of the impending doom. They were distracted by the fact that the Cleveland Indians for the first time since 1954 played in the World Series, though they would lose in six games to the Atlanta Braves.

Finally, in order to head off the possibility of a news leak, Modell announced on November 6 that the Browns were moving to Baltimore. The news came on election eve with the sin-tax extension on the ballot. It passed the next day by 72 percent. It was too late.

In the aftermath of the announcement, there was an outcry of anger and chagrin unlike heard here before. And no one was angrier than the angry man himself, Mike White.

White’s resulting denouncement of Modell and the NFL shook the football world and almost immediately guaranteed the city a replacement team, although the mayor fought to keep the Browns with threats and lawsuits and every form of intimidation that he could muster.

But White’s ceaseless attacks put the league in a position that it had to move quickly and decisively in placating the Cleveland fans with the offer of an expansion team in 1999, after a new stadium was built.

There will always be the lingering question as to why the stadium was built on the site of Municipal Stadium which occupied prime lakefront land. Many ask whether the city had once more missed an opportunity to develop its waterfront into vibrant and attractive location.

There had been six sites proposed and a commission selected by Mayor White chose the existing stadium location because the city already owned the land and construction could be completed in time for the 1999 football season. It would also be assured to be built while White was in office.

From the beginning, the construction of the stadium was a continuous controversy as overruns drove the cost of the facility over $300 million. At least that is what White reported to a skeptical city council two years after the stadium opened. As one reporter who tried to pin down the overruns, which were greater than Gateway, claimed it maybe that the true cost of the building might never be known.

The right to play in that stadium was won by Al Lerner who spent $530 million for an NFL expansion team, outbidding a half-dozen groups who vied for the franchise. White had endorsed Lerner. The Browns were back, but it would never be the same.

In July of 1996, the city paused to celebrate its 200th birthday, the exact day being July 22. A committee that had formed in 1992 managed to raise $80-million to spend on events and projects. The city was alive with concerts and festive gatherings. A lakefront trolley connecting Gateway with the North Coast Harbor was opened and the city’s bridges were festooned with lights giving a spectacular glow to the night. A plan was unveiled to plant 10,000 trees in the city over the next year.

White had promised Clevelanders that he would create a police department of some 2,000 officers, an increase of 500 officers. Crime was a problem in Cleveland, as it was in many urban areas, and as with other challenging issues he faced, White attempted to deal with if forcefully.

The Cleveland Police Department is virtually a culture to itself. It is also at the edge of the city, the sharp edge where the streets get mean, the duty dangerous and the hair-trigger nature of race is a trip wire.

When White took office, the city’s crime rate was beginning to climb after dropping in the 1980s. In 1990, there were 4,917 robberies, 3,259 assaults, 171 murders, a total of more than 9,000 violent crimes. During his years in office, crime steadily dropped despite a continuous change of police chiefs, eight in all.

A central concern of the business community was the access to Cleveland by air. It was thought that some of the companies that moved to other cities had done so because flights out of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport were limited. The global economy was again pressing the region to react to its requirements. The airport facilities needed expansion and new runways.

Hopkins had been the first city-owned airport when it was built in 1925. Over the years, the airport’s development languished, and the city was threatened with the loss of a major airline hub unless it improved. The problem was that Hopkins was land-locked and any expansion would require negotiations with suburbs.

White began a series of talks with Brook Park Mayor Thomas Coyne, who would lose neighborhoods in any expansion. The negotiations between the two mayors over the $528-million project ran an emotionally charged gamut beginning in 1992, both men belligerent in support of their positions.

In executing White’s airport expansion plan, the city became locked in a lawsuit with the City of Brook Park over the IX Center, which was located in that city and provided tax revenue to the municipality. Cleveland lost the legal battle to acquire the center, which sat in the way of runway expansion.

It took four years of litigation and failed negotiations before an agreement was reached in August of 1996 that enabled the airport to build a new runway, expand an existing one and create a taxiway out of yet another. The agreement preserved the IX Center for the time being.

In 2001, after reopening negotiations with Brook Park, Cleveland bought the IX Center for $66.5 million, twice what the next bidder offered, the deal included a land swap with Brook Park. The purchase of the exhibition hall would result in the 2005 conviction of Ricardo Teamor, one of the mayor’s confidants. Teamor later was sentenced to prison for bribing city councilman Joe Jones and confessed to paying kickbacks for city contracts.

When the administration’s attention shifted back to the airport, so did the omnipresent shadow of Nate Gray who became involved with airport parking. Several things enabled him to weave his special interest into the fabric of major projects in which the city engaged.

While it reported the news from city hall, The Plain Dealer failed to investigate the emerging suspicions over the conduct of city affairs. There was an internal conflict in the way The Plain Dealer went about its business. On the one hand, the publisher, Alex Machaskee, liked to court power, particularly city hall, and that very implication sent a message to the reporting staff to tread lightly.

Mike White used this situation to drive a wedge between the publisher and the editor. In doing so, he changed the culture of the newspaper in 1999 when a new editor, Doug Clifton from Knight-Ridder, began to bring outsiders to staff the newspaper.

The coverage of city hall intensified and the tension between the newspaper and city hall magnified.

The other failure was that of the county prosecutor’s office by now thoroughly politicized and blind to public corruption. More than one prosecutor would argue that the office did not possess the resources to combat white collar crime. Yet, it never made an effort to gain those resources.

Six years into his tenure, White drew increased attention from the media. The Plain Dealer reported that the turnover at city hall under White was running twice that of the Voinovich administration. Some 45 persons had departed the administration. By this time, he had gone through four police chiefs and four fire chiefs.

Shrugging off increasing criticism from the city council and the media, White sought a third term in office. Despite his drop in popularity, there was no political figure that was a serious threat to White. Councilwoman Helen Smith stepped forward to offer some opposition, but lost by some 25,000 votes.

In the always problematic school system, the mayor had not only positioned his candidates on the school board to gain control of a situation replete with problems, but sought to have the state legislature grant him the power to have city hall take over the operation of the entire school system.

In July of 1998, White took over responsibility of the troubled school system with its $600-million budget and implemented new leadership and reforms. It was a burden so immense that even the toughest task master found the path toward achievement littered with obstacles.

From 1990 until White left office in 2001, the Cleveland schools had seven changes in its top leadership which illustrated the chaos in which the system was operating. His selection of Barbara Byrd-Bennett in 1998 temporary halted the turnover as she lasted as the system’s chief operating office until February 2006.

Instability became the hallmark of a school system in dire need of help. The instability, in fact, seemed at times to be contagious in the city.

It struck the Flats in 2000. The Flats had gained a regional reputation as an entertainment spot that drew visitors from adjacent states. To sit in one of the waterside bars during a summer evening and watch the boats dock, four and five deep, alongside the restaurants was one of the city’s joys.

One public official described the Flats as “Cleveland’s front door.” The problem was that the throngs of thousands of visitors were not accompanied by needed security.

The alcohol and proximity of the river resulted in several drownings each summer and assaults became synonymous with the revelry.

White ordered the police department to crack down on the clubs in the Flats. Fire and health code violations began to close clubs. Some bar owners saw racial overtones in the police enforcement as city hall complained that minorities were not being treated equally in the operations in the Flats.

Slowly, what had been a showcase for the region went dark.

And then in a surprising move, on April 23, 2001, Mike White announced at Miles Standish School—where he was once a student—that he would not seek a fourth term. He said he had done what he had come to do and would never again run for public office.

Even his most severe critics acknowledged that White’s achievements were impressive. He built stadiums, expanded the airport, set an ailing school system on a new path, built housing and brought jobs to the city. It was not perfect. City Hall finances were a mess and under a state audit.

But history would not offer a satisfying conclusion for the man who was mayor longer than anyone else, and clearly one of the best.

Four years after White left office, a shadow descended over the record of his administration. In a packed courtroom in the Carl B. Stokes Federal Courthouse overlooking the Flats, Nate Gray, White’s best man, friend and confidant was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay $1.5-million in taxes for his role in public corruption.

White was adamant in telling reporters that the case was about Nate Gray and not Mike White.

The media would find this not to be true.

It was White who was the target of the investigation. The affidavit that the FBI submitted for the federal court’s permission to wire tap suspects was a sealed document, meaning it was illegal for the media to possess, let alone publish it which happened.

The FBI affidavit asked for the wire taps in order to investigate former Mayor Michael White. He was never indicted. Nate Gray refused to cooperate with federal lawyers and served more time in jail where he remains (as of 2012).

Authorities found that Gray had deposited $13.4 million in his bank account during the 12 years of the White administration.

It was a dark ending to a decade that had begun with such promise and held so much achievement. Mike White retired to raise alpacas on a farm in Newcomerstown, Ohio, in Tuscarawas County. He rarely makes public appearances and almost never deals with the media.

Undeterred, the city moved into another century with many old problems still lingering and even more beginning to fester. It was time for new leadership and new challenges. And in time there would be more corruption in public office which would lead to startling developments.

The final chapter: “Cleveland in the 2000s” by Mike Roberts is here