Forbes clearly dominated Cleveland politics for most of two decades – 1970s and 1980s – that coincided with my time at City Hall. He was a figure who commanded attention. He so controlled civic affairs that he had to be the central focus of any reporter’s work in this period.
He became what he would consider a target of my coverage. My means of comment was a small bi-weekly newsletter. He became a central theme. So much so that when he decided not to run again he let me know that it would affect my ability to make a living. “Sheeeet, you won’t be able to eat now,” he said in his pithy street talk. Meaning: Losing him as a target no one would want to read me. Actually, I lasted a decade without him.
But he never totally left my sights.
Forbes – a Democrat by party but a Corporatist in ruling – maintained a dominant hold over big decisions at Cleveland City Hall. What made it crucial was the fact that most major public building projects here were constructed in Cleveland. Legislation had to pass through City Council. Forbes stood at the door. You had to have his pass to move. And everyone knew it.
He is/was the kind of Democrat that unfortunately has given government – because of attention to special interests instead of the needs of most people – a bad name. His kind of special interest politics, as with the County corruption officials, sours many on government.
He may have changed Cleveland history. He took office in 1974 and served through 1989. It was the city’s steepest decline in this era. The city’s population went from 750,000 in 1970 to 505,000 in 1990. We can’t blame him alone for that but along with the city’s elite he was a contributing factor.
Had Carl Stokes remained in town, Cleveland politics may not have taken such a corporate turn. Stokes, who left the city for New York City after his second term (1971), was not enamored with the Cleveland corporate community, especially at the end of his tenure. Stokes exhibited a progressive and civil rights attitude toward issues.
Forbes, in contrast, went into business with those who often needed favors from city hall. He was a partner with James Carney, a mayoral candidate and millionaire Democratic party boss in the 1970s; Pete Boyas, the refuse king (Forbes once eliminated an entire city department to rid Boyas of Lisa Thomas who gave Boyas problems); Jim Stanton, a former Council President; and the Rzepkas, Fred, Peter and Harry. His law firm represented GSX, the tenants at a public housing project and even the city’s Board of Education.
He directed two super subsidy gifts to Dick Jacobs worth more than $250 million, though one was never completed. He came later to represent Jacobs. (Jacobs showed up before Forbes with one project worth $120-million in abatements with a model carried in a black garbage bag. Exiting the meeting Jacobs dodged reporters and cameras. His son Jeff – to deter me from stopping him fleeing the media – bumped me along the corridor wall complaining that I should leave his father alone since he was old. Not that much older than I was.)
Ethics never seemed a problem at Cleveland City Hall, as it did (only later) at the County.
Of course, many of these reports didn’t make it to the Plain Dealer – a distortion of city history and events to the detriment of ordinary people. The distortions continue today via a self-censorship that deforms our public life.
Forbes, as you will see, could be kind but also brutal.
It was difficult sometimes to determine what Forbes’s motives were. One week in 1986 when he saw the need to quell unrest and exert control over City Council he used brute force to intimidate.
He openly mocked several Voinovich cabinet members – Gary Conley, economic development director, Hunter Morrison, city planner, and a private architect. They were before Council to present a waterfront development plan. (How often we’ve heard that?)
“You’ve got to give us a better presentation than you’ve done thus far… Draw more pictures,” said Forbes mockingly. “Put a little more red. That black looks like red. I’d like to see more red,” he said, laughing.
Conley, a mild, hard-worker, Forbes was cruel. “Take your thumb out of your nose and answer,” he told Conley, whose face reddened but he took the abuse as so many did.
As typical with bullying, however, it takes someone to talk back.
It was Jeff Johnson, now a Councilman, who in this particular week of troubled hearings, spoke back. The issue seems almost unbelievable today. Johnson wanted to take the lead on legislation to inaugurate the 911 emergency call system.
Johnson told Forbes he was “unfair” to take the legislation away from the safety committee. The room immediately quieted.
To blunt the criticism, Forbes went on the attack: “You don’t come to council meetings. You’ve got the worse record down here. I warned you prior to the meeting yesterday. You choose not to come here (actually he had been at the meeting but walked out). Now you’re not going to sit here and tell me what happened and did not happen here when you were lollygagging around…now that ends the conversation.”
But it didn’t. Johnson returned fire, very unusual at the time for a Council member, especially a black member.
“You are not going to make accusations about my lollygagging on my job… when I’m here 24 hours a day and not in a law firm over in the Rockefeller (George’s law offices). Don’t tell me I’m lollygagging when I’m working for my people.”
Then he attacked Forbes for his one-man rule. It might have been the first rumble that led to the demise of Forbes as Council boss. Three years later he knew he couldn’t continue to be President. He had overextended his stay. We need that Jeff Johnson today.
Forbes would never write a book about his life. But he deserves an author’s book-length look to reveal his talents as a political master. It would be a big part of the history of Cleveland into the 21st Century.
My version of that history is journalistic. It was not in my talent to sit down with him and report his version of what he was doing. I don’t think either of us could have had the kind of relationship. That would be in large part my failure but circumstances certainly ruled against such an association.
Events, however, decided that we had a connection.
We became unnecessarily and inextricably bound in 1981 when then Standard Oil of Ohio (SOHIO, later BP) wanted to build a new headquarter building on Public Square in downtown Cleveland. Forbes called an unusual breakfast meeting of Council at the Bond Court hotel. It was held in a small room with some 25 members. Media were allowed access for a short time as members assembled. Then Forbes ordered reporters and TV cameras and photographers to leave.
I said to Gary Clark, covering for the Plain Dealer, I believe this is a public meeting and I would not leave. He concurred. Others left. Forbes approached us with the admonition that we had to leave. He addressed Clark, asking him to leave. I remember saying something to the effect that it was a public meeting. Forbes angrily said he wasn’t talking to me. I responded to the effect that I was talking to him! This was as good as a red flag to a bull. He essentially picked me up and gave me a toss toward the door. His mistake was that he had placed photographers and TV cameras outside at the door. The Cleveland Press used an 8 by 8 inch Tim Culek photo on its front page that afternoon. It was the lead item on both channels 3 and 8 that night.
It looked much more violent than it was. But it was the only visible evidence of Forbes’s celebrated volatility available. Therefore, it was used, especially during his quest for mayor. Ch 8, I remember, even warned parents that they might want to get their children out of viewing range as they prepared to show the action.
Forbes told a PD reporter that he did exactly what I wanted him to do. Wrong. I expected Forbes would call hotel security; we would then be ushered out having made our point that he was closing what should have been a public open meeting. Indeed, the Cleveland Press asking whether I would sue Forbes for the attack. I said no.
Although I have no evidence I believe the meeting might have been called to prepare Council for a vote of tax abatement for the new Public Square building. Sohio had a tax abatement granted in 1977 for its original site behind Terminal Tower. That abatement was made during the Ralph Perk administration. Dennis Kucinich had it tested when he took office but it was ruled legally binding. It’s possible the bad publicity of the altercation deterred city leaders from extending the abatement to the new location. I checked five years later to assess the revenue from the building and what difference it might have made. Taxes paid, after five years, totaled $17.7 million!
Years later Forbes asked me to speak at a class he taught at Baldwin-Wallace. Someone had given me a copy of the Press photo enlarged to 14 inches wide and 12 inches deep. I took it to the class and began by telling the students I wanted them to see another side of their professor. George was able to laugh and ordered the photo to be passed around the room. It was difficult, if not impossible, to shame him.
As the years passed at Council I made a point of sitting in the front row of the public seating section at Council hearings, avoiding places set aside for the news media. I made a point of sitting in the center seat where I was directly faced off with Forbes. He was chairman of the Finance Committee. He sat at the committee’s center at hearings on Monday. All legislation had to make its course through Finance to reach the floor for final approval as law.
Monday afternoons often provided a great show by a sometimes playful, often dictatorial, always in command George Forbes.
I tried to describe it back in 1985. I said it was the best show in town. And free!
“The best – and longest running – show in downtown Cleveland isn’t at Playhouse Square. It’s at Cleveland City Hall.
“Every Monday afternoon 2 p. m. starting time, George Forbes performs. He’s been doing the one-man show for more than 10 years. No one has kept track of how many performances there have been, but the price remains right – admission is free.
“I never miss my Monday’s with George,” I wrote in the Cleveland Edition.
“On January 14, he gave a rare performance. He was playing humble, and we all know how hard that’s got to be. Even George seemed a bit uncomfortable in the role.
“Image usually isn’t of much concern to the president of council, a 21-year veteran of that legislative body and for more than 10 years its dominant leader.
“But on Monday Forbes was reacting to a new threat – an attack by a black political leader with equal status. Municipal Court Chief Judge and former Mayor Carl Stokes. Stokes had left Cleveland to be a newsman/anchor in New York City after he refused to run for re-election when his two terms ended in 1971. Forbes had re-allied himself with white Democrats – Tony Garofoli, Jim Stanton and James Carney, Sr. Stokes found himself on his return odd man out.
“Stokes publicly attacked Forbes as a ‘foul-mouth, un-regenerated politician of the most despicable sort and I think he ought to be out of office.”
Wow. From a former political ally. This was a sharp attack from someone who could really hurt Forbes. Stokes also added that he thought Forbes was using his position to get benefits for friends and himself. Stokes believed Forbes via his brother Zeke was the source of rumors involving a past incident too involved to describe. You can find it here at the CSU site of all my POV issues: http://images.ulib.csuohio.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/roldo/id/354/rec/158.
For Forbes watchers you could discern his mood quite easily. He adjusts it from playful to angry, charming or threatening as he sees the need.
That day I knew he was using the playful tactic. “Roldo, how come you’re sitting on that side of the room?” he said to me and to his audience. It wasn’t similar to the last time he addressed me before an audience. At that time it was you’re “a first class asshole.” He added, “You don’t mean shit to me.” (He later apologized. In typical Forbes fashion, coming up behind me, telling the Police Chief to arrest me before a guttural laugh and a hand shake. That’s my George.)
But in calling out to me in friendly fashion, he was playing a different game. A game of soft sculpturing his image.
As one person appeared before him that day it wasn’t just business as usual. “How’s your mother doin?” He reminisced a bit and told the man, “Give her my love.” Now where did that charge of “foul-mouthed” come from? It was his way of countering the Stokes attack.
Many wondered how a man who angered so many could maintain his power. For one thing, Forbes always played the racial game. He was elected by an essentially all-black ward. So his base was small but his power great because of the times. He was using tactics long employ by white ethnics in Cleveland. He probably hurt himself, however, as he hosted a radio show on WERE. Here his racial taunts were heard city-wide. White West Siders remembered in 1989.
I wrote in 1987 that “A good deal of the reason Forbes’ power grows and endures has to do with the nature of the city in the 1960s and since, a period of economic decline, conflict, riots and flight from the city.”
I also wrote at that time that “George Forbes is passé’ but nobody has noticed yet.” They did two years later when he was forced to run for mayor and was eventually defeated by Michael White, his former henchman in Council. His time as Council dictator had come near to the end as a few Council members – Dan Brady and Jeff Johnson in particular – stood up to call the Emperor naked. Then Forbes had to leave his comfortable one ward and run city wide. It was his political death warrant. His years of playing racial politics doomed him.
Forbes and White, long allies, avoided indictment on a deal with the Cleveland schools and the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority. Forbes was Council President and White headed the community development committee at the time. They bought into a deal investing $50,000 to redo with federal funds two Cleveland schools. I wrote some seven years later, “There were huge sighs of relief all around town when the news came that Mayor Michael White wasn’t going to be prosecuted in a case that involved his investment in a project that had public subsidies.” I noted, “Also escaping prosecution was former council president George Forbes, a principal in the Carnival scandals of the late 1970s.”
Forbes was represented in the carnival case by Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, gratis. The Forbes law firm was also receiving $50,000 in legal business from Conrail via Squire-Sanders, lawyers for Conrail and CEI. He was so indebted that he called James C. Davis, Squires managing partner, the “Great White Father.”
Forbes showed his gratitude during the city’s anti-trust trial against CEI. He expressed “no confidence” in the city’s lawyer when the case was to be retried after the first trial ended in a hung jury. Squire-Sanders represented CEI.
Voinovich at the time was claiming the city didn’t have the money to pursue the trial. He was saying that it was up to City Council to make the decision. As usual, tossing the ball to Forbes.
Forbes, especially during the Voinovich Administration, kept control of Council members by retaining the power to divvy up, year after year, money to social groups, churches, social agencies and community development corporations. (It got so that Forbes was considered the power at city hall that Voinovich in a meeting with PD editors in 1989 reacted, pounding the table, exclaiming, “I am a leader, damn it, I am a leader.”)
“Under Forbes and Mayor George Voinovich, who reinforces Forbes’ power, (Voinovich allows) him authority over matters that should be the mayor’s prerogative. The city has spent or contracted to spend $33.3 million on sidewalks and curbs,” I wrote about Forbes use of federal funds to pour cement. In a city heavy with poverty this sidewalk program resembled the equivalent of a Roman circus for the people. Council members and their constituents seemed to think something free had been bestowed upon them from above. Cement contractors, of course, were generous campaign donor to Council’s political fund. Forbes tightly controlled the fund, generous to loyal members, freezing out others.
It was a mark of the business establishment that Forbes continued year after year. It followed an old political strategy of having to go to only one person to get what you needed or wanted from City Hall. George was their man.
So he got away with a lot. A very lot.
Let’s run over a few.
It was 1987. George put on a show of shows. I got tipped off by a Council member who had some inside insight into the moves.
It involved a parking deal for land that would fit the needs of Joe Cole, a businessman who bought the dying Cleveland Press, and developer John Ferchill. It involved city owned land behind the old Cleveland Press property. The Cleveland Press died, in great part, for that land. It had more value than the afternoon newspaper. Cole was the recipient of that benefit.
I happened to be in the outer Council offices when in walked a short, rotund, dapperly dressed man. It was Joe Cole.
“Where’s George Forbes’ office?” he asked sternly. “Sir, you’ll have to see his secretary,” said Councilwoman Fannie Lewis, unusually polite for her. She happened to be standing by.
Cole should have been happy this day. The U. S. Justice Department ruled – despite much evidence to the contrary – that he would not be indicted in the case involving the suspicious sale of Cleveland Press assets to the Newhouse interests, owners of the PD. It was a classic anti-trust case that the U. S. Justice Department thwarted rather than pursued.
Instead, Cole was upset. He had reason. The year before Cole had given Forbes $3,250 and his wife gave $3,000, for his Council campaign fund.
Now, Forbes shot holes in Cole’s desire to grab some city land behind North Point, the building constructed on the dead carcass of the Press. Cole needed city land for a parking facility to service his office building.
I wrote at the time that Forbes had been puffing smoke screen after smoke screen to hide his true interest in Cole’s parking deal.
This all took place at a meeting on the city land in the Finance Committee in June 1987. Forbes chaired the committee.
He first vented that he might open for free parking all city-owned parking facilities to counter private parking lot operators. A fake threat. Then he railed about the “prime” nature of the land that Cole and Ferchill wanted.
That wasn’t enough pressure on the two. He then started attacking the law firm of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, the city’s leading law firm, and Cole’s tenant. He claimed the parking facility promoters were dictating the height of the parking facility. Why? To give the hot shot lawyers a perfect view of Lake Erie, Forbes theorized.
“The Council,” said Forbes, “is not wed to a building below the window of the managing partner (who at the time was Dick Pogue). We’re not here to give him a clear view of the lake. You understand me?” He was haranguing Lee Kohrman of Kohrman, Jackson & Weiss. What most didn’t know was the Kohrman was a friend. His partner Bob Jackson acted at times as Forbes’s personal lawyer. In fact, George’s son in law was working at the Kohrman firm. Kohrman was so close to George that the Council President, as a volunteer host, pledged $1,000 for Kohrman at a WCPN fund-raiser.
Forbes also was unusually testy with Ferchill. Ferchill, sitting in the audience, was getting frustrated at Forbes’s delaying tactics. He tried to speak.
“If I was you,” he said to Ferchill, “I’d let my lawyer do the talking,” adding to drive home his message, “I’d appreciate you taking the advice.” It wasn’t a hint, it was a command. Ferchill understood and went silent.
Forbes continued about the land’s value. It was very valuable, he said.
Indeed, Forbes was making as if he were the guardian of the city’s interests, countering a nice deal given Cole and Ferchill by Voinovich.
Why was Forbes acting seemingly in the public interest? It wasn’t about the public interest, that’s for sure.
Forbes wanted his deal with Cole and Ferchill. He was using his public office to browbeat private developers into hiring a certain parking facility firm. He wanted to direct the business to a parking firm he represented. System Parking.
I later called Joel Cole (no relation to Joe Cole) of System Parking. He was close to Forbes. Indeed, Forbes had also pledge $1,000 to WCPN for Joel Cole during the same fund-raiser at WCPN as he did Kohrman. Forbes was making a big hit of himself at WCPN pledging $1,000 for others, including John and Michael Climaco, Sam Miller and Al Ratner and Ray Park. He raised $27,000 for the radio station in four hours. He also had signaled his business alliances.
“This has been good for me…It’s the kind of thing that makes you grow… I’m glad I’ve been able to help you,” Forbes told his WCPN host. George was helping his image and that of his friends. Generous George.
I asked the parking lot owner if he were represented legally by George Forbes’ law firm. Joel said, “Not personally.” Well, your firm then? “Yes,” he said and told me that he had met subsequently with Ferchill about the parking facility deal. He got the deal.
Here was a perfect example of using one’s office for one’s own benefit.
“Forbes is so duplicitous that nothing he says can be taken as an honest statement by a public official speaking for the public interest,” I wrote at the time.” Did it even need to be said?
Ferchill also showed up in another deal that gives some suggestion of just how labyrinthine the politics can be at City Hall.
This transaction involved a financially troubled, federally insured building. Ferchill was transferring ownership oddly enough to the city’s housing rehabilitation top official – Chuck Ramsey. Ramsey, though he denied it when asked, was known around City Hall as a relative by marriage to none other than George Forbes. He was also considered by some to have the “protection” of Forbes. In those days that was a mantle that paid dividends.
Ramsey gave the Voinovich city community development director Vince Lombardi many problems. In 1981, Ramsey was given poor marks for his work in housing rehabilitation. In 1983 Lombardi suspended Ramsey for three days for misleading him. That could have been a label hiding many things. In 1985, he was suspended again for seven working days for submitting “false weekly reports” as chief of housing and rehabilitation. A spotty record, indeed.
Not mottled enough, however, for Ramsey to get bypassed by people who did business with the city. Maybe Ferchill and later Dick Jacobs didn’t know of his poor city work record.
I wrote at the time: “City rehabilitation commissioner Charles “Chuck” Ramsey has notified Ferchill that he no longer wants to own a corporation that Ferchill turned over to Ramsey, apparently at no financial outlay. The corporation – known as the East 86th-Chatham, Inc. – has as its main asset a brick, 18-unit building on East 86th Street.”
A member of Forbes law firm represented Ramsey during this messy affair. Both city and federal offices had cited the building owners for failure to make repairs necessary for health and safety reasons.
Ramsey, it was said by his lawyer, was going to take the apartments, fix them up and donate them to his church. Oh, dear. Instead, the city’s law department was taking its chief officer in charge of rehabilitation of housing to court. Voinovich officials were highly distressed and called the situation an “embarrassment” to Ramsey (don’t think so), the community development director and the Voinovich administration.
“Suspicious people might question why Ferchill would give a building to Ramsey and what aspect of the legal dealings involved Forbes’ law firm,” I wrote at the time.
Ferchill and others were involved in attempts to take control of the Cleveland school’s historic administration building and to obtain rights to a cable franchise in Cleveland at the time.
Ramsey would figure into another bigger deal that smelled foul.
George Forbes’s very good friend, Dick Jacobs, gave a $1 million in contacts to Ramsey. The contracts were given at the very project that gave Jacobs the biggest subsidy in the city’s history – for the Society Center (now Key Bank) on the north of Public Square. Of course, Forbes headed the Council that bestowed these gifts, worth more than $100-million, upon Jacobs.
Ramsey received contracts from Jacobs for asbestos removal, $100,000. He also received other subcontracts for $332,275, $90,000 and $795,210.
At the time, August 1989, Forbes was running for Mayor, I wrote:
“Curiously, despite his impoverished public record, Ramsey finds himself holding an honor from the city’s top developer, those supposedly illustriously brilliant businessmen – the brothers Richard and David Jacobs.
“Ramsey has been awarded more than $1-million in contracts for asbestos removal, demolition and construction for the Society Center project, the subsidy-soaked Public Square development for Society Bank and Squire, Sanders & Dempsey.” (Later became Key Center).
“Even the least suspicious among us might have to scratch our heads when the Jacobses – out of all the minority contractors to select from – pick such a poor and inexperienced candidate as Ramsey for a $1 million plus job on the biggest project in the city’s history.
“One has to wonder why Ramsey was selected for these big contracts,” I wrote in 1989.
My headline in the second issue of the 22nd year, August 1989 read: “Jacobs’s $1-million pact to ex city commissioner” with a subhead: “Forbes link looms.”
Nothing ever appeared in the Plain Dealer about the hiring by Jacobs.
Nor did anything appear in the PD on another questionable deal during the height of the 1989 political campaign for Mayor.
Here’s how my lead read: “Mayoral candidate George Forbes has involved his law firm – Forbes, Forbes & Teamor – in another ethically suspect deal that once again raises the serious question of his ability to separate his public duty from his private financial interests.”
The case involved property needed for the construction of a new $11.5 million headquarter facility for the Red Cross. Not even the Red Cross was safe.
Forbes’ client owned property was bought at $46,500 in 1980. An appraisal put the market value at $150,000 at the time the Red Cross needed the land for its new headquarters. The owner originally asked for $1 million for the property. Tenants included a “run down” bar and a convenience store.
The Voinovich administration had legislation to establish a community development plan that would enable the Red Cross to acquire the land at a fair market value.
“That legislation apparently was held up by Forbes to benefit his firm’s client,” I wrote.
“The legislation, according to city officials, was ready for months before it finally was heard by the city’s finance committee, headed by Forbes, at the final session before summer recess.
“When it finally did come before the finance committee, Forbes, in an unusual move, quietly absented himself from the vote, saying quietly that his law firm was involved,” I wrote in September 1989.
The only reason it got that far was at the insistence of the administration. “The mayor wanted it,” a city official told me.
“Games were being played, I’m sure,” the official told me. Forbes wasn’t the owner’s original lawyer. His firm became the owner representative when it was clear city legislation was necessary.
Forbes’ run for mayor in 1989 was a desperate attempt to keep his hold on power.
I wrote what I considered the essence of Forbes’s campaign in October, 1989 with this headline: “‘Fuck You’ Campaign.” In it I wrote: “But it’s also likely that people don’t want to hear anymore about Forbes. They just want their chance to vote for or against him. They’ve made up their minds and turned off on anything more about him.” The headline got me some flak but also recognition that it correctly summed up Forbes’s approach. He wasn’t bowing to anyone. He was what he was. Take it or leave it.
Despite all the harsh words and critical material I wrote about George Forbes he never complained. Only once did he even seek to influence what I was going to write.
It caused somewhat of a stir. Forbes ruled imperiously from his high roost at the Monday evening Council meetings. His seating throne was perched high above the chairs of legislators and administration figures. He was always well-dressed. The historic chamber has majesty of its own. Behind the throne was a rich wall painting depicting Cleveland’s history with figures of the various working people of the city. Forbes, tall and thin stature, further accented his dominance over others. At times he would motion for a member to come to him. It gave whoever was summoned an extra feel of importance. You could see that they enjoyed being summoned by the king.
One Monday evening he motioned to me to come up. I was obviously surprised. So were others. Our differences were well known so it attracted curiosity among the 20 other Council members, reporters and others in attendance.
As I said it was the only time Forbes made a request of me. He knew I was working on an article about a nursing home in which he had a financial interest. The business, however, was under his wife’s – Mary – name. Forbes didn’t want his wife hurt by whatever I was to write. I could promise him only that the facts would determine what I wrote.
The nursing home had problems. The article noted comments of a public official. “If one of my parents had been at the nursing home, I’d have taken a baseball bat to city hall and broken both his legs.” The statement was made by County Commissioner Tim Hagan of Forbes.
The condition of a number of elderly patients was truly horrible with open sores and foul odors noted in documents. The nursing home was shut down.
I wrote: “But now, several years after the opening, the facility stands empty and vacant. There are no jobs and no patients being cared for. And the U. S. Housing and Urban Development Dept (HUD) had to pay off bondholders to the tune of $5,391,136.
Forbes wants to wash his hands of the mess because Mary, it has been said, left the partnership in 1985. The partnership shares were in her name but no one can doubt that the investment was George’s. The shares held were 1 percent of the general partnership and 19 percent of the limited partnership.”
It would be no surprise to many that George Forbes was my principal target for many years.
He wasn’t always treated badly by me, however.
One column I wrote in 1989, about the end of his career at City Hall, actually upset Bill Gunlocke, publisher of the Cleveland Edition where it appeared. He remarked that the column would confuse readers who were used to me writing damaging material about Forbes.
But no one is all bad and no one is all good.
The column headline read: “He Has Been So Good At It.”
Here’s what I said:
There was barely a tear on anyone’s cheek when Council President George Forbes told his colleagues that – after 25 years as a member and 15 years as president – he was leaving them.
It was the first time Forbes had said so in a public setting.
In the past, he had hinted, rumored, and planted with news reporters, his intention to leave Council.
It got so he was no longer believable.
But here it was this time in the open, stated flatly (and some still have trouble believing.)
“I choose not to run again. This is my decision. I’m not going to run again. I’ve been here 26 years. I’m going to leave,” Forbes said a week ago at a committee hearing.
His manner of making the dramatic, official announcement was typically Forbes.
Almost shy and retiringly, Forbes took the opportunity for the announcement in an oblique aside to a statement about transition of duties.
No staged event, no formality, no press conference.
“It’s a very technical job, running Council,” Forbes said in a statement that cautioned that members should start preparing for an orderly transition.
Forbes, in an aside, suggested that five or six members begin meeting weekly to form the new coalition of power. Presumably, Forbes will pick the five or six.
Forbes has so dominated that portion for the last decade and a half that it is difficult to imagine a replacement.
As Council boss, Forbes has engendered a mixture of strong emotions from friends and foes alike.
In many ways he represents an ageless traditional politics dedicated to a simple axiom. Reward one’s friends and punish one’s enemies. And don’t forget yourself.
Maybe his fault has been he has been so good at it.
Certainly, his outrageous antics -physically tossing reporters out of meetings, wielding a chair against a colleague, abusive treatment of people who come before him at Council, uncalled for street language in public, and the raw use of power for rather base reasons – have cast Forbes often as Public Enemy No. l.
Yet for all his disreputable activities, he commands a certain respect, even admiration, for his sheer ability to lead and to dominate as he sees fit.
In an era when we complain about unseen manipulators using marketing and polls to lean there candidates at just the correct angle on any issue, there’s a refreshing vigor to Forbes’ methods of using his own instincts and, yes, even raw emotions to guide him, I wrote.
It is this genuineness – as compared to the franchised, market-tested, poll-proofed, standard brand politics – that makes Forbes more real, more human than most politicians.
If you sit through enough Finance Committee meetings where Forbes each Monday performs you will see that he sometimes reveals his human vulnerabilities with self-deprecating humor.
It is the quality of ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get.’ It sets him apart in a business that expects pretense as a matter of course.
There are times when Forbes also seems to reach back into his memory of where he came from and that repository triggers a visceral reaction against injustice, racism and poverty.
It is both an endearing quality of the man and a sad reminder of what could have been had he used those talents another way.
There are times Forbes will go out of his way to make what might be a small adjustment to a single person that compared with the everyday weight of injustice might not be much, but it attest to that something in Forbes that people see and wish they could experience more.
It might be someone he thinks should be getting more money, as with one such person he quizzed about his pay at a Finance meeting, making the strong suggestion that the city worker was underpaid.
Sometime later, Forbes saw the man at the table again and the question of salary came up again. It was clear that the administration had made the adjustment Forbes thought in order.
City employees can make politician look good by responding to their needs but rarely does the public have knowledge of them or their work. Forbes can be sensitive to this neglect.
Never was that more evident than with former water pollution commissioner Sal Navarro, an Italian immigrant who rose through the ranks as a dedicated worker. He was retiring in part because of illness.
Forbes spotted him with his wife in the audience just after his retirement, kidded him about having no longer to take 3 a.m. calls from Council members. He stopped the meeting to single Navarro out, paying him a warm tribute that would be hard for any person to forget.
Forbes can pull this off with charm and humor but he unfortunately can use other tactics that often shroud this side of the man.
Unlike Dick Nixon, Forbes didn’t tell us that we in the media won’t have him to kick around.
Maybe I did go a bit too heavy on the nostalgia, as Gunlocke felt.
How then do you explain the news that at 83 years of age Forbes consents to be the grand marshal of the Gay Parade? The Plain Dealer reported:
“His passion, compassion, and professional commitment to equal rights for African-Americans are legendary,” Todd Saporito, board president/CEO of Cleveland Pride said of Forbes in a news release. “His entire professional career, including his service in the U.S. Marine Corps, is devoted to country and community. However, at a time in his life when he could’ve simply sat on his laurels embracing his legacy, Forbes’ unprecedented selfless actions to rethink and reverse his position to support the City of Cleveland’s Domestic Partner Registry Ordinance in 2009, is heroic.”
You have to give him credit. That suggests a big change in his attitude or he’s worried about entering the final days. George often said, people want to go to heaven but they don’t want to die. As a Sunday school teacher (and former teacher) that appears to be a strong pull on him.
But then there’s the other inexplicable George.
When federal money came to Cleveland and before Council for passage to accept funds ($55,000) for special improvements for handicapped people, Forbes said, “Bullshit…send the money back to Washington.” He called it “foolish.”
Forbes said that the more he heard about it, “… the more I think this is basically a handicap grant. We don’t want to go for it.” For a civil rights leader that was strange talk.
Even stranger was Forbes open reaction the week before reacting to legislation involving women.
“Look here. Let me tell you we’re not going to pass, we’re not. Just not going to pass a historical thing (ERA)… and you’re not going to make a nurse-maid out of me. That’s not my role and I don’t think that’s the role of men. I think he should enjoy children but his primary obligation is to support his family… My daddy taught me that. His daddy’s daddy taught him that.”
Then he went farther: “There’s something about these women… Apparently they’re failures. They’re frustrated. Understand what I’m saying. Something’s got to be wrong.”
It sounds so much like the nonsense tossed at African-Americans over the years.
He said, “Now it seems to me that these women want – quote-unquote- that they want the privileges but they don’t want the obligations.”
It was too bizarre coming from a black political leader in 1981 to be believable.
It did happen but I doubt even Forbes today would recognize his voice.
Forbes, as a political showman, was always a main attraction at City Hall and an act no one should have missed. Nobody else even came close. Good or bad.
In October 1982 I wrote about my Monday’s with George. That was the title. As I said, I always tried to sit in the first row on Monday when he reigned over the Council’s Finance Committee. All legislation eventually flowed through it for final passage. I also tried to sit in the middle seat of the row. That way I would face Forbes directly. And he me, as he sat in the center of the committee table.
We couldn’t miss each other. At times he’d throw a taunt out to let me and others know he knew I was there.
The piece in Vol. 15, No. 7 was as follows:
My Monday with George. Better than dinner with Andre.
Council President George Forbes has never had to eat sand in the Sahara to have the secrets of life revealed to him.
Each Monday George gives life lessons, rare performances.
On two recent Mondays George’s exquisite political education sessions were high performances of his acting career at City Hall.
In the first, he passed a 25 percent water rate hike everyone was against with a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t deftness. He walked away from the meeting looking disappointed. The absence of applause reveals the lack of appreciation on the part of the spectators, as if they didn’t know what they were being treated to. More of this later.
In the second performance, Forbes managed to attain his aim – despite the fact that it made it necessary to reveal himself as a liar – and embarrass the mayor.
Despite his ability, Forbes had been having trouble handling Mayor George Voinovich. The mayor ignores Forbes’ attempts to pull him into confrontation, avoiding the fight. The self-righteousness of the mayor (Voinovich) and his ability to stand above the fray gives Forbes trouble. It’s a strategy Forbes doesn’t know how to penetrate. He keeps having to back off. Forbes would rather gutter fight, I wrote.
The water rate hike of 25 per cent, added to one of 15 percent not long before, was seemingly opposed by every council member of the 21 member body. But Forbes had promised to pass it.
With such bitter opposition the stage had to be carefully set.
The week before the crucial vote, Forbes pointedly warned the administration he wouldn’t tolerate layoffs in the water department, (it was) a signal to do just that and create a controversy which Forbes could then “solve” and also create the necessary diversion in the thinking of the Council, the public and the media.
The very next morning the administration duly responds by sending out layoff slips to large numbers of the employees, some with 25 years service.
Next Monday at Finance hearing Forbes has all those nervous, upset workers jammed into the committee hearing, packing the room for the TV cameras as he stage-manages the entire affair, paying attention to detail. Forbes is aware that if there is any thinking to be done he wants Council members thinking his thoughts. He has framed the action.
Forbes rants and raves at the administration, showing he’s with the Council members who want to reject this Voinovich request. Or at least let constituents know they’re angry, too.
“It’s a political thing (layoffs),” he says to the appreciation, of course, of the workers who envision losing their income. Forbes is their only hope.
“It’s bullshit and we are not going to be pressured. There’s no need to involve these people. I told you. This business of politics, you can’t beat us at that. You can’t beat me at my game,” Forbes berates utility director Ed Richard, his willing foil for the afternoon.
“I don’t try to run that side of city hall. I resent it. I’m very angry about it…”
“I’m telling you Eddie… I’m telling you Cedroni (Ernest, water commissioner), it ain’t gonna happen. They ain’t gonna go no place,” Forbes delights the layoff crowd as he tries to work himself up, sliding into street talk. He tells the crowd, which he bosses around, to go sit back and relax as his guests though they are supposed to be working. He says they can leave when their usual quitting time arrives.
Forbes always creates diversions. This afternoon one is a shabby attempt to embarrass a young white woman who works collections for city utilities. He makes her reveal her income. $19,000. Despite his attack, Council Clerk Merce Cotner whispers in the hearing room that “she’s worth $25,000” and a council member remarks about her efficiency.
Forbes understands human nature well enough to place in the audience “Butch,” once his next door neighbor. Forbes readily admits he got Butch his city job.
“Butch, how long you been with the city now?”
To Richard, “You ain’t gonna lay off Butch, I’ll tell you right now. Stand up, Butch. How long you been here?”
Others jump up and down to Forbes’ commands.
Then other council members are allowed to take their pokes at Richard who remains subdued except when questioned by Gary Kucinich and Jay Westbook. Then he responds with the resentment he feels.
The attack reaches its height with Forbes calling for Jim Conrad, the mayor’s chief of staff and political advisor, to be brought to the hearing room. More fireworks are expected as Forbes seems to be revving up. Conrad comes. It’s all theater.
Forbes starts: Is the mayor there?
Forbes, now in full command of everyone’s attention: I don’t want him. (He was expecting Conrad, I guess, to say the mayor was out and unavailable.)
Forbes is about to bring down the curtain abruptly. He looks angry. He shakes his finger at Conrad. Listen, Conrad, and take this back to your boss.
“There will be absolutely no layoffs. None of these people will be laid off,” Forbes says to Conrad, who says nothing.
He goes on to tell Conrad in a ticking-off fashion that there also will be no bond sale, no bond counsel hired, no consultants employed.
It’s no, no, no, no, no to the administration.
And then it’s YES. One YES. The only YES the administration wanted that day.
“All we’re doing is raising the water rate,” says Forbes, as if he’s denying Voinovich what the mayor passionately wants when in fact he’s giving Voinovich exactly what he wants and needs that day.
“Call the roll,” he tells Cotner. Ten to zip, without a word of protest.
Forbes, grim-faced saunters out of the room into the Council offices as if nothing happened.
He had stopped on a dime, reversed directions, and the dime was standing on end.
Two weeks later the problem is different. The act is varied but the result is the same. Forbes delivers for Voinovich and himself.
The problem: $500,000 that the administration wants to service some 280 homeowners who have gotten housing rehab loans from the CASH program except that changes in legislation and rules earlier this year makes them ineligible. Council had wanted to cut the CASH funding even more.
Forbes has to transfer funds from one program to another and that means taking it from some Council members and giving it to others. Council member don’t like losing funds for their wards.
Another complication, it has to be done now and over the desires of the committee chairman of community development and to his embarrassment. Further, that chairman is Mike White, a politician who does know what’s going on, and ally of Forbes and a bitter foe of Voinovich’s, probably a mayoral candidate, I noted, as he did become.
White has been feuding with Voinovich’s CD director Vince Lombardi and wants Lombardi to apologize to him publicly or face a hold-up of legislation.
Forbes does what he feels he has to do.
George Forbes could never act with someone else’s lines. It’s all got to be original, writing the lines in his mind as he goes along. There’s a certain detectable nervousness that’s apparent to long-time Forbes watchers when he’s about to tell you the most outrageous lies, as if he’s chagrined but he expects you to understand it’s all a game.
Forbes says he “tries to rise above” politics. You know then that he has the most delicate of political chores before him. Politics will rule.
He warns: “I will not become the chairman of the community development committee,” just as he takes White’s authority and makes the title “chairman” null and void.
“This is the last time I’ll pull your chestnuts out of the fire,” he tells Lombardi. The last time until the next time.
Forbes then gets a little bonus for himself. If he’s got to do the dirty work, why not?
He’s out to embarrass Voinovich, Mr. Clean of Cleveland politics.
“It was a private deal that was cut,” he says openly.
“No one knew Voinovich and I cut the deal … Now it’s on the table. No great secret. I’m letting it out,” says Forbes. That bit of nervousness is there. He knows he’s sandbagging the mayor.
But no one really says much about the double-dealing.
Here the mayor and council president have purposely lied to the council to get it to pass legislation. Now the basis of that compromise – putting money in one pot – was the basis of a secret agreement – to take money out of (another) pot. And put it in one that council had balked at from the beginning.
One might have asked, what happens in the future when council votes on a piece of contested legislation, are they voting on that legislation, as presented, or on that legislation plus a secret deal that Voinovich and Forbes have worked out, to be revealed at some later date?
Council now is essentially voting blind-folded.
But no one made a fuss about it on that score. Principle isn’t much of a commodity at City Hall, apparently even difficult to recognize when it’s being strangled.
Forbes must have been surprised at the slight reaction about the deal. So he came back to it.
“I made a deal. I didn’t like to but the mayor wanted it. I gambled I’d be able to do it (change course) down the line,” he said.
Then he slipped in another piece of information that was ignored. Another secret meeting (Why have a Council?)
Forbes met secretly with Sohio officials and advised them strongly to quickly give its electricity business to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating co. (CEI) and not to the city’s Municipal Light System (MUNY).
Do it, Forbes advised SOHIO, “and get it over with.” Sohio did.
Now the city – Forbes does officially represent the city, which pays him $35,000 a year – has been trying to sign up the $200-million SOHIO building as a downtown customer – for MUNY.
“It got back to Voinovich,” said Forbes of his advice.
“It was SOHIO’s stupidity to let it out,” said Forbes. (Was he sandbagging SOHIO too?)
Now, says Forbes, ostensibly because of SOHIO’s stupidity, “I’m going to tell the mayor that I’m going to stand with him,” despite his passion against MUNY.
But a bit later Forbes gives some advice to his backward colleagues.
“I never, never, never take a position I can’t get out of. Don’t ever get yourself in a deal that you can’t get out of it.”
Forbes has some opposition based on the loss of money for some wards.
Dale Miller, whose ward would lose some fix-up money, was shocked at Forbes’ duplicity.
Miller started talking and Forbes ignored him, preferring to chat with others. Miller halted.
“You can continue to talk. It isn’t going to affect me. You’re not going to embarrass me. I told you what I did. You’re not going to embarrass me,” he tells Miller.
John Zayac also objected to the transfer of funds. (Yes, that Zayac.)
“Whether that’s fair or not,” Forbes told Zayac, “that’s too bad. I’m talking about what’s best for the city.”
When other methods aren’t working, anger and force have to be used.
“Instead of being the savior, I end up being a damned fool,” Forbes says.
“I’m not going through this principle bullshit anymore. It ($500,000) was just placed there as a cover,” says Forbes, as though honesty now wipes out the dishonest past.
Miller: Nobody else heard anything about this deal.
Forbes: “I’m tired of this. This has been kicked around all day.”
The money was transferred. Forbes prevailed again.
The mayor, questioned that evening, told the Plain Dealer: “Council is the bailiwick of the Council president, not my bailiwick. There is one leader, and he (Forbes) is the leader. I talk to the leader.
Better watch what you say, Mayor. Or more important, better watch who you talk to.
As time was running out for Forbes and Voinovich, they combined to pull the biggest give-away of all. It was called the Figgie Project (though Figgie, a corporation that was return its headquarters to Cleveland, but went out of business before the project got underway). It involved some 500 to 600 acres of land owned by Cleveland in a number of eastern suburbs.
In 1988, I wrote: “Cleveland wants to lease this metropolitan area’s last, largest, best-sited and enticingly developable acreage to a corporation with close ties to Mayor George Voinovich’s former law firm, Calfee, Halter & Griswold. The full story can be found at CSU’s POV site, called “Whoa, Figgie, Whoa,” Vol. 21, #9.
“That – and the lack of public examination – raises red flags for the development of 630 acres of Warrensville Township land to be developed exclusively by Figgie International, a company slated to move back here from Richmond, Va., as part of the deal.
“The project is slated to go to Figgie without any competitive aspect to the process…”
We didn’t know then just how uncompetitive it truly was. That became apparent years later when Mayor White pursued a lawsuit against the deal. Unbeknownst to the public, Forbes had inserted, with Voinovich’s knowledge, his buddy Dick Jacobs into the deal as a partner. (Jacobs and family contributed $90,000 to George’s failed try for mayor). White called what Forbes and Voinovich had done, “… a dirty little deal done in the backroom.” He added, without elaborating, “By the time this is over, they are not going to look so good and there may be some people who may be going to jail.” The project continues and no one has seen even an indictment, never mind jail time.
The city’s lawsuit produced some 16 boxes of depositions – recordings revealing the intrigue of deception by Forbes and Voinovich on this land deal. The city later dropped the suit, another unsavory story.
After studying the material I wrote: “… In the fading days of the Voinovich administration the pair – each rewarding their respective closely connected business interests – gave up city land in the suburbs, more than 500 acres in the already well-developed Chagrin Road corridor. A consultant in 1995 examined the property and concluded, “Without a doubt (it was) one of the finest pieces of real estate between New York City and Chicago. Forbes and Voinovich gave Jacobs another gold mine. (It now lures downtown office tenants to this virgin land.)
“The results were predictable. Presently, University Hospital is building a major new hospital in Chagrin Highlands (as the project became known), taking jobs from the city. Eaton Corp., long housed in downtown Cleveland, plans (now built and occupied) to move its new headquarters to the opened up land… More loss of jobs to the city, it was predictable from the beginning.”
A recent study of the flight of jobs from the city by the organization Good Jobs First revealed the result of this outward movement here.
“By dispersing jobs away from the two urban cores, the relocations contributed to disparities in wealth and opportunity among localities in the regions. They moved jobs away from areas with higher rates of poverty and people of color to more affluent and less racially diverse areas. And by moving mostly to locations that are not served by public transportation, they denied job opportunities to carless workers and denied thousands more any choice about how to get to work,” it said.
It reported: In the Cleveland metropolitan area, four-fifths of the moves were outbound and they took jobs an average of more than five miles away from the central city.
* * *
George Forbes has had other things to say about me beyond what’s been quoted above. He told one TV reporter that I was right twice a day, just like a stopped clock. In 1979, he told another, “Roldo Bartimole. I don’t read him that often.” Four years later he was in a better mood and said, “Everybody reads him; they may not subscribe but they’ll have a copy on their desks.” Make up your mind, George.
George Forbes was the master and there’s no one around today to even come close to matching him. However, he also thwarted development among younger politicians both white and black, continuing the leadership in Cleveland in the hands of the same old interests, thus continuing Cleveland’s decline overall.
Where Carl Stokes – maybe because of the times – was a reform liberal, Forbes used his power as a machine politician with all the patronage advantages such a system brings and takes.
The system still produces for the same old elite interests. The power structure includes African-Americans now but in the same way ethnic politicians helped rule in Cleveland for the interests of its establishment.
Indeed, the Forbes era, along with progress for a certain segment of black interests, has made for very limited progress overall. Cleveland schools, poverty, crime and infant mortality rates attest to that. Too dramatically so.
* * *
For more on Cleveland political history of the recent past, we suggest two issues of Point of View, the newsletter written and published by Roldo, available on line at CSU’s Memory Project: http://www.clevelandmemory.org/roldo/
The two issues are “30 Years of Shaming Devils” (Download here and “25 Years of Cleveland Mayors” (download here).