from Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw
by Philip W. Porter
retired executive editor of the Plain Dealer
courtesy of Cleveland State University, Special Collections
But there was still to be a mayor in 1923-24, and the mayor was Fred Kohler. Nothing like his mayoralty had been seen before, or since.
Kohler was one of the most colorful men ever to hold high office here. He began as a beat policeman and rose swiftly to chief under Mayor Tom Johnson. Blond, handsome, tall, he was physically attractive to women, and his affair with one of them, who happened to be married to someone else, stymied his career; he was fired as chief. He brazened it out, and every day afterward for months showed up in the Hollenden Hotel lobby to visit with friends. Men stuck by him, as well as women, and it was obvious that he would return to the public eye at some more favorable time. This he did, in 1918, when he ran for county commissioner without Republican party backing and defeated a Democratic incumbent. Then, as a minority member of a board of three, he continuously landed on page one by heckling the majority.
He ran for mayor in 1921 without making a speech, simply by punching doorbells, asking for support. Meanwhile, Mayor FitzGerald’s campaign was a disaster. Republican Boss Maschke had to support him, though he feared the worst, for Fitz would often end an evening of speech-making practically in the bag. A private poll showed that Kohler would beat FitzGerald, and the shrewd Maschke bet a bundle on Kohler and cleaned up handsomely.
Kohler had the perfect formula for getting favorable attention from the newspapers. He ignored editorials and did exactly as he pleased. He seldom answered reporters’ questions, and was often absent from city hall, but he knew his image as the rugged independent and the “cop-who-had-been-unfairly-dealt-with” was intact. He exuded an air of mystery, which increased his news value. He had an uncanny sense of good timing, and he knew the voters wanted a change, so he gave it to them, spectacularly. At once, he fired 850 of the political loafers and announced the city was going to live within its income, after two years of $1,000,000 deficits. He appointed a law director, Paul Lamb, and a finance director, Gerhard A. Gesell, who were respected by the newspapers.
Then he ordered every fireplug in the city painted orange, had park benches painted orange and black, and repainted all city property that needed touching up (except the city hall itself) in the same garish colors, orange and black, which were visible night and day. Kohler said he wanted everyone to know which buildings belonged to the taxpayers.
That wasn’t all. Kohler erected gaudy signboards (also in orange and black) proclaiming that he was keeping the city within its income, and others reading, “I Alone Am Your Mayor.”
He was mayor, all right, from the first day, when he road a horse at the head of a police parade down Euclid Avenue — something he had promised to do some day, after he had been fired. The man he appointed as police chief, inspector Jacob Graul, was an ascetic who neither smoked, drank nor swore, and could have been mistaken for a Sunday School superintendent. Graul stayed on after Kohler left office; his reputation for uprightness was incomparable.
Kohler made good his promise to live within the city’s income, by a simple method. He refused to spend any money having streets paved or park repair done, leaving all this the incoming administration. He claimed a surplus $1,000,000 existed when his term expired and the city manager plan came in.
Kohler did not remain in private life long. Next year, was elected sheriff and soon got rich legally, at public expense, by spending less than half what the law allowed him daily to feed prisoners. A great uproar in the newspapers caused the common pleas judges to devise a menu that would require him to spend all the forty-five cents a day he was allowed. In 1926, he was defeated by a Democrat, Ed Hanratty, now that his public image had been altered to that of a profiteer. He dropped out of public life, traveled extensively, and died in 1934. Then $250,000 in cash was found in his safety deposit box.