Interview with George Forbes by Mike Roberts Inside Business July 2007 Issue
Back to the Future
By Michael D. Roberts
Issue: July 2007 Issue
Former longtime city council president George L. Forbes describes the fate of the city as mirroring the 1960s era when the powerful political personality reigned over Cleveland.
It wasn’t many years ago that George L. Forbes, as president of Cleveland City Council, was arguably the most powerful man in Cleveland. He maintained his power base for 17 years, from 1972 to 1989, the longest such tenure in the history of the city.
Forbes, a native of Tennessee, graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in 1957 and earned his J.D. in 1962 from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. As founding partner of Forbes, Fields & Associates Co. LPA, he practices law from his offices in the Rockefeller Building downtown. He also is president of the Cleveland Chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
During his time at City Hall, Forbes was a controversial figure in the business community, which in general thought well of him as a pragmatist and negotiator, but was well aware of his top priority: the advancement of Cleveland’s black community.
Indeed, there was no one better than Forbes at balancing the city’s economic needs with the advancement of blacks during the 1970s and ‘80s. Drama was high because those were make-it-or-break-it years for Cleveland. A lot of fences needed mending after the racial turmoil of the ‘60s, and history will remember Forbes as one of the menders.
Because there are so many similarities between that era and Cleveland’s current politico-economic plight, Inside Business thought it would be enlightening to talk with Forbes about the current state of the city and the ins and outs of economic development. Despite his public reputation as a hard-nosed firebrand, Forbes always was witty, irascible and insightful. He still is today.
IB: What do you hear about the city these days?
Forbes: Nobody is saying anything. It is like all the air has been sucked out of the city. Our education system is in turmoil, we have a dwindling tax base and the government can’t even collect taxes. Everyone knows we have poverty in this city. The newspaper writes about it, editorials anguish over it, but they never ask the key question. Tell me who is doing anything about it?
This is a tough town. It’s a roller coaster: It’s up for a while and then down. People make a town work. We don’t have those wealthy industrialists that we had a hundred years ago who could create thousands of jobs by themselves. We have to look at reality, and I think we have lost our ability to do that.
IB: Do you think there is a growing separation between the black and white communities?
Forbes: Look, we are in this together. White people cannot just leave the city’s problems to the black community. If the two communities separate and think they can go their own ways, that will be the moment we are done.
IB: How do you feel about Mayor Frank Jackson?
Forbes: Black people will generally not criticize a black in a leadership position. They want to give them a chance to succeed. Whether you are black or white, running something like a city is among the most difficult things you could do.
But there is a difference when you are a black official. You have concerns that go beyond the routine of running a city. You are thinking about feeding the homeless, the poverty, the police killing young black people.
I’m concerned about the safety in the black community. A generation of black men are killing each other needlessly because of the availability of handguns. We are fast approaching the point where the culture of violence is taking us over.
IB: You spent a lot of time in public life. What were the highlights?
Forbes: If you look back in my time the city made progress when you had a strong figure both as mayor and as City Council president — Jim Stanton and Carl Stokes and George Voinovich and myself. Ideas were being generated on both sides of City Hall. Business people notice that. It gives them confidence to invest in the city.
Voinovich got a lot of stuff done. It started when Dick Jacobs wanted to build the Galleria. He talked to me and I suggested he talk to the mayor. When the mayor was finished, he told Jacobs to talk to me. That way there were no misunderstandings, no grandstanding, no politics.
IB: So you see City Hall as an economic driver?
Forbes: City Hall can create the atmosphere that will attract jobs. A lot of people complain about tax abatement. Show me a business that is going to lose money in a civic venture. Even if you give some tax abatement, there still is the income tax and in 15 years the property tax will kick in. Otherwise, you have nothing.
You have to be creative to make a lot of things work. For instance, in order to build the BP Building (now 200 Public Square) we had to declare the area blighted. Compared to other cities, it was not a blighted area. But we never would have gotten a new building and retained the jobs for downtown had we not done that. In my view, that is the role of government in economic development.
IB: How would you characterize the city today?
Forbes: Don’t forget, I saw this city go through some rough times — The Hough riot; the damned river burning; the Glenville riot; default; and Mayor Perk’s hair on fire. You want to talk about bad headlines and a town being looked upon as an urban disaster? Man, we went through that and came out of it as an All-American City. The national perception of Cleveland was bad, but the reality was that the city was a lot better than most people thought. Including the media here.
With the right leadership in place the town will turn around again. We have to realize we are competing with the rest of the country, the rest of the world. We educate our young people and they leave because there is no opportunity here.
IB: Do you see the city coming back?
Forbes: You know, the late Bob Hughes, the county Republican chairman, used to tell me that politics is all about perception. Sometimes, either for the good or the bad, that perception becomes reality. We can come back, but all cities evolve. We need to recognize the need to change.
IB: What is your feeling about changing the way the county is governed?
Forbes: A few years ago when the Cleveland Bar Association was looking at this issue, I met with them. I basically feel the we-need-to-embrace-a-regional-approach to solving our problems. Having said that, I think it has to be worked out among elected officials. I’m not sure I’m ready to support change simply for change’s sake.
IB: How many mayors did you serve with?
Forbes: Let’s see. Ralph Locher, Carl Stokes, Ralph Perk, Dennis Kucinich and George Voinovich. I enjoyed working with Ralph Perk. He surrounded himself with bright young people. But the business community was not big on Ralph so they worked through City Council. Things got done. Voinovich made the most progress in the city because he got things done instead of simply enjoying the benefits of power.
IB: You once ran for Congress.
Forbes: Lou Stokes whipped me and 14 others. After that I was through with higher office. Jack Russell (the late City Council president) once told me that you have to make a decision in politics, whether to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a bigger one. It is hard to make a difference in Washington. The City Council president has the power to do things, things that you can see. In City Council you could help the city make deals with the Jacobses, the Ratners, the Wolsteins. To me, there was no better job than helping a city to work. I didn’t even want to be mayor, even though I ran for the job once.
In all those years, I never accumulated stuff in my office. No pictures, no proclamations on the wall — just a few pencils. I knew that when I left, I did not want to have a lot of things to pack, and I knew I could leave at any time.
IB: You had a stormy relationship with the media. Do you think you were unfairly treated?
Forbes: Public officials and the media are not apple pie and ice cream. That takes a while to understand, but you don’t have to like it. The media were tougher on us than on City Hall in recent years. I blame some in the media for looking the other way in a lot of the relationships being exposed today between City Hall and businesses. If there were businesses at the airport that had not paid taxes in 15 years when I was president of council, the newspapers would have been all over me. I forgot to pay my water bill once and it was the lead story on the evening news.
IB: Things have changed in the inner city since the 1960s with drug, crime and education problems. How do you see this change?
Forbes: A whole generation of young blacks is being killed. Of those black men who die between the ages of 16 and 20, 80 percent are homicides. They are overwhelmed by their environment and, in some cases, do not know what acceptable standards of behavior are in our society. Tell me how television can cynically bombard the airwaves with drugs and violence and it not affect our society? You did not have this in the 1960s. We’d be better off if people did not watch television.
IB: And the problems in the schools?
Forbes: When it becomes acceptable and even preferable to reject the idea of education, you have the problem we are struggling with today. We have seen an increase in unmarried pregnancies, drugs and crime. I tell you that we are seeing television’s perception of society being made into reality on the streets.
My fear is that white people think this is just a black problem. It cannot be solved by blacks alone, but the black people have to be responsible. This is a problem that requires the attention of the whole community.
Unless there is a demand for change in the black community nothing will happen. There needs to be an outcry on the part of civic, business and political leaders over these kids carrying all these guns. Criminal defense lawyers tell me there is a difference in their clients compared to 10 years ago. The kids they are defending are younger, meaner and more dangerous.
This cannot go on. You see the Asians and the Hispanics making strides as minorities. Their very numbers will challenge blacks politically. That is a reality. Blacks have to understand that they will have competition in everything they do and hip-hop is not going to work.
IB: What do you mean by competition?
Forbes: Well, they have a black college football game here every year. I was told that a major U.S. company, which had been one of the sponsors of the game, pulled out. The reason was research showed it was better to invest in their Hispanic customers because they got more economic bang for their buck.
IB: Speaking of reality, where are we with the new school superintendent, Eugene Sanders?
Forbes: I like some of the things he is talking about, like getting those kids out of baggy pants. Bringing discipline back into the educational process has to be done. If his plans do not make the school system work more effectively, it will set us back generations. The grim truth is that if this man fails we might have to forget about Cleveland. We could be doomed. This might be our last hope before all is lost.