Arnold Pinkney was one of Cleveland’s most effective political strategists: Brent Larkin
Stay connected to cleveland.com
Arnold Pinkney was blessed with the rare ability to figure out where voters were headed, and get there first.
That gift made Pinkney one of the most effective political strategists and campaign managers in Cleveland history.
Over the course of a political life that spanned nearly half a century, Pinkney’s candidates won a whole lot more races than they lost.
But Pinkney, who died Monday at the age of 83, didn’t win them all. And two of those losses were tough to take.
Because they were his own.
Pinkney ran for mayor in 1971 and 1975, defeated both times by Ralph Perk. Of the two, 1971 was, by far, the most disappointing.
In one of the most memorable mayoral races ever waged in Cleveland, events beyond Pinkney’s control conspired to cost him a victory.
Pinkney’s mentor was former Mayor Carl Stokes. He worked as a top City Hall aide to the nation’s first black, big-city mayor, and in 1969 managed Stokes’ winning re-election campaign.
Of all the members of the city’s growing black political class in the 1960s, Pinkney always thought Stokes stood head and shoulders above them all.
“Only one person had the charisma, the experience and the drive to win that job,” Pinkney recalled a few years ago. “Back then, it took a special talent for a black to be elected mayor. And only Carl had that talent.”
With the black church as its foundation, Stokes’ political base was built to last. And when he decided not to seek re-election in 1971, Pinkney hoped to use that base to become the city’s second black mayor.
Stokes quickly got on board. But first he had a score to settle.
Partisan primaries were held in those days. In the Republican primary, Ralph Perk easily dispatched a young state representative from Collinwood named George Voinovich.
Pinkney ran as an independent, leaving Council President Anthony Garofoli and businessman James Carney as the Democratic candidates.
Stokes disliked Garofoli, and in the waning days of the primary campaign he recorded a message endorsing Carney that was telephoned into the home of virtually every black voter in the city. Political robo-calling was in its infancy at the time, but that call enabled Carney to upset the favored Garofoli.
Stokes had flexed his sizable political muscle to punish a fellow Democrat, but he was playing a risky game. After convincing blacks to support Carney in the primary, he asked them to switch back to Pinkney in the general election five weeks later.
It backfired. About one in five black voters stuck with Carney, enough to swing the election to Perk, a Republican.
The 1971 campaign was my first as a reporter for the Cleveland Press. And I distinctly remember that, aside from Perk and a handful of his closest allies, no one thought he would win.
Afterwards, some who knew Stokes well thought he never wanted Pinkney to win, that he wanted at the time to be known as Cleveland’s first — and only — black mayor.
Pinkney never bought that. But he did come to believe Stokes’ strategy cost him the election.
“There’s no question Stokes’ endorsement of Carney siphoned votes from me 35 days later,” he recalled 20 years later. “I indicated to him (Stokes) that I didn’t think the strategy would work, but Carl prevailed.”
By 1975, Cleveland had switched to nonpartisan mayoral contests where the top two finishers in the primary would meet in a runoff election.
In the primary election, Pinkney finished first in a five-candidate field, nearly 4,000 votes ahead of Perk, who was seeking a third, two-year term.
Years later, Perk would admit he played possum in the primary. By taking a dive in Round 1 of the voting, Perk hoped to scare his supporters (i.e. white voters) and increase turnout on the West Side.
It worked. In the runoff election, he beat Pinkney by 17,000 votes.
Pinkney never again sought elected office, instead devoting his time to campaign consulting and selling insurance.
He played a key role in many statewide campaigns, notably Dick Celeste’s three runs (two of them successful) for governor. In 1984, he managed Jesse Jackson’s race for president.
When Gerald Austin, another veteran political consultant with deep Cleveland ties, was offered the job of managing Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988, the first person he called was Pinkney.
“Arnold told me if Jackson and I could both control our egos, we’d learn a lot from each other,” recalled Austin. “So I took it. Arnold was special. He was a wonderful teacher, a real gentleman, a dear friend.”
For 40 years, Pinkney, Lou Stokes and George Forbes formed a political triumvirate that permeated every aspect of black political life in Greater Cleveland.
One Saturday morning in the late summer of 2011, Pinkney and House Speaker Bill Batchelder sat at a table in Forbes’ home and drew a new congressional district that protected the seat held by Rep. Marcia Fudge. Stokes signed off on the district via telephone.
Slowed a bit by illness, Pinkney nevertheless played an instrumental role in the 2012 school levy campaign that saw voters overwhelmingly agree to fund Mayor Frank Jackson’s school reform plan. And last fall he served as an adviser to Jackson’s re-election effort.
Former Plain Dealer editorial page editor Mary Anne Sharkey worked with Pinkney on those and other campaigns. From Pinkney, she learned the importance of a ground game in winning citywide elections, watching as he “dispatched troops with the precision of a general.”
Pinkney wasn’t averse to using social media and other 21st-century political tools, but his talents and tactics remained decidedly old school. Nevertheless, they worked.
“Arnold had a golden gut,” said Sharkey. “He did not need focus groups. He knew this town.”
About as well as anyone who ever lived.
Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.