Interview With George L. Forbes, Former Cleveland City Council President (1973 – 1989) – Video

 forbes-and-voinovichforbes_george_l_19791979 CSU

Left to right councilmen Richard Harmody, Michael Zone, George Forbes. 1964 CPL

George L. Forbes was the longest and perhaps most powerful City Council President in Cleveland history, serving from 1973 – 1989. He was interviewed for Teaching Cleveland Digital on August 21, 2013. This is part six of a multi-part interview with Mr. Forbes and covers the 1980s when he was President of Cleveland Council, his relationship with Mayor George Voinovich and his campaign for Mayor in 1989. Produced by Michael Baron. Cameras by Jerry Mann and Meagan Lawton, Edited by Meagan Lawton, Interviewed by Brent Larkin.

part 1

part 2

part 3

part 4
part 5
Part 6
© 2013 Jerry Mann and Teaching Cleveland Digital.

George Forbes aggregation

1 Interview With George L. Forbes, Former Cleveland City Council President (1973 – 1989) – Video

2 George Forbes from Wikipedia

3 In Northeast Ohio, 3 Gray Eminences Wield Black Political Influence: Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer

4 Interview with George Forbes by Mike Roberts Inside Business July 2007 Issue

5 Interview With George Forbes 2011 – Benjamin Rose Foundation

6 George Forbes — An Obsession with Power from Cleveland Magazine

7 “Forbes: He Was So Good at Being Bad” by Roldo Bartimole From Cleveland Leader July 21, 2014

8. Voinovich and Forbes: The Era of Good Feelings Cleveland Magazine

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

In Northeast Ohio, 3 Gray Eminences Wield Black Political Influence: Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer

Plain Dealer article about George Forbes, Louis Stokes and Arnold Pinkney that ran on October 8, 2011

The link is here

In Northeast Ohio, 3 gray eminences wield black political influence: Brent Larkin

Published: Saturday, October 08, 2011, 9:10 AM     Updated: Saturday, October 08, 2011, 1:02 PM


In the days before the Republican-run state legislature drew new congresional boundries for Ohio, House Speaker Bill Batchelder drove to Cleveland for a Saturday meeting at a home on the city’s East Side.

The speaker came to see two old men, both in their ninth decade of life, and to show them a map designed to all but guarantee that Greater Cleveland’s congressional delegation would continue to include at least one minority member.

As the two men studied the map, they proposed some minor changes.

But on balance they were pleased with the new boundaries.

Following the meeting, a call was placed to the eldest member of their informal, three-person group. That man, himself a former congressman, was told the new congressional district would be a barbell-shaped concoction running from Cleveland into eastern Akron.

The old men were satisfied. The deal was done.

And a week or so later, the plan laid out that Saturday in University Circle was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich.

What makes that weekend meeting so remarkable is this: Had Batchelder been speaker of the Ohio House in the summer of 1971 and needed input from Cleveland’s black political leadership, he would have sought the opinion of the same men he reached out to 40 summers later.

In Cleveland, you see, some things rarely change.

George Forbes, host of the Saturday session with Batchelder, is 80 now. He last won an election for public office in 1985. He never won one outside of Glenville.

Arnold Pinkney is also 80. He last won an election in 1977. It was for the Cleveland school board.

The leader of this troika, the one who wasn’t there, is 86-year-old Louis Stokes, who served 15 terms in Congress before retiring in 1999. He now spends most of his time in Maryland.

Though long gone from public office, Stokes, Forbes and Pinkney still possess enormous political influence — and at times aren’t bashful about using it.

When Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones died three years ago, Stokes pretty much single-handedly chose Marcia Fudge as her successor in Congress.

Over time, Forbes has proven the most adept of the three at retaining and using power. Though long gone from the City Council he once ruled with an iron fist, Forbes benefits from his ongoing roles as ruler of the Call and Post newspaper and head of the Cleveland NAACP.

And having run campaigns at the local, state and national levels — including Jesse Jackson’s 1984 race for president — Pinkney remains to this day the town’s pre-eminent adviser to black politicians, young and old.

These three may be well past their prime, but their power was again on display the week before last, when some black Democrats turned against one another over the drawing of boundaries for new state Senate seats in Cuyahoga County.

Drawing those boundaries was the responsibility of Kasich and other leading Republicans, but they understandably had no desire to wade into a decidedly local fight involving members of the other political party.

So a top Republican sought the opinions of Forbes and Pinkney — and later that day, Kasich and other GOP leaders resolved a dispute by drawing the new Senate districts the way Forbes and Pinkney wanted it done.

While it’s easy to make a case that Stokes, Forbes and Pinkney have clung to power far too long, Pinkney passionately defends their continued involvement.

“At our age, we’re not looking for anything,” he said. “We have absolutely no desire to control things. But we do have experience, and the trust of the African-American community. We know how to negotiate and, when necessary, compromise. Our interest is in what’s best for black people. It’s not about grabbing power.”

But State Sen. Nina Turner, who is considering a primary challenge to Fudge in the district mapped out in Forbes’ home, believes the haggling over the new state Senate districts was an example of politics at its worst. And, without naming names, it’s pretty clear she places some of the blame on her elders.

“What they have done is completely contrary to the whole point of the civil rights movement, and for that they should be ashamed,” said Turner.

Nina Turner is one gutsy woman. And she’s spent the past two years — beginning with her decision to defy the black political establishment and enthusiastically support the 2009 ballot issue that restructured county government — proving it.

But a race for Congress would pose multiple challenges.

Beating Marcia Fudge would be difficult.

Getting past the three seniors will be even harder.

Larkin was The Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.

Cleveland in the 1980s – 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.

 Cleveland in the 1980s
The .pdf of this article is here

            While the 1980s gave promise that Northeastern Ohio was reviving, there were historical and contemporary forces at work that would thwart any serious comeback. There was no reversal to the population exodus from the Cleveland. For the first time, the census showed a decline in Cuyahoga County. The biggest problem was a shrinking job market.

The Great Depression of the 1930s is generally regarded as a critical and devastating turning point in Cleveland’s history. By 1980, one could argue that no region in America was so permanently scarred by the Depression than the Cleveland area.

Now, another devastating economic force was descending upon the region. This time it was global in nature and it compounded the damage of the awful economic impact of the Depression. It was the globalization of industry and it was growing at a time when Cleveland was optimistically looking forward to a new decade

To understand the economic gyrations that the region faced in the 1980s, one has to reflect on the turn of the 20th century when Cleveland found itself on the cutting edge of what is known as the Second Industrial Revolution. An entrepreneurial spirit flourished here as rarely seen in America.

            In the early 1900s a diverse economy was emerging in the city as inventors and investors found their places in steel, machine tools, electricity, paint, automobiles, shipping and manufacturing. Entrepreneurs were attracted to the city and were welcomed by fellow inventors and industrialists.

            Seventy fledging automobile companies were located in Cleveland. Alexander G. Winton made the first commercial auto sales in the country here.

Technological spinoffs created new businesses at an astounding rate. For instance, the Brush Electric Company, founded in 1880, was directly responsible for the establishment of such blue chip companies as Union Carbide, Lincoln Electric, and Reliant Electric simply through the technological transfer of former employees.

            Key to the success of these aspiring enterprises was the ability to attract financial capital through which they could develop and market their innovations. The need for capital, in turn, created financial institutions attuned to the spirit of enterprise that permeated the community.

            At one time, prior to the Depression, the city hosted 38 banks and a stock market that carried more relative industrial stocks than its much larger counterpart in New York.

            Cleveland inventors were among the top producers of patents in the country, resulting in the creation of many small businesses which thrived because of the local financial markets.   It was the maturity of these companies that created the wealth that drove Cleveland.

            The Depression destroyed many of the city’s financial institutions and with their demise went the availability of capital. The small, entrepreneurial business that had spun off the innovation that created great companies withered and died.

            When the country recovered, the financial markets of the East Coast came to dominate. Even into the 1980s local business innovators complained in a common refrain that Cleveland banks were too conservative. The memory of the Depression lingered indelibly in bank ledgers.

            Years later a senior partner at Baker Hostetler, one of the city’s prestigious law firms, would explain that the reason the firm originally opened offices in other cities was to keep their wealthy clients who fled the city in the wake of the Depression.

The loss of a vibrant financial market cost the city’s economy the self reliance that had attracted so much innovation and success in the past. The city’s business culture changed from spirited entrepreneurs to conservative bureaucrats who shunned the risk that created wealth and who merely managed the large companies that had survived the Depression.

The other factor that had a long- range effect upon the region was its reliance on manufacturing jobs with limited knowledge requirements, but decent pay. This work did not need to be supported by higher education

World War II and the Korean War helped revive the regional economy, but postwar global forces were already at work that would be as powerful in its negative impact as the Depression. In fact, it could be argued that the Depression rendered the region unable to cope with the global events a half century later.

            The global economy began with the recovery of foreign nations from World War II and the emergence of cheap labor and a new wave of technology. It was most evident in the 1970s as foreign automobiles, the Japanese being most prevalent, began to challenge American manufacturers.

By 1980, with the vast federal highway system completed in the region and school busing an emotional city issue, the suburbs held more allure than urban life for those who could afford it. The population in Cleveland dropped 177,000 in the last decade to 573, 822.   Worse yet, Cuyahoga County experienced its first decline since 1810 with a 12.9% decrease to 1,498,400.

The loss was not all in the city. Parma, once the largest suburb in the state, dropped below 100,000, losing 7.7% of its population in the last decade.

Even the most casual observer could notice a change in the population shift by simply reading the high school football scores in the newspaper. Schools that had been remote and on the edges of the county were developing better teams, and becoming more competitive with those closer to the city. Schools like Aurora, Avon, Kenston, and others were more and more prominent in the sports news.

Added to the local issues, globalization was making its impact on the way people lived. In retrospect, the post war era in the region had been consumed by issues wrought by parochial politics and the reverberation of civil rights. At first, business and political leadership seemed impervious to the impact of world industrialization on the region.

State and local governments in the region did not react to the new world view because they were neither positioned nor prepared to do so. In Cuyahoga County alone there were 56 different governmental entities, and in reaction to the economic ill fortune they began to offer inducements to businesses in the form of tax cuts.

These inducements were made to attract or maintain companies, but they affected the tax base of communities. These cuts would be a first and inadequate response to the shifting marketplace.

The 1980s brought a new realization that local government had to change to a more regional concept if the area was to make its way in the changing world. The realization that we were no longer competing with an adjoining state, but with vast overseas markets brought with it a need to alter traditional economic and political thought.

            While regional or a county government had been proposed, discussed and even put on the ballot in the 1950s, it was not a compelling issue for the ordinary voter. The ethnic nature of politics and the growing emergence of minorities distracted from regional issues.

            Yet, economic necessities were forcing certain aspects of regionalism to be implemented. In 1968, the City of Cleveland found itself unable to maintain its port and was forced to merge with the county. Financial and political exigencies created the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in 1972.   The city turned over some of its parks to a regional system when it could no longer afford upkeep.   In 1974, the city merged its bus system into the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.  

            One regional opportunity that eluded Cleveland was the failure to annex suburbs that wanted to purchase city water.   The government in Columbus, Ohio, grew its municipal boundaries by annexing in return for water and thrived.

            The unwillingness and the unpreparedness of community leaders to work for a regional government both pre and post World War 2 created a growing economic separation from the rest of the world. It would be a problem that plagued Cleveland and Northeast Ohio into the modern era.

The Northeastern Ohio area could claim the development and manufacture of the automobile since its inception. Generally regarded as the second most important automotive center in the nation, the impact of the global economy began to have a negative impact as imported cars rose in popularity with the American public.

Most noticeable though was the impact of globalization on the steel industry. Following World War II, American companies produced two-thirds of the world’s steel. It was a euphoric time as the industry continued to rely on aging technology to bolster profit margins.

The region’s steel mills were important contributors to this boom, but early in the 1970s it was evident that foreign competitors using new technology and cheaper labor were able to undercut the price of the product.

As double-digit inflation lay waste to the American economy in the early 1980s, adding to the steel industry’s travail, companies merged and unemployment spread. In Ohio in 1975 there were 20 steel companies operating 47 mills. Ten years later only 14 companies operating 23 mills remained. Employment and production had fallen to nearly half of what it had been in the decade before.

Other companies began to be effected by foreign markets and new technology. The venerated Warner & Swasey, one of Cleveland’s oldest companies known for optics and machine tools, was sold in 1980 and slowly dismantled, falling victim to the increasing computerization of industry.

The dwindling steel production saw more job loss in the Great Lakes shipping industry, causing unemployment on boats, on the docks and in related industries.

Having been weaned on manufacturing and heavy industry, the region fell behind in preparation and education for the oncoming knowledge-based technologies. Because universities near Silicon Valley, Boston and Pittsburgh had been the springboard of new technologies, those areas flourished as the 1980s progressed. Cleveland lagged and lost ground.

            But there were glimmers of enlightenment in the region. Kent State University began to do research with liquid crystals and Akron University was developing polymers which hopefully would replace a decimated rubber industry in that part of the region. The Cleveland Clinic was growing faster, on its way to becoming not only a preeminent hospital, but a place of medical discovery.

            Cleveland State University, late in coming on line, was nevertheless growing and beginning to have an impact on the community. Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, which had merged in 1967, was trying to create a new identity to meet the challenges of a new world. The truth was that the region had failed to devote the needed resources to higher education decades before and was now in a race to catch up with the rest of the world.

Thus, the global economy had a far-reaching effect on the daily lives in Northeast Ohio at almost every level. Things would never be the same.

            By 1980, Cleveland was exhausted and nearly inert from the political and racial turmoil that seemed to taint every issue that touched its citizens. It was so pervasive that during a political meeting on the East Side, an elderly black man leaned over to City Council President George Forbes and asked in all earnestness why no one could get along downtown.

The remark had a profound influence upon Forbes. It signaled that even the proverbial man in the street was sick and tired of a city hall that was a national joke and lacked the capability to staunch an ever increasing flow of population and business away from the city.

It also signaled how far the region was behind the rest of the global village.

The next decade in Cleveland would feature leadership that would attempt to bring order to the town.   Forbes was destined to be the most dominant figure. Outspoken and audacious, he had two agendas: helping blacks attain a respectable place in Cleveland society and making the city a better place for all. He could not achieve one without the other.

Together with Mayor George Voinovich, Forbes formed a leadership tandem that elevated the city from its chaos and engendered cooperation with the business community that had not been seen in years.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Forbes came here in 1950 after serving in the Marine Corps to attend Baldwin-Wallace College with the idea of becoming a minister. In time, his ambitions changed and in 1963, he was elected to the Cleveland City Council just as the civil rights movement was gaining traction.

By the 1970s, Forbes had become the most powerful black politician, following Carl Stokes’ tenure as mayor and his move to New York to become a television anchorman. Forbes was elected council president in 1973 and remained in that position throughout the 1980s.

After the tumult of the 1970s, the city needed a respite, and there was a sense of resignation on the part of the political and business leadership that in order for the city to have a future there needed to be more understanding and cooperation.

Only strong leadership could manage such a course through the no man’s land of tangled politics and civic malaise that was cast over the city as if a storm had passed through and left a wake of frustration.

Complementing Forbes was George Voinovich, elected mayor in 1980 who now was a seasoned public official, having served as a state representative, county auditor, county commissioner and lieutenant governor. Voinovich had the confidence of the business community and possessed a fiscal sensibility that gave city government a course of direction that it had not seen in a decade.

At first, Voinovich was leery of Forbes. By nature, Voinovich was conservative, quiet in his ways and not given to displays of emotion. The fact that he had the most successful political career of any mayor since Frank J. Lausche in 1944 testifies to his planning and patience. He was a man navigating a mine field when it came to his political career, careful with each step.

Conversely, Forbes was a man of action who paid little attention to the consequences. As city council president, he tolerated little deviation from his colleagues, fought frequently with the media and trumped with race-card politics. His radio talk show on WERE was regarded as outrageous, especially on the West Side where his humorous references to race were not taken lightly.

            If Voinovich tip-toed around controversial political issues, Forbes rushed through them like a rampaging bull. Together they made for interesting and effective leadership, something the city had not seen since the early Stokes administration

            Forbes had many admirers in the business community, especially James Davis, the managing partner of the powerful law firm Squires, Sanders & Dempsey. It was Davis who put the full weight of the firm behind Forbes when he was indicted on eleven counts for accepting a kickback from a traveling carnival. Davis rallied the business community to support Forbes, who was ultimately found innocent.

Davis acted as a mentor to the council president, instructing him in the ways of business, pointing out that government does not create jobs, but creates an environment where business can thrive and create jobs.

Something that was clearly not thriving as the decade opened was the Cleveland Press, the afternoon newspaper that had meant so much to the city for most of the century, at times acting as its very soul.   Time and circumstance had slowly sapped the strength from the paper. Television and an expanding highway system that lead from the city was destroying the newspaper. The six o’clock television news made the afternoon edition stale in content and the ever-broadening suburbs made timely delivery harder, limiting the newspaper’s reach to an ever-diminishing audience.

The history of The Press reached back 103 years and it was the flagship of the Scripps-Howard media empire. For 38 of those years The Press had been guided by Louis B. Seltzer, a self-educated man of such drive and vision that his will virtually dominated the city’s life in every way. There was no single person more powerful in the last century in Cleveland.

Seltzer understood the ethnic mix of Cleveland and promoted it through the newspaper. The process built reader confidence to such an extent that its endorsement, or lack thereof, could make or break a politician, project or position.

Regardless of his achievements, Seltzer had his flaws. The coverage of the 1954 Sheppard murder case would be judged by the U.S. Supreme Court as prejudicial to the defendant Sam Sheppard, who would ultimately be acquitted of the murder. Seltzer’s dominance over city hall was so complete that it had weakened the two-party system in a way that would affect politics for years.

Seltzer retired from The Press in 1965, but it was already clear that the newspaper was in decline. The Plain Dealer, for years an anemic competitor, had gained momentum through new management and by virtue of the times. The Plain Dealer staff celebrated the day it surpassed The Press in circulation in 1968.

After Seltzer left, The Press never regained its vitality. It was dutiful and competitive, but there was something troubling about its condition. It was almost like witnessing a friend or relative suffering a long and debilitating illness. It reportedly was losing $6 million annually.

It was no surprise then that in 1980, wealthy industrialist Joe Cole announced he had purchased The Press for $1 million and other considerations. Cole, long active in Democratic politics, intended to revitalize the newspaper and challenge The Plain Dealer.

The Press added color and a Sunday edition and outwardly appeared to be making a run at survival, but behind the scenes Cole was bleeding money at a rate he could not afford. Secretly, he began negotiations with the Newhouse family, owners of The Plain Dealer.

These negotiations resulted in the closing of The Press on June 17, 1982 in a transaction that saw the Newhouses pay Cole some $22.5 million for the subscription list of the Press, and its shopping news.

The circumstances surrounding the closing of the newspaper troubled its former employees and others who complained of antitrust violations. Finally, a federal grand jury was convened to hear testimony, but never returned an indictment,

The death of The Press would have a great impact on the city. The lack of competition would allow The Plain Dealer to lessen the intensity of its reporting over the next decade and in time the city and county would witness government corruption of historic proportion.

The issue of the municipal light plant, which had brought so much woe to the city for so long, still lingered. Voinovich was not about to let it simmer and come back to haunt him politically. Discussions of a possible sale to the Illuminating Company proved unsuccessful.

Finally, the administration confronted the issue by changing the image of what was known as “puny muny”, renaming it Cleveland Public Power and investing in its future. An embittered Illuminating Company countered by moving its headquarters to Akron.

Meanwhile, the embattled school system, under court- ordered busing, floundered from crisis to crisis. The office of superintendent was in a constant state of flux as one after another of the superintendents either failed or found himself in constant conflict with the school board. One superintendent even committed suicide.

The finances were so out of control that one study showed that the politicized custodians were making $1.3 million annually in overtime. The system needed $50 million to repair its buildings and the cost of busing was so expensive that the federal court ordered the state to pay half the cost. Busing did little to improve the academic standards of the system. The majority of students could not pass state proficiency tests.

Enrollment continued to drop, there was flight from the city and citizens finally passed a bond issue to repair schools only to have the school board and superintendent disagree on how the money should be used. The superintendent resigned in frustration. The school system appeared to be in a free fall.

The endless newspaper stories concerning the schools and the lack of quality education in Cleveland’s public system numbed readers, who turned elsewhere to relieve the constant reminder that they were witnessing failure on a massive scale. Sports would become an increasingly popular escape.

To that end, a foretelling meeting took place between George Forbes and a man named Richard Jacobs, a real estate developer who had enjoyed great success, but was little known in Cleveland circles. Jacobs had asked for a meeting with the council president to announce his intention to buy the Cleveland Indians.

The first thing Forbes asked is whether Jacobs could afford to do so. The developer just nodded and Forbes thought the man crazy.

Forbes reached for the phone and called Mayor Voinovich.

“Mayor, you better get down here quick,” Forbes said. I got a man in my office who wants to buy the Cleveland Indians…..Yes, he wants to buy the team with cash. Hurry, I’ll try to keep him here.”

The Cleveland Indians were city hall’s lingering nightmare. Since the 1950s, the team had floundered from one season to the next, cursed by bad luck, low attendance and indifferent ownership. In effect, it had become as much of a charity as any welfare agency in town, being passed from one wealthy family to another, who offered temporary sustenance, but no future.

Rumors that the team would move circulated annually, like a case of flu, and woe to the politicians in office if that was to occur. City Hall lived in fear of that moment. Several real attempts were made to move the team, but were staved off by aggressive newspaper coverage

The appearance of Jacobs would be a beacon of hope in more ways than one. The city had endured so much frustration and disappointment on so many fronts that its citizens had no contemplation of the future. That day in 1986 symbolized the dawning of new hope.

Richard Jacobs was an enigmatic man. Withdrawn, and circumspect to a fault, he was a brilliant businessman who had amassed millions developing shopping centers here and across the country.   No one shied from publicity as did Jacobs, so when he bought the Cleveland Indians, his name was as obscure to the public as some of those who played for him.

A native of Akron, Jacobs and his brother, David, had worked hard at building their business and appeared to be diverting somewhat from real estate to dabble in sports, a familiar path taken by men of means who wanted test their fortune in the public arena.

But Jacobs was not your average wealthy man playing at the game. In the beginning, he knew next to nothing about the business of baseball. However, he brought an intensity and financial acumen to the game the likes that had not been seen since the glory days of Bill Veeck in the 1940s.

He also had a keen eye for executive talent which, in turn, assembled a farm system that within a few years would produce a core of players that in the next decade would take the Cleveland Indians to two World Series.

While baseball was the most visible of his pursuits, Jacobs invested in the city in other ways. He purchased Erieview Tower, the orphan left from the aspirations of the ill-fated urban renewal projects of the 1950s, and built a stunning shopping mall on the top of a discarded ice rink called the Galleria.  

Later, he announced the construction of a new skyscraper on Public Square that would be known as Society Center which eventually became Key Center. He proposed yet another such building for the Ameritrust Bank on the western side of the square.

Already downtown was booming, aided by tax abatement, with the kind of building that had not been seen since the city’s halcyon pre-Depression days. Sohio cleared the eastern side of Public Square in 1985 and built a 45-story office building that respectfully maintained a lower profile than the Terminal Tower in height.

Forbes and others had urged Sohio to surpass the Cleveland landmark as a symbolic gesture of a new era. Sohio officials wanted to preserve the past and opted to allow the Terminal Tower to be the dominant skyline feature.

Not so Richard Jacobs. As the plans for his tower on Public Square evolved, a reporter asked whether it would be taller than the Terminal. In a rare moment of candor, Jacobs responded:

            “You’re damned right.”

Key Center would ultimately rise 888- feet tall, overlooking the Terminal by 180 feet. It was that symbolic split with the past that Forbes had sought from Sohio, a signal of a new kind of spirit in town.

            In a sense, Jacobs represented the pre-Depression drive that had fuelled Cleveland’s early growth

That spirit was typified by the building that was taking place downtown. National City Center rose 35 floors on the northwest coroner of East 9th Street and Euclid and opened in 1980. Eaton Center on Superior and East 12th Street was a 28-floor structure that was completed in 1983. Across the street the Charter One Bank building opened its seven stories in 1987.

In 1983, on East 9th Street, the silver, chisel-like structure knows as One Cleveland Center reached 31 stories high, the fifth tallest building in the city at the time.

            Ameritech built a 16-story contemporary headquarters on East 9th Street in the Erieview Plaza, the site of the controversial urban renewal project that was planned some thirty years prior.

            In 1985, where the old Cleveland Press building stood, a 19-story office building called North Point was built, housing the now international law firm of Jones, Day.

While all of these projects were changing the city’s skyline, its trademark symbol, The Terminal Tower, until 1964 the tallest building in the country outside of New York City, was undergoing a dramatic remake aimed at refocusing Public Square as the heart of Cleveland.

Forest City, a national real estate company founded by the Ratner family here in the 1920s, received $73-million in government loans and aid to convert the Terminal Tower concourse into a vast shopping and business facility now called Tower City Center. The dramatic make over featured some of the nation’s most fashionable stores.

Dick Jacobs’ influence was felt in other ways. His Cleveland Indians played in the dismal confines of Cleveland Municipal Stadium, a cavernous ballpark opened in 1931 that was considered a grand achievement in its time. The stadium was home to the Cleveland Browns as well and operated by the Stadium Corporation, a business entity that leased the facility from the city. Stadium Corporation was run by Art Modell who was the principal owner of the Browns.

Since 1961, when he arrived from New York and bought the Browns, Modell was celebrated as the city’s sports impresario. Outgoing, self deprecating and emotional, Modell carried with him the stigma of having fired one of the best coaches in all of football, Paul Brown, and then never delivering a team that matched the consistency under him.

Shortly after buying the Indians, Jacobs asked Modell to review the lease agreement the team had with Stadium Corporation. The Indians were getting less of the advertising revenues from the signage than the Browns, even though the baseball team played far more games.

            Modell refused, and while it was a minor thing it was an ominous omen of things to come. It was clear to Jacobs that he had to have his own stadium if his baseball venture was to be successful.

            At one point he asked Modell if the Cleveland Browns were for sale. They were not, replied Modell. Jacobs longed to own a National Football League franchise.

For years there had been talk of building a new stadium or putting a dome on the existing field. The conversation and proposals were aimless, typical of how the city dealt with major municipal projects. But the town was coming to the understanding that if it was going to keep major league sports, something would have to be done about a new stadium or even stadiums.

Other cities were building new stadiums and the baseball commissioner publicly commented that unless Cleveland followed suit there was the distinct possibility of the Indians moving to another town.

In 1984, a proposed increase in property taxes was put on the ballot to finance a domed stadium. Raising property taxes was a political mistake of the first order and opponents had a field day. The issue also was soundly defeated, a signal that the public was reluctant to support the construction of a sports facility at its own expense.

The failure of the tax issue sent Modell a message. In all likelihood, there would be no new stadium in the near future and his best course of action would be to improve the existing structure. The Stadium Corporation was responsible for the upkeep of Municipal Stadium and the money for improvements would have to come from the corporation.

Modell asked the city for a ten-year extension on the stadium lease, expecting quick approval since the city enjoyed a constant stream of revenue from the arrangement. Negotiations lingered for nearly a year before he dropped the proposal, his frustration increasing.

For all of his civic involvement, and it was substantial, Modell never had a true sense of politics. He contributed to campaigns, knew four Presidents, but lacked clout at city hall, possibly because he never really needed it. Now circumstances were changing and rapidly.

Dick Jacobs had little political savvy when he first showed interest in the city and its baseball team. But he was a quick study, a man who did not delude himself about the limits of his knowledge. His quiet manner belied the fact that he was always working, gathering information about the city and those who made it work.

Everyone around him was a source and he politely used those sources to gain needed insights into his interests. He did not suffer fools and was quick to judge who might be helpful to him and who might not.

In this way, he gained an edge on Modell in the maneuvering for a new stadium. Modell waited for the city to call him, Jacobs had his strategy in place before most even knew there was any need for one.

For all of the love for the Browns and Indians, there was a resentment toward supporting the teams with public money, part of a psychology that had plagued the city from its populist days. There was an underlying suspicion that progress actually meant that someone was taking unfair advantage of the public. This shadowy mistrust would manifest itself in many ways in the succeeding years around the stadium issue.

As far as Dick Jacobs was concerned, there was no question that the city needed a new stadium and so did he. He needed it to succeed with the Indians and did not hesitate in his efforts to achieve that end.

The organization that had attempted to build a domed stadium had acquired 28 acres of land in what was called the Gateway area on the site of the old Central Market at Ontario and Carnegie Avenues. Jacobs looked at this area as the location of a new stadium, first proposing a 44,000-seat stadium that could roll out another 28,000 seats for football. It was an effort at compromise, but in truth, all parties wanted an outdoor baseball-only facility.

That included Modell who found himself in financial straits. Free agency in the National Football League had changed the economics of the game, and the maintenance   of the old stadium was unexpectedly expensive. It was clear that the new baseball facility would cost him a tenant, and the likelihood of there being enough money available to build two stadiums appeared remote. He had no choice but work on a plan to renovate Municipal Stadium.

Modell proposed a renovation of the facility that would modernize it and cost taxpayers less than $100 million. The idea drew a lot of attention, but city hall appeared to be cold to the idea.

As the decade drew to a close it was clear that the Gateway site would hold a new ballpark if voters would pass a sin tax on alcohol and cigarettes. It was unclear what was going to happen to Municipal Stadium. No one knew it yet, but the uncertainty of the stadium’s fate would lead to the bitterest moment in Cleveland sports history.

Elsewhere, the city was enjoying itself. The once-shabby Flatarea near the mouth of the Cuyahoga River had come to life as a retinue of bars and restaurants lined its banks, creating an atmosphere of gaiety that had not been seen in the city in years.

Boaters docked at the river’s edge and enjoyed the revelry. Acclaimed in the national media, Cleveland’s Flats became a symbol of a revived city that was basking in its apparent good fortune. A reported $2 billion worth of construction was altering its skyline. For the first time since the Depression, there was genuine optimism about the future.

            Not only were the Flats burgeoning with excitement, but Playhouse Square and its grand theaters, which were on the verge of being razed in the 1970s, took on a new life, its marquees once more aglitter. Playhouse Square was once again developing into an entertainment district that could rival most cities. It was a prime example of what the city’s civic effort could achieve in preserving the town’s cultural heritage.

But amidst all the good news, came a dour note. It was announced in 1987 that one of the city’s most venerable and benevolent companies, Standard Oil of Ohio, known as Sohio, was being taken over by British Petroleum.

Sohio could trace its roots to the beginnings of John D. Rockefeller’s oil empire that began in the Flats in 1870. The wealth that he and his associates created became the foundation of Cleveland’s future cultural and commercial life   Slowly, the red and white Sohio signs on gas stations were replaced by the green and yellow BP colors and another era faded away.

BP kept its American headquarters here for a few years, but ultimately moved to Chicago when it merged with Amoco. The loss of old businesses would be a recurring theme in the city as the manufacturing era faded, taking with it jobs and economic security.

The ominous shadow of globalization continued to be cast across a city that had allowed itself to dwell in the past.

When George Voinovich left the lieutenant governor’s job to run for mayor, he told those business leaders that urged him to return to Cleveland that it was his wish to run for governor some day.

He was reelected twice as mayor and it could be argued that his time in office was one of the most productive in the modern era.

Voinovich projected the city’s comeback image nationally, his administration winning three All-American City awards for Cleveland, which he in turn leveraged in a run for higher office.

In 1988, Voinovich ran for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Howard Metzenbaum and was thoroughly defeated, 57% to 43%. The following year he announced he would not seek reelection as mayor. He would run for governor in 1990 and win.

After a decade of progress and relative tranquility, the 1989 mayor’s race broke with the fury and force of an unexpected storm. It was a contest between the past and the future, the mentor and the pupil, the lion in winter and the tiger at dawn.

If George Voinovich could look back on his stewardship with some pride, Council President George Forbes could share in the glow. In the end, and not without some difficulties in style, the two performed well together and the city benefited from it.

Now with the mayor’s office vacant, Forbes eyed it warily. Business leaders urged him to run, especially Dick Jacobs who had developed a friendship with the council president. Forbes had been in city council for 25 years and had endured some of the most difficult years in the city’s history.

Some close to the campaign wondered   whether Forbes had his heart in being mayor.

There was no doubt that his opponent, Michael White, had his heart in the race. Young, articulate, volatile and smart, White had grown up in the city council dominated by Forbes.   He had learned the vagaries and manipulations and politics that governed that body and now he wanted to guide the city’s destiny.

There could not have been a clearer demarcation between the two eras than a contest between George Forbes and Mike White. If this was a moment of historical transition, the shifting of power would not take place in a quiet, well- ordered manner.  

These were two strong- willed men who knew the streets of the city as well as the halls of government.   It was apparent that they did not like each other and would conduct a bitter fight over the race. Forbes accused White of being a slum landlord and a wife beater, while White countered by calling Forbes’ wife a front person for shady investments.

White, a state senator at 38, used the city’s success against Forbes saying that wealthy investors were given special tax breaks without regard for the poor. It was as nasty a political campaign has the city had ever seen.

With two black candidates fighting for votes, the white community became the pivotal factor and there was no reservoir of good will residing there for Forbes. His talk show days on WERE in the 1970s where he had made light of racial issues came back to haunt him.

To many white West Side voters, Forbes symbolized the racial conflict in the city. Those close to Forbes knew that many of his actions were more theatrical than real, but the perception was enough to cost him any chance of election citywide.

He seemed to know it, too. During the campaign, as the polls mirrored the impossibility of it all, Forbes seemed to mellow and back off. He had served longer than any other person as the president of city council and had left his mark on the city in many ways.  

And he had, as that old man asked ten years before, answered the question of people getting along downtown. Yet most of the progress in the decade was cosmetic, and failed to address the city and the region’s place in the on going globalization that was enveloping the world.

The 1980s proved to be, at best a brief respite from reality. The ghost of the Depression and the specter of globalization still loomed heavily on the future of Northeast Ohio.

            Mike White won the election to become the first black mayor since Carl Stokes in 1971.   The 1990s beckoned with promise. White appeared dynamic, driven toward maintaining the momentum that had been so hard to generate after the turmoil of the 1970s.

            The upcoming decade would be bittersweet, full of triumph and disaster and Mike White would ride it through as the longest- sitting mayor in Cleveland’s history. But the city mattered less and less to the future and prosperity of the region.

            There continued to be a desperate need to confront the reality of the region’s place in the world.

The next chapter: “Cleveland in the 1990s” by Mike Roberts is here

Interview with George Forbes by Mike Roberts Inside Business July 2007 Issue

Interview with George Forbes by Mike Roberts Inside Business  July 2007 Issue

The link is here

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.




Interview With George Forbes 2011 – Benjamin Rose Foundation

Interview with George Forbes done in 2011 by the Benjamin Rose Foundation

The link is here


Interview Date: June 2011

Printable Version

On a sunny late spring afternoon, in the living room of his University Circle home, George Forbes, fit and trim as he enters his ninth decade, shared his thoughts and feelings about what it was like growing up in the South before the Civil Rights Movement, and how his childhood experiences shaped his world view and political career; what working as a Cleveland teacher and postal worker taught him about politics before he was elected to Cleveland City Council in 1964; and what life has been like — busy, challenging, rewarding — since he left City Hall more than 20 years ago.

When and where were you born and where are you in the sibling line-up?

I was born April 4, 1931 in Memphis, Tennessee. My parents had nine children. The youngest child died when she was two years old and I was the next in line, so I virtually grew up as the youngest child.

What did your parents do?

My father worked for a Proctor and Gamble Company in Memphis, the Buckeye Cotton and Oil Company. They took cotton seeds and reduced them to oil, making linseed oil. On the side, he farmed. And since there were 8 of us children, we farmed, too.

We planted cotton and corn and in the fall we never went back to school when it started in September. We never went until November, when all the crops were laid by…and none of us ever failed a grade. The teachers made sure that we made up the time and the lessons that we had missed.

My mother raised eight children and worked as a domestic in the homes of wealthy Southern Whites, sometimes, too. When she’d come home, with eight kids we ate out of tin plates, but she insisted that we use the right utensils and cut our food properly and know the social graces.

You grew up  came of age  during World War II. How do you think it shaped the person you are today? Or did it?

During the war, my brother went into the service and my sisters’ husbands went into the service, but it really didn’t affect me. I was affected the same way most teens were: We knew who Hitler was and we knew he was bad and we had to win the war.

My real coming of age came from what I was seeing and experiencing in the Black community.

The darker you were, the lower on the totem pole you were, which led to inequities and disparities within the community itself, and I didn’t want to be a part of that.

When I was 13, I worked as a short-order cook at one of the hotels in Memphis. I’d go to work at two o’clock and work till 11, a full shift. And then I’d take the last streetcar home. When it stopped at the corner where the jail was, all these people with bandages on their heads and arms come out and get on the streetcar. That was what I was seeing and experiencing, too. And it was also something I didn’t want to be part of.

When you rode the bus, you never thought about the fact that you paid the same fare, but that you walked to the back for a seat. When a Black woman went to a department store, she couldn’t try on a hat, she just bought it. At restaurants there was a counter for Black people and White people. If there wasn’t a seat in the Black section, you just had to stand around and wait till one came up.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a lawyer, and there was a case being tried of a young Black man who’d been charged with murder, and I went to the courthouse to the trial. I was the only Black there, and I sat in the section for Blacks during the trial. When I had to go to the bathroom I went into the [Black’s] bathroom and while I was standing at the urinal the sheriff came in  I knew him  and he asked me: ‘What are you doing here?’ And when I told him I’d come to hear and see the trial he told me to leave. He ran me out of the bathroom.

But what I want to make clear here is that at that time, those things weren’t considered indignities, they were considered normal, par for the course. That’s the reason the teachers at my high school, which was segregated, were always telling us: ‘When you finish school, go North.’ And that’s exactly what I did.

When did you move to Cleveland, then?

I moved here when I finished high school in 1949, but I’d come up to Cleveland to live with a brother and work the summer of 1948. I worked at a place in the Flats called Cleaners’ Hangers. They made clothes hangers and my job was to take the wire hangers off the line and put them in an oven to bake on the finish line. That was the first time I’d ever worked in a factory.

Where did you go to high school, then?

I went to Manassas High School, one of the two Black high school’s in Memphis. I didn’t know anything about mixing with White people until I went into the service. And I was never in a class with a White person until I went to Baldwin-Wallace College in 1954.

In school, what were you good at…and not so good at?

I was in a group of young Black men, called the Speaker’s and Writers’ Club. At school our teachers encouraged us to do our best. No, they demanded it. And they didn’t allow any foolishness. You buckled down and did what you were supposed to and were capable of…so that you’d be prepared for the world.

Even then, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, even though there were no Black lawyers in Memphis at that time, so I was doing a lot of writing and acting and oral presentations. I really liked things like history and English and the arts. I was OK in math, but I dodged chemistry and physics, even in college.

You went into the Marines after high school, serving during the Korean War. Where were you stationed and what did you do in the Marines?

I was in Cleveland when I was drafted into the Marines, so I had to go back to Memphis for the induction and processing. I did basic training at Paris Island, South Carolina, and that was the first time I really felt like a man. The instructors were tough  very tough. They knocked you down and they didn’t discriminate: they were equally tough on Whites and Blacks, and I’d never seen Whites get the same kind of treatment Blacks got. Now I realize that they were tough on all of us because they wanted to turn us into Marines, so in combat we’d survive.

When I left Paris Island, I went to the Third Marine Air Base in Opa Locka near Miami. I’d cooked in hotels and I went to the chaplain and told him that I knew how to cook, and he called the commander and pretty soon I was a cook. And that’s what I did the whole time I was in the Marines. Later I was transferred to Quantico [Virginia] and was there till I was discharged.

When you got out of the Marines, you went to Baldwin-Wallace on the GI Bill. Were you still planning on being a lawyer?

No. I got out of the Marines in 1953 and started there in 1954. And when I started I was thinking about being a minister. And Baldwin-Wallace was a good choice for that: It was founded by Methodists.

But my first year I had an Old Testament teacher who was a racist: there really is no other way to describe him. To me there was an inconsistency in his teaching of the Bible and his personal actions and I shied away from the ministry. And, since being a lawyer had always been in the back of my mind, that’s when I decided to become a lawyer.

There was an instructor there, Themistocles Rodis, who taught history and political science, and since I was one of the older students there — going on the GI Bill  we became more than just teacher and student, we became friends. He’s one of the people responsible for me becoming a lawyer.

When I read in the paper  maybe three years ago  that he’d died, I went to his funeral. His wife and kids remembered me.

While you were going to law school, you taught in Cleveland. What did you teach and where did you teach?

When I graduated from college in 1957, I started at Cleveland-Marshall Law School at Cleveland State. I was married and we had a child, so I needed to make a living while I was going to law school, so I got my teaching certificate in social studies and became a substitute teacher in Cleveland, but my real job security was at the post office. They arranged my schedule so that I was able to work 40 hours a week  days and weekends  and go to law school nights.

[Laughs] Don’t ask me how I did it  subbing, going to school and the full-time job at the post office. It was a juggle.

What did you learn teaching and at the post office that you took with you into the political arena?

From teaching, I realized that the system had to be more responsive to the needs of kids, and Black kids in particular, and the communities, too. The problems were starting to germinate when I was working in the system and I could see them first hand, not just because I was substitute teaching, but on a personal level, too. My oldest daughter, when she started school, went to school only half a day and she had to go to school in the basement of a church. I knew there had to be a change in the system.

From the post office, I learned about job discrimination. Educated Black men couldn’t get jobs in the corporate sector in Cleveland  at Lincoln Electric, Thompson Products, places like that  so they ended up at the post office…[S]ome of the smartest guys in Cleveland, educated at some of the best schools in the US, ended up driving trucks and sorting mail at the post office because there was no place for them  for us  in the corporate sector. I never forgot that.

You were elected to City Council in 1963. How did that come about? In other words, who were you running against, why did you run, what were you running ‘for’, and what were you running ‘against’?

You are taking me back almost 50 years. And I’m going to answer you in a roundabout way.

In Memphis, Blacks could always vote, and my parents always voted, but they voted for whom they were told to vote. Boss Crump’s machine ran Memphis. You’d see him, in his white straw hat, walking the streets.

When I was at college, I was president of the Young Dems, and I’d been politically active, for years. When I was in law school and my wife and I moved to the 27 th Ward [now part of Ward 9], I and my brother became active in the Ward Club. That was when Bill Sweeney was the councilman.

When the ward’s demographics began to change, Bill, who was White, decided not to run, so I said I’d run because it was a chance to become actively involved in the affairs of the City of Cleveland. There were seven or eight other people running, but the strongest candidate was Anna Brown, a very qualified lady who was a Republican and later, under Ralph Perk, became head of Cleveland’s Department on Aging. But she was a Republican, running in a predominantly Democratic ward. I won and went down to City Hall.

What were you running ‘for’ and ‘against’ in that first election?

I was running ‘for’ the chance to make a difference and to preserve the neighborhood, which at that time was a very middle-class neighborhood. I was young and enthusiastic and married and had a child. Their vote was my opportunity to go out and serve.

Most politicians have a mentor, someone who saw their abilities and their passion and nurtured them along. Who was your mentor?

That’s something I’m seldom asked, and there were two.

When I went into City Hall, Charlie Carr was the Majority Leader in Council and a very wise man. He came from Texas and just hated discrimination and he guided me in when to talk and when to keep my mouth closed. He was a really good strategist.

The other was James Davis, a firm Republican who came from Iowa. He was the President of the Growth Association and also managing partner at Squire, Sanders and Dempsey…For some reason we hit it off and he showed me the other side of [Republicanism]. We’d have lunch once or twice a month  me, this young, Black lawyer-politician out of the South  and he showed me that politics doesn’t create jobs, that politicians create opportunity and the atmosphere for jobs. He’d listen to me and ideas that I had and then he’d tell me  he was much older than I what would work and what wouldn’t.

In my years in Council, I combined philosophies about economic growth with the practical political astuteness of Charlie Carr. [Sighs] Both have been gone a long time.

In 1971, you founded Cleveland’s first Black-owned law firm. What led you to do that?

Up till then, Blacks were mostly practicing out in the neighborhoods  I had an office at 123 rd and St. Clair  as one-or-two person offices. Clarence Gaines, a councilman along with me, and Clarence Rodgers, who was a federal prosecutor, and Earl Horton, another lawyer, got together one day and, because we were friends, we got to talking about starting a law firm. We decided to take the office furniture, and the staff we had, and rent offices downtown and see if we could make it work. Our first office was in the Marion Building, at 1276 W. 3 rd , right across from the Justice Center. And we did alright.

Eventually my daughter [Helen Fields] came into the firm with me and Earl, that was at least 25 years ago, and later on, so did her husband, a bond lawyer. Now we are Forbes, Fields, and Associates. I’d say that half the work we do now is bond related.

In your 20s and 30s, you were incredibly busy, and involved in a lot of things that didn’t leave you much time for socializing. So when did you meet your wife, Mary, and when did you marry?

We met when I was in college at Baldwin-Wallace. She’d finished school already and was a social worker working with children. In my last year, we married  that was 1957  and we’ve been married for 54 years. We had three girls: two are lawyers and one is a social worker, like her mother.

Having a social worker for a wife is a tremendous advantage for a politician, in terms of knowing the social issues impacting the community. Did your wife every get interested in politics?

Not really. We kept things separate. I didn’t mix the family and politics. And that was partly due to my wife’s personality. She’s a very low-key lady.

And, when I came home from work, I left the work at the door. We never talked about politics or work-related things at home…And I think that’s part of my mental success, that I didn’t bring the frustrations of City Hall home with me, that when I came home I was husband and dad and we’d do family things, go out to eat, go to the circus.

You spent almost 30 years immersed in Cleveland politics — from the early 1960s till you lost the election for mayor in 1989— then you pretty much dropped out of election-based politics. Looking back, what are the accomplishments you are most proud of during your years on Cleveland’s City Council?

In anticipation of this interview, I asked myself, did I make a difference?

And the answer is yes, I did. And that’s the thing I think about when I tally the sheets and get all the crazy stuff the throwing books and all  out of the way. When you boil things down to their essence, that’s it: I made a difference.

I was reading the [ Plain Dealer ] one Sunday morning and there was an article in it about the 50 most important people in the history of the City of Cleveland. And there was my name.

It wasn’t a list compiled by reporters; it was compiled by civic leaders and city historians. And I could not believe my name was there, but when I saw it, I knew I’d made a difference, that I hadn’t neglected the things that I’d set out to do: to make sure that the poor and the Black were included in the progress of the City of Cleveland.

I know I’ve done other things, but with regard to making a difference  a positive difference  I accomplished what was always the foremost thing in my mind.

You have always been a controversial figure. How do you thing that helped your career and how do you think it hurt it?

Go back to what you just asked me. Was what I did unorthodox a lot of the time? Yes. But I don’t think, over-all that I was penalized because of the controversy.

In those times it was necessary if you were going to move things off-center, if you were going to move things forward, if you were going to move [the city] in the direction we needed to go…forward, not backward into the past.

With regard to your political career, what’s the one thing you’d do differently if you could have a do-over?

[Laughs] We like to think we haven’t done anything that needs a do-over…but, I probably could have toned down the language I’ve used. It was offensive to some people. But it was offensive because I wanted to be effective.

Today, I probably wouldn’t use that kind of forceful language — as much. But I realized, from my days substitute teaching, that you can’t get through to people unless they are listening to you. You have to have their attention. And a lot of the language I used was to get peoples’ attention. But, as I look back, I probably could have done that — or most of it — another way.

In 2007, The Plain Dealer published that article saying you were one of the 50 most influential people in Cleveland’s history. Yet few people realize the huge impact you have had on Cleveland. Why do you think that is?

I think part of it is that things happened over time, the impact was cumulative, year-to-year, term-to-term, working with different mayors. And the media coverage of things changed, too. When I came to Cleveland, there were three papers in Cleveland: The Plain Dealer, The Cleveland Press and The Cleveland News. Now there is just one, and fewer people are reading it. But the main reason, I think, is that people don’t live in the past. And I don’t either. I’ve probably been to City Hall three times since I left.

You effectively “retired” from Cleveland politics after the 1989 mayoral race, which you lost to Michael White. However, I suspect that without missing a beat, you became involved in other “civic” activities. So, what have you been doing for the City of Cleveland since you left “politics?”

One of the things, obviously, is that I became involved in NAACP. And making sure that minority rights are protected has kept me busy. And when I left City Hall, I taught at Baldwin-Wallace for 10 years. That was, frankly, one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

And I’m still actively involved in putting people together to discuss the social and economic issues that are impacting the city. Last year the Speaker of the [Ohio] House asked me to arrange a meeting with Black leaders, so I helped set up a meeting with about 50 local leaders at Karamu.

[Laughs] But, you know, I just turned 80, so I’m not as active at it as I used to be.

And speaking of being 80, and all the things you are doing, where does the energy come from?

Well, one place it comes from is that I’m no longer full-time at the office. About two years ago, I went into the office one day and I told my daughter: I don’t want to do this anymore. And I really didn’t.

Since then, while I’ve been doing some advising at the office, I’ve been focusing on NAACP and community-related things. [Pointing at the nearby phone that had rung constantly during our interview] I’m busy doing things that matter, that count, that keep me going.

But the question is still, where does the energy come from?

[Laughs] Good genes! Both my parents passed away in their 80s.

But that’s just part of it. There’s attitude, too. I’ve always wanted be up and doing and going and participating in what’s going on around me. I’ve always wanted to be on the train, not watching it pass by.

You have been, and still are, in good physical shape. What did you do in the past, and what are you doing now, to stay physically, and mentally, fit?

Well, there are those good genes. But, I’ve always been a walker especially around the neighborhood and I like doing the treadmill at the health club, too — but I’ve come down with vertigo and I fell a couple of times last winter. With medication’s I’m controlling the problem, and I’ve made some adaptations in how I do things, so I’m still walking.

When we were in Florida I walked two miles every day, and not playing golf. I’d go up to the supermarket, buy the New York Times and I’d take my walking stick and walk a mile one way and then turn around and come back. I used the walking stick for balance. Now that I’m home, I’ll be starting back at the health club.

What about diet?

For me, food’s never really been an issue, but I also have a wife and three daughters who raise a ruckus if I even mention fried chicken, so, if I stay off the cookies and ice cream, I’m in good shape there.

MythBusters is all about successful aging. But everyone’s definition of what that is differs, so what’s your definition of successful aging?

I’ve never thought about aging, much less successful aging, till recently. But I’ve come to realize that it’s a process. And I’ve also realized that the “aging club” is a “club” that a lot of people don’t get to join. At 80, I’m fortunate to be a member of a very select group of people. So, to me, successful aging means that I am not just “busy,” it means I’m engaged and continuing my life’s work and that I’m accomplishing things. And one thing I’ve come to realized as I’ve thought about this is that helping others is part of the process of successful aging. That’s why, when the phone rings here, I pick it up.

Getting older is what it is and I don’t try to act 60 or 70 because I don’t view aging as a disadvantage, I view it as an advantage because of the experience it brings with it. That is an asset, another state and stage of life for me to take advantage of. Oh, I recognize that I’m not as mentally sharp or as physically robust as I once was, but I also recognize that I’m aging successfully — because I’m adaptable — and I’m making it work for me.

What do you think people who read this profile should be doing, on a daily basis, to age successfully?

Don’t resist aging. Don’t fight it, embrace where and who you are at this stage of life…and enjoy the beauty of it.

Teaching Cleveland Digital