Good or bad, right or wrong, I alone have been your mayor.
– FRED KOHLER –
Fred Kohler was Cleveland’s most colorful mayor – and the colors were orange and black. They showed up on park benches, waste baskets, city buildings, hydrants and especially signs like the one above.
But even without paint, nobody was as colorful as Kohler. In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt called him “the best police chief in the United States.” He was fired in disgrace for “gross immorality” in 1913, and defeated by voters in 1913, 1914, 1915 and 1916.
Then, in 1921, he was elected mayor in what The Plain Dealer called “the most bizarre and dramatic mayoralty fight Cleveland has ever witnessed” – one in which he was opposed by Democrats, Republicans, newspapers, ministers and civic organizations. And one in which he had no organization, no campaign funds and made no speeches and no promises.
Fred Kohler dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work in his father’s business. In 1889, at the age of 25, he achieved his boyhood dream of becoming a police officer. He rose quickly through the ranks and in 1903 was named chief by Democratic Mayor Tom L. Johnson, even though Kohler himself was a Republican.
He built a national reputation as a spit-and-polish chief who wielded an ax on vice raids while adopting a “golden rule” policy in which first-time minor offenders were released with a warning. He put houses of prostitution out of business by stationing an officer at the door to take the names and addresses of their customers.
In 1910, Mayor Herman Baehr tried to fire Kohler on 25 charges of drunkenness, immorality and conduct unbecoming a police officer, but the Civil Service Commission exonerated him. He was not as fortunate in 1913, after a citizen returned home to find the police chief in bed with his wife. There was a messy divorce and ministers demanded Kohler’s dismissal.
This time, the Civil Service Commission fired him. “All right, boys,” Kohler told reporters. “I’ll be leading the Police Department down Euclid Ave. again someday.”
He promptly ran for councilman in his home ward. To everyone’s surprise, he finished first in first-place votes but lost when second- and third-place votes were counted.
Undaunted, he ran for sheriff the next year and lost. Then he ran for clerk of Municipal Court and lost. Then he ran for county commissioner and won the Republican nomination but lost the general election. In 1918, however, he was elected county commissioner – the only Republican to win that year – and in 1920, led all vote-getters in winning a second term.
That made Kohler a contender for mayor. Still, nobody gave him a chance in the seven-candidate field, especially since he shunned all public appearances. Instead, he trod the streets for months, ringing doorbells and telling citizens, “Hello, I’m Kohler. I’m running for mayor. If you vote for me, I’ll appreciate it. If you don’t, I’ll never know and we can still be good friends just the same.”
Kohler amazed the experts by finishing first, 2,500 votes ahead of Mayor William Fitzgerald. He amazed them again by naming a highly qualified Cabinet without even asking his appointees whether they had voted for him. His first order to them: Prepare a list of unnecessary city workers.
Before the month was out, he had fired 400 employees, cut the pay of the rest by 10 percent, forced them to punch time clocks and notified city unions that existing labor agreements would not be renewed. When the unions threatened a general strike, Kohler said the city would close down if it had to. Critics tried to recall him, but failed to collect the 15,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot.
Anticipating Dennis Kucinich by 65 years, he called a council investigation “a bunch of pinheads seeking cheap publicity.” At the dedication of Public Hall, he denounced “uplifters” (the do-gooders of that era) who got in the way of “practical roughnecks” like himself. Three of his directors resigned after run-ins.
He rejected plans to buy new guns for police, telling them instead to keep the old ones clean. He put signs in city elevators: “Please keep your hats on so that you may have better service.”
But he also stepped up paving, cut streetcar fares, put up street signs, made police shine their shoes, bought an elephant for the zoo, ordered cleanups of city property and told employees they would not be forced to contribute to the Community Fund. And he kept citizens informed of his accomplishments with orange-and-black signs such as, “Tax and Rent Payers have received a dollar’s worth of value for every dollar spent – FRED KOHLER , MAYOR.”
At the end of his term, Kohler declared he had saved taxpayers $1.8 million. Nobody knows whether he would have been re-elected – the city manager plan took effect at the beginning of 1924 – but he won two terms as county sheriff after leaving City Hall. The second ended in turmoil when he was reprimanded for skimping on prisoners’ food and using the money thus saved for other purposes instead of returning it to the county.
Years later, he reflected on his career: “Yes, sir, I wouldn’t mind going all over it again, because I know I was right. And if I did, I’d tell all the old crowd to go to hell – newspapers, council, uplifters, tipoff guys, political hangers-on, bookbugs, ingrates – the whole crowd. I’d paint everything orange again.
“I know I’ve been accused of being high-handed, but I was elected mayor, not anybody else. It was my picnic or my funeral.”