Politics through the 1980s

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

The link is here

POLITICS. For most of its history, Cleveland has been governed much like other American cities. A mayor elected at large and a council chosen by wards have usually constituted the formal instruments of administration and legislation, while a multiplicity of private groups have sought to influence the direction of public policy. With some exceptions, Cleveland’s mayors before World War II were business and professional men of old-stock Protestant ancestry. Those who were 2nd-generation Americans, such as HARRY L. DAVIS† and FRED KOHLER†, were Protestants whose fathers came from Wales and Germany, respectively. The election of FRANK LAUSCHE† in 1941 brought Catholic and Slovenian background to the mayoralty, and since Lausche, Cleveland’s mayors have come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and from the black community (see AFRICAN AMERICANS). Ward elections made the council reflect the ethnic diversity of the city much earlier. In 1903 councilmen separated into the “Irish” and the “Germans” for purposes of playing baseball, and surnames of council representatives at the time indicate that the team titles made sense. By the 1920s, people of Southern and Eastern European origins, along with an occasional black, began to win seats on the council and increasingly to play leadership roles. By the 1930s the general ethnic makeup of the ward and the background of the councilperson corresponded fairly closely, making the council something of a representative democracy among the larger nationality groups in the city. Only a minority of council members were workers; most were small businessmen and professionals, especially lawyers–a development not always pleasing to the city’s economic elite who had to bribe councilmen to get what they thought they were entitled to as a matter of right. Individual council members lacked the time, staff, or expertise to deal with complicated matters of physical development or the city’s relationships with its privately owned public-service corporations. The council, then, was reactive rather than proactive.

Yet it was not corruption or incapacity that most concerned leading businessmen, but the council’s inescapable parochialism. Cleveland’s legislature was a living embodiment of the dictum that all politics are local politics. Council members were products of particular wards with their individual mixtures of ethnicity and class, and they approached proposals primarily from the perspective of “What’s in it for my ward?” Whether or not they formally articulated their views, most believed that the city was primarily a collection of neighborhoods where people lived most of their lives and did not want to be taxed for the sole benefit of downtown or some distant ward on the other side of town. The elite, on the other hand, saw the city as an organic whole, with its various parts organized in a functional and spatial division of labor under the direction of downtown business and professional leaders. These men believed that what was good for major industry and downtown business was good for the city as a whole and wanted public policies that promoted economic growth and maintained an orderly and efficient city. From this perspective, the council’s insistence on ensuring that each part of the city benefited equally from city improvements simply promoted inefficiency or wasteful duplication.

Parochialism came from the voters as well as members of the council. Ohio’s stringent limitations upon cities’ taxing and borrowing power meant that additional levies and many bond issues for capital improvements had to be approved by the voters. The council could issue bonds only to a stipulated percentage of the city’s tax duplicate, the total of assessed valuation of property in Cleveland. After 1902 the council had to secure a 60% “For” vote on any bonds that it wished to issue that would raise the total face value of bonds outstanding beyond the 4% of the duplicate. The total permitted of such voter-approved bonds was an additional 4% of the duplicate. Proposals to build bridges or eliminate grade crossings usually required voter approval, and the 60% majority meant that any organized opposition could defeat a bond issue. Thus, any grade-crossing elimination had to package sites from western, eastern, or southern portions of the city or face certain defeat. Sometimes the council tried to leave the proposed location of a bridge off the bond-issue ballot to minimize opposition from those who wanted the bridge somewhere else. The most important spatial separation in Cleveland was that between east and west sides, divided by the broad valley of the CUYAHOGA RIVER. The location of the central business district east of the river was a result of the 1825 decision to locate the northern terminus of the Ohio canal there–a circumstance which facilitated its commercial and residential development. West-siders had much more reason to cross over than east-siders, many of whom could see little reason to approve bond issues for bridges that they would rarely use. Outside the formal structure of government, the most important political players were the party organization, and such groups as the Chamber of Commerce (GREATER CLEVELAND GROWTH ASSN.) and the Chamber of Industry, an association organized in 1907 to promote west side interests. In addition, there were a number of locally oriented improvement associations. As in other cities, the party organizations were most concerned with organizational maintenance and the avoidance of divisive issues. Those who wished something from the city found it useful to have friends in both major parties. Major businessmen were overwhelmingly Republican, but the VAN SWERINGENS†’ man in council was Democrat JAMES J. MCGINTY†. The Chamber of Commerce, an outgrowth of the earlier Board of Trade, was extremely influential in the city’s political life. In the early 20th century, it had a paid staff and could command the time and attention of the most important men in the city. Its committees consisted of leading industrialists and their commercial and professional allies. These committees prepared well-researched and -written reports on items of interest to the chamber. These resources were precisely what the council lacked, so that in many instances the chamber could control the agenda and frame the terms of debate. The chamber’s style was to seek agreement among all the economic interests involved in a particular policy area. Where such agreement was possible, as in the Group Plan of public buildings, the projects were moved forward. Where it was not, such as lakefront development, nothing much happened.

Conspicuously absent from the deliberations of the chamber were small businessmen, workers, and those of recent immigrant origin. They were “the people” whose function it was to man the factories, do the domestic chores, and approve the initiatives of the chamber at the polls. Still, so long as most business and professional leaders lived within the city limits, the chamber maintained a general interest in the functioning of the city. A city that promoted the well-being of its workers would be an economically efficient unit. By the mid-1920s, however, most of its leaders no longer lived in the city; the chamber expressed less interest in the general welfare and focused more exclusively on economic development and keeping taxes down. The census of 1930 indicated that the suburbs taken together were of higher socioeconomic status than the city, as affluent Clevelanders sought a more commodious lifestyle outside the city. The political impact of suburbanization was highlighted in 1931 when the 3 leading candidates for the mayoralty all had to move back into the city to establish legal residences.

Although leaders of the CITIZENS LEAGUE OF GREATER CLEVELAND lived in the suburbs, as a leading civic organization the league believed in the concept of Greater Cleveland. As such, the group still had the right to promote the cause of good government in the city. Like good government organizations in other cities, it sought to promote better candidates for public office and fiscal responsibility on the part of city government. One of those principles was nonpartisanship, which Cleveland at least nominally adopted in the HOME RULE charter of 1913. A commission under the leadership of Mayor NEWTON D. BAKER† wrote the charter which included initiative and referendum provisions, 
nomination by petition, and elections using a nonpartisan, preferential ballot. This last provision was designed to weaken the role of the party organization and to ensure election by majorities. In most but not all cases, candidates who had the support of the party organization fared much better than those who did not. In the late 19th century, Republicans won more elections in Cleveland than Democrats did. TOM JOHNSON† and Newton Baker reversed this pattern in the early 20th century, but from 1916-41, Cleveland again was primarily a Republican city, as least for the mayoralty.

In the 1920s Cleveland departed from the mayor-council form to adopt the CITY MANAGER PLAN, which was supposed to limit even further the role of the political parties. The reality was that the parties learned how to use this new arrangement almost as well as the mayor-council form. Under the plan, Republican party leader MAURICE MASCHKE† and his Democratic opposite BURR GONGWER† reached an agreement during the City Manager experiment to split the reduced party patronage between them 60%-40% respectively. By 1931 the city manager form of government was abandoned in favor of a return to the mayor-council pattern. Despite experiments in municipal governments designed to limit party influence, both the county Democratic and Republican parties enjoyed a period of stability during the first 3 decades of the 20th century.

In the 1920s Cleveland’s African Americans, then concentrated on the near east side, constituted an important component of the Republican organization, electing 3 city councilmen in 1927. The Democrats under Gongwer also appealed to the black community for its support, endorsing black candidates for council and municipal judge. During the 1930s black inclusion in the New Deal prompted them to shift their allegiance to the Democratic party, where they became a significant proportion of the city’s emerging Democratic majority. When the Democratic party came to the fore during the Depression, the county parties became destabilized as contending forces fought to succeed their longtime leaders. Five years after Maschke’s retirement GEORGE H. BENDER†, former state senator and congressman-at-large, took over the county Republican party organization following a bitter conflict with Mayor HAROLD H. BURTON† and ward leaders over the distribution of patronage. Former Mayor RAY T. MILLER† was elected chairman of the county Democratic party in 1938, but court challenges by other party factions delayed the final settlement until 1940, when Gongwer was removed. Miller was able to consolidate the local nationality groups and the blacks into a potent voting block, and since the 1940s Democrats have far outnumbered Republicans within the city, although Republican mayors, such as Ralph Perk and George Voinovich, were elected in the 1970s and 1980s. Over the years, the diversity of Cleveland’s population had been evident as candidates with effective political names, such as Corrigan, Metzenbaum, Celebrezze, Sawicki, Carr, and Stokes, among others, won elective office in Cleveland or on the county, congressional, or state level.

Whether mayors or managers, Cleveland’s chief executives have found themselves chronically short of money. Before 1909 Ohio permitted reassessment of property for purposes of taxation only every decade. Thus Cleveland’s government could not take advantage of the rapid rise in property values in the prosperous first years of the century. When Cleveland was able to more than double its tax duplicate, the legislature in Columbus limited the rate of taxation. By the Smith Act, property for all purposes combined–city, county, schools, and state–was limited to a total of 10 mills, or 1% of the duplicate. By referendum, the voters could approve an additional 5 mills. This legislation crippled municipal operating budgets. By 1919 Cleveland had accumulated operating deficits totaling $7 million and had to issue “revenue deficiency bonds” to cope. In the early 1920s, the legislature did grant some relief by giving more latitude to city officials and voters in setting higher tax limits for themselves. In the 1920s the city could finance its activities without undue strain. The Depression shattered Cleveland’s economy, and with it its fiscal stability. Because of the city’s concentration of capital-goods production, it suffered terribly from unemployment, lower tax collections, and high relief needs throughout the 1930s. World War II restored Cleveland’s prosperity, and the 1950 census recorded the largest population in the city’s history, 914,000.

The lessons of municipal frugality during the Depression were too well learned. Beginning with Lausche, most of Cleveland’s mayors continued to practice the fiscal austerity of the 1930s, confident that their thrifty administrations could accommodate requirements of more prosperous times as well as ensure their reelection to office. Increasingly independent of the county Democratic party, they successfully appealed to the city’s nationality groups that formed their political base. In their political campaigns mayors Lausche, Burke, Celebrezze, Locher, and Perk stressed frugality in city administration, holding the line on taxes, and living within the city’s income–at the same time they tried to project the image of a vigorous forward-looking city. A majority of the voters responded by reelecting them to office. In the meantime, the war economy of the 1940s and the pent-up demand of the postwar years induced thousands of southern blacks to migrate to Cleveland, swelling the black population from 9.7% of the total in 1940 to 38.3% in 1970. For example, the HOUGH area on the east side went from 95.1% white in 1950 to 74.2% black in 1960. The larger black population after 1945 intensified the exodus of Cleveland’s white middle class residents and businesses to the suburbs as the prevailing mix of the city’s population changed. Ethnic and racial identifications and antipathies, always significant in Cleveland politics, increased in importance as sources of political decision making. Politics and constituent interests took precedence over the growing problems of Cleveland as a whole, and the need for municipal leadership was not addressed by its caretaker governments. This was evident when Mayor Ralph Locher won reelection in 1965 with only 37% of the total vote. His razor-thin margin over State Representative Carl B. Stokes, who ran as an independent, demonstrated that the majority of Clevelanders did not feel they were being served effectively.

The continuing policy of municipal frugality challenged the city water and sewer departments’ ability to meet service demand in the rapidly expanding suburbs. This led civic reformers to revive efforts to strengthen regional authority by reorganizing Cuyahoga County so that it could administer area-wide municipal functions. Voters, however, turned down county home rule charters that would accomplish this in 1950 and 1959 (see REGIONAL GOVERNMENT). As the combination of accelerated suburbanization and a decline in the city’s economic base became evident, some type of metropolitan authority was needed for its area-wide services. Financially unable to manage its regional water pollution control and transit systems in the 1970s, Cleveland was forced to transfer the ownership and management of each to a single-function regional district. Since the suburban population exceeded that of the city in 1970, the price for regional cooperation was shared authority to appoint the districts’ Board of Trustees among the city, county and suburbs. The new partnership diluted Cleveland’s municipal control and gave political legitimacy to a changed balance of power in the metropolitan region.

Complicating the city’s problems was the central cleavage of race. For a brief moment in the late 1960s, it looked as if Mayor Carl Stokes had succeeded in forging a coalition of downtown business leaders and the black community. Whatever hopes existed evaporated after the GLENVILLE SHOOTOUTbetween black nationalists and Cleveland police, which led to 7 deaths and weakened Stokes’s credibility among a majority of whites, although he was elected to a second term in 1969. At that time Cleveland could no longer provide all the basic services out of its own resources without voter-approved tax increases–a proposition made difficult by the city’s declining economic base, racial tensions, and the politics of municipal frugality. Aware of Cleveland’s deteriorating finances, Stokes used his municipal leadership to try and increase the city income tax, but racial politics prevented him from building the needed consensus to obtain voter approval. Stokes was followed by 2 white ethnics, Ralph Perk, a Republican and dedicated defender of the status quo, and Dennis Kucinich, a maverick young Democrat who was elected in 1977 on a “no new taxes” platform. Kucinich was a self-styled urban populist out to defend the interests of the neighborhoods against the excessive demands of downtown business. He combined some reasonable policy perspectives with an abrasive and confrontational style that made difficult any cooperation between the city’s economic and political leadership. Financially, intergovernmental transfer payments such as revenue sharing had allowed the city to stay afloat until 1978, when the city could no longer pay its bills and was brought to DEFAULTduring the Kucinich mayoralty. The shock of default enabled his successor, George Voinovich, to raise taxes and restore Cleveland’s financial creditability. He also instituted civility in the city’s political discourse which allowed the long-sought reduction in the 33-member city council to take place (for recent mayors, see MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF [name]).

Structural reformers had urged a small council for many years to avoid the parochial limitations of small wards. The most extreme versions pressed for at-large elections of a small council, a provision that almost assured elite domination. Clevelanders recognized that this proposal would not allow for the social diversity of the city. Other proposals for reduction in the size of the council had foundered on racial divisions and animosities. Finally, in 1981, the voters approved a charter amendment reducing the council from 33 to 21 members. Such structural changes, however, could do only so much. To be well governed, cities need adequate resources, competent officials, and an electorate supportive of quality. Cleveland has sometimes but not always had all these things at once.

Although the city’s population continued to decline in 1993, new leadership under Mayor Michael White (see MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF MICHAEL R. WHITE) appeared to offer hope for future improvement in Cleveland’s downtown area and in its neighborhoods as well.

James F. Richardson

Univ. of Akron



Teaching Cleveland Digital is a repository of writing, pictures and videos to support the teaching of Cleveland, Northeast Ohio and Ohio @ www.teachingcleveland.org.

Teaching Cleveland Digital