CLEVELAND — Dennis Kucinich’s career in elected life ended the way it began 54 years earlier – with a loss.
Silvana Ferri, adult at center, receives a group hug from kids at the Cleveland Children’s Academy in October 2010 after the surprise announcement that she’d won a national $10,000 Early Childhood Educator Award.
(Thomas Ondrey, The Plain Dealer, File, 2010)
In his powerful eulogy of Louis Stokes, the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. repeatedly marveled that the longtime congressman was able to “rise above his circumstances,” escaping a life of poverty for one filled with memorable accomplishments.
The single most important requirement to rise above those circumstances, to earn that ticket out of life in the projects, was education.
Lou and Carl Stokes both spoke often of their mother, Louise, and her relentless focus on the subject.
“My mother had scrubbed floors, cleaned clothes and served dinners in order to make a life for us,” recalled Stokes, in an interview at his home just a month before his death Aug. 18 at the age of 90. “When you felt those cold hands and calluses, you began to understand what she was trying to say to us in terms of getting an education.”
It’s a common theme, especially among successful minorities who grew up poor.
Former Cleveland City Council President George Forbes, the last of eight children born in a segregated Memphis, talks similarly of his mother — “she was a great lady; to this day, I miss my mother” — sending her children north, where they would have a better chance to earn an education beyond high school.
And though a mother’s obsession with the future of her children is hardly unique to any culture, for children who grow up in poverty — especially black children — history tells us that education is pretty much the only way out.
The evidence is overwhelming. Consider the most successful black elected officials of the last 50 years:
Virgil Brown, Lloyd Brown, Charles Carr, Forbes, Marcia Fudge, Frank Jackson, Leo Jackson, Perry Jackson, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Peter Lawson Jones, Arnold Pinkney, the Stokeses, George White and Mike White.
Every one of them went to college. Most earned two degrees. Lawson Jones went to Harvard. Mike White was the first black student body president of Ohio State University.
Over time, Mayor Frank Jackson’s school reform plan — with a huge assist from the Cleveland Foundation, the Gund Foundation and corporate leaders — will bring incremental improvements in student performance. There are more good schools in Cleveland today than there were four years ago.
Last year’s statewide report cards showed that Cleveland school students were learning a bit more. Nevertheless, Cleveland still ranked a dismal 607 out of the 610 districts.
That same report card showed that nine of the state’s 14 worst-performing school districts are in Northeast Ohio. Six of the 14 are in Cuyahoga County.
This year’s statewide report cards are likely to provide more documentation that efforts to fix Cleveland schools are enjoying a degree of success. But expecting “transformational” results anytime soon is unrealistic, especially given Cleveland’s daunting poverty rate.
The 1970 census found that 17.1 percent of Cleveland’s 750,903 residents lived below the poverty line. A census update issued last year estimated that 35.4 percent of Cleveland’s 389,521 live below the poverty line.
So, while the city’s population is barely half what it was 45 years ago, its poverty rate has more than doubled.
I’ve been on this soapbox for a decade now, but the single best investment Cuyahoga County can make in its future is a massive investment in early childhood education.
Free, high-quality preschool for needy 3- and 4-year-olds, coupled with intensive parental mentoring and effective programs to reduce the alarming rate of births out of wedlock, might be the only way out.
History tells us County Executive Armond Budish is no risk-taker. But I believe Budish has concluded that a huge expansion of early childhood education should be his signature accomplishment as county executive.
If Budish wants to leave a legacy of change and accomplishment, he’ll ignore his cautious instincts and seize the moment.
So staggering is the cost of our underinvesting in the education of poor children that economists of all political persuasions, including Nobel laureate James Heckman, have concluded that quality preschool will, over time, save taxpayers trillions.
And Port Clinton native Robert Putnam, former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, argues in his phenomenal best-seller, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” that “to ignore these kids violates our deepest religious and moral values” and “undermines our democracy and perhaps even our political stability.”
“Our Kids” should be required reading for every elected official. Members of Gov. John Kasich’s administration should have read it last year, before squashing a budget proposal by state Sen. Peggy Lehner to increase funding for high-quality preschool by $100 million.
That’s the Team Kasich way. If it’s not their idea, it can’t possibly be a good one.
“Of all the things we can do, the biggest single one is early childhood education,” Putnam said in an interview this spring.
With it, thousands of Cuyahoga County’s poor kids might just have a shot. Without it, most probably won’t.
A proud man, Lou Stokes enjoyed all the deserved attention that came his way late in life. But my guess is he’d gladly take his name off all those buildings that bear it in exchange for an investment that offers the poor kids in Cuyahoga County an opportunity to rise above their circumstances and lead better lives.
Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.
To reach Brent Larkin: email@example.com
Brent Larkin Writes about Lonnie Burten Jr.
The full article is here
Councilman Lonnie Burten (center, with beard-Press Collection)
It was late morning on Nov. 29, 1984, when Jackson, David Donaldson and Sam Johnson were watching Councilman Lonnie Burten single-handedly tear down his boyhood home on East 38th Street in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood.
The home had been firebombed, most likely by some thugs who wanted to teach the crusading Burten a lesson.
Now city inspectors wanted the house demolished. And Burten, as was his way, was determined to do it himself.
“I remember this distinctly,” recalled Jackson, sitting at a table in his City Hall office. “Lonnie was standing next to a truck. We were talking, when he put his hands on the hood and laid his head on the truck.”
The friends gently put Burten in the back seat of a car and rushed him to St. Vincent Charity Hospital.
It was too late.
Lonnie Burten — Cleveland City Council’s rebel with a cause, a legend who came to power by defeating one of the shrewdest men to ever hold elected office in Cleveland (Charlie Carr), and who several years earlier had come within a whisker of unseating the most powerful council president in city history (George Forbes) — was dead of a heart attack at the young age of 40.
Burten’s seat on council went to Preston Terry III. Jackson, a lawyer with a job in the council clerk’s office, had no interest in it.
“I just wanted to help Lonnie,” recalled Jackson. “That was it. He was my friend. We shared a passion for life and an understanding of the situation we were in. I had no inclination for a life in politics, none whatsoever.”
Like all mayors, Jackson has his shortcomings. But he will never forget where he came from.
Nor will he forget one of the best friends he’s ever had.
“You don’t have many friends in life. You have people you know. Lonnie was a friend. And if he had not died, I would have not been a councilman, let alone a mayor.”
“The Impact of State Budget Cuts on Northeast Ohio Communities”
a forum moderated by Brent Larkin, Cleveland.com
Cleveland.com preview piece on forum with background links
Cleveland.com coverage of forum
Video from forum
Tuesday March 21, 2017 7-8:30 p.m.
Cost: Free & Open to the Public
Parma Snow Branch, Cuyahoga County Public Library
2121 Snow Road, Parma 44134
Moderator: Brent Larkin, Cleveland.com
Co-sponsored by the Case Western Reserve University Siegal Lifelong Learning Program, League of Women Voters-Greater Cleveland, Cleveland.com, Plain Dealer and Cuyahoga County Library Systems
Corporate sponsor: First Interstate Properties, Ltd.
For more information, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Housing Crisis in Northeast Ohio – Where are We in 2015?
Wednesday, October 7, 2015 7-8:30 p.m.
CWRU Siegal Facility in Beachwood, OH
• Thomas Bier, Senior Fellow, Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University
• James Rokakis, Former Cuyahoga County Treasurer, Cleveland Councilman, Director Thriving Communities Institute
Moderator: Brent Larkin, The Plain Dealer
￼Northeast Ohio was one of the hardest hit housing markets in the U.S. in recent years. The market has begun to recover, but housing values and real estate taxes remain two of the most important economic issues facing local residents today. This forum will discuss current home prices, new construction, demolitions and foreclosures.
Cosponsored by City Club of Cleveland, Cleveland Jewish News Foundation, CWRU Siegal Lifelong Learning, League of Women Voters-Greater Cleveland
Here are two news stories from the forum
Carl Stokes: Reflections of a veteran political observer
By Brent Larkin, The Plain Dealer November 04, 2007 at 5:52 AM, updated November 04, 2007 at 6:06 AM
By midnight, all seemed lost. And the mood inside Carl B. Stokes’ downtown headquarters had turned decidedly gloomy.
Destiny was about to deny Stokes what he wanted most — to be the first black elected mayor of a major American city. With 70 percent of the vote counted, Republican Seth Taft had built what seemed an insurmountable lead. As Election Day turned to Wednesday, Taft had pulled in front by 20,000 votes.
It seemed that Stokes, a 40-year-old state representative who had handily defeated incumbent Mayor Ralph Locher in the Democratic primary, would lose the general election to a Republican — in a city with a minuscule Republican population.
Cleveland Press reporter Dick Feagler would write that women wept during this “tense, trying period” when defeat seemed certain.
“A Dixieland band played ‘S’Wonderful,’ but it wasn’t,” described Feagler, adding that for “four hours it appeared Seth Taft had won.”
“There was really a sense of despair,” recalled Anne Bloomberg, at the time a 26-year-old civil rights activist and campaign volunteer. “Our hopes were so high going in, and it looked like it would all be for naught.”
But then it all began to change. Votes from predominantly black, East Side neighborhoods were the last to be counted. Slowly, but inexorably, Taft’s lead began to shrink.
“We had ward-watchers in the neighborhoods and we knew Carl would come back,” recalled Ann Felber Kiggen, Stokes’ campaign scheduler. “When it began to happen, I remember this incredible feeling that swept through the headquarters. People were dancing and holding hands. It was uncontained joy.”
It was 3 a.m. when, with nearly 900 of the city’s 903 precincts reporting, Stokes took the lead for the first time. Out of 250,000 votes cast, he won by 2,500.
Then, as the mayor-elect appeared before about 400 jubilant supports, the room grew quiet when he declared, “I can say to all of you that never before have I known the full meaning of the words, ‘God Bless America.’ ”
In his autobiography, “Promises of Power,” Stokes would later marvel at the magnitude of what happened that night.
In a race for high office, the grandson of a slave had defeated the grandson of a president.
That had never happened before. And it hasn’t happened since.
The Cleveland that elected Carl B. Stokes mayor was a far cry from than the one that chose Michael R. White as the city’s second black mayor 22 years later — and light years removed from the one that elected Frank Jackson in 2005.
In 1967, Cleveland was still a top-10 city, with a population north of 750,000 — nearly 300,000 more than today. Because race was as much a factor in city politics then as it is now, Stokes’ election was all the more remarkable; the city’s black population was only about 35 percent then. Today, that figure surpasses 53 percent.
To defeat Seth Taft, a decent man with a magic name who would later serve with distinction as a Cuyahoga County commissioner, Stokes needed white votes — lots of them.
“We knew we had to broaden our base on the west and south sides,” recalled Charlie Butts, Stokes’ brainy, 25-year-old campaign manager fresh out of Oberlin College. “But we had to be careful not to give the appearance of running different campaigns in different parts of town.”
To give his campaign legitimacy, Stokes desperately needed support from whites in corporate boardrooms and city neighborhoods. He got it from this newspaper, which endorsed him on the front page.
He got it from people like Bob Bry, a vice president of Otis Elevator who organized a group of business leaders to take out newspaper ads on Stokes’ behalf.
“I was a registered Republican, but my sympathies were with what Carl was trying to do,” said Bry, now 84 and living in Florida. “Some business leaders were bothered by it. But no one ever said anything to my face.”
He got it from people like Ann and Joe McManamon — and hundreds of others like them — who paid a price for welcoming Stokes into their living rooms and churches.
“There were recriminations,” remembered Ann McManamon. “We got some very hateful phone calls. It got a quite nasty. But our friends stuck with us and were supportive.”
Nearly one in five whites voted for Stokes — which meant he needed nearly nine out of every 10 black votes.
To win those votes, Stokes built a political organization that, to this day, serves as a model for black candidates across the country. It was a base that relied heavily on churches, ward leaders and a grass-roots field operation that extensively schooled street captains on how to maximize turnout.
That same base later enabled Stokes’ brother, Lou, to become an institution in Congress. It helped make former City Council President George Forbes powerful and wealthy. And it twice brought Arnold Pinkney to the brink of becoming Cleveland’s second black mayor.
It was a base built to last — and last it did.
“All around the country — in places like Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago — black candidates copied what Carl was able to achieve in Cleveland,” said his brother. “What made it special was that it was done so well and had never been done before.”
There was no blueprint for electing a black mayor of a major American city. So Stokes drew his own.
“He had a plan on how to win, and he never strayed from it,” said Forbes. “In his prime, there was none better — none.”
Stokes won re-election in 1969, but did not seek a third term in 1971, leaving soon after for New York, where he was a television anchor and later a reporter for NBC. Over the years, Stokes gave various reasons for his decision not to seek a third term, but he was clearly tired of the constant struggles involved in leading a big city with mounting problems.
Stokes record as mayor was decidedly mixed. He brought a sense of fairness to the city’s hiring practices, helped raise the level of social services, and aggressively fought to improve housing conditions. But Stokes fought repeatedly with City Council, and revelations that some funds from a poverty-fighting program he founded went to nationalists involved in the killing of police in the Glenville riots significantly eroded his popularity.
Upon his return to Cleveland in 1980, Stokes found that the new political stars were his brother and Forbes. In 1983, he became a Municipal Court judge — an important position that lacked the high profile of a powerful congressman and council president. There were also some troubling and embarrassing moments. Stokes engaged in some high-profile political fights with onetime allies and was twice accused of shoplifting — he paid restitution on one charge and was acquited of another.
But none of what happened later detracts from the significance of what Stokes achieved in 1967.
Many black leaders in the ’60s aspired to be Cleveland’s mayor, but only one ever stood a chance.
“Only one person could have built that base,” said Pinkney. “Only one person had the charisma, the experience and the drive to win. Back then, it took a special talent for a black to be elected mayor. And only Carl had that talent. ”
Stokes was not a civil rights leader. He was a politician. And four decades later, Pinkney and others still speak with a sense of awe of Stokes’ political gifts. Charles Butts thinks Stokes was born with “an intellect, understanding and chemistry that allowed him to connect to voters” in ways almost unprecedented. Forbes volunteers that Stokes “had the whole package — looks, the charm and one of the sharpest political minds I’ve ever seen.” Ann Felber Kiggen says he was “the most charismatic man anyone could hope to ever meet.”
In his book, Stokes wrote that he considered the 1965 campaign for mayor, in which he narrowly lost to Locher in the Democratic primary, “the high point of my career.”
He was mistaken. The 1965 campaign energized Stokes’ base. And it set the table for what would follow. But it paled, compared to what would happen two years later.
For all his winning ways, Stokes was also the most complex politician I ever dealt with. He could be warm and witty one day, your enemy the next.
On Jan. 30, 1996, we visited over lunch at an East Side restaurant. He knew by then that his fight with cancer of the esophagus was one he couldn’t win.
As Stokes picked at food he could barely swallow, he spoke with no rancor as he reminisced about those days of glory that landed him on the cover of Time magazine. He wasn’t finished looking ahead, either: He eagerly agreed to meet with a group of young journalists at this newspaper to talk about how the political process affects minorities, and we chose a date in February.
But when the day came, he was too ill. By early April, he was gone.
He had long before kept the date that mattered most, though. That was the one back in 1967 that made him, in the sense of history, immortal.
Brent Larkin is director of The Plain Dealer’s editorial pages
1972 House of Rep. Photo
Louis Stokes, brother of Carl Stokes, was a congressman in the United States House of Representatives from 1969 – 1999. During his time in office, Stokes served on numerous committees including the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the Ethics Committee, and the House Intelligence Committee. He was interviewed for Teaching Cleveland Digital at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage on January 20, 2014 to celebrate Martin Luther King day. This is a five-part interview with Mr. Stokes. Cameras by Jerry Mann and Meagan Lawton, Edited by Meagan Lawton, Interviewed by Brent Larkin.