Why Mike White Shouldn’t Be Forgiven
The Scene January 10, 2002 The link to original is here
He built a lot of stuff. He’ll be remembered as a great mayor. He’s still an S.O.B.
By Andrew Putz
The resurrection started before the burial. On May 23, Mayor Michael White announced that he would not seek a fourth term. After serving 12 years — longer than any mayor in Cleveland history — it was over. He was going to spend more time with his children. He was going to be a “full-time husband.” He had done what he came to do.Who could argue with the man? Consider the school system, the crime, poverty, the unemployment that ravaged Cleveland in 1989.
Consider downtown: No Rock Hall. No Gund. No Jacobs Field.
Consider the Warehouse District: It actually had warehouses.
Cleveland wasn’t so much a city in 1989 as it was a post-industrial approximation of one, a rusted-out hulk of its mid-century self.
Then along came White, more genetic aberration than career politician, a pure shot of single-minded will, a control freak of Napoleonic proportions. Hell, it seems silly to even talk about a “White administration.” It felt like he was running the place by himself, or at least trying to. This is a man who called his staff together at 1:30 a.m. on the night he was first elected. Not to celebrate. To start working.
“The mayor gave his life during those 12 years,” says Bill Denihan, who worked for White for almost a decade. “Good, bad, or indifferent, he gave all of himself.”
And there is much for which he can be proud: the stadiums, thousands of new homes, the resurrection of the Browns, the hope of a resuscitated school system, the passage of the bond levy. “History will look upon him more than graciously,” says Tom Andrzejewski, a consultant who worked on White’s first campaign. “The facts speak for themselves. Just take a look at what he’s done.”
Yet the darkness was never far from the light. White had to take credit for every triumph, avoid blame for every misstep. Vindictive as a second-rate crime boss, cruel as the weather, he went out of his way to retaliate against his enemies, to silence his detractors, to shut out anyone who wasn’t sufficiently loyal. Even friends weren’t immune to his churlish tactics. More than a few times, allies found themselves suddenly cut off, without word or explanation, wondering what they had done to incur his ire. “There’s just a whole generation of people who need counseling because of him,” says Councilman Joe Cimperman.
During the last two years of his tenure, White’s meanness became his calling card, the cloud he could never get out from under. Airport expansion, relations with the police union, tussles with city council — everything, it seemed, was about him. He had evolved into the city’s most reliable asshole, a designation he seemed intent on keeping to the end. Just 10 days before he left office, he forced the city’s top two prosecutors to resign. Their apparent crime: speaking of the mayor in less-than-glowing terms to Jane Campbell’s transition team.
But the nasty reputation never tempered the mayor. If anything, it fueled his sense of persecution, widened his blind spots. In an interview with Scene in June 2000, White responded to critics who said he managed by intimidation and fear: “Aha! Let’s distort his personality. Let’s put in an element of intrigue about how he treats people, because then you don’t have to have the facts, and you don’t have to have the record. You can just slash and burn a person.”
No doubt Mike White’s reputation will not suffer very long. Over time, the depth of his cruelty will fade into the soft focus of history. It won’t be long before he’s described as driven, dynamic, and uncompromising, rather than petty, despotic, and spiteful.
In some ways, the resurrection has already begun, starting on that day in late May when he said he’d never run for office again. “He is leaving the same way he governed, with the courage of his convictions and individuality of a true leader,” beamed former congressman Dennis Eckart in The Plain Dealer.
With his tenure ending this week, it is now the season for Mike White retrospectives, those exhaustive, exquisitely boring stories on the complexities of man and office. Overlooked is the fact that Mike White isn’t all that complex. He was elected. He built a lot of stuff. He wasn’t very nice. But there are reasons he should never be forgotten — or forgiven.
Reason I: Unyielding Loyalty Shown to Longtime Employees
Mike White has given much to the people of Cleveland, but perhaps his most important contribution came in the field of human resources. For 12 years, White ruled City Hall with such tyranny that he could write his own self-help manual: The 7 Habits of Highly Malevolent People.
“Those that leave city government ought to be his strongest supporters . . . jumping up and down, saying, ‘You know, I worked for White, and I know what he can do,” says Denihan, who served nine years as safety director. “Just the opposite is happening. He’s got a couple of hundred people out there who had executive positions saying, ‘I know what Mike White is like, and believe me, you don’t want to see that kind of management occur in this city again.'”
Denihan recalls the feeling of dread that would fall on members of White’s cabinet each Wednesday, when they would gather for their weekly meeting. “Folks would be thinking, well, whose turn in the barrel is it this time?” Directors would be singled out and torn apart for any reason. In May 2000, Joseph Nolan, the mayor’s former personnel director, told The Plain Dealer he decided to resign after watching White belittle and then fire the two highest-ranking employees in the Health Department in front of their stunned co-workers.
But leaving White’s employ didn’t necessarily mean people were free. Denihan and Nolan discovered that in the spring of 2000, when White’s HR acumen was at its zenith. Controversy had erupted over the police entrance exam. Eighteen months earlier, more than 2,000 people took the test in the hopes of eventually joining the Cleveland police. By March of 2000, however, the city was still unable to hire a single candidate, because Coleman & Associates, the company hired to grade the tests, had muffed the job so thoroughly.
Coleman was the most expensive, least experienced company to bid on the job, and council wanted answers as to why it had been selected. When council announced an investigation and complained that the mayor’s office was stonewalling, White held a press conference. Yet rather than take responsibility, the mayor promptly turned into a version of Hogan’s Heroes‘ Sgt. Schulz. He knew nothing, nothing about how Coleman was chosen for the grading.
Instead, he pointed the finger elsewhere: at Nolan, Denihan, and former Civil Service Commission Secretary Cynthia Sullivan, none of whom worked for him anymore. “People I believed in, people I trusted, made errors,” said White. “Ask them the questions.”
White’s attempt to evade responsibility was as revealing as it was depressing. Nolan and Denihan had been two of the mayor’s most loyal and competent employees. Each thought he had parted company with White on decent terms. And neither had a significant role in the fiasco.
Yet White wasn’t satisfied with simply impugning reputations. After Denihan fired back, speaking openly about the way White treated staffers, White offered a simple explanation: Denihan was a liar. “It’s unfortunate that someone of Mr. Denihan’s caliber now has to stoop to out-and-out lying to get his name in the newspaper,” he told Scene.
To critics, White’s treatment of Denihan was only the most glaring example of his vindictiveness. “That’s his demeanor,” says Councilwoman Fannie Lewis. “That man destroyed a lot of people around him. He don’t take no prisoners.”
Reason II: Extraordinary Efforts to Help the Homeless
In politics, even more so than in life, one is defined by one’s enemies, a maxim that’s never been more applicable than in the case of the mayor. In November 1999, Mike White met the enemy. And the enemy was homeless.
In an effort to protect citizens as they shopped the mean streets of Tower City or roamed the wilds of the Flats, White ordered stepped-up police patrols during the holiday season. The target: shoplifters, muggers, and “other criminals,” whose nefarious deeds seemed to consist of sleeping on the sidewalk.
“Basically,” says Brian Davis, executive director for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, “he wanted to criminalize homelessness.”
Cops were ordered to tell homeless people to move. If they refused, they could be arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Since it was the season of giving and sharing, police were kind enough to hand out information cards telling the homeless where they could find shelter. The information turned out to be highly useful for those lucky enough to snag one of the city’s few emergency shelter beds — less so for the thousands of others for whom no beds were available.
The policy was a far cry from White’s campaign posture in 1989, when he promised he would “not settle for Cleveland having one person on its streets without a place to stay.” But it was hardly the first time his policies toward the poor were more punitive than progressive. In 1994, the ACLU sued the city in federal court on behalf of four homeless men who said police picked them up around Public Square and dumped them miles away. (The city denied this was official policy, but eventually settled the case.) That same year, police charged a man for distributing The Homeless Grapevine because he did not have a $50 peddler’s license. The city soon stopped enforcing the policy, and a federal judge eventually ruled that requiring a fee was an unconstitutional restraint on speech.
To no one’s surprise, the controversy over the police sweeps was also settled in court. Just before Christmas, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Matia issued a restraining order barring police from ordering homeless people to move. The following February, the city and the ACLU reached a settlement. The cops wouldn’t remove people unless they were actually disturbing the peace.
By that time, however, city attorneys were in full revision mode, denying there ever was a policy to remove the homeless from sidewalks — though three months before, the mayor said one of his goals was “curtailing the practice of sleeping on sidewalks.”
Reason III: Wise Use of Lakefront Property
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if city leaders notice, but Cleveland is on a lake. A pretty big one. Residents seem to enjoy this. They like to look at the lake, walk along its shores, watch the sun set over its horizon. And, crazy as it may seem, some people even use the damn thing — for fishing, boating, swimming, dumping old tires.
The concept that citizens might actually want access to the region’s most valuable natural resource wasn’t a priority during White’s tenure. During the last 10 years, the city has plopped down the Rock Hall, the Great Lakes Science Center, and Browns Stadium along North Coast Harbor “like so many pieces of unrelated urban furniture,” in Plain Dealer architecture critic Steven Litt’s memorable phrase.
Granted, White didn’t have a lot of help in this department. For decades the lakefront has been seen as a tool to harness industrial muscle and not much else. In Chicago, 85 percent of the lakefront is publicly accessible; in Toronto, it’s 75 percent. Cleveland, by comparison, has just 40 percent open to the public, much of which is at Edgewater Park. Only recently have city leaders awakened to the idea that our most valuable land might have better uses.
Still, if there is one unpardonable sin in recent lakefront development, it’s Browns Stadium. In 1996, when the NFL promised White that Cleveland would get a new franchise, White promised the NFL a new stadium.
From the beginning, White preferred the site of the old stadium, saying that it had served football fans well for 64 years. The NFL, of course, got what it wanted: a steel-and-glass marvel mostly paid for with public money (originally slated at $247 million, the current price tag is well over $300 million), and Cleveland got stuck with a beautiful stadium on some of the city’s most valuable property. It’s used fewer than 15 days a year.
“He was the great planner, and we all know every planning decision was his decision,” says Councilman Mike Polensek. “And we’re going to pay the price for it. We’re going to pay a price, severely. I look down upon a stadium that’s only used for eight games a year from my office — on a piece of land that should have never been used for a stadium.”
Reason IV: The Ghengis Khan Theory of Public Relations
It has long since been forgotten, but there was a time when Mike White didn’t think The Plain Dealer was run by beady-eyed jackasses bent on his destruction. He just thought it was run by beady-eyed jackasses.
During his first term, coverage was largely positive. The PD‘s editorial page cheered his every move. “He got a free ride,” says Polensek.
The tide began to turn in the mid-’90s, after White won his second term. The PD wrote stories about city contracts awarded to mayoral cronies. It looked at his role in Art Modell’s decision to leave town. It scrutinized stadium costs.
Then, in May of 1999, new editor Doug Clifton arrived from The Miami Herald. A gruff former Marine, Clifton clashed almost immediately with White over access to public records. The mayor took Clifton’s insolence as a sign: The paper was out to get him. He began publicly denouncing its stories. He refused to talk to PD reporters. He had his press office tip off other media to the paper’s records requests.
The PD hammered White over the city’s troubled Finance Department, over his autocratic management style. But it didn’t always conduct itself as a beacon of dignity. Early last year, it reported that the diminutive White was having foot surgery for a condition called “hammertoes.” Reporter Christopher Quinn couldn’t help but remind readers — twice in one story — that the malady usually affects middle-aged women after a life of wearing high heels.
It mattered little by that point anyway. White had already decided to “phase out” The Plain Dealer, going so far as to throw a PD reporter out of his May 23 press conference announcing that he wouldn’t run again.
Politicians bitching about newspapers is nothing new, of course, and White has skin thin enough to be offered at communion. Even so, his decision to cut off The Plain Dealer should go down as one of the more lead-headed moves in mayoral history. “He’s a public official, and the emphasis is on public, not on official,” says Andrzejewski, who worked as a PD reporter before hooking up with White in 1989. “I think he always has not had a good understanding of that, or a good understanding of the responsibilities that go along with that.”
Whether White likes it or not, The Plain Dealer is the chief conduit to the public’s understanding of what’s happening in town. In many ways, it decides what is and isn’t news. The television stations follow its lead, and public policy often treads in its wake. While it may have scored him easy points with those who distrust or resent the paper, for White to stop talking meant he essentially stopped talking to his constituents.
“I don’t think it was ever possible for him to think of our coverage as fair,” Clifton told Scene last year. “What he perceives as fair is totally without a critical component. That’s not fair to me; that’s not fair to our readers.”
Maybe that’s what White wanted all along — to be mayor in a lab, to run a city without critics, without dissent, without citizens. Judging by the latest census numbers, it seemed to be working.
Reason V: Willingness to Share Credit
Sometimes, it takes drama for a leader’s innate qualities to emerge. When the St. Michael Hospital crisis called, White’s ability to alienate everyone around him came shining through.
In February 2000, Cleveland Clinic announced its intent to purchase the Mt. Sinai Integrated Medical Campus in Beachwood from the bankrupt Primary Health Systems for more than $60 million. As part of the deal, the Clinic also planned to purchase Mt. Sinai Medical Center-East in Richmond Heights and St. Michael Hospital in Slavic Village, and shut them down.
The plan effectively locked out other buyers who might have kept the two facilities open and drew howls from patients, activists, and city council members. “We’re talking about people’s lives and their neighborhoods and primary health care for the working poor and moderate-income people,” Polensek railed at the time.
It’s the kind of fight tailor-made for politicians: a faceless corporate behemoth vs. residents desperate to maintain community hospitals — the kind of thing Dennis Kucinich drools over in his sleep.
Yet when the deal was announced, White said he could do nothing to stop it and that the city shouldn’t be in the hospital business. At the same time, he was privately negotiating with the Clinic to keep some limited services at St. Michael.
White’s subsequent agreement was assailed for not going far enough to save the facilities, and it was eventually thrown out in bankruptcy court. The only thing it did was confuse critics and fans alike, who found it hard to understand how a master pol could be so clumsy. Whatever his intent, White was pushed into a corner by Kucinich & Co., who made it look as if he was siding with the Clinic over the neighborhood. Says Lewis: “Look how far he went out for the Browns. Why couldn’t he have done that for Mt. Sinai and St. Michael Hospital?”
In retrospect, the whole thing seems a bit silly. White and his critics wanted the same thing — to keep the hospitals open. But White’s inability to share credit, his unparalleled skill at alienating all those who could help, doomed him. He was a victim of his own personality — a situation captured with stunning clarity at a council meeting during the battle.
“The chambers are filled,” recalls Cimperman. “Council members are making speeches. It was intense. Congressman Kucinich was back, making a speech for one of the first times since he was mayor. Mayor White can’t stand down from a fight. He’s got to be there, even if he’s not saying anything. He walks over to the lawyer who was representing us, who was sitting inside the well, taps him on the shoulder, and says, ‘Get out of here. You can’t sit inside the well,’ and goes back to his seat . . . To me, that just captures the lost potential. You’re in the middle of a situation that you can be a hero on, and your personality won’t let you do that. Instead, you tell our attorney to get the heck out of there. What, are you absurd? It’s ridiculous.”
Reason VI: Saving the World From Cleveland Cops
The low point for White’s administration may have come in July 1999, when the mayor held a press conference to address what he called the most serious crisis he faced since taking office: allegations of white-supremacist groups operating inside the Cleveland Police Department. The proof was as vague as the charge was incendiary: racist graffiti in district stations, white officers wearing star-shaped pins, others sporting Elvis tattoos.
The Warren Report, it wasn’t.
At the time, White was being ravaged by the police union and black leaders for accommodating the Ku Klux Klan’s wish to hold a rally here. The investigation into police racism was seen by cynics as a ploy to shore up support in the black community.
Though the inquiry was completed within weeks, it was eight months before White released the results. In a 92-page account, the Internal Affairs Division found nothing more than hearsay and gossip. Though the report was sandwiched within a stack of arrest statistics, complaint reports, and other data that implied bias on the part of individual officers, the conclusion was clear: There were no organized hate groups inside the CPD.
Such news would normally be embraced. Instead, White called a press conference to bash reporters for suggesting he was the source of the initial racism charges. When asked in retrospect if he’d have done anything differently, he responded in triplicate: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”
Normally, such tactics could be chalked up to rank opportunism — hardly an uncommon sin in city politics — and easily forgotten, except for one reason: Gerald Goode. In mid-July 1999, Goode, a no-nonsense, by-the-book sergeant in the Fourth District, asked fellow black supervisors about a pin he’d seen on a white officer. Thinking it might signify an anti-government group, Goode asked if anyone else had seen one like it.
Yet his simple curiosity was soon blown beyond recognition. Days later, when White held his bizarre press conference, he cited, among other things, racist pins as evidence of organized hate groups operating within the CPD.
Though the IA report yielded nothing, White made no effort to atone for the damage he had unleashed eight months earlier. “It’s the one piece of unfinished business,” says Bob Beck, president of the Patrolmen’s Association. “Never once, even after he was proved wrong, did he apologize.”
By that point, it was too late for Gerald Goode. At the end of October, he killed himself.