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Issue Date: March 2013


It's Time to Stop Underestimating Frank Jackson

With his victories for the Cleveland schools, the mayor showed incredible political savvy, passion and dealmaking ability. Yet at the high point of his seven years in office, a police chase and the waterfront are testing Jackson again.
Erick Trickey
trickey@clevelandmagazine.com

Mayor Frank Jackson is taking his victory lap, whether he wants to or not.

Five hundred people are crammed into a ballroom for the Cleveland Clinic's Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast. Under the twinkling chandeliers, Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove is raving about how Jackson got his school reforms through the state legislature and persuaded city voters to approve a massive new school levy, the first in 11 years.

"Making all this happen took rare personal courage and political skill," Cosgrove says, revving up toward giving Jackson the Clinic's Lifetime of Service Award.

But first, the lights dim. A video plays. Classical music soars behind the resonant voice of King, speaking in Cleveland in 1965. "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly for some strange reason," he says. "I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be."

Then the video cuts to Frank Jackson. Filmed in his office, the mayor delivers a typically underwhelming Jacksonian message, full of slow, tangled sentences. But eventually, the mayor makes his point.

"The time is always right to do what is right," Jackson says — quoting King's 1964 speech at Oberlin College. He adds a line of his own: "The question is whether or not we have the courage to do it."

That, too, is typical Jackson, a subtle challenge that cuts through piety and pretension: Are we as good as we say we are?

The lights come up, 500 people applaud, and Cosgrove calls Jackson to the stage. The mayor thanks the crowd for the award, congratulates the other honorees and says, "Cleveland's greatness is based on the fact that it is a servant city. Cleveland's personality, who we are, it will be demonstrated by what we do and how we serve others.

"And that is why Cleveland is and will continue to be a great city. Thank you."

In 31 seconds, the mayor's done. He walks offstage. Laughter ripples through the crowd. Cosgrove steps back to the podium with a quirky smile on his face. That's it?

That guy is the mayor?
 

 

"What's on the table is not what's really on the table."

— Frank Jackson, in a Jan. 23, 2013, interview

Yes, he is. In fact, Jackson is running for a third term this fall, and no one who understands Cleveland politics is likely to run against him. He won more than 70 percent of the vote in his 2009 re-election, and he's grown politically stronger since.

With his twin successes on the schools, Jackson has reached a high point in his time as mayor. His successes are forcing Greater Clevelanders to rethink their expectations about him. Getting his reforms passed in Columbus demonstrated the little-seen depths of his political talents, while the levy's decisive 57 percent win proved how much voters trust him. Local business leaders, nervous when he became mayor in 2006, are handing him awards now and praising his leadership and fiscal discipline.

Yet just two weeks after Cleveland passed the school levy, a new challenge flared up: 62 police cars screamed through the city, from West to East Side, all chasing one speeding car. The out-of-control chase ended with police firing 137 shots, killing the driver, Timothy Russell, and the passenger, Malissa Williams. Jackson has responded with his typical insistence on steadiness, consistency and patience. But state attorney general and former U.S. senator Mike DeWine's conclusion that the incident reflected a "systemic failure in the Cleveland Police Department" is testing Jackson's leadership.

For the last seven years, people have dismissed the mayor with clichés: He's not a cheerleader for Cleveland. He doesn't use the bully pulpit to champion causes. He's not inspirational. Not a visionary. Personality drives politics, so we're used to voting for gregarious glad-handers, stirring speechmakers, aggressive egotists.

But Cleveland's mayor belongs to that rarest of species: the introverted politician.

With sharp lines tracing his forehead like in a cubist painting, softened by a mostly salt beard and deep-set eyes, Jackson succeeds by listening, not talking, by shrewdly observing and understanding people's motivations. Skilled at strategy and dealmaking, he got his school reforms passed by thinking two or three steps ahead and applying leverage to make adversaries into allies.

Jackson, 66, prides himself on his steady temperament, on being consistent, hardworking, patient and practical — all underrated virtues in politics. Yet sometimes, the mayor will lower his guard, slip into blunt (sometimes fractured) English and let loose a politically risky comment that shocks an audience into nervous laughter — like a high-wire artist so confident in his steps, he teeters a little on purpose just to get the crowd's attention. Often, his witty asides and near-riddles reflect cynical insights into people's motives. A lifelong resident of Cleveland's poorest neighborhoods, Jackson has long insisted that his work should improve the lives of "the least of us." He knows not everyone shares that value, though most pretend to.

Jackson is wary, even suspicious — yet if people prove their loyalty to him, Jackson is loyal in return. He often defers to subordinates, sometimes too much. It's led him to embrace some bad ideas, move slowly to fix troubled departments and struggle to make progress on developing Cleveland's waterfront.

Yes, the mayor has exceeded Clevelanders' expectations. But that creates a new question as he asks voters for four more years: What more is he capable of doing?
 

 

"Hey, well, nice to have a best friend!"

— Frank Jackson, about Gov. John Kasich, on Jan. 23, 2013

Two years ago, Jackson was walking up St. Clair Avenue, heading to the Medical Mart groundbreaking, when a big black SUV rolled up the street. The window came down, and John Kasich leaned out.

"Hey! Hey, Frank! It's me, John!" the governor called out.

Jackson smiled and waved.

The gregarious new governor, still on his honeymoon, was eagerly building new relationships, trying to create goodwill before he started cutting budgets, signing laws and pissing people off. At the groundbreaking, under a big tent that kept out the winter cold, Kasich promised to help the city. "I love Cleveland," Kasich said with an extrovert's melodrama. "It's in my soul. I'm committed to it. I believe in it." A week earlier, at his inaugural party at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Kasich had greeted Jackson on stage by calling him "my NBF, my new best friend."

"I just wanted to know if being a best friend meant policy decisions were going to be in the favor of the city of Cleveland," Jackson says now. "That wasn't necessarily always the case."

Kasich soon risked failing Jackson's test. To balance the state budget, the governor slashed Ohio's local government fund, forcing Jackson to lay off 320 employees. Privately, Jackson was enraged when Kasich signed Senate Bill 5, the attempt to severely limit public employee unions' power. Then Kasich's administration downgraded two major Cleveland highway projects: remaking the West Shoreway as a boulevard and building a second Inner Belt Bridge.

Jackson tore into top transportation officials at a December 2011 meeting on the Shoreway. "He used forceful words like, 'We've been misled,' 'You lied to us,' 'You created a false sense of hope,' " city councilman Matt Zone recalls.

The mayor had to decide: Was Kasich two-faced? Or was he a principled conservative who believed in fiscal austerity and local innovation, who'd help cities if it didn't involve more money?

Early last year, Jackson made his choice. He asked Kasich to help get his plan for reforming Cleveland's schools through the legislature. The mayor was offering Kasich a chance to make Cleveland friends and revive a few moderate ideas from the voter-rejected SB 5. A day after Jackson revealed his plan, Kasich talked it up in his State of the State address. Jackson and Kasich even co-authored a Plain Dealer op-ed piece about the reforms.

Jackson's plan teetered on the verge of politically brilliant and impossible. Linking teacher pay and layoffs to performance challenged the teachers union and its Democratic allies; giving new scrutiny to poor-performing charter schools in the city challenged the charter-school lobby and its Republican supporters. His plan would either gather bipartisan support or be knifed by both sides.

But Jackson's alliance with Kasich gave him leverage. Pro-charter Republicans had to take the mayor seriously. The Cleveland Teachers Union faced the threat that Kasich and Republican legislators might act without their input. Both sides struck deals with Jackson. The revised reforms passed. Kasich signed the bill in July.

Until then, few people outside Cleveland City Hall recognized Jackson's political skills, his ability to apply pressure, count votes and read people. "He is able to understand people, what makes them tick, how they are, in a way that few people I've ever met [can]," says Jackson's chief of staff, Ken Silliman. "It's like he is a student of human behavior and sees things that a lot of us miss."

Jackson's staff pushed Kasich's on highway money and expressed his skepticism about the governor's plan to privatize the Ohio Turnpike. Soon, Kasich started holding press conferences in Cleveland to talk about roads: a new plan to fund the second Inner Belt Bridge (August), money for a tunnel linking the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood to the lake (October) and his decision not to lease out the turnpike (December). Instead, Kasich proposed raising turnpike tolls to fund more road projects, mostly in Northern Ohio.

Some local Democrats blasted that idea too. But Jackson cautiously endorsed it, since Cleveland's projects will move up the list. No one credits Jackson alone for Kasich's turnpike turnaround, but it's an example of a relationship built on compromise and respect.

That relationship upsets Jackson's critics on Cleveland's city council. Brian Cummins says he wishes Jackson hadn't gotten so close to Kasich, or that he'd gotten money for the schools from him, not just reforms. Zack Reed says it's "almost laughable" to see Jackson, a Democrat, "get in bed" with Kasich, who signed SB 5. "Big elected officials don't sit down with snakes," Reed says.

But Jackson sees Kasich as the opposite: an honest adversary and occasional ally. "We have tremendous disagreements," Jackson says. "But it's all professional. As a person, I like him."
 

 

"To demonstrate how much they cared, [Clevelanders] sacrificed and voted yes for a levy they cannot afford. Cannot afford."

— Frank Jackson, at a King Day gala at Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church in Glenville, Jan. 18, 2013

Anyone who still believes the old saws about Jackson having no passion, no vision, no capacity to inspire, missed the Jackson of 2012 and his relentless push for the school levy. Sure, he sounded a bit wooden in those TV commercials ("Cleveland's schools are improving, but not fast enough"). But his admirers say he was more impressive in small groups, crossing the city from East to West, speaking through a Spanish translator to a Hispanic audience, convincing voters to approve a tax of $230 a year on a $50,000 home.

Jackson's passion for education reflects his life experience: Born in Cleveland in 1946, he's lived in the impoverished Central neighborhood since 1960. Education was his path upward, though it didn't come easy for him. Jackson struggled as a student and was held back in third and sixth grades. But after his Army service in Vietnam, he earned four degrees: an associates at Cuyahoga Community College and bachelor's, master's and law degrees at Cleveland State University. He still knows the Cleveland schools intimately; his grandson Frank, who lives with him, attends East Tech High School and his great-grandkids Donald and Javin attend city elementary schools. Jackson says they "were not doing as well as they could or should do" if they'd gone to better schools.

The district's lack of consistent quality frustrates the mayor. He says it's the main reason he pushed for the 2012 reforms, including more accountability for teachers and principals. Cleveland's Early College school at John Hay is one of the highest-scoring high schools in the state, he notes, but "I could take you to another one that's probably the lowest [scoring] in the state."

That lack of equity violates Jackson's core beliefs. In his 2005 campaign, he asked to be judged by whether "the least of us" are better off because of his work. It's the best explanation for why he defied partisan politics and asked a poor city for a big new tax.
 

 

Reporter to police chief Mike McGrath at Feb. 5, 2013, press conference:

"Given the attorney general's finding that he believes this was a 'systemic failure,' if someone were to ask for your resignation, what would your response be?"

Frank Jackson, stepping in front of McGrath:

"Hold on, no. Ain't nobody going to ask for it, so you don't have to answer that."

Jackson acts when he is ready, and he will not be hurried.

That's his message three hours after DeWine released his damning report on the November police chase and shooting. "His report will be one of the things we consider as we move forward," the mayor tells reporters gathered at City Hall.

DeWine investigated why 13 police officers fired 137 shots and killed Russell and Williams in an East Cleveland parking lot. On Feb. 5, DeWine held a press conference and talked about the 22-minute, 100-mph, 62-car police chase that led up to their deaths.

Cleveland policy says only two police cars can pursue a suspect, except when approved by a supervisor. But 59 of the 62 cars joined the chase without permission, according to DeWine. Officers radioed that they heard a gunshot from the car and saw Williams, the passenger, holding a gun — but DeWine said there was likely no gun. Russell's 1979 car was prone to backfiring, and Williams may have just been holding a pop can. Several officers told DeWine's investigators they opened fire at the end because they thought the driver or passenger were shooting at them — but the police had actually caught each other in a massive crossfire.

"We are dealing with a systemic failure in the Cleveland Police Department," DeWine says. "Command failed. Communications failed." But Jackson isn't ready to act; the city's review isn't done.

A reporter asks Jackson if he still has complete confidence in police chief Mike McGrath and safety director Martin Flask.

"Yes, I have complete confidence," Jackson replies. "The chief is the chief and will continue to be the chief. The director is the director and will continue to be the director."

All across town, others are reacting to DeWine's conclusions. Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty says he sees "many disturbing facts" in the report and will present it to a grand jury. U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge says she's disappointed in DeWine's report. "Accountability rests with people as well as systems," she says.

A reporter asks McGrath: "Was there a systemic failure?"

"Systemic? No," the chief replies, "because the policies and procedures and training [are] in place." If the policy wasn't followed, he adds, "somebody will be held accountable."

Later in the day, DeWine will call McGrath's answer shocking, a sign of a "head in the sand" attitude about a "culture problem" in the police department.

But Jackson refuses to join the argument. He does not give snap reactions to events. He has the discipline of a long-distance runner keeping pace, stubbornly steady. In a moment like this, he doubles down on consistency and patience.

The case tests his instincts. Is staying calm enough when the public's confidence in the government — in the police — is wounded?

Jackson repeats what he's said since the shooting: Right after he became mayor in 2006, he improved police policies and training on the use of force. If police stayed within the rules on Nov. 29, they'll be fine. If they didn't, they'll be held accountable.

The mayor starts getting worked up — or, at least, as animated as he ever gets. A hotheaded politician might pound a podium; he punches certain words.

"Our considerations will never be political," he says. "They will be based on facts and evidence."

Jackson makes his own decisions with the help of people he trusts. No report, or reporter, will knock him off it.

"I'm under no pressure but to do the right thing," he says. "That is what this chief will do. And that is what this director will do. And that is why I have complete confidence in them, regardless of whatever is being reported or whatever the side conversations are."

The chase and shooting do challenge Jackson's leadership. Soon, he'll have to confront the finding that 59 police officers defied city policy and joined a chase. He'll have to address whether that breakdown in discipline reflects on McGrath's effectiveness as chief. He'll have to reassert control of the police department in a way that has credibility with the public. But he'll do that on his own time.
 

 

"I do not develop policies around attracting people from the outside."

— Frank Jackson, at a forum with Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute employees, Jan. 16, 2013

Jackson has lived on the same side street off Central Avenue for 53 years, and his house was one of the last still standing on his block until new homes sprouted around it. For two years, Tim Tramble of the Burten, Bell, Carr community development corporation lobbied City Hall to tear down one remaining eyesore, an abandoned house across the street from the mayor's home.

Say you're the mayor, and you're staring at a ruin every day. Wouldn't you be tempted to just make a call and get it taken down?

No, Jackson says. "Just because I'm mayor shouldn't mean that I get anything any different than any other citizen." In a city with up to 15,000 vacant homes and 2,000 demolitions a year, there's a rotation. He's not going to cut in line.

"Just like when you plow, you better not plow my street if the other streets aren't being plowed!" the mayor says. "That way, I have a better sense of what the average citizen goes through."

Most observers say the mayor treats neighborhoods equally. Some of the city's most dramatic capital projects have happened in stable or growing neighborhoods — Gordon Square's new streetscape, storefront renovations in Kamm's Corners — but more troubled neighborhoods have gotten attention too. Bold city-funded urban agriculture projects have sprung up along Kinsman Road, in the ward Jackson represented on city council.

Jackson has also funded major projects in poorer wards represented by councilmen who've clashed with him, such as a long-sought recreation center in Mike Polensek's North Collinwood ward. That's striking in a City Hall where some still recall former Mayor Mike White's vindictiveness. "Just because a councilman has a political issue with me or a disagreement, I'm not going to take that out on their people," Jackson says.

Along with Jackson's refusal to play favorites comes consistency, a steady hand. The mayor gets high marks from political observers for his control over city finances. He deployed two task forces to improve city operations and find savings that left Cleveland better prepared than other cities when the Great Recession hit.

"Every mayor claims to want to be fiscally prudent and responsible with funds," says former Cuyahoga County treasurer Jim Rokakis. "He has done it, in extraordinarily difficult times."

Rokakis has known Jackson since law school, when they sat together in the back of a class in hopes of avoiding an especially questioning professor's Socratic method. "He's seen ups and seen downs, and he's steady, sure-handed." He says Jackson's persistence and steadfastness help him focus on long-term goals.

"The city, despite everything that's happened in the last 10 years, is relatively well off," Rokakis adds. "People are not afraid to move downtown, to Detroit-Shoreway, to Tremont, or to take a chance on Collinwood, because of the basic level of services he's provided."

It's a happy irony — a mayor from Cleveland's poorest neighborhood is presiding over a downtown population boom and a surge of vitality attracting young professionals to the city's Near West Side. Jackson helped those changes along with reliable services, a rejuvenated economic development department, strategic spending at key moments and the more tangible aspects of his sustainability effort, from bike lanes to support of the local food movement.

In fact, the irony boils up for a moment when Jackson visits an employee forum at the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute. The mayor's been invited to speak about urban planning, so Bob Brown, his planning director, precedes him with a slide show heavy on optimism about walkable neighborhoods, campus districts, arts districts, urban agriculture and new developments downtown.

That spurs a research associate to ask Jackson a question. Development in Cleveland seems aimed at attracting young professionals to the city, she says. What about people like her, who felt compelled to move out of Little Italy to find a better education for her kids?

"To be perfectly honest with you, I'm not trying to bring anybody," Jackson replies.

People laugh awkwardly. The mayor isn't trying to grow the city?

"We develop policies around taking care of our own," he explains. "And as a result of that, people want to come."
 

 

"I would have retired but for the school effort."

— Frank Jackson, Jan. 28, 2013

If a mayor is a psychiatrist and the city is his patient, Jackson thinks we're cured.

Cleveland "is no longer clinically depressed," he says. The school levy's success, he says, is one sign of "a change in attitude, a change in self-awareness and self-esteem to a more positive approach.

"Part of my job was to get that done. Am I the one to carry it past that point? I don't necessarily know that I am. But there is someone that is a better fit for that type of Cleveland, that can build upon these things and move it ahead." In other words, the next mayor may be a life coach, not a shrink.

Jackson's in a philosophical mood because he thought about retiring this year, but decided he needs to take the city through one more stage of therapy. He's running for a third term to ensure his school reforms are implemented. "The key for me is to institutionalize that approach to life, that attitude," he says, "in a way that will dictate to whoever is mayor that this is the path you follow. I just don't believe we're quite there yet."

This fall, Jackson will likely run for re-election touting a record on education, safety, and economic prosperity and inclusion. Besides the schools, he'll likely plug his other top priorities for 2013. One is a push for community benefit agreements — pledges by the private sector to hire Cleveland residents on development projects. The other is his sustainability efforts, which nudge Cleveland's economy toward reliance on renewable resources through projects such as urban gardens, bike-friendly streets and offshore wind turbines.

But since Jackson wants four more years and we know the full scope of his talents, what more should we expect of him?

Even now, when Jackson is at a high point, many political insiders share a consistent criticism of him: The mayor still trusts few people and values loyalty over effectiveness in those he does trust. They say he should shuffle his cabinet more, defer less to directors and appointees, move faster to fix troubled departments in City Hall.

Former mayor and governor George Voinovich, in an interview this fall, said his biggest concern for Cleveland is "the quality of the people that are running the various departments in the city, because the mayor is only as good as the team he has."

City councilman Brian Cummins echoes that advice. "I and others in council sometimes question not his judgment, but the challenge within his cabinet," he says.

Cummins opposed two Jackson administration projects that became major setbacks for the mayor: a plan to give a Chinese company exclusive rights to replace Cleveland streetlights (now withdrawn) and a trash-to-electricity plant (on hold due to concerns about emissions and cost). "I don't understand how these projects could have gotten so far down the pipeline without his executive team, his cabinet, being able to stop them," Cummins says.

City council members praise Jackson for converting the city's economic development department into an assertive problem-solver. But addressing customer-service problems in the city water department took years and the hiring of an outside turnaround expert.

"I make changes when I believe they are appropriate," Jackson says of his cabinet. "I've never suggested to other officials," he adds archly, "what to do with their employees."

Jackson hires people he believes are strong leaders, says Silliman, but he scrutinizes them intensely if they don't meet expectations. "You don't want me in your business," Jackson warns them. His favorite questions: "How long?" and "Why can't it be sooner?"

Many Clevelanders are asking those questions about the city's waterfront, where the mayor's playing catch-up. He lost years of opportunity by endorsing a grandiose, ill-conceived, $500 million plan to move the Port of Cleveland and develop its land. After that effort collapsed, Jackson started again. In fall 2011, he released a new plan to develop offices, shops, parks and a hotel or apartments on 90 acres near North Coast Harbor. A developer has preliminary plans to build an office park next to Burke Lakefront Airport. Soon, Jackson plans to release a request for qualifications from developers interested in the former port land north of Cleveland Browns Stadium and sites near the Rock Hall.

The mayor is well aware that urban dreamer's pretty plans often die on paper in Cleveland. He says his is different.

"The reason we have a lakefront plan that is going to happen is because it's a practical plan," he tells the Lerner Research Institute employees at the January forum. Then he lays another Jacksonian riddle on them, a play on a favorite theme — the value of work, not words — which is the fairest way to judge Jackson himself.

"You know, the best plan you can have is the one you're doing," he says. "Everything else is a good conversation piece."


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