Passing of Power

When Cleveland Magazine debuted in 1972, new leaders were stepping up to help an anxious city.

In 1972, when Cleveland Magazine debuted, the city was still recovering from the most turbulent decade in its history. Two riots and countless confrontations over civil rights had marked the 1960s in Cleveland. A sense of anxiety prevailed.

Leadership in Cleveland was changing. The power that drove the city was shifting, being reapportioned, even redefined. When I became the magazine's editor in 1973, we sought to identify the change.

Four times in my 16 years in the job, we published a package of articles that charted the course of power in the city. These benchmark articles appeared every five years, from 1973 to 1988, and traced Cleveland's evolution in some of the most critical years of its existence.

Reading them again, I sobered at the decline in quality of the individuals we have in leadership today as compared to the past.

Five months before the magazine first published in April 1972, Mayor Carl Stokes abdicated political office to move to New York and become a television anchorman. Even in his absence, Stokes still radiated power. A simple telephone call from him could alter the course of East Side politics. A historic figure, the first black mayor of a major American city, Stokes left a huge void in black political circles, right at a time when fortune was beckoning toward minorities. His leaving also created a power vacuum at City Hall that was never quite filled.

By the time Stokes left office, he was somewhat of a bitter man. His expectations, and those of the powerful figures who put him in office, had been dashed when the Glenville riots and other conflicts made it clear that the presence of a black mayor would not solve the unrest in the streets.

In 1973, significant power rested in Cleveland's two major law firms and the men who ran them. We named Jack Reavis of Jones, Day, Reavis and Pogue and Jim Davis of Squire, Sanders and Dempsey two of the most influential figures in Cleveland. In fact, they were two of the most powerful Clevelanders of the last half of the 20th century. They had played leading roles in convincing the business community to support Stokes in 1967. For decades, their firms had provided leadership on various boards and functioned as a safety net in dealing with city woes. Reavis once even raised $40,000 in a single afternoon to open the municipal swimming pools one summer when the city had no money.

With Stokes gone, Davis became a mentor to city councilman George Forbes, who soon became a powerful figure on his own. Like him or not, Forbes became the leading black politician in town. As president of city council, the domineering Forbes was a constant and controversial news figure. Nearly every issue that the city faced in his 16 years as council president passed through him. He dominated minority politics in Cleveland for two decades and made the magazine's most powerful list in 1978, 1983 and 1988.

Politicians' power ebbed in the '70s as City Hall slipped into the Dark Ages. Mayors Ralph J. Perk and Dennis Kucinich floundered financially, leading to default. It wasn't until George Voinovich took office in November 1979 that City Hall projected any real power and the city began a renaissance of sorts.

Together, Forbes and Voinovich wielded a power that united the city. The era's most powerful business executive, E. Mandell de Windt, the thoughtful head of Eaton Corp., rallied the business community, organizing a corporate task force that helped Voinovich reorganize City Hall and get it out of default. Voinovich, Forbes and business executives such as de Windt created confidence that attracted new leadership, including Richard Jacobs. Though quiet and withdrawn, Jacobs personified power in the 1980s and 1990s with his construction of Key Tower and the Galleria. His Cleveland Indians went twice to the World Series.

As time progressed, some silos of power crumbled. Cleveland lost several of its major companies through mergers, sales or moves. The major law firms dimmed in prominence as they shifted attention toward clients elsewhere, some of whom had moved from Cleveland. Today, one would be hard-pressed to name the managing partners. Global business practices have made it difficult for corporate leaders to concentrate on city problems as they once did.

Young, energetic business executives who saw less opportunity in Cleveland sought their fortunes elsewhere. George Steinbrenner, who occupied a place on the 1973 list, possessed a youthful vitality that the town desperately needed. He brought professional basketball to Cleveland, revived the Air Show and created Group 66, an organization focused on the betterment of the city. He appeared to represent a new breed of leader here until he purchased the New York Yankees and moved. One of the city's major failings in the last decades is its loss of youth.

When Voinovich left City Hall in 1989, Forbes was well-suited to succeed him. No one had more experience as a city council president, and the business community trusted him. But his oft-times brusque manner cost him a chance at the job in the 1989 election.

Newspapers once held immense power in the city. When the Cleveland Press went out of business in 1982, it left The Plain Dealer with a monopoly. By virtue of this, we named its editor and publisher Tom Vail to the list twice in the 1980s. Though aloof, Vail was determined to play a role in politics; his endorsements of Stokes and Kucinich for mayor were keys to their elections. Amazingly, because of changes in technology and a new generation's disregard for printed news, one would be hard-pressed today to find a single powerful media figure in Cleveland.

Power is no longer rooted in the city. Mike White may have been the last powerful mayor. The change from an industrial base to a local economy rooted in medicine and technology means a more introspective kind of leadership than in the past.

For decades, risk-averse managers have run most Cleveland companies. Over time, that heritage does not promote the aggressiveness usually found in people who project power.

Even 40 years ago, Cleveland had a power shortage. But those who made the city work in the past never thought or acted the way today's prominent Clevelanders do. The idea of power here is hollow, and made so by an untrustworthy political system, a lack of intellectual engagement with community problems and little effort to challenge the status quo.

Share this story: