Ready to Rumble

Eric Brewer, the bomb-throwing, hell-raising, score-settling yellow journalist, is the new mayor of East Cleveland.  Can he fight his biggest foe ever, the troubles that plague his neglected city?

East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer is a street fighter.

He’s been brawling at the intersection of Cleveland politics, crime-fighting and scandal for the last 25 years. From his beret-wearing days leading the Guardian Angels in Ohio to his season authoring former Cleveland Mayor Mike White’s attack literature to his tabloid newspapers filled with screaming headlines, crusades and score-settling, Brewer’s been throwing word-bombs at every prominent target he could find, making the good and the evil alike dive, scatter and curse his name.

So after being elected mayor this fall, Brewer was hardly ready to turn statesmanlike. The day after Christmas, he decided to start his term as mayor six days early with a South American-style disorderly transfer of power.

He talked his way into the mayor’s office in East Cleveland City Hall, which was closed for the holiday, by telling a cop on duty that lame-duck Mayor Saratha Goggins had abandoned her job and that he, as mayor-elect, had the authority to take charge. He took down an official picture of Goggins and changed the locks.

Goggins, on her annual holiday vacation in Alabama, got a call and flew back to town. The next day, after tense negotiations, Brewer agreed to leave City Hall until his term really started on Jan. 1.

“Political grand theft,” declared a Plain Dealer editorial, which advised East Cleveland residents to prepare for Brewer’s real inauguration by setting “rat traps” at City Hall.

So, early on Jan. 2, 17 hours after being sworn in, Brewer e-mailed Plain Dealer writer Phillip Morris.

“There is absolutely no truth to your malicious and false claims that I ‘can be exceedingly rash, reckless and situationally myopic’ or that I am a ‘well-documented human incinerator,’ ” the mayor wrote. Convinced that editorial page editor Brent Larkin has had it in for him for 11 years, since Brewer wrote some articles criticizing Larkin and the paper, Brewer lit into Morris, accusing him of writing the editorial to please his bosses.

“Just think, Mr. Morris, if instead of serving as Brent Larkin’s paid ‘coon,’ you might have actually written something in your sorry career that truly helped someone,” the mayor wrote. Then he sent the e-mail, copying several PD editors and writers.

It was 7:25 a.m., a satisfying start to Brewer’s first week in his new job. “There is nothing I can say that can tell you more about Eric Brewer than that e-mail,” Larkin says.

Brewer, 52, loves the role of the enraged outsider — but he’s been angling for power in East Cleveland, Northeast Ohio’s most impoverished, neglected, corrupted town, for 10 years. Voters rejected him when he ran for mayor in 2001. Then, just when it seemed like his act was played out, a new round of headlines hit. His No. 1 nemesis, East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor, whom Brewer had long accused of incompetence and deceit, actually turned out to be crooked. Onunwor lives in a federal prison in West Virginia now, convicted of taking more than $70,000 in bribes.

Vindicated, Brewer ran again last year against Goggins, an Onunwor ally, and won in a landslide.

Welcome to what happens when the lifelong critic, the bomb-throwing revolutionary, storms the palace and takes over.

At his first City Council meeting as mayor, Brewer holds up a flimsy rope, tied in a hangman’s knot.

“I want to thank the last administration for the noose left on my desk,” he says. “If things get really bad, I’ll hang myself.”

It’s Jan. 3, just a week after Brewer’s standoff with Goggins and a day after his flame-throwing e-mail to Morris, and the new mayor’s anger is still smouldering. But the councilmembers douse the embers with mayoral honeymoon warm fuzzies. Aglow with optimism, they pledge to work with Brewer.

Then it’s time for a scene I’ve seen many times since I first wrote about East Cleveland five years ago. Feisty residents come to the microphone and plead with their leaders to do something about their town’s troubles. Some nights, it’s pothole-pocked streets and dead streetlights. Tonight, it’s drug crime.

An elderly lady says “drug boys” are selling on her corner. A police officer warns that the force is outmanned. When two officers confront “10 or 15 drug boys, there’s not much we can do,” she says.

The police chief, Patricia Lane, is sitting next to me. The force is down to 47 officers, with no support staff, she says — for a city of 26,000 people. (By March, only 45.) Lane had 80 officers and staff when she started her job in 1999, before several budget crises.

Councilwoman Barbara Thomas agrees with the complaints. She names spots in her ward plagued by drug traffic. Brewer tells the crowd he’ll go out with the cops to take a look.

As the meeting ends, I inch toward Brewer to say I’d like to set up an interview. I’m not sure how it’ll go. We have a history.
Coolly, he fixes me with big, intense eyes that make him look a bit like a lighter-skinned, frecklier version of comedian Bernie Mac. “Didn’t you write the ‘Hit Man For Hire’ story?” he asks.

He’s talking about a story I wrote about him for a weekly paper five years ago. Yes, I wrote it, I say, knowing he knows I did.

In early 2001, I was writing a story about East Cleveland. Brewer came to the paper’s offices bearing an obsessive collection of self-published scandal sheets savaging Onunwor, who had fired him from his chief of staff job in 1998. Clearly, Brewer was planning to run against his ex-boss for mayor that fall. Onunwor was from Nigeria, “one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” Brewer told me.

Brewer was knifing politicians in Cleveland too, working for Mayor White at City Hall, writing attack literature against White’s city council enemies.

The story’s cover illustration caricatured Brewer as a ’20s-era Chicago gangster toting a tommy gun. Onunwor used the cover in his campaign literature that fall. He beat Brewer by a 2-1 margin.
After the election, the FBI bugged Cleveland businessman Nate Gray to investigate his ties to Mike White — and caught him handing cash to Onunwor. Gray was paying him to give city contracts to three of his clients, including a big no-bid contract that let the engineering firm CH2MHill run East Cleveland’s water department. Brewer had criticized the contract before it was signed. (CH2MHill denies knowing Gray was bribing Onunwor, and none of its executives have been charged with a crime.)

Brewer now says he also told the FBI in 1999 that a demolition contractor had told him Onunwor had extorted bribes from him. The contractor testified against Onunwor.

Onunwor and Gray are both in prison now for the bribery scheme. Brewer hadn’t known Gray was bribing the mayor — but he blew the whistle on one deal and sniffed out a rat behind another.
Since Brewer figured out Onunwor’s true, corrupt character years before most people — including me — I figure Brewer deserves a second look.

Outside the meeting room, Brewer asks if I have what I need. I say I could use some time to ask him questions. He’s going for his ride with the police and invites me along.

Why did voters elect Brewer this time after rejecting him four years ago? I ask the mayor as he drives up Euclid Avenue.

“They knew I had been telling the truth all along,” he says. “It’s really that simple.”

Saratha Goggins, Brewer’s opponent and a longtime councilwoman with a hot-headed streak and a shock of curly white hair, took over as mayor when Onunwor went to prison. Though she was Onunwor’s friend and ally, she seemed well-intentioned and candid, making angry speeches against real outrages, from long-unpaid bills to squabbling council members.

But many voters saw her differently after Brewer helped expose her worst secret: “Inside: Heart Breaking Death Pictures of Mayor’s Victim,” shouted the November 2004 cover of Brewer’s self-published newspaper, the Cleveland Challenger.

In 1982, Goggins stabbed a boyfriend, O’Neal Price, to death during a fight. She claimed self-defense and was convicted of manslaughter. She was married at the time. The Plain Dealer had broken the story in September 2004, but Brewer, whose tabloid papers thrive on violence and scandal, followed with a blood-curdling account of the killing — and Price’s autopsy photos.
East Cleveland was also looking for a strong leader who’d end years of mismanagement and neglect. Brewer, intelligent, bursting with information, confident and intense, looked like that kind of leader.

“He just has a never-say-die attitude,” says Nina Turner, a Cleveland city councilwoman who worked with Brewer in the White Administration. “Some might say arrogant, but he has a warrior’s spirit. He can endure a good battle. I think for the condition East Cleveland is in now, [it needs a] leader with broad shoulders.”

Driving through East Cleveland can conjure the overwhelming feeling that the rest of Ohio has abandoned the place. It’s a city outsiders fear to visit, a place where very little works right, where politicians fight each other and their own tragic flaws.

The abandonment started around 1960. When black Clevelanders began moving in, seeking a better, suburban life, and Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights welcomed integration up the hill, white East Cleveland made a different choice: run. Most whites had left the city by 1980, taking their money with them. The tax base bled red ink, draining city services from police to housing inspections. Beautiful 1920s-era houses sagged. Crime spread.

No city leader since has been able to turn things around. The best have been overwhelmed, the worst proven incompetent or corrupt. The city spent 17 years in a state-declared “fiscal emergency” status, finally emerging this year, but with a budget even leaner than before.

A lot of non-East Clevelanders dismiss the city as unfixable. The thousands who live there can’t afford to. They live in a poor town, but they can still demand a well-run poor town — a stable City Hall that state and federal governments and foundations can trust with grant money, that new businesses can trust to provide basic services and keep order. Then East Cleveland could finally rebuild, tapping its dormant strengths: historic homes as beautiful as Lakewood’s, a prime location near University Circle and the huge, wild Forest Hill Park, a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Brewer promised that competent, well-run government. His writing and arguing skills impressed residents and crushed his opponents in the debates. “Eric ran a campaign in which he defined the issues,” says City Council president Gary Norton. “He was clear, simple, consistent.”

First, Brewer staged a tax revolt. Goggins was supporting an income tax increase to pay for more police and firefighters. Brewer turned it against her.

“East Cleveland City Hall isn’t broke. It’s mismanaged,” blared a headline on his campaign literature. “We don’t need new taxes, just better management.”

Then, Brewer promised to solve East Cleveland’s biggest, most urgent issue. No, it’s not crime or corruption. It’s water.

East Clevelanders pay punishing water and sewer bills, averaging almost $100 a month, about one-third more than in neighboring Cleveland. The steep bills scare off homebuyers and break the budgets of poorer homeowners. The rates are high because East Cleveland loses water to uncollected bills, leaks, old meters, even water theft. Residents rig pipes to bypass their meters. Squatters in the city’s many vacant buildings help themselves to running water.

Brewer promised to come up with a solution in his first 90 days as mayor. In the version he’d prefer people remember now, he said he’d “present a plan” to lower rates by then. But sometimes he went further.

“My number one goal as mayor is to get your water and sewer rates lowered,” Brewer said at a July debate. “I believe we can do this in our first 90 days.” He blamed the bribe-secured contract with CH2MHill for the problem. “Now that this corrupt contractor is gone,” Brewer claimed, “they should have at least $2 million in extra money floating around in the water department.”

The police and fire levy lost. Brewer won.

Riding in a police caravan led by a cruiser and a Ford Explorer, Brewer reminisces about organizing the Ohio chapter of the Guardian Angels, the anticrime citizen patrol force, in 1981.

The Angels wore camouflage pants, T-shirts and red berets and learned marching and martial arts while Brewer barked at them like a drill sergeant. They roved Public Square and rapid trains, nabbing the occasional thug and warning crowds away from pickpockets.

We roll up to one of the streets mentioned at the meeting. A guy in a hooded sweatshirt takes off running when he sees us. Three cops jump out, chase him, tackle him, then walk him to the Explorer.

“This is what he had in his hand,” a cop says, showing us a big baggie with about 10 little balls of marijuana rolled up in plastic. Another policeman finds a second cache, with about 30 more dime bags, nearby.

This street is known as a marijuana market all the way to the West Side, the cop says. Brewer asks where in town people go for crack. The cop names off five streets.

That’s how bad things are in East Cleveland: The cops know where the drug markets are, but — thanks in part to the failure of the safety levy Brewer opposed — they’re too out-manned to shut them down.

Later, Brewer and I walk a narrow hallway in the infamous East Cleveland City Jail. He wants me to see how nasty it is. A court order calls on the city to improve it, but East Cleveland doesn’t have the money. He says he tried to set aside cash for it when he was Onunwor’s chief of staff, but it got spent on a phone system.

About 16 inmates, wearing T-shirts or orange jumpsuits, are crammed into tiny cells. They’re lying on light blue bunk cushions with yellow foam peeking through their cracks. Paint peels off the bars and walls. A big hole in the ceiling drips water onto the floor. Some fluorescent lights buzz lazily; others are burnt out.

Brewer strides past the cells. “What’s up? I’m the mayor. What’s up, brother, how you doin’?”

Like a warden crossed with a tough-love inspirational speaker, he tells the prisoners he doesn’t want them in jail, but they’ve got to stop whatever dumb stuff they’re doing. He offers to help them seal their criminal records if they only have one conviction and connect them with contractors who need workers. “Where they at?” one guy asks.

Brewer is at his best and worst all at once. There’s sincerity in his outrage at the jail conditions and concern for the prisoners. (He starts record-sealing and job-training programs in April.) But he’s also showing off, high on the thrill of being mayor and finally having the keys to the place.
He’s getting really worked up, telling the prisoners about starting his new job. “The motherfuckers from The Plain Dealer [are] writing about me trying to take office early,” he tells them. “I threw that fat bitch out.”

Brewer also calls Goggins “fatso” in a note to her and “that fat whore” while talking to a reporter, The Plain Dealer reports in February. She shows up at a council meeting to yell at him. He apologizes to her for the note and to the residents for “the comments that the Plain Dealer truly, truly took out of context.” He says he sent the note because “I was still a little ticked off about the noose I found on my desk. It was a juvenile thing to do.” (“He did that himself,” Goggins says of the noose.)

But earlier at the same meeting, he uses a third of his State of the City address to settle scores. He rips into Goggins as a bad manager, The Plain Dealer as “agenda-driven” and the state auditor for “a poorly-timed publicity stunt” — releasing East Cleveland from fiscal emergency after 17 years.
You’d think a mayor would celebrate being released from fiscal emergency. But Brewer opposed two key parts of the financial recovery plan that Goggins, Council and the state auditor agreed on last year: the failed income tax levy and a bond issue that paid off the city’s $3 million in deficits.

Brewer’s supporters also fought another part of the plan, an increase in a trash pickup fee — but the state ended the fiscal emergency a day before voters repealed it. So Brewer blames the state for everything from 8,000 East Cleveland residents moving away during the fiscal emergency to the vacant buildings they left behind.

Anyone who criticizes Brewer can become the next target. When Brewer attacks, or is under attack, his focused intensity shades into manic obsession. He lashes out, irrationally and viciously.
“He was in a destroy mode for a long time with his newspaper,” says Darrell Fields, an East Cleveland lawyer whose wife worked for Onunwor and Goggins, “and I don’t know if he can go from being a destroyer to being a creator.”

In his destroy mode, Brewer spews enough accusations to keep an army of fact-checkers and a panel of logic professors busy. He’s a master of the catchy, character-assassinating insult (“fat whore,” “paid coon”). He assumes the worst about people’s motivations and makes them sound as sinister as possible. (He thinks Phillip Morris must be attacking him to satisfy an 11-year grudge of Brent Larkin’s. Actually, says Larkin, all seven PD employees at Brewer’s endorsement interview this fall were “appalled by the performance they saw.”) He puts down rivals’ resumes to try to prove they aren’t as smart as he is. (He attacked Goggins for having “spent 20 years showing patients which door to go [to] for their X-rays at University Hospitals” and other mayoral opponents for working at Kaufmann’s and a grocery store.)

He also cites laws to defend his position, but doesn’t always interpret them the way most people do. (He justified his early takeover by quoting the city charter’s rule that a mayor-elect can fill a “vacancy” due to the “death, resignation, removal, or long-term absence of the Mayor.” But the previous sentence names three cabinet members who can serve as acting mayor “when the Mayor is absent from the City.”) And he drowns people in overwhelming, intimidating amounts of information. (One night, around 3 a.m., Brewer forwards me 17 e-mails, mostly two months’ worth of exchanges with Plain Dealer reporters.)

“Eric needs a bogeyman,” Fields says. “He always needs someone he can say is shooting at him.”

Fields worries the insults will scare away other governments and nonprofits. “Nobody wants to be involved with the city of East Cleveland as long as their elected official is conducting himself in this way.”

Even Brewer’s allies say he needs to quit fighting and focus on his work.

“He’s got to remember that he’s not a newspaperman,” says Brewer’s best friend, Robert Townsend, an Oakwood city councilman. “Some of his sound bites, I’m hoping he turns some of that down.”

County commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, who swore Brewer in as mayor the second time, says the mayor is doing a good job connecting with people outside East Cleveland, despite Fields’ concerns. But he adds that Brewer needs to learn from his “missteps” attacking Goggins and the state.

“Hopefully he’s learning the lesson that as an elected official, you don’t always express your visceral reaction to things that happened, because what you say is attributed not merely to you but to your entire community,” says Jones. “He’s going to have to be more the mayor and a little less Eric, just as I have to be more the commissioner and a little less Peter when in the role of an elected official.”

Thankfully, there’s more to Brewer than his temper. I see this at one of the public meetings he holds every Friday night.

Brewer walks in wearing his fur-lined coat and a fedora, like he’s stepped right out of the Harlem Renaissance, all sophisticated cool and bravado. He jokes and chats with the crowd of 40 or so. The laugh lines reach out from his intense hazel eyes.

Brewer gives an update about what he’s working on. He gets worked up and long-winded about his plan to sue CH2MHill, but his anger about the old water contract is understandable. Mostly, he comes off as focused, intelligent and curious.

The meeting lasts almost three hours: Candidates for state legislature campaign, cabinet members report on their departments and the water commissioner answers residents’ questions. It’s exhausting and overwhelming, but all the explanation is a wise move in a town that’s had so many reasons to mistrust City Hall.

Next to me, Belinda Kyle, a full-time mom and part-time college student, says she stopped Brewer while he was campaigning and complained about rowdy youths loitering in her neighborhood. “He engaged me for as long as I wanted to talk to him,” she says. Now police are patrolling the area more often. “I don’t know if he did it, but something did happen.”

The mayor’s single-mindedness, scary when directed at enemies, can be a virtue too. At his self-disciplined best, his intelligence and tenacity create a sense that he’s making progress on challenges other East Cleveland leaders have flailed against, despairing.

Last fall, Brewer asked Joe Ditchman, Cleveland partner of the real estate giant Colliers and a former East Clevelander, to help him attract development. Ditchman envisions blocks of sparkling new houses and townhomes on Euclid Avenue, similar to the Beacon Place development that’s on Cleveland’s Chester Avenue near the Cleveland Clinic, plus a medium-sized “retail center.” Kent State’s urban design center is drawing up plans, and Colliers will connect with developers, Ditchman says. He thinks a big project is “60 to 70 percent” likely to be built within a few years.

“Eric was the one that developed the whole concept to get us to come in and do what we can,” he says.

It’s too early to credit Brewer with anything but good intentions and hustle, but if he can actually attract large-scale, upscale development to East Cleveland, it’ll be a huge victory. East Cleveland has seen almost no residential development in years, and only a few commercial projects.

Brewer is also making progress on the water issue. On March 31, he reveals his plan for cutting water and sewer rates. He’s asked Cleveland to do a joint study about taking over East Cleveland’s water department, and he’s asked the sewer district to look into changing its billing relationship with East Cleveland. Those two moves could give East Cleveland rates comparable to Cleveland and its suburbs.

Turning over the water department to Cleveland is not an original idea. Still, if Brewer can do it, he’ll accomplish something other mayors have failed at. His plan is well-researched, thorough, filled with urgency and honest about the pros and cons.

It would look a lot better if he hadn’t promised too much last year.

Cleveland and the sewer district have only promised to study the issue. East Cleveland’s water and billing problems could lead them to decide against a closer relationship. And any changes, and rate cuts, won’t happen until at least next year, Brewer concedes.

The mayor says he’s fulfilled his promise to “present a plan” to cut rates in 90 days. So I read him the bolder version of his promise from the July debate. Will he cut rates in 90 days? “It’s not going to happen in 90 days,” he says. Was there $2 million “floating around” the water department? “No.”

It’s the first time I’ve heard him admit he was wrong about something.

Brewer is reaping what he’s sown with the city budget. Despite what he said last fall, East Cleveland is broke.

The mayor’s eager to tick off the big and small ways he’s saving money: sending no legal work to outside firms, buying fewer city cars, cutting 100 phone lines (the city had more phones than workers). He’s paring way back on police and fire overtime, hopes to save $300,000 by reorganizing the fire department and hiring substitute firefighters, wants to eliminate a pricey insurance deal in the police contract.

But the repeal of the trash fee increase has just punched a $600,000 hole in the $15 million budget. (Brewer claims Goggins left $750,000 in deficits and unpaid bills, but the state auditor’s office disagrees.)

He’s never been in charge of $15 million before. His newspapers weren’t very lucrative. He was making less than $22,000 in 1994 — the year he filed for personal bankruptcy, a move he blames on the costs of starting a new business and his breakup with his wife. (They’re still on good terms; she was his astrology columnist in the Cleveland Challenger.)

The mayor is reminding residents at meetings that only 11 service workers clean the streets, fix potholes and repair streetlights. One housing inspector and one building inspector examine the city.
Does he need more money to do everything the residents expect?

“Absolutely,” he says. But he won’t ask voters for a tax increase until he’s convinced he’s found every way to save money.

Meanwhile, some of his appointees’ salaries are higher than what Goggins paid. Some council members complain the city can’t afford them. Brewer’s responded with a mix of insults, stonewalling information, and logical arguments. “If you want good people, you have to pay them,” he says.

Brewer’s destined to face more criticism. If Republican candidate for governor Ken Blackwell wins the May 2 primary, Brewer plans to endorse him. He says he admires Blackwell, who has promised to spur economic development in East Cleveland.

But endorsing a Republican will upset a lot of East Clevelanders, who are predominantly Democrats. It will probably draw attention to the fact that Brewer, who ran as a Democrat, was a registered Republican for a few years. When Onunwor turned Republican in 2002, many voters saw it as the first sign he was dishonest.

And some residents are still upset that, after questioning Goggins for not firing employees who had even a shadow of suspicion around them because of the Onunwor conviction, Brewer hired someone connected to the same scandal. His service director, Dwight Roach, testified last year that he delivered contributions to a Cleveland councilman that were intended to take care of complaints the councilman had made about a water main project. Roach was never charged with a crime, and Brewer says he’s warned his cabinet they’ll be fired and prosecuted for any illegal act. But still, why would a crusader against corruption hire someone with Roach’s past?

Brewer is unafraid to challenge authority, his friend Nina Turner says. But now he is an authority.“Now he’s going to see how it feels,” Turner says. “People are going to challenge him, and not always agree with the decision he makes. He’s got to make the transition from the person outside making criticisms to the person taking criticism, and taking it with an open mind.”

Brewer agrees with Peter Lawson Jones’ advice to be “more the mayor and less Eric.” He says he’s reaching out to universities, business groups, even public officials he once slammed in print. He says he’s made the switch from his past grudges to talking about the future. But then he gets worked up again: “You can’t discover the truth until you recognize the lie ...”

You get the idea. The bomb-throwing revolutionary is still fighting the urge to light the fuse.

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