George Forbes — An Obsession with Power
He stands at the controls of a vast network of authority and influence, virtually dominating the city. Should one man have all that power?
Forbes, who gerrymandered University Circle into his Ward 9 four years ago, will live in a home that surely will be the talk of the town. Its location is fitting for Forbes, who has earned the role of city overlord. Preliminary plans for the house are being drawn by architect Robert Coma, who is making a comeback of sorts after the failure of his Hexatron in the Dome stadium contretemps.
Forbes, who bought the $13,200 lot from University Circle, Inc., is building his showplace at a time when the city is undergoing tremendous change and endeavoring to regain its place among the great urban centers in America. It is also a time when he is reaching the apogee of his power. Forbes may be not only the most powerful man in the city today but perhaps the most powerful man ever to dominate Cleveland.
"He's in the right place at the right time," says a former councilman who served in the early 1960s, when Forbes was just coming into City Council. "By being the most prominent black in a city that is half black and the gatekeeper of every major local business and political decision, he's the most powerful man ever in City Hall. More powerful than former council presidents Jim Stanton and Jack Russell and Mayor Tony Celebrezze all together, at their peaks."
Forbes may be the mightiest and best-known political figure in Northeastern Ohio, but he is also the most controversial. Opinions are so divided on Forbes that it is almost as if people were talking about two different men. Yet the question many are asking is this: With his almost unlimited power in this town, does George Forbes have too much power?
Depending on the prism through which one views him, Forbes is either the city's savior or the most destructive, self-aggrandizing and divisive influence around. There is hardly anyone in the city who does not have strong feelings about him.
There are those — primarily white business leaders with economic stakes to protect, and poor blacks who would like to improve their lot — who see Forbes as the one man who has kept Cleveland together through the tensions of the last decade.
"When the history of this city is written a generation from now, George Forbes will loom as the one man who kept it from sinking," says John Climaco, a well-known political lawyer who is close to Forbes.
Probably far more people, especially lower-middle-class Cleveland whites and middle-class suburban blacks, believe Forbes has so intimidated, bullied, and polarized segments of the community that government and business officials are afraid to speak out against him. The reason: He often retaliates through his office and through brutal racial politics.
Many contacted for this article declined to be quoted by name, fearing Forbes's retribution. Only those who had something positive to say were willing to come forward publicly.
Forbes himself declined to be interviewed, refusing to respond to numerous telephone calls and a letter from Cleveland Magazine. Many in the media are also intimidated by him. A reporter who covers City Hall asked not to be quoted, saying, "A story is long overdue. But I have to deal with him." In short, Forbes is the focal point of the overriding issue in the city today, that of relations between blacks and whites. And race, quite simply, is the base of his power.
Beyond his political power, Forbes, at age 54, has become wealthy, probably a millionaire, by investing with friendly white businessmen and using his law firm to represent them and other private and public interests — something few politicians could do so brazenly and avoid media scrutiny. Forbes's law firm has even represented the executives of companies run by Reuben Sturman, the Cleveland-based international pornography czar who is facing federal income-tax evasion charges.
Forbes seems deftly to straddle the thin line of conflict of interest through work done by his firm, Forbes, Forbes & Teamor. Two partners, Earle Horton and Clarence Rogers, recently left the firm when Forbes's daughter Helen became a partner. "There's no hard feelings or bad blood," says ex-partner Rogers, "but I don't want to discuss the reasons for the breakup in Cleveland Magazine."
One reason may be that Forbes understands he might have potential conflicts of interest because he holds public office. To steer clear of any possibility of investigation and to avoid the appearance of impropriety, he may feel it is wiser to disband the firm but remain on a working basis with his former partners. Still, it has become one of the most influential political law firms in Ohio and even has successfully represented numerous businessmen seeking changes at the Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals and other city commissions.
Moreover, Forbes's legal clout extends beyond his own firm. His son-in-law, Darrell Arthur Fields, is an associate in the law firm of Kohrman, Jackson & Krantz. Fields does work for the underwriters of the city's $119-million water and sewer bond issue. Partner Robert Jackson serves as one of Forbes's personal lawyers. Jackson has previously done work for City Council on police and Muny Light matters. Over the last decade, Kohrman, Jackson & Krantz has been one of the firms getting the bulk of council's outside legal business.
(Mayor George Voinovich's former firm, Calfee, Halter & Griswold, with Forbes's consent, has also received law work from the city.)
Forbes helps maintain his power at City Hall, within the black community, and with the white business establishment by surrounding himself with an inner circle of seven or eight prominent blacks who get appointed to key civic committees and whose law firms and other private businesses profit handsomely from minority contracts.
The group demands complete loyalty; any black outside it who dares to criticize it or not adhere to its party line is shunned, or worse. "A handful of people get the contracts ...I am not sure the things he does filter down to the broad base of the black community," a local black told William E. Nelson, an Ohio State University professor, for his recent study titled "Cleveland: The Evolution of Black Political Power." "When the same people show up at the trough, I wonder if everyone is getting fed."
Nelson concluded that what many young black politicians say about Forbes (privately, of course), is true: He has not allowed them to emerge. "Through the skilled manipulation of his powers to award and punish, Forbes has effectively prevented the emergence of young turks to challenge his power," says the report. "Thus the responsibility for black political mobilization lies totally in the hands of Forbes and the Forbes machine."
With the backing of this group, Forbes is able to extend his control far beyond City Hall to other major government entities. In total, the annual capital and operating budgets of these local, regional, and state agencies are in the billions of dollars, and they employ tens of thousands of people. Add to that his impact on University Circle, Inc., which operates in 500 of the richest acres in America, with 15,000 employees and an estimated $2 billion in community assets.
His influence penetrates right into the statehouse, where the governor, whether Democrat or Republican, seemingly responds to Forbes's slightest whim. Former Republican Governor James Rhodes often makes Forbes's office his first stop in Cleveland. President Jimmy Carter invited him to stay at the White House.
A few years ago, he was able to have the appointing process for members of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority board changed, with the help of friendly black state legislators who are under his thumb. Once, the county commissioners and the common pleas and probate courts each had an appointment, with two by the Cleveland mayor. Now, Council appoints two, the mayor two, and East Cleveland, virtually an all-black city, one.
In reality, Forbes controls the appointments. His most recent proposal was lawyer David Hill, one of the pivotal forces in the Forbes inner circle, who has become rich through his relationship with Forbes and his ownership of minority businesses.
Over the years, Forbes has also been able to put anyone he wants on the state payroll, whether Democrats or Republicans control the statehouse. He even has a voice in black cabinet selections. In the last four years, the Forbes law firm has also reaped some $200,000 in fees for state legal work. The firm represents companies doing business with the state.
Recently, the firm became a minority counsel for government bond issues, a highly technical branch of law. Among those public entities hiring the firm for bond work is the Ohio Building Authority.
These days, Forbes is rarely at City Hall except on Mondays. He spends most of his time cutting business deals at his Rockefeller Building law office or in meetings at out-of-the-way restaurants. He also does business while vacationing in the Caribbean.
Virtually no arrangement is too small. In 1977, Forbes helped businessman Robert Kanner buy the Fred Harvey restaurant facilities in the Terminal Tower. In lieu of legal fees, Kanner gave Forbes stock in one of his companies. Today it is worth about $200,000.
Forbes pushed through key zoning changes to allow construction of the Sohio building on Public Square. He demanded that a portion of the work be done by minority contractors and mandated a percentage of minority workers. A private security firm, whose officers include former Forbes law partners, reportedly has done work for the Gilbane Building Company, the general contractor on the Sohio Building.
In fact, there is a hard-core network of political and business interests that spreads throughout Greater Cleveland and beyond. And pulling the levers and maintaining control is Forbes, along with his chosen associates and allies.
Very little in Cleveland escapes his attention. Or his political shrewdness.
In April 1984, developer Ray Park purchased the old Fisher Body plant in Collinwood for a prison site. Park, who was represented by Forbes's law firm, sold it at a $500,000 profit on the property alone. His company reportedly made another $3 million by liquidating the contents.
Not only has Forbes's law firm represented Park Corporation, it also has ties to the Burks Electric Corporation, which was chosen before applying for the loan. The mayor has denied any connection between his brothers' work on the project and the city's decision to pursue the UDAG. Not surprisingly, Kassouf's company is being represented by Forbes's law firm, though Forbes abstained from voting last year when council approved the city's pursuing the grant.
Forbes's firm, however, does not handle just one parking-lot company; it does work for a Kassouf competitor in downtown, System Parking, Inc. System's manager in Cleveland, Joel Cole, contributed to Forbes's 1985 campaign. The company office is also in the Rockefeller Building. Systems also owns several lots in the area of the proposed domed stadium. It has been dickering with the city in an effort to trade them for another downtown lot.
Another of Forbes's spheres of power has been in fostering work for minority business enterprises. City ordinances now stipulate that upwards of 30 percent of all major contracts awarded by the city must go to minority enterprises. Generally, the winning businesses are operated by people close to Forbes, and their political links seem to matter more than their qualifications. "If he's your friend, he's your friend, but if he's your enemy, watch out," says a black businessman.
Meanwhile, Forbes maintains his power in the black ghetto with federal dollars. The Voinovich administration has given him control of federal Block Grant money. Nearly $350 million has been disbursed in the last 12 years by the Community Development Department. Some $33 million of that has gone directly to organizations approved by Forbes. Among them are churches and neighborhood groups. In the ghetto, where the minister has large expenses and little income, such money is vital.
Beyond the ghetto, the message of how to tap Forbes's immense influence is clear. It is rare that someone hiring Forbes's firm does not get what he is seeking. Closed doors mysteriously open. When challenged, Forbes merely tosses it off. "My partners handle that," he will say. "Not me." Indeed, his partners are very active when it comes to handling such matters. Consider what happened a few years ago at the Regional Transit Authority, where Forbes controls many of the board appointments and practically all the key jobs and contracts.
The Tokyu Car Corporation, a subsidiary of the huge Japanese conglomerate Mitsui & Company, was bidding for a $60-million contract to sell rapid cars to RTA. During the process, an RTA official reportedly told a Tokyu officer his company had a political problem and should hire a political law firm. Company officers wisely hired the Forbes firm.
Between August 1981, when the bid was awarded, and February 1982, when the contract was executed, the board imposed new conditions on Tokyu, including the insistence that cars be brought through the port of Cleveland.
At the same time, Clarence Rogers sent a $225,000 invoice to Tokyu in New York for legal services. Tokyu's New York lawyers instructed the company not to pay it, since the bill was not itemized. The lawyers also claimed that it was exorbitant; they felt not more than 40 hours of work were performed on the contract. Rogers sent another invoice (still not itemized) in May 1982.
Tokyu sent its regular monthly $3.2-million invoice to RTA in the summer of 1982. RTA held up payment. An RTA official told a company officer that the reason for the delay was that Tokyu had not complied with affirmative-action requirements, including a periodic update on the amount of work given to minority businesses.
An RTA affirmative-action officer reportedly suggested that the company hire a local minority travel firm to meet its affirmative-action requirements. Tokyu hired the three travel firms that were suggested. One performed satisfactorily, but two others did not. Often Tokyu officers and engineers found themselves stranded at airports without reservations. To avoid further complications, Tokyu reportedly paid the minority travel firms but often made its own reservations.
Around the same time Tokyu also settled the bill with Forbes's firm for $50,000. "No big deal," says Rogers. "We negotiated a fee, and it was settled." Shortly afterward, Tokyu began receiving its payments.
The $225,000 asking fee aside, it appears that the Forbes firm was hired for its influence. And it delivered. Who at RTA could challenge Forbes? His appointments have dominated the board since he helped establish RTA a decade ago. Though it does not appear anywhere on paper, Forbes controls patronage at RTA. The new RTA general manager, John Terango, was Forbes's choice. His reason for supporting Terango? "We can talk with him," Forbes told a local public official.
Forbes's control of RTA — the board, the contracts, and the patronage — is virtually unlimited. RTA, however, is in deep administrative and operational trouble. Ridership is down, though revenue is up this year, essentially from the automatic one percent of the county income tax RTA receives.
It is no secret the RTA has become a hiring hall for many unqualified employees. Promotion is often by affiliation, not qualification or performance. Because of strong union regulations, rarely is any employee disciplined, much less fired. Among Forbes's closest allies is ex-transit union boss Bruce Foster. The Urban Mass Transit Administration, which helps fund RTA, has severely criticized it for poor accounting, misuse of funds, abuse of purchasing procedures, and steering of contracts to friends of political figures.
Forbes apparently cares little about RTA's performance or needed reform. He keeps watch over the system through board member Charles V. Carr, the octogenarian dean of black politics and former city councilman.
He also expects the board to react when he snaps his fingers. In the spring of 1985, RTA board president Anthony Giunta, who is also mayor of Euclid, interrupted a meeting of the RTA legal committee in the State Office Building. He said Forbes wanted to see the board members across the street in his Rockefeller Building office — immediately.
The members trudged across Superior Avenue to Forbes's conference room. Forbes wanted to talk about a bill in the state legislature that would stop payments to RTA members for attending meetings. He promised them that his friends in the legislature would make sure it did not pass. "It was humiliating," says a white board member who reluctantly went to the meeting, fearing Forbes would make it a racial issue if he did not. If Forbes's influence is great at RTA, it is just as potent on the school board. Alfred Tutela, who this summer was seeking to become superintendent of Cleveland schools, is represented by Kenneth Seminatore, a partner in the favored law firm of Climaco, Climaco, Seminatore, Lefkowitz & Garofoli.
At a meeting of black ministers and black school board members, Forbes plotted the strategy that would make Tutela the school boss. One part of the strategy was to work on the two black school board members. Still, the most effective ploy was public murmuring by Forbes's associates about the reputed lack of commitment to blacks of Tutela's rival for the job, Roger Lulow.
"Forbes's role with the schools is like his role in the community — it's schizophrenic. There are times when it can be positive and constructive, such as when he backed former superintendent Doc Holliday," says school board president Joseph Tegreene. "But it can be negative, such as when he thrust himself into the appointment of Tutela, or before that, when he pressured the board to allow Harrison Dillard to keep his job as business manager."
Forbes wanted Dillard to have the job because of the school tax levy on the ballot. He told board members it would be hard to ask blacks to vote more money for schools while dispatching a man so popular in the black community. But to others, the move seemed as though Forbes was asserting himself into an appointed job that oversees so much patronage.
In many ways, Forbes's involvement with Tutela was similar. Tutela not only had the right law firm behind him, but he telephoned Forbes after the vote to thank him for the support, showing that he recognized who helped his appointment. Nonetheless, Tutela insists he made no deals.
In amassing this influence, Forbes has helped his handpicked minority contractors and favored lawyers — white as well as black — get rich through lucrative private and public work, sometimes with only a nod or a telephone call. The network is a classic example of political quid pro quo: Forbes often gets cut in on business deals and law work. In turn, he maintains power over his allies, and they get profitable contracts of their own.
The city, through Forbes, has awarded the Climaco law firm more than $300,000 in legal fees for consulting work on the cable-television contract with North Coast Cable. Forbes's first choice was another joint venture headed by James Carney and Jeffrey Friedman, but he could not steer it their way because the contract was under public scrutiny for so long. Rumors abounded at City Council that the FBI was watching the procedures, because the contract could produce such staggering revenues — upwards of $500 million for the winning company over the next decade. North Coast, headed by Lee Howley, Jr., was the overwhelming choice of other councilmen. But even in losing, Forbes won. Among his closest associates in the black community are Cheryle Wills and Bruce Foster, both of whom are officers of North Coast Cable.
"His influence is in disposing, not proposing," says a businessman. "Forbes can veto almost anything, but he does not have to make proposals or design projects. He's got it made."
He also has full control over how council votes — except in the most heated public issues, such as cable television. Those councilmen, including whites, who do not regularly oppose him receive choice committee assignments and the best services in their wards. Those who fight him have to scrape for services and are banished from council influence. Still, it is a two-way street. Any white councilman who gets too close to Forbes risks his career.
Many councilmen believe Forbes has also usurped the power of the executive branch, because Mayor Voinovich has shied away from challenging him, even when attacked. "It's Neville Chamberlain politics," says a white councilman whose blue-collar constituents see Forbes as an adversary who provokes racial antagonism. "I've told Voinovich that he doesn't have to fear stirring a racial pot if he stands up occasionally on an issue. But he defers on nearly everything."
In turn, Forbes believes that Voinovich avoids tough political stands because he fears antagonizing the media and voters before his upcoming U.S. Senate race.
"The fact is, arguments and fights are not the mayor's style, but results are," says Ed Richard, deputy to the mayor and Forbes's closest ally in the administration. "No one can argue that Forbes and the council as a whole have delivered on the mayor's programs. When you look at past history, when council presidents and mayors were at each other's throats publicly, hardly anything got done. The citizens of Cleveland suffered. This is a partnership that's worked as effectively as any such legislative-executive partnership in the United States.
"Not going to battle with Forbes is not a sign of weakness, just common sense. Forbes has also deferred to the mayor at times, such as on the expansion of Muny Light. They like each other and have mutual respect."
Forbes does not have the electoral concerns of Mayor Voinovich. Officially, he has to answer only to the 4,500 voters in his ward and a majority of the other councilmen who elect him their leader. Of the 21 councilmen, 11 are white and ten are black. Forbes keeps his seat not only through his intelligence and forceful personality, but by getting a mere handful of white votes to round out his black support.
His real display of power comes during the Monday afternoon meetings of the Finance Committee, of which he is the self-appointed chairman. Week after week, they come there — City Hall administrators, ministers, lobbyists for big business, union leaders — like vassals approaching their liege for favors.
"It's more like holding court," says a former council regular. "When he's busy, his image is not as polished. He wears sport coats and needs a haircut. He turns crude. But when he has time, he's in expensive suits, his nails manicured, and he can be dazzling."
At these meetings, Forbes often undergoes personality flip-flops within seconds, vacillating between "good-guy, bad-guy" roles that are disarming. The effects of these performances are important to him: Afterwards, in private, he will often ask an aide, "How'd I do?"
In many ways, City Council is kept together by 81-year-old Mercedes Cotner, the council clerk for 23 years. Cotner shares an office at City Hall with Forbes. He depends on her for political insight. Even though he often lunches with her, Forbes can be quite profane with her, then turn around and treat her like his mother.
Cotner is loyal and valuable, defusing most of Forbes's immediate City Hall problems and serving as his witness when there is a question about what was said in a private meeting.
Nonetheless, many of those who deal with Forbes at City Council believe his word is good only to his closest associates or those with whom he has business dealings. Those councilmen who this summer fought him on the 911 emergency telephone network issue claim he went back on his word when he held up Cleveland's participation in the network.
Though he told backers of the measure that he would allow the legislation to pass quickly, he not only became vicious during hearings, but he linked the 911 issue to unrelated outside issues, including traffic barricades on a street running through Cleveland and Shaker Heights. He tried to make the barricades, put up by Shaker Heights to curtail speeders, a racial issue, failing to fully acknowledge that many of those who opposed removing the barriers were blacks.
Forbes also insisted that city residents should not have to pay the 12 cents a month to Ohio Bell for the 911 network, as suburban residents do. In private, he personalizes issues. In this case he threatened to keep the network out of Cleveland because Lakewood mayor Anthony Sinagra and County Commissioner Mary Boyle had dared to criticize him in the newspapers.
When two Ohio Bell executives came to hearings, he continually insisted they stand up when speaking. He referred to them not by name but shouted at them again and again, "Hey, telephone man!"
Though he eventually allowed the emergency network to pass, his behavior was shocking to many people who came to the hall to the first time, says a businessman who often attends council meetings. "His Finance Committee meetings are chaotic, as are regular meetings of council. They're not something you'd want to bring your children to."
"The irony is that he may bellow in public, but when he's in a meeting with businessmen seeking something, he becomes a pussycat," says a well-known real estate developer. In many ways, how one views Forbes is a matter of where one sits.
"I spend half my life explaining George Forbes to friends in the eastern suburbs," says Richard Tulhs, chairman of University Circle, Inc., and a man who personifies the business establishment that courts the council president. "They don't understand. Forbes is one of the finest public servants around. He's a first-class guy. This city would be in one hell of a shape with someone else in power. We all should be grateful for him."
Tullis's feelings notwithstanding, what angers most whites — and embarrasses many middle-class blacks — are Forbes's personal antics: his foul mouth, his tantrums, his attacks on "honkies," his obfuscation of real issues with race. Many inner-city blacks, however, see in such behavior nothing more than a strong black man standing up to whites, and they applaud Forbes.
The white business establishment overlooks his behavior because of legislation he smooths through council to aid their interests — sometimes even personal interests — and his role as arbiter of all things racial in Cleveland. They look to Forbes to quell their fears of black-white violence.
Furthermore, Forbes often tells reporters and businessmen how incapable city councilmen are when it comes to serious matters like finance. He explains that he runs the council meetings with an iron fist in order to get things done. Forbes likes to leave the impression that without him, the rest could barely count to ten and that to get things done, you have to see him.
"He wants the establishment to believe that the council is a zoo and he's the zookeeper who keeps everyone in line, and without him there would be chaos," notes a white councilman.
"The resentments, even from black councilmen, run deep," says a black councilman, "but you can only go so far in challenging him. He'll destroy you in the black community."
"And what do businessmen care about what he does or how he acts?" adds a black lawyer with one of the city's major firms. "It's better to have one black rioting than to have the whole East Side rioting. They can deal with that."
And deal they do.
Forbes has served under three white ethnic mayors — two Republicans — who have relied on him for approval of their agenda under the threat of holding up key legislation and provoking racial conflict. In a town where political ends always seem to justify the means, such an arrangement brings hardly a peep of media or political criticism.
In many ways, these threats create an untenable situation. Forbes's racial outbursts provoke reactions far beyond City Hall. Civic, political, religious, and business leaders constantly deplore racial discord in Cleveland, but they ignore — perhaps even tacitly encourage — Forbes's diatribes, which intensify racial and class conflict.
There is some concern among white councilmen that such racial confrontation exacerbates white flight from the city — and even from close-in suburbs where blacks are immigrating — to the farthest reaches of Cuyahoga County and outlying counties. Cleveland's population now numbers something under 525,000 — half black — and is declining daily.
Some believe that Forbes's outbursts, often enacted before television cameras, may hasten the decline. To most area whites, his television persona stands as a bitter symbol of a self-serving political presence here. Forbes almost becomes a parody of himself.
Channel 8's Carl Monday confronted Forbes outside City Council chambers in early 1984 and asked him why he had not paid his $400 water bill. A surprised Forbes had to be restrained by council associates.
"I do not have the money, okay?" snapped Forbes. "Did you hear me?"
Forbes walked into council chambers then suddenly turned around in a rage. He came flying back at Monday, who weeks earlier had angered Forbes with questions about his law firm's representing Prospect Avenue strip joints and pornographic-bookshop owners.
"One of these days you're gonna corner me, and I'm gonna kick your ass," shouted Forbes. "You asked me about my water bill, and what'd I say?...Now that was my f— answer...tough s— ...One of these days, you're gonna corner me, and I'm gonna kick your ass. Keep f— with me...! Keep f—! Now, I gave you a goddamn answer...and I gave you a f— answer, and one of these days I'm gonna kick your f— ass...and it might be this goddamn one.
"Now you got your f— answer. Now get out of my f— face. I ain't bullshitting with you. I'll take your f— camera and wrap it around your goddamn head...Now I gave you my f— answer. And I ain't bullshitting with you...son of a bitch."
The message to whites on television that night was that Forbes is above paying his bill or comporting himself with dignity when under fire. Forbes knows that such contempt and vile language might inflame the average white, but it also intimidates white businessmen who need his cooperation. Playing the crude, street-tough black, though derisive and degrading, helps Forbes accomplish his immediate goal:
maintaining power and making business deals.
Cheryle Wills, president of United Way and a major figure on many other boards, sees Forbes in a more benign light. "He suffered indignities in the South, growing up," she says. "You have to have been a part of that to know and feel the pain. George is emotional. His thoughts just spill out. But the bravado hides deep pain."
Many other blacks, though, are critical of his behavior. "Forbes knows that if he gets any opposition, all he has to do is stoke up the grass-roots blacks by shouting how Whitey is after him," says a black council candidate who not long ago ran unsuccessfully against one of Forbes's allies. "And it works. White businessmen and city administrators tolerate and even laugh at Forbes's profane language and antics, he adds. "But if their children did the same thing, they'd slap them across the room."
His defenders brush aside such behavior — or its effects.
"Forbes has a strong personality," says Jordan Band, vice chairman of the Community Relations Board. "What some may see as abrasive is not racial politics at all."
"His bark is much worse than his bite," adds Ed Richard, the mayor's right-hand man. "When I was utilities director, he was particularly abusive to me at a Finance Committee meeting. It upset me. After the meeting, I s
12:00 AM EST
January 2, 2008