Monday, January 26, 2009

Frank Jackson and the bully pulpit theory

One reason some people wish someone would run against Mayor Frank Jackson is that they think big-city mayors have powers far beyond the official definitions of the job. They want an inspirational leader. It’s an idea we explored in our coverage of the 2005 mayor’s race, when we went in search of “The Perfect Mayor.”

Trouble is, Cleveland is shrinking, so City Hall has no extra money to spend, so the mayor’s clout and power are shrinking. Being mayor of Cleveland just ain’t what it used to be.

That frustrates some people. They say: The mayor should use his bully pulpit to rally the city and region around a plan for a comeback!

I hear this all the time, and I heard it when Jane Campbell was mayor too. The bully pulpit idea is one of the two biggest clich├ęs about how a big-city mayor should lead. (The other, usually used against bully-pulpit mayors, is the charge that a mayor is favoring downtown and neglecting neighborhoods. This automatically comes up whenever a big project is built downtown.)

The bully pulpit theory of leadership is popular among businesspeople, who want the mayor to be a dealmaker, handing out tax breaks and schmoozing people like them to bring jobs in the city and build big stuff downtown. It’s popular among journalists, because dramatic speeches, calls to action, and huge and expensive projects are all good stories for us. Suburbanites usually like bully-pulpit mayors (unless the mayor is a total bully), because their opinions come from TV or the paper.

But city residents judge the mayor by whether their garbage gets picked up or the cops show up when they call. I think that’s why the bully pulpit theory isn’t popular with most Cleveland voters.

If it was, they wouldn’t have elected Jackson. They knew he wasn’t a bully-pulpit mayor when they elected him. They chose the quiet guy because they saw him as reliable and trustworthy.

I think bully pulpits are overrated, but there are moments when a mayor, like a president or other leaders, needs to speak up and calm everyone’s over-shocked nerves. Take the scary incident in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in 2007 that caught the whole town’s attention: a man’s house was riddled with bullets as revenge after he shot an armed robber in self-defense. Jackson’s stubborn refusal to speak up about that made him look weak and out of touch.

But if you think Jackson should be more of a cheerleader, stage-directing a little more Believe in Cleveland drama, well, he does that, in his own way. Take a look at this op-ed piece the mayor sent to the Plain Dealer last month. Read it twice. First, just read it as Jackson’s variation on the common complaint that “Cleveland has a self-esteem problem.” Then read it again, asking, who does he believe is the critical voice inside Cleveland’s collective mind, telling Cleveland it’ll never amount to anything?

Here’s the clue: the quotes. Jackson wrote the piece in response to the Sunday, November 23 edition of the Plain Dealer, which had the caption “Pittsburgh’s power over Cleveland” atop the front page and the headline “Cleveland is falling apart: Who will pick up the pieces?” on the Forum section front.

A bully pulpit mayor would've called a press conference and yelled and screamed that the Plain Dealer was bringing the city down. Then the press would've written self-referentially about the mayor's feud with the press. Instead, the angry but polite mayor (or an aide) sat down at the keyboard and wrote something. How civilized!


Ian said...

That's an interesting theory, especially about the basis of surbanites opinions. I'd guess it's correct. So what do the people of Cleveland think about the city services (including safety) under Jackson?

Anonymous said...

I think we need a bully pulpit Mayor now, more than ever.

What we really need is a leader. One that has goals, talks about them, and then gets them handled.

We are in big trouble as a city.

Being politically correct about it, during times like these, IS weak.

We need s strong leader that makes people aware of what he or she is doing to help our City.

And fast.

Joel Libava