Frank Jackson likes to talk in riddles. Tuesday night, amid his cheering victory crowd at Sterle’s Country House, the mayor promised to explain exactly “what it means to be mayor and why I ran.”
Then he told a bizarre story about a nightmare. No press accounts from Tuesday night’s party at Cleveland’s best Slovenian bar have quite captured the surreal moment.
Jackson told a story about the late councilwoman Fannie Lewis, the mercurial ruler of Hough, an eccentric, elliptical speaker. Once, the mayor said, Lewis, stressed out from her job, fell ill and went into the hospital. The staff wouldn’t let her take constituent calls until her blood pressure dropped. Eventually freed, she ran into Jackson at City Hall.
“Frank, I had a vision,” Lewis told Jackson. Then, the mayor continued in a sort of trippy litany.
“She told me her vision was, there was this huge slab of concrete,” the mayor said. “A huge slab of concrete of enormous weight. A huge slab of concrete. And she heard crying, moaning and wailing from beneath the slab of concrete.” Jackson picked up a bit of a Baptist minister’s cadence, something I’ve never heard from him before.
“And it came to her that the crying and moaning and wailing from beneath this huge slab of concrete of enormous weight was that of the people,” the mayor said. “And that they were crying and moaning and wailing because they had to bear the burden of this huge slab of concrete of enormous weight.”
This was the strangest story I’ve ever heard Jackson tell. But his supporters seemed to follow it. They cheered for the payoff.
“And she said to me, it is our duty and responsibility as public officials never to add to that burden but to relieve that burden in what we do. And then if we add a feather, then we have added to the burden of the people.”
Jackson never named the burden. He just let the nightmare vision hang there.
But when the councilwoman from Hough talks to the mayor from Central, maybe the metaphor doesn’t need translating. The burden is poverty, and maybe economic exploitation, racism, predatory crime – all the burdens of living in a poor city.
“In all of what I do, you can measure it by whether or not I am relieving or adding to that burden,” Jackson said.
Will he relieve the burden?
Critics will happily judge him on that. A huge new schools tax weighs a lot more than a feather. Failing schools weigh more.
Will Jackson’s reforms really improve education? Will the community benefit agreements he’s championed really get Clevelanders more local construction jobs?
Jackson said he wants to “institutionalize a way of life that will relieve the burden.” He means, he wants to set precedents future mayors will follow. He wants City Hall to always help the Clevelanders who struggle most.
But to leave a permanent mark, you need results, not good intentions. On schools, jobs and the city's other big issues, Jackson's legacy is still unwritten, still at stake. So, fair question: Will he relieve the burden?