Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mayor Jackson's bizarre victory speech

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?

Monday, November 4, 2013

What the mayor’s race means

I feel Roldo’s pain. “A Meaningless Election,” the radical curmudgeon complains about tomorrow’s vote for mayor.

His critique of Mayor Frank Jackson is the best since Michael D. Roberts’ in March. Sadly, Roldo and Roberts are more thorough, credible critics of the mayor than his challenger, Ken Lanci, who’s built his campaign on simplistic blunt-force attacks.

Lanci, who blasts Jackson as a complete failure, isn’t much of an alternative. He’s failed to build a political coalition beyond disgruntled public employees and a motley crew of activists. He hasn’t articulated a governing philosophy beyond religious piety and confidence in his own competence. He’s a thin-skinned, angry grudge-holder. He’d make a terrible, insufferable mayor.

But give Lanci credit: at least he’s given us a mayor’s race. Without him, Jackson would be coasting unopposed to reelection tomorrow with no questions asked.

Instead, Lanci has pushed Jackson to defend his record on the biggest issues in town, including schools, safety and the lakefront. He’s given us a choice -- though not the one Roberts and Roldo would want. And he’s asked questions that will resonate throughout the next four years. Here are three.

1. What if Jackson’s school reforms fail? Lanci has pierced the air of optimism around Jackson’s 2012 school reforms and levy victory. He’s focused on the cold facts: the Cleveland schools still score a big zero on the state report cards.

Lanci dismisses Jackson’s reform agenda of tougher standards for teachers, new specialty schools and plans to dismantle the staff at failing schools. If elected, Lanci would probably let the teachers off the hook.

His alternative is a $40 million expansion of his favorite charity, the mentoring program Project Love. Lanci can seem naïve and self-regarding when he plugs it, and Jackson has dismissed his approach as condescending to mothers and kids. Still, Lanci may be on to something.

The Cleveland schools’ woes have been nearly intractable for decades. Yet Jackson’s reforms need to produce results fast, in time for the levy renewal in three years. A couple more report card Fs, and Jackson’s legacy will be in danger.

If that happens, a massive mentoring program for at-risk inner-city kids may be the only big reform idea left to try. It might look a lot like the renowned Harlem Children’s Zone — or a lot like Project Love.

2. How will the police department change? Lanci is carrying water for the police union on the year’s biggest City Hall debate, the response to last November’s 60-car police chase and fatal shooting. He blames police chief Mike McGrath and safety director Martin Flask for the uncontrolled chase and says he’d fire them if elected.

Under pressure from Lanci, Jackson has said a lot this fall about the chase’s aftermath. He’s gone way beyond his usual line about how he’ll support the police who stayed “inside the box” and followed orders.

Jackson has made it clear he sees the chase as mass insubordination. The mayor views McGrath as reasserting control and discipline.

“Without this police chief there would be no semblance of fairness and justice in the whole thing,” Jackson told Crain’s Cleveland Business. “He stood up against a culture that said there was nothing wrong [with the chase and shootings].”

Neither candidate talks about holding both the police leadership and the rank-and-file accountable. But Lanci’s stance keeps the pressure on Jackson to answer this question: Is disciplining the officers and supervisors for violating policy and procedure enough? Or, if McGrath and Flask are going to stay, how will they improve police training, equipment and communication so that the next chase is handled better?

3. What about the lakefront? Eight years of Jackson, and no construction cranes on the lakefront. Lanci scoffs at the mayor’s plan to develop a new neighborhood along North Coast Harbor. It won’t happen, he says, just like all the past lakefront plans haven’t happened.

Lanci would scuttle Jackson’s lakefront efforts if elected. So if you want the lakefront developed, Jackson’s your candidate, even if he’s disappointed you so far.

The mayor has developers pitching plans for the land around Browns Stadium. An office park project near the East 9th Street pier is a step from final approval. Jackson should take Lanci’s scoff as a dare and get it done.

(Jackson art by Jason Byers, from Asterisk Gallery's 2008 CLE- show. Lanci art by Kristen Miller.)