Monday, January 13, 2014

Arnold Pinkney (1931-2014), veteran Cleveland political organizer and strategist

Arnold Pinkney during his 1971 run for mayor.  (

Arnold Pinkney ran for mayor twice, but that's not why most people in Democratic Party circles remember him. Nor is it the main reason they're mourning today's news of his death at 83.

Pinkney lost in his attempt to succeed Mayor Carl Stokes in 1971, and in his second run in 1975. His political talents lay instead in getting other people elected.  He ran successful campaigns for all three black mayors of Cleveland -- Stokes, Mike White, and Frank Jackson -- and Louis Stokes' successful run to become Ohio's first black congressman.  

He worked on national presidential campaigns too. He was the No. 2 guy on Hubert Humphrey's 1972 campaign and Jesse Jackson's run in 1984. He also served for years on Cleveland's school board. But Pinkney was best known locally as the go-to guy for get-out-the-vote efforts in black neighborhoods on Cleveland's East Side.

In 2001, I spent a day watching Pinkney and his machine work on behalf of mayoral candidate Raymond Pierce.  I rode with him in his car as he visited his ragged army of polling station canvassers, employed for a single 13-hour shift.  At one stop, he got out, shook hands, and asked people to choose Pierce in that day's primary race.  Most of the voters recognized him. "How come you're not running?" one asked, 26 years after Pinkney's second try.

His job that day was a challenge: mobilize political support for Pierce, a former Clinton Administration lawyer and political unknown. On a floor of his Pinkney-Perry insurance agency, converted into a war room, volunteers fired off phone blitzes based on mid-day precinct vote counts and a floppy-hatted professor's projections. He deployed 400 people across "each side of town, northeast and southeast," as he put it.

His effort lifted Pierce into the runoff election (where he lost to Jane Campbell). That night at the victory party, the crowd cheered for Pierce, then chanted "Arnold! Arnold!" I remember Pinkney's offhand confidence, even cockiness, as he talked to one side of the stage.  I'm paraphrasing from memory, but it was something like this: I don't know why people are so surprised. We've been doing this for 30 years.