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Rating the Mayors

Wednesday, March 1, 2000 at 12:54 PM

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Melvin Holli is Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He's just written a book called The American Mayor: the Best and the Worst Big City Leaders. 90.3's April Baer spoke with him about some of Cleveland's luminaries.

April Baer- One of the standouts that your book notes from Cleveland is Mayor Tom Johnson, who was with the city just after the turn of the century. Among his many accomplishments, including setting up Muny Power (which became Cleveland Public Power) and shifting the city’s tax burden around. He also has to his credit the fact that he set up he public baths in the city of Cleveland, and eased punishments for people violating gambling and drinking laws. Some people might think of those as ambiguous accomplishments. How did you determine what is good for a city and how mayors are successful?

Melvin Holli- Well, they are products of their historic periods, as you suggest. Yesterday’s solutions sometimes are today’s problems. But we have to look at mayors in their historical context and problems they tried to solve, and which they did solve. Mayor Tom Johnson was known and is known in the literature as “the Doyen of American Reform Mayors”. Lincoln Stephens, a leading muckraking journalist from the turn of the 19th century, called Tom Johnson “the Best Mayor of the Best Governed City in America”. So he did achieve a lot. And a very famous New Dealer named Rex Hudwell said that - and he had lived in Cleveland during Tom Johnson’s term - that Tom Johnson did something that very few other mayors did: he educated the public to the streetcar issue, the franchise problem, the equal taxation issue, gas and light rates that should be more reasonable, and that he did have a communicating, talking public that would carry on a dialog with him about these problems, and as Hudwell says, when Johnson left Cleveland, that city was the most knowledgeable about urban problems in the country. And that’s a real tribute.

AB- Do you think it’s possible to have a successful time in office without this sort of public education component, without really getting people behind you?

MH- Well I don’t think so. I think the mayor does have to persuade the public to follow. Now, there are issues of leadership in which the mayor will often be ahead of the public. And at times, they take risky ventures and establish new initiatives which the public may - at first - be confused about, but if successful, they will prove out over time. So there are those times when the mayor doesn’t merely reflect the public sentiment but tries to lead the public as well. That’s a judgment call and it takes a very fine antenna atop the mayor’s head to pick up those currents and decide where the future’s going. But there are mayors who have done that successfully today - we think of Rudy Giuliani in New York, for example. His crackdown on crime was initially very unpopular - it’s somewhat unpopular now - but the homicide rates in New York have dropped from, like 1,700 a year down to 400. That’s a stunning achievement and the public is now approving of it. But it didn’t in the beginning.

AB- Would you say the strong, authoritarian mayors are necessarily the successful ones?

MH- The mayors who want to lead but recognize that the public has to- at some point - support them, not authoritarian in the sense of not communicating with the public - communication is very important, and Tom Johnson was a great communicator. He had tents which he would erect around the city, and would go around making speeches during campaigns. And the City Hall office was always open. That’s very important.

AB- Who else stands out to you?

MH- Well, another mayor who stands out is Newton Baker. He followed Tom Johnson as mayor during World War I. And in many ways, he would bring to fruition some of the programs that Tom Johnson had begun, like three-cent fares on the streetcars and low gas and light rates, and using Muny - or the Municpal Public Plant - as a measuring stick for what the cost of real power should be. And he was so successful that President Woodrow Wilson picked him as Secretary of War, so he left Cleveland.

AB- Are you familiar with the tenure of Carl Stokes Here in Cleveland?

MH- Yes.

AB- Now here’s a fellow who really set a great impression in a lot of people’s minds, in terms of what he was able to accomplish - simply by becoming Cleveland’s first black mayor. And yet I notice he did not happen to make your list.

MH- No, he did not. He suffered a very bad shoot-out and riot that occurred in his city, a black versus white shoot-out which you may recall having read or heard about, and it was discovered that some of the black militants and nationals had been using public money to buy guns and firearms, which they then used against the police. And when the riot occurred, he pulled all the white police off out. He thought he could control the riot by putting black police officers in. It flopped completely. It didn’t work as a strategy, and toward the end of his term, Carl Stokes became more and more militant and played the race card over and over again, and recognized he could not be re-elected. So the riot really crushed his career, as it would many other mayors. The riot would also crush Jerome Cavanaugh’s career in Detroit - and Cavanaugh was a white mayor! But riots are very costly to a mayor’s reputation. Let me give you another example - one of the great mayors who’s mentioned in our top ten, a black mayor in Los Angeles: Tom Bradley, a very successful mayor in his twenty years in office. He was also crushed by the LA riots of 1992. He realized he could not be re-elected after that riot, saw the handwriting on the wall, and walked away from the office. So Stokes was not unusual, although Stokes suffered more than Bradley did.

AB- One wonders if any mayor could stand such a challenge - such serious racial unrest as that - and come out completely unscathed.

MH- Well, Mayor Richard J. Daley did. He was one of the tough guys who survived the 60s.

AB- It seems like it’s been a while since anyone’s tried anything as revolutionary as Tom Johnson or Richard J. Daley. Do you see the days of strong local administrators passing?

MH- Somewhat so, because we’ve had a slippage of power in the American city, in that the big cities in America no longer control the national vote the way they may have thirty to forty years ago, and that the city’s not as high on the agenda in Washington as it used o be twenty to thirty years ago, so leadership is going to be more difficult to really show. Michael White and Dennis Archer in Detroit, African-American mayors, Richard M. Daley in Chicago, Riordan in Los Angeles, Giuliani in New York - are showing that mayors have to get more inventive, they have to find internal savings, and privatization n some cases, and depend upon local funding more than their predecessors ever did. And so that makes leadership difficult. When the Great Society programs were with us, and War Against Poverty, there were billions flowing into cities. But that ended in the 1980s, so it makes leadership so much more difficult

AB- Right. Looking forward in Cleveland a little bit: One person I’m very curious to ask you about is the mayoral figure of Dennis Kucunich - someone people had high hopes for. But the problems surrounding the bankruptcy of the city of Cleveland at that time put a big stamp on a lot of people’s minds.

MH- He seemed to lack the temperament that a good and successful leader needs. You may recall that within six months in office he was facing a recall campaign by the voters of Cleveland. And that he was a populist, very controversial, his rhetoric came off as anti-business, and drove the city into bankruptcy - the only big city since the Great Depress to enter bankruptcy. So that forever will stain his record

AB- And yet he did manage to hold onto Cleveland’s Municipal Power Company.

MH- Yes… but by that time it was a worn-out issue, but he latched onto it. But the other thing about Kucinich that you probably know, is that he was something of an eccentric. He thought he was reincarnation; he made statements like he had met Shirley McClaine in another life.

AB- Careful, now! the man’s a Congressman from Ohio these days!

MH- I know he is! But I mean he was rather eccentric in that regard....and of course the press was very harsh on him, as you know.

AB- I notice George Voinovich rates high marks in your book as a mayor.

MH- Well he’s the successor to DK. As a matter of fact he does pass an income tax and bails the city out , and makes it fiscally solvent, and he’s also part of the Ohio promotion system. In some ways Cleveland is Success City for sending mayors to higher offices. Also in Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles. Ohio has had a long list of being a microcosm of America, in that Ohio produced many presidents and sent them to the White House in the late 19th early 20th centuries, and a lot of Supreme Court justices, a number of important political figures. In some way, Cleveland’s success reflects that microcosm, and that Ohio had a good balance of agriculture and industry, northerners and southerners, Easterners and Westerners, and a pragmatic centrist policy seemed to be the character of Ohio and also Cleveland. If you look just north of your state to Michigan, there you see ideologues and labor politics being much more import, and so Ohio has been driven by centrist kind of mid america drives that make it an ideal state in many ways when you’re looking for national trends. Everybody says California reflects the world or the future, well, Ohio used to do that in the late 19th early 20th centuries.

AB- Right now, Michael White is in his twelfth year as mayor of the city of Cleveland. Have you been following his administration at all?

MH- To some extent. I see he has initiated a school policy - very much like we have in Chicago with Richard M. Daley, and he has privatized some public services to bring about more efficiency, and he seems to be an even handed mayor who does want to lead the entire city and not just one part of the city.

AB- I’m a bit startled to hear you say that about Mike White...He tends to catch so much criticism locally for having a closed administration.

MH- Well that has not seeped into the national coverage yet.

AB- Often times it seems like what we see in the history books about mayors tends to be different from what we see in the newspapers. Would you say that the ultimate criteria by which we judge mayors is different than the day-to-day struggles of office?

MH- I don’t think so because the historic judgment is a collective judgment. For example, if a mayor runs a city into bankruptcy, what impact does that have on the city’s reputation? For example, in Chicago, one of our mayors, Richard J. Daley was often a tough guy and not often liked and who did make some real mistakes with African-Americans and Hispanics, though he corrected them later - but he ran a city that was fiscally very solvent. Chicago had a triple-A gilt-edged bond rating throughout his entire term, at a time when Cleveland went bankrupt, New York City was going into receivership, Philadelphia gave up public services, Cincinnati, you may recall, gave up its state university during those years. Detroit had to layoff 20% of its labor force, at the same time Chicago had none of those things happening, so Daley’s reputation very much benefited from his being a good fiscal manager. So that’s the measure scholars can apply to the city.

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