Legendary Cleveland Councilwoman Fannie Lewis Passes Away

A photo marks Fannie Lewis' spot at the end of the Council Committee table
A photo marks Fannie Lewis' spot at the end of the Council Committee table
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Memphis native Fannie Lewis came to Cleveland with her ex-husband in 1951. She began her public life as a community activist in the Hough neighborhood in the mid-Sixties. After she was elected to Council in 1979, she never strayed from those roots, always looking out for the little person. For instance, in a 2006 committee hearing, she urged caution in using eminent domain to take private property.

FANNIE LEWIS: I hear the words "eminent domain" and I get butterflies in my stomach. When you're carrying the stick, you've got the authority in your hand --- and the other person doesn't have any options. What I want to do is make sure, when I hear from folks, that they are being treated properly.

For nearly three decades, the diminutive but tough councilwoman of Ward 7 put her personal stamp on City Council. She grilled many public officials from her seat at the end of the table in the Council committee room. Longtime colleague Jay Westbrook who came into council with her in the '79 election says her Cleveland resident employment law is the only one in memory to be named after a council person.

WESTBROOK: You won't find a George Forbes law or a Mike Polensek law or a Jay Westbrook law. Fannie believed so strongly in the responsibility of government to make sure that Clevelanders are working on publicly funded work sites.

Lewis also helped transform a Hough community that was ravaged by riots in the mid-1960s. She pushed hard for funding that built new housing in a long-neglected neighborhood. That neighborhood connection made her a hero to a junior member of Council like Ward 12's Tony Brancatelli, who saw Lewis as a maternal figure.

BRANCATELLI: I look at her like a mother who really gave you a lot of good advice and had that sense of responsibility and culture that said this is how we ought to act in our community.

Lewis was also a role model to her female colleagues such as Majority Leader Sabra Pierce Scott of Glenville.

SCOTT: She has work with myself and other women of council and she has helped us to understand how important it is that once you give your word and have taken a stand, you stick to it. And we have also learned that our constituents come first. City Hall is where we come to do city business, but when we're here, we are here to represent the people who put us in this position.

Mayor Frank Jackson added to the chorus of those who praised the life's work of the councilwoman from Hough

JACKSON: Ms. Lewis was my buddy. Sometimes we didn't always see eye to eye, but we always came together for one purpose, and that was to serve the people of the city of Cleveland.

Lewis even got a touch a national fame as part of the award-winning film "No Umbrella" which documented her struggle to get enough voting machines for her ward in the 2004 Presidential election.

Fannie Lewis could be as sweet as your grandmother...

FANNIE LEWIS (at a council hearing): "I appreciate you as a young man giving respect to an old lady"

RESPONDENT: "Thank you councilwoman. So, it's like I was saying..."

... but she always let you know who was in charge.

FANNIE LEWIS: "Now, I didn't ask you to take my place (LAUGHTER)"

The consensus among her colleagues is that no one will be able to take the place of Fannie M. Lewis. The public will have a chance to say good-bye this Friday at an 11:30 program at Cleveland Public Auditorium.

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