White, Michael R. 1951–
Michael R. White 1951–
Mayor of Cleveland
In 1965, Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland, becoming the first African American to hold this office in any major U.S. city. Michael White was only 14 years old at the time, yet even at this young age he knew he wanted to follow in Stokes’s footsteps. Twenty-four years later, White’s goal was realized when he became Cleveland’s second black mayor.
White took over the leadership of Cleveland at a crucial point in the city’s history. His predecessor, George Voinovich, had helped rebuild Cleveland’s financial base and national reputation after the disastrous term of Dennis Kucinich, during which the city went bankrupt. Yet Voinovich’s focus on investments in the downtown area had left a dichotomy between a thriving central business district and poverty-stricken neighborhoods rampant with drugs and crime. In spite of Cleveland’s recovery from economic collapse, when White was elected in 1989 a full 40 percent of the city’s population lived at or below the poverty line. Yet, White’s political savvy, experience, and energy made him a symbol of hope and change for many of Cleveland’s poor; as one East Side resident told the Chicago Tribune a few days before the election, “I feel Mike White is the person who can bring this city together racially and economically.”
Michael White was born in Cleveland in 1951 and was raised in the East Side neighborhood where he still makes his home. He was educated at Ohio State University, first earning a B.A. in education and a year later a master’s degree in public administration. He began his political career in 1974 by becoming a special assistant for the mayor’s office in Columbus, Ohio. He then became an administrative assistant for the Cleveland City Council and, from 1978 to 1984, served on the council itself. White spent over four years in Columbus as a state senator, and then, in the fall of 1989, entered Cleveland’s mayoral race.
White’s emergence as a top candidate in Cleveland’s October primary caused a considerable stir. Before his entrance in the arena, the race for mayor had been seen mainly as a contest between controversial black City Council president George L. Forbes, White’s senior by 20 years, and three white candidates. Forbes, a longtime fixture on Cleveland’s political scene with 27 years of experience on the council, had won the support of much of the city’s black population but had alienated many white voters with his volatile temper and strong, often profane language—shown in incidents such as his throwing of a chair at a fellow councilman while calling him a “mulatto punk.” According to the New York Times, former
Born Michael Reed White, August 13, 1951, in Cleveland, OH; son of Robert and Audrey (Silver) White; married Tamera Kay (third wife). Education: Ohio State University, B.A., 1973, M.P.A., 1974. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Baptist.
Special assistant, mayor’s office, Columbus, OH, 1974-76; Cleveland City Council, administrative assistant, 1976-77, city council member, 1978-84; sales manager, Burks Electric Company, 1982-85; partner, Beehive and Doan Partnership, 1983-84; state senator from 21st District in Ohio Senate, Columbus, 1984-89; mayor of Cleveland, 1990—. Former fellow of the Academy for Contemporary Problems, Columbus; member of board of directors, Glenville Development Corporation, beginning 1978; writer on issues of urban renewal.
Awards: Named outstanding young leader, Cleveland Jaycees, 1979; service award, East Side Jaycees, 1979; named an outstanding young man of America, 1985; outstanding service award, Cleveland Chapter of the National Association of Black Veterans, 1985; community service award, East Side Jaycees.
Addresses: Home—1057 East Boulevard, Cleveland, OH 44108-2984. Office—601 Lakeside Ave. E., Cleveland, OH 44114-1012.
Cleveland mayor Stokes once called Forbes a “foul-mouthed, uncouth, unregenerated politician of the most despicable sort.” White, on the other hand, was, according to the Washington Post, “the only candidate with support across racial lines.” When the dust settled after the October 3rd primary, the two black candidates, both Democrats, remained to square off against each other.
The 1989 mayoral campaign became one of the ugliest in Cleveland’s history. Just a few days after the primary the Forbes camp accused White of abusing his wife and ignoring housing codes on some of his inner-city property. White denied the charges and countered the attack by claiming that Forbes had used his office for personal gain and had used his wife, Mary, as a “front person” for improper investments. White also began to undermine Forbes’s support in the black community by portraying him as an elitist who favored tax breaks for downtown developers while ignoring the poorer neighborhoods. The Forbes campaign was then dealt a severe blow when outgoing mayor Voinovich—considered an important ally in the older candidate’s campaign—refused to endorse either nominee.
Ultimately Forbes’s abrasive personality was his undoing. Although he tried to soften his image in TV commercials and justify his antics as being, as he told the New York Times, “all show-biz,” the election became, as Cuyahoga County Republican party chairman Robert E. Hughes told the Chicago Tribune, “a referendum on George Forbes.” Voters flocked to the polls not so much because they liked White but because they disliked his opponent; in the end the younger candidate was easily elected.
In his inaugural address—as quoted by the Christian Science Monitor —White focused on a topic that would become a central issue for his administration: the future of Cleveland’s young people. “We can spend our money on roads and bridges and sewer systems as we must,” the new mayor said, “but we can never afford to forget that these children remain the true infrastructure of our city’s future.” In keeping with this commitment, White has worked hard to upgrade public education and has supported the development of new jobs programs. As he told Fortune, “We should create a work program and show every able-bodied person that we have the time and patience to train them. And we should start people young. In Cleveland we want to guarantee every kid graduating from high school a job or a chance to go to college.”
The White administration has also focused on creating a balance between Cleveland’s prosperous downtown area and its deprived inner-city neighborhoods. “We do not accept that ours must be a two-tier community with a sparkling new downtown surrounded by vacant stores and whitewashed windows,” he pledged in his inaugural address. White feels that Cleveland’s business community must shoulder much of the responsibility for unifying the city; he told the Christian Science Monitor: “You can’t have a great town with only a great downtown. I’ve said to corporate Cleveland over and over again that I’m going to work on the agenda of downtown Cleveland, but I also expect them to work on the agenda of neighborhood rebuilding.” To this end White has supported the development of the Lake Erie waterfront and the completion of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, predicted to become one of Cleveland’s major tourist attractions.
The safety of Cleveland’s residents has also been an important focal point of White’s program. “Safety is the right of every American,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “A 13-year-old drug pusher on the corner where I live is a far greater danger to me and this city than [Iraqi strongman] Saddam Hussein will ever be. What are America’s priorities?”
White has also tried to address head-on Cleveland’s longtime difficulties with racial tension. With a population fairly evenly balanced between blacks and whites, the city has always endured periodic outbursts of racial violence. White’s approach to the problem has been to focus on solidarity; he noted in the Christian Science Monitor, “We are a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious community. It is a strength and not a weakness.” White has portrayed himself as a “unifier” in the tradition of Mayor Curt Schmoke of Baltimore, and, as he told the New York Times, he envisions a city “free of division, free of hatred, free of bickering, one Cleveland for blacks, whites and Hispanics.” Indeed, one of his earliest campaign promises was to revise Cleveland’s controversial busing laws, a failed attempt by the U.S. District Court to desegregate Cleveland schools in the late 1970s.
White’s administration has not been without its difficulties. In April of 1991, while hosting a meeting of the nation’s black mayors in Cleveland, White learned that he had been summoned to appear before a county grand jury on charges that, eight years earlier, he had improperly used his position as chairman of the City Council’s community development committee to aid the development of real estate projects in which he was an investor. Although the charges were later dropped, the timing of the subpoena was an embarrassment to White and his administration and led other black mayors to speculate that the incident might have been racially motivated. As Emanuel Cleaver, the mayor of Kansas City, told the New York Times, “I thought the timing of the subpoena was as tacky as it gets. Every black mayor I have talked with, and many of my white supporters, have told me enough about black officials becoming targeted for investigation that I have become as paranoid as I can get.” However, White has been able to put the incident behind him and focus on the immediate concerns of his city.
The election of Bill Clinton as U.S. president in November of 1992 was greeted by White with particular enthusiasm. Long a critic of the federal government’s apparent lack of support for the rebuilding of the nation’s troubled cities, White had frequently lashed out against the administration of former President George Bush; for example, when he learned that the Persian Gulf War was costing the United States $500 million a day, he was outraged. “I’m the mayor of one of the largest cities in the country while we have an administration that is completely oblivious to the problems of human beings in this country,” he told the Washington Post. “I sit here like everyone else, watching CNN, watching a half-billion dollar a day investment in Iraq and Kuwait, and I can’t get a half-million increase in investment in Cleveland or any other city.” White became an outspoken supporter of Clinton, and, as he told the Los Angeles Times, saw the new administration as an opportunity to “turn the boat around and get it going in the right way.”
White was especially optimistic about Clinton’s plans to abolish the existing welfare system. Two years earlier he had told Fortune that “our welfare system doesn’t teach people to be independent or think for themselves. It just teaches them how to read the calendar and leads nowhere but back to the welfare office at the first of the month. In the years ahead, government must assist, cajole, and force these people back into the mainstream and give them a stake in society.” He strongly praised Clinton’s plans to substitute job training, child care, and other reforms to bring welfare recipients back into the work force.
White has also supported other elements of Clinton’s domestic policy plan, which the president titled “Putting People First.” Along with other mayors, he is anxious to see Clinton follow through on his promises to restore the economic vitality of the nation’s cities by increasing funds for the building and maintenance of urban roads, bridges, and sewage treatment plants; building a network of community development banks to loan money to entrepreneurs; and putting more city police officers on the beat. Although, as he told the Los Angeles Times, White considers himself a “pragmatic idealist” and knows that “it won’t happen overnight, or even in one term,” he intends to do what he can to hold Clinton to his pledges. “If Bill Clinton put ‘Putting People First’ into a bill,” White continued, “we would support it and I don’t mean just support it like, ‘Dear Senator, we support it.’ I mean down there in Washington, in their face, saying, ‘gentlemen, ladies, we support this and you’ve got to do it’”
Yet, though White has remained hopeful about an increase in support by the federal government, throughout his administration he has held the philosophy that state and city governments must in many ways fend for themselves. He commented in Fortune that “the answer to our problems doesn’t lie in Washington. It lies in state capitals and city halls. While I’d like to have a stronger partnership with the federal government, I recognize that we’re going to have to improve our quality of life ourselves, or it’s not going to happen.”
The city of Cleveland faces many challenges as it moves toward the twenty-first century. In spite of its renewed vitality in recent years, the city continues to be seen by many Americans as something of a cultural and economic wasteland. With the dedication and enthusiasm of its mayor, as well as that of the city’s population at large, it may one day win the recognition it deserves; until that time White will continue to work toward building a thriving and harmonious urban center. “We’re a scrapper city,” he told the Christian Science Monitor with characteristic self-confidence. “We don’t know the meaning of failure.”
Chicago Tribune, October 29, 1989.
Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 1991.
Ebony, February 1990.
Economist, November 11, 1989.
Fortune, March 26, 1990.
Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1992.
New York Times, October 23, 1989; April 27, 1991; May 16, 1991.
Washington Post, October 2, 1989; January 24, 1991; June 9, 1992.
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