2 Blacks Fighting to Become Cleveland Mayor : Politics: The campaign is called the dirtiest in memory. Whites are a majority, and the two winners in the primary were a surprise to most.


When Carl B. Stokes stepped down as mayor in 1971 to become a television news anchorman in New York, he said he thought he was leaving behind a political organization that would ensure that blacks would remain in power.

But Cleveland, the first major city to elect a black mayor when Stokes was elected in 1967, became also the first in which the promise of black political power faded.

Cleveland hasn't had a black mayor since Stokes. Until this year, no serious black candidate had even run for the office since 1975.

That is why Tuesday's mayoral election has stirred higher than usual passions here. For the first time ever, this racially polarized city, in which whites barely make up a majority, will choose their next mayor from between two black men.

"This city has made some history," school board President Stanley E. Tolliver said after last month's primary election, in which City Council President George L. Forbes and state Senator Michael R. White were the top vote-getters out of a field of five well-known candidates.

Like nearly everyone else, Tolliver had considered such an outcome next to impossible.

Stokes, too, was stunned by it. "Anyone who tells you he wasn't surprised isn't telling the truth," said Stokes, now a municipal judge here.

But, although the prospect of two blacks facing each other for mayor here may be historic, the campaign has been no less rancorous because of it.

Indeed, most observers say this has been the dirtiest, most acrimonious mayoral campaign in memory in Cleveland.

Last Sunday, for instance, Forbes ran a full-page ad in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer branding White, a former protege, a slumlord. White, who is married to his third wife, has also had to repeatedly deny accusations that he beat two former wives.

Forbes has been attacked throughout the primary and general election for allegedly using his political office for personal gain. White has accused him of using his wife as a "front" for his myriad business interests.

"It's been low-down and dirty," said Frank Adams, assistant director of Cleveland State University's black studies department. "I don't remember an election like this in a long time."

The bitterly fought campaign has divided the black community to such an extent that Stokes said he fears it might impair the ability of either man to govern.

Until the last weeks of the primary election, when White won the endorsement of the Plain-Dealer, he was not taken seriously as a candidate. The common wisdom had been that the vote would split along racial lines, with blacks supporting the better-known Forbes and whites supporting Municipal Court Clerk Benny Bonanno.

But White, the most charismatic and eloquent of the candidates, confounded that notion. He was the only candidate who received substantial numbers of votes from both racial groups.

The Cuyahoga River, which snakes through downtown, divides the city between wards of blue-collar descendants of Eastern Europeans on the west and the predominantly black neighborhoods on the east.

White received 52% of his vote on the east side and 48% on the west side. Forbes, who came in first in the primary, got only 7% of his support from the west side.

A Plain-Dealer poll published on Oct. 22 showed White leading Forbes 46% to 27% citywide with 28% undecided. The poll shows White getting 66% of the white vote against 9% for Forbes. Among blacks, the two men were nearly tied, with Forbes receiving 26% and White 25%.

To a large degree, the outcome of Tuesday's election will depend on white voter turnout.

"The same thing that's happened for the last 10 years will happen in this election, in reverse," Adams predicted. "White people won't feel they have a choice, so they'll stay home. That's what black people have been doing. A lot of voters White is counting on won't be there because they won't come out to vote."

Others predict just the opposite. Forbes is considered such anathema to so many whites, that some predict whites will turn out in record numbers to oppose him.

Forbes, 58, is an old-style political boss. He has been a member of City Council for 26 years and, since 1973, he has been president of the council. Because of his domineering personality and his control of the city's purse strings as finance committee chairman, he has been a more powerful political personage than the last three Cleveland mayors.

Forbes has also provoked the enmity of many white voters because of his fiery temper and his use of racial appeals to galvanize black voters. During the primary, he was criticized for calling one of his white opponents "a racist and a pimp."

In recent weeks, though, he has spent more time campaigning on the west side and has tried to soften his image. He has been aided by a big campaign budget and by guest appearances by such national figures as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.

White, 38, has sought to portray himself as a unifier. He won much white support through his opposition to school busing.

Whoever wins, the new mayor will govern a radically different city from the one that elected Stokes over two decades ago.

In 1967, Cleveland was the nation's eighth-largest city, with a population of 800,000. Now it ranks 23rd, with 546,000 residents. Much of the middle class has fled to the suburbs and, as its industrial base eroded, many people have fled to other parts of the country.

Since the city went into bankruptcy in 1978, its downtown has bounced back. Working in close cooperation with the business community, Forbes and George Voinovich, the current mayor, who is stepping down to run for governor next year, take much of the credit for the rebound. But they also have been accused of ignoring the neighborhoods.

And many charge that Forbes, more than anyone, has been responsible for suppressing the growth of new black leadership.

James Barrett, a one-time city public safety director with whom Forbes has feuded, accuses Forbes of "co-opting" black ministers and other leaders through manipulation of block grant funds. And many in the black community charge that Forbes, a wealthy attorney, used his connections as council president to enrich himself and a few friends.

Forbes denies the charges, although he doesn't deny that he has done well financially while in office.

After Stokes stepped down, Arnold Pinkney, a black man who now supports Forbes, ran twice for mayor unsuccessfully, in 1971 and in 1975. Later, he said he lost because Stokes had increased racial polarization in the city during his terms in office. "Carl Stokes opened the door and closed it behind him," he complained.

Stokes maintains, though, that blacks fell out of power in Cleveland because their leaders became "co-opted" by the Democratic political Establishment.

"I left them with the only black political organization in the nation," he said recently in his municipal court office. "I put them each in positions of power--Forbes as minority leader on the council, Pinkney on the board of elections, and I elected my brother (Louis Stokes) to Congress."

He complained that prominent black leaders all left his organization to return to the machinery of the Democratic Party and so lost much black support.

Speaking of that era of the city's history, Adams agreed that there was much divisiveness, not only between blacks and whites, but also within the black community.

A bloody shoot-out between a black nationalist organization and the police in 1968 in which 10 people were killed proved to people that the election of a black mayor wasn't the end to racial and social strife, he said.

After Stokes' two terms in office "there was a realization on the part of a lot of black folk in Cleveland that a politician was a politician, no matter what color he is," Adams said.

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