Cleveland 'wronged,' says mayor Tenacious: Michael White isn't much of a football fan, but he's battling ferociously to prevent his city from losing its Browns.

Sun Journal

January 25, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Michael White, mayor of Cleveland, has never been much of a football fan. He attends one game a year, maybe two, to watch the Cleveland Browns.

He is a bookish, bearded man, 5 feet 7 inches tall and never much of an athlete.

As a teen-ager, he played one season as cornerback on a municipal league, an experience he remembers chiefly for his role as "team punching bag."

His passion was never sports, never the Browns or baseball's Indians. His passion is his city.

So when he talks about the Browns jilting Cleveland, Mayor White minces few words.

"We have been wronged," he says with barely restrained rage.

It's an unambiguous message he has taken from City Hall to Congress, repeating it to just about anyone who will listen as he orchestrates a national crusade to keep the Browns from moving to Baltimore.

Today he takes the show to Washington to the National Conference of Mayors.

It is vintage Mike White, say those who have followed his rise through Ohio politics: tireless, passionate and combative.

"He can be a real pit bull," says Cleveland City Councilwoman Helen Knipe Smith.

"And he's got a charismatic streak that really brings people along with him."

The grandson of two preachers, Michael Reed White, 44, came of age in the era of Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

As a youth, he marched for civil rights alongside his father; at age 14, he was handing out literature for a mayoral candidate. As a college student at Ohio State University in Columbus, he marched against the Vietnam War.

"In those days, government was the engine of change," says Mr. White.

"It was on the edge. It was the provocateur of creative thought."

Up through the ranks

Little surprise, then, that he aimed for government work.

He began as a special assistant to the mayor of Columbus, then became an assistant to Cleveland's City Council.

He won his own council seat in 1978 and six years later was elected to the state Senate.

His reputation was as an orator, as someone with a strong command of detail -- and as confrontational.

It was the mayorality of Cleveland that he coveted. Mr. White says he had rarely ventured out of his predominantly black, middle-class Glenville neighborhood until he was in his 20s, but he campaigned in 1990 as a long-shot Democrat with a theme of racial healing and a promise to fight crime. And he won.

He supported the downtown redevelopment and fiscal discipline begun by his Republican predecessor, George Voinovich, so the city could leave behind the days when its fame was based on bankruptcy and the polluted waters of the Cuyahoga River.

The city's business community praises him, but neighborhood leaders do not. They had hoped for more from City Hall.

"White isn't interested in social services and in my neighborhood," says Fannie Lewis, a Democratic councilwoman from the city's troubled Hough neighborhood.

Mr. White, who likes to point out that he still lives a block from his elementary school, bristles at such criticism.

Even though Cleveland has generated a comeback image during his tenure based on splashy developments like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he prefers to stress the more mundane: $1.2 billion in neighborhood development loans, more housing starts than anytime since the Korean War and the rehabilitation of seven city playgrounds.

"For me to be able to use this office to do good for people who can't talk for themselves, can't stand up for themselves, don't have a collective voice, is something that is very meaningful to me," the mayor says.

But even supporters say he could accomplish more if he were better able to work with his opponents and if he could overcome a tendency to hold grudges against other leaders and the City Council.

Even his department heads won't take calls from council members who have run afoul of him in the past, Ms. Lewis complains. "If you worked with his opponent, he won't work with you, and his people won't work with you," she says.

"If you were once his enemy, you are always his enemy."

But his passionate style has won him impressive support from voters: He won re-election in 1994 with 85 percent of the vote.

Recent polls show no drop in his popularity, and despite the loss of the Browns the city has developed a renaissance reputation not unlike Baltimore's a decade ago.

Respect, not love

"I'm not a caretaker person," says the mayor. "I don't believe my job is just to clean the streets, catch the bad guys and keep the lights running and pick the snow up. I believe in activist government."

"Everyone has to make their own judgment about me. If people believe my straightforward way of communicating is abrasive, there is nothing I can do about that. I think it is far more important that a leader be respected than loved."

His workaholic tendencies and micro-management of city business have taken their toll. Last year, he and his third wife divorced.

"I think he's very demanding, but he's also very demanding of himself," says council member Smith, an unabashed supporter.

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