The very public effort of US Representative Marcia Fudge to persuade President-elect Joe Biden to appoint her as Secretary of Agriculture is an unmistakable signal that her time in Congress is rapidly coming to a close. Whether or not she secures the Cabinet slot, gets another appointment as consolation prize, or decamps to the nonprofit world, Greater Cleveland will soon have a new Congressional representative. And should some surprising turn of events occur whereby Fudge completes the term to which she was just elected, there is likely zero chance she would run again in 2022, when a new district, redrawn following this year’s Census, will almost certainly be less conducive to the walkover races she’s enjoyed since she won two races to succeed Stephanie Tubbs Jones in 2008.
Why Fudge has one foot out the door and the other in the air is open to speculation; reluctance to face voters in a new district, and/or a loss of enthusiasm for the job are among those that have been advanced. Frankly, the reasons are subordinate in importance to a host of more substantial questions.
What is the future of the 11th Congressional District? How might we shake free of our dependence on the dinosaur style of politics that serves to keep us among the poorest, least healthy, and most ineffective communities in the nation? What opportunities exist for the black community to redefine our current politics? How can we develop and nurture the political talent that can make our politics relevant again? What changes need to be made to create a political climate where our electorate becomes engaged and our turnout is no longer dismal? Where among us at present are the candidates who can effectively represent our interests? How might we support them so that they remain responsive to us and not to the puppet masters who govern the larger community?
Answering these questions would go a long way to making the selection of Fudge’s successor a transformational moment and not just another horse race that reinforces the status quo.
Before we address these questions, let us first take a look back to another transformational moment.
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What we now know as the 11th Congressional District was shaped as a result of multiple lawsuits filed in the 1960s over gerrymandering by the Ohio legislature to prevent the election of a black Congressman by carving up the black community. As Louis Stokes detailed in his memoir, that person most likely would have been his brother, Carl B. Stokes. But, as luck would have it, by the time the litigation was ultimately resolved, shortly after the US Supreme Court ruling in Lucas v. Rhodes, handed down in December 1967, Carl had just made history by becoming the first black elected mayor of a major American city.
[I pause here to give a special shout out to two black attorneys who were stalwart fighters in Cleveland’s civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s: Russell T. Adrine and Richard L. Gunn, who shared legal offices but had separate practices, were part of the successful legal team that created what was originally the Twenty-First Congressional District.]
The chance to become Ohio’s first black Congressman drew a plethora of candidates, including several experienced and well-known politicians: George Forbes, who would become the longest-serving and most powerful city council president in Cleveland’s history; Leo Jackson, an outspoken maverick Glenville area councilman who would go on to a long and distinguished career on the Court of Appeals; and George White, the Lee-Harvard councilman who later became Chief Judge of the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.
What opportunities exist for the black community to redefine our current politics?
But Carl Stokes, who had been a driving force behind much of the litigation, was reluctant to concede the seat he felt was his to anyone outside his circle. And thus began the political career of his brother Louis, who would easily win the primary, winning every ward and every precinct, and go on defeat Republican Charles P. Lucas, who had been the plaintiff in the lawsuit that created the seat, in the general election.
Having a black Congressperson in Cleveland has been a given ever since 1968, when Louis Stokes won a special election for the Twenty-First Congressional District and became Ohio’s first black member of Congress. He went on to serve the entire district with distinction for thirty years, winning respect far and wide, perhaps as much for the dignity of his service as for his signal accomplishments and the bounty he returned to the district.
Stokes became the dean of local black politics in Greater Cleveland. While George Forbes, Arnold Pinkney, and later Mike White exercised tremendous political power and influence during the Stokes era, all understood that Lou was the godfather, the umpire and final arbiter on any important matters of political dispute within the black community. Much of his influence was exercised through BEDCO, the Black Elected Officials of Cleveland, the organization Stokes used to maintain a basic level of accountability, order, and coherence among local black elected officials.
The history of the 11th Congressional District has helped make the office of U. S. Representative the holy grail of Cleveland black politics.
As Stokes approached retirement, he proposed county prosecutor Stephanie Tubbs Jones as his successor. Her natural political touch, high name recognition, and immense popularity, along with an already distinguished resume that included service as a Common Pleas Court judge, made her the consensus pick. She won the 1998 primary in a landslide and seemed on her way to becoming a force in Congress when she suffered an aneurysm and died suddenly in July 2008.
The Cleveland black political establishment that had achieved some modicum of black political power, was now aged, and had failed to nurture any first-rate talent or establish any mechanism to pass the baton to the next generation. But in the absence of any countervailing force, they assembled enough energy to push forward a Tubbs Jones ally, then-Warrensville Hts. mayor Marcia Fudge, as her successor.
Unlike the pattern that prevails in districts with white representatives, the job expectation for Cleveland’s black Congressperson has always included more than normal constitutional duties. The history of the seat, coupled with systemic limitations upon the aspirations of black politicians — except for judges, only rarely has a black candidate (Virgil E. Brown Jr., Peter Lawson Jones, and Tubbs Jones) been able to succeed on a countywide ballot, and only one black nonjudicial candidate (Republican Ken Blackwell*) has ever won statewide — and the standard set by Lou Stokes, has made it the holy grail of local black politics.
While an evaluation of Fudge’s tenure in the seat is best left for another day, there is no doubt that the timing and manner of her departure will soon reveal just how bare is the cupboard of black political leadership in Cleveland.
Our next column will take a look at what her departure may mean for the constituents she leaves behind.
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* Blackwell was elected Ohio Treasurer in 1994 and Secretary of State in 1998 and 2002. Our original post said no black nonjudicial candidate had ever won a statewide election. This is true of Democrats who have run statewide.
Additionally, Jennette Bradley was elected Lieutenant Governor in 2002 as Governor Robert Taft’s running mate. Taft appointed her as Ohio Treasurer, effective January 2005, to fill a vacancy; however she was defeated in the Republican primary the following year.
Both Blackwell and Bradley are African American.
Richard T. Andrews is a writer and publisher of The Real Deal.
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