Friday, September 5, 2008

Fannie Lewis

Today, we learned 12 candidates are running to replace Fannie Lewis on Cleveland city council this fall. The wide-open race shows how hard it will be to succeed her, and how Lewis herself made the task even harder.

I first met Lewis at a meeting in city council’s huge, ornate chamber. She sat next to a fellow reporter and complained about then-mayor Mike White’s habit of outsourcing legal work to law firms with a sly infidelity metaphor: “When you spend more money outside your home than in your own home, you know what that’s called, don’t you?”

Some councilpeople’s words were like fog, clouding your vision, leaving you in the dark. Lewis’ words were like lightning, striking and illuminating the most prominent points, crackling with conflict. Her one-liners were so good, an editor and I once broke the rule that a story shouldn’t start with a quote, because she captured the atmosphere of intimidation ex-White lieutenants Bill Patmon and Jeff Johnson once created: striking at his critics like raving wolves, she said.

Not everyone liked dealing with Lewis, though few would admit it. She was eccentric and unpredictable, with a sometimes-fuzzy memory. A tough negotiator, she always tried to get more for her constituents from companies wanting to come to her ward. Some businesspeople probably still don’t like her signature ordinance, the Fannie Lewis Law, which requires major city contractors to have a workforce of at least 20 percent Clevelanders.

But she got results. Chester Avenue is lined with bright new houses, the fruits of her labor. Hough, though still poor, no longer merits its bad reputation from the 1966 riots. And she’s not done. Several councilmembers say that on her deathbed, Lewis named former opponent Stephanie Howse her successor. Ward leaders say Lewis wrote a letter insisting she’d name no one. Ward 7 voters have to sort it out. Even in death, all of Hough turns on her will.

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