Eric Brewer's smile breaks easily into a laugh, but his eyes always stay on you. Sometimes, when he's suspicious, they harden into an unnerving stare. "How am I going to look in all this?" he asks.
He has just spent three hours talking about his past as a journalist, activist, self-appointed crime fighter, and poison pen for hire. He has excitedly answered every question in overwhelming detail -- except the one a reporter wants answered most: What work have you done for Mike White?
"Don't fuck me," he warns, smiling again as he gets up from the table.
It's no surprise that he's worried. Brewer knows firsthand how easy it is to make people look bad in print.
For years, his self-published newspapers have been infamous for their dense reporting and screaming headlines accusing politicians of corruption. Last fall, Brewer penned a flier for Mayor White that tarred one councilman as a segregationist, another as an Uncle Tom. He has directed scathing attacks at the mayor of East Cleveland, for whom he once worked, then tried to recall, and now hopes to defeat in the November election.
And a few weeks ago, Brewer was named editor-in-chief of Cleveland Life -- giving him a new platform for praising his friends and denouncing his enemies.
The day after the marathon interview, he calls the reporter.
We didn't talk about my plans for East Cleveland, he notes.
We should also talk more about your work for White, the reporter says.
"Oh, is this going to be a 'mayor's hit man' piece?" he asks.
"He's a hired gun!" shouts City Council President Mike Polensek. "He puts out garbage and filth, and hopes it sticks!"
Last fall, Brewer was the man White turned to when he needed help attacking council. By day, Brewer was a spokesman for the mayor. In between his work on police issues and writing letters and newsletters, he sent out press releases charging council with ignoring the mayor's fair-housing proposal. He moonlighted for the mayor's reelection campaign, amping up the same charges in provocative campaign literature.
"WANTED! By the People of Cleveland for their neglect of those who are being discriminated against in OUR city," reads a poster he prepared in November, with blurry photos of Polensek, Bill Patmon, and three other council members laid out like mug shots. The poster, meant to shame the councilmen into supporting the mayor's proposal, ran as an ad in three local black newspapers. Brewer also hired distributors to pass it out as a flier across the East Side.
Infuriated councilmen replied that they wanted to pass an ordinance, but needed time to get the details right. (It passed in December.)
But in January, the mayor's campaign sent an even more incendiary flier, loaded with racial code words, to residents in Patmon's Ward 8. "WARNING," it read, "Do not open this brochure if you do not want to know the truth about Bill Patmon!"
The flier is decorated with a photograph of Patmon's eyes, cropped to look sinister. It repeatedly scolds Patmon for his alliance with the anti-White faction of city council. It says Patmon "became city council's finance chairman after cutting a deal with Mike Polensek that reduced African American city council chairmanships from seven to three," and it accuses him of siding "with his new westside buddies." It also questions why Patmon supports Polensek when, in the late 1970s, Polensek "introduced an ordinance that tried to slow down the number of African Americans who were moving into predominantly ethnic sections of Cleveland."
The intent of the flier seems clear. Four years before, Patmon, a former White ally who became a key player in Polensek's takeover as council president, won his seat with just 52 percent of the vote. He could be vulnerable in this year's elections, especially if the mayor can successfully paint him as beholden to the white man.
Patmon refuses to address the flier. "I tend to not respond to slanderous, racially toned accusations."
Polensek is less cautious: "It's race-baiting at its worst."
He says his 1978 ordinance was meant to fight blockbusting, in which real-estate agents exploited racial fears to encourage white residents to sell their homes. "I was trying to do what Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights [were doing], trying to promote and maintain quality integrated neighborhoods. Real-estate companies were hammering neighborhoods that were racially diverse, trying to incite people to move. Where African American residents had purchased a home, [they'd say,] 'Do you know who's living on your street?'"
Polensek's ordinance would have prohibited agents from mentioning racial change in a neighborhood to encourage home sales and would have barred realtors and landlords from mentioning race to steer buyers and renters toward or away from a particular area.
Brewer confirms that he wrote the flier. When asked for documentation of its claim about Polensek, he provided a 37-page fax, which included press releases he'd written about the ordinance, plus a dozen articles about racially motivated assaults on blacks in Greater Cleveland in the late '70s. None of the material proves Polensek had sinister motives. But Brewer insists the ordinance was an attempt to "maintain the racial status quo."
Though Brewer has since left the mayor's office, he remains as hostile to Polensek as the council president is to him. "Mike Polensek is probably the most ignorant person I know in public life."
During his 20 years as an activist and journalist in Cleveland, Brewer has always been restless, never out of the public eye for long, always eager to speak out and provoke.
In 1981, he was covering a violent city as a reporter for The Cleveland Press, writing about a murder over a $5 craps bet, the shooting of a 12-year-old newspaper carrier. Then he met Curtis Sliwa, head of the Guardian Angels, the once-celebrated citizen crime patrol. Impressed by the advice Brewer gave him about making contacts in Cleveland, Sliwa gave Brewer a chance to do something about the cruelty he'd seen on the streets: He invited him to lead the Guardian Angels in Ohio.
At a press conference, Brewer donned the Angels' red beret and walked up to the podium -- shocking his fellow reporters. "I never heard such silence," he says. The Press fired him that day.
He spent two years as the Angels' state director, leading patrols through downtown streets, following pickpockets onto buses and warning riders to hold onto their valuables. He claims his volunteer army cut Public Square's crime rate in half. But being an Angel made it too hard to get the jobs he wanted, so he moved on.
In the 1980s, Brewer ran unsuccessfully for school board and city council, worked in PR, reported for the Call & Post, and started his own newspapers. His Cleveland Crime Reporter -- a tabloid replete with sensational headlines like "Grandmother, 78, raped by lone attacker while sleeping in home" and "Street gang attacks boy, head smashed with brick" -- generated tips for police, even as publicity-nervous businesspeople grumbled about its lurid tone. He spent a year producing the paper, then revived it for another year in the early '90s before finally shutting it down, troubled that his most reliable advertisers were gun shops and burglar-alarm companies.
While the paper was on hiatus, he worked as a spokesman for the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, but he saw the job go sour when he accused his bosses of financial misdeeds. By the mid-'90s, he'd birthed another newspaper, the Political Reporter, to take on "white collar criminals cloaked in respectability."
The Political Reporter divided Cleveland into good guys and bad guys, with the heroes celebrated in editorials and sympathetic interviews, and the villains suffering under dramatic headlines and long articles crammed with tales of fiscal embarrassment and conflict-of-interest entanglements.
"I think he's a courageous and very interesting writer," says State Representative Mary Rose Oakar, who's still impressed with Brewer's defense of former Cuyahoga County Treasurer Francis Gaul.
In 1995, The Plain Dealer attacked Gaul for his high-risk investments. Investors started a run on the county's funds, and Gaul was indicted for dereliction of duty. (He was convicted, but an appeals court overturned the verdict.) Taking Gaul's side, the crusading Brewer published article after article about him, denouncing The PD as a "pitiful rag" and calling for county commissioners who oversaw Gaul's work to be indicted, too.
But he wasn't content to watch politics from the outside for long.
In the last four years, Brewer has spent a lot of his energy on East Cleveland, putting himself at the center of a strange municipal tradition that calls for members of the royal court -- the mayor's office -- to conspire to kill the king and take the throne.
Brewer worked for the 1997 campaign of Emmanuel Onunwor, who ran for mayor against his former boss, incumbent Wallace Davis. One of Brewer's jobs was to create a newspaper, the East Cleveland Challenger, to criticize Davis. Both Brewer and Davis say his well-honed attacks played a major part in Onunwor's victory.
Davis calls the Challenger a "smear sheet." Brewer, he says, is an excellent writer who "was very effective, in an underhanded way." (Brewer maintains his claims were fair.)
After the election, Brewer became Onunwor's chief of staff. He didn't last a year. He claims Onunwor fired him for investigating wrongdoing by a city official the mayor wanted to protect. Onunwor, who wouldn't comment for this story, has said that Brewer simply wasn't a good employee.
Since then, Brewer has ferociously denounced his former boss in the Challenger. Issue after issue carries accusatory headlines next to the same unflattering photo of the mayor, which shows his eyes half-shut, looking shadily to one side. Brewer has accused Onunwor of incompetence and financial mismanagement, and attributed nefarious motives to the mayor's trips to his native Nigeria.
In 1999, he tried unsuccessfully to get Onunwor recalled. This year, he plans to run against him, promising to get the city out of fiscal emergency, fix the water department and cut utility rates, and root out what he claims is corruption in the police department.
Much of Brewer's writing in the Challenger seems nakedly motivated by his ambition to be mayor, even when he has a point.
He has repeatedly blamed Onunwor for the wretched condition of the city water department -- which is a mess, with leaks, bad meters, and billing errors driving up costs. One audit shows the city can't account for as much as 50 percent of the water it buys. But Brewer also savaged the mayor and city council for increasing water rates -- even though they long refused to pass increases for fear of burdening residents. It wasn't until the water fund deficit ballooned to over $2 million and state overseers pressured them to act that they approved the hikes.
Brewer asserts the deficit could have been mostly overcome by more vigilant pursuit of delinquent accounts.
"I think, to a degree, he's misinforming the people," says Councilman Jeremiah Johnson. "For him to suggest the rate is inflated needlessly, that's not true."
Nathaniel Martin, president of East Cleveland's city council, calls Brewer "intelligent and confident," but also "arrogant and stubborn . . . He has gifts, skills, and talent that, if positively directed, can be a benefit to the city. But it's not always that way."
Mildred Brewer, another council member, seems less inclined to straddle the fence. She's often asked if she and Brewer are from the same family. "Please put in the article I'm no relation to Eric Brewer!" she says. Why doesn't she wish to be associated with him? "I have no comment about that."
Politicians in East Cleveland and Cleveland aren't the only people who have felt the sharp end of Brewer's pen. Last year, he briefly turned his attention to Lorain County, producing 25,000 copies of the Lorain County Challenger, an eight-page paper he published only once. Three articles in its eight pages attacked County Commissioner Mary Jo Vasi; he also praised one of her election opponents, Avon Lake Councilman Jack Kilroy. Brewer delved into Vasi's complaints about rules at a commissioners' debate and wrote about a lawsuit involving Vasi's daughter, implying that a county employee and Vasi supporter tried to retaliate against the man who filed the suit.
"I believe that someone paid [Brewer] to do that," Vasi says. She filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Board, asking it to investigate whether Kilroy or other opponents funded the Lorain County Challenger. The board dismissed her complaint, saying she couldn't prove that Kilroy and Brewer had worked together.
Brewer says he wasn't paid; that he just put the paper together in hopes of getting a Lorain County relative started in the newspaper business.
Vasi is surprised to hear that Brewer has also worked for Mayor White. "The only [person] that would hire him would be a dirty politician," she says.
A few days after becoming editor of Cleveland Life, Brewer excitedly reads the fawning resignation letter he sent White.
"To say that I have thoroughly enjoyed and been uplifted by my experience as a member of your team is an understatement," he reads. "Please know that I value our friendship, your support and your guidance. If you need me, all you have to do is call."
Then he reads the front page of the first issue under his editorship, which is about to hit the stands: "The headline is 'No Deal. The battle over Chagrin Highlands continues. Mayor Michael R. White says the Jacobs and Forbes-backed ordinance Polensek introduced is one of the greatest swindles in Cleveland history.'"
Brewer says his journalistic role models are tabloid newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch and National Enquirer founder Generoso Pope, and his first cover shows their influence: He mixes provocative headlines with mug shots of his villains (Polensek and George Forbes) and pictures of heroes (a big one of White and a smaller one of Brewer, announcing his arrival).
Chagrin Highlands is the perfect story for Brewer. Developer Dick Jacobs, a longtime White enemy, is trying to get out of a deal with Cleveland and build a mall on land the city owns in the eastern suburbs. The plans would compromise the unrealized dream of turning the site into a new-economy office park. Three of White's enemies -- Polensek, Patmon, and Forbes -- have lined up to help Jacobs. Brewer rises to the occasion with a piece that recounts the deal's long history, explains what's at stake, and slams Polensek. It reads like a cross between a mayoral press release and an editorial defending White's position.
White has been close to Brewer since 1989, when he first ran for mayor and called Brewer for advice, impressed that Brewer had done better on the West Side than the East in his school board race. Brewer says his advice was to combine the votes of East Siders who didn't like Forbes -- the favorite in the race -- with those of just enough West Siders, who were increasingly open to voting for black candidates. It's the exact formula that got White elected.
Brewer proudly notes that he has considered White fair game in past reporting. A 1996 issue of the Political Reporter described a private breakfast where developer and White buddy Sam Miller urged a roomful of businessmen to contribute to the mayor's campaign. Miller asked the businessmen to stand up and announce how much money they were pledging; if they didn't promise enough, Miller prodded them to do better.
"Mike is a hardball player, as he should be," Brewer says. "If he had not been, many of the things that have happened in this town would not have happened."
He admires White -- who wouldn't comment for this story -- for creating Cleveland's most diverse administration. "That man is so compassionate, so considerate, so caring, and it is a damn shame that the people of this community do not see him the way he really is; that they have allowed themselves to buy into that bullshit that's in The Plain Dealer."
He says the mayor is vilified because he's a strong black man, while other officials and agencies aren't critically examined. "Racism is at the heart of the attacks on him."
City Hall watchers weren't surprised when Brewer left the mayor's office. Council and The Plain Dealer had already claimed that Brewer was violating the city's residency requirement by living in East Cleveland. But Brewer was working only 30 hours a week (at $37.50 an hour), and the mayor's office argued that part-time workers are exempt from the requirement under a custom dating from before the White Administration. Brewer and mayoral spokesman Brian Rothenberg both say he simply left White's office to work at Cleveland Life.
The sudden jump from spokesman to editor troubles one of Brewer's competitors, City News Editor Mansfield B. Frazier.
"I have a problem with journalists moving between the editorial hat and being a spinmeister," Frazier says. There's a suspicion that the journalist will keep supporting the pol who once wrote his checks, he says. He also questions whether Brewer should be using the East Cleveland Challenger to run for office.
Frazier calls Brewer "an excellent writer and perhaps one of the best researchers in the state," but one who sometimes has agendas. His work is informative "as long as you're an incisive reader and you know the facts. Otherwise, you get Eric's version."
Cleveland Life CEO Lou Reyes says he hired Brewer -- a former columnist for the paper -- because he wanted to make the publication newsier. "I'm very, very pleased," he says on Brewer's first day at the job. "I know what Eric can do. I want him to do it here."
Despite his thirst for exposing the powerful, Brewer insists he'll be fair.
"Let's take Mike Polensek. Mike Polensek will get fairly covered. But he can't come to me with any bullshit about Mike White. If he has a legitimate gripe, let's examine both sides, not just the one-sided crap that's been covered by some of the other media."
Brewer says his inside knowledge of the administration will benefit readers. Besides, he argues, most political coverage in town is already biased -- against White. And his relationship with the mayor is no different from the friendships Plain Dealer executives Alex Machaskee and Brent Larkin have with businessmen or Free Times Editor Lisa Chamberlain's work as a staffer for Representative Dennis Kucinich, he says.
As for writing about his mayoral candidacy, "I will not use Cleveland Life to expose Onunwor and all his warts. I'll do that in the East Cleveland Challenger. I'll take a big magnifying glass and expose his warts down to the very last pore."
A week into his new job, Brewer is in his office. The walls are bare, the radiator clicks and thumps loudly, and the desks are already covered with papers -- old files, photocopied pages of The New York Daily News, and a future issue of the East Cleveland Challenger, which reports that Emmanuel Onunwor once spoke in support of the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. The story speculates that Onunwor was trying to curry favor for a business deal.
Brewer's on the phone, arguing with Cleveland Councilman Michael O'Malley, who has introduced an ordinance that would give council, not the mayor, the power to appoint Regional Transit Authority board members. Brewer asks about the residency requirement in the ordinance, O'Malley says there isn't one, and Brewer finds the clause in O'Malley's ordinance and reads it back to him.
"Stupidest fucking son of a bitch on the face of the earth," he says after hanging up.
In Brewer's second issue of Cleveland Life, an article scorches O'Malley, and not just for forgetting a detail in his ordinance. Angry headlines quote Councilman Roosevelt Coats, a White ally, who charges that O'Malley's proposal is racially motivated, though the article provides no evidence or explanation.
Meanwhile, an editorial denounces council for failing to appoint ex-Councilman Charles Patton to the Port Control commission. O'Malley, the editorial notes, calls Patton unacceptable, but he defers to Polensek as to why. "We think we know why," the editorial reads. "[O'Malley] probably thinks White is naming too many African Americans and Hispanics to the city's boards and commissions."
So far, Cleveland Life's City Hall coverage has followed a predictable mayor-good/council-majority-bad story line. One article looked critically at the campaign fund Polensek set up for council members. Another, on council challengers in this year's elections, focuses on opponents of mayoral enemies like Patmon and Polensek, whose ward, Brewer notes, "is now nearly 70 percent African American."
Brewer's preoccupations are becoming those of his paper. The second issue covers the recent indictments of his former housing authority bosses, Claire Freeman and Ronnie Davis, on theft-in-office charges. He points to a Plain Dealer headline on the indictments, then pulls out letters he wrote in 1991 alleging financial misdeeds at CMHA.
"I don't care what people say about me," he says. "I've been right more than I've been wrong."