Gary Norton's inner sanctum in the fraying, nondescript office building that passes for East Cleveland City Hall looks like the workspace of any busy executive. Its walls are covered with evidence of the mayor's passions: photos of his wife and three daughters, an Ebony magazine cover featuring Barack Obama, mementos from his fraternity.
In the middle of a modest conference table are lucite backgammon and chess sets. Norton doesn't play on taxpayer time; they're just there to keep them from the hands of his active toddlers and to keep himself from piling papers on the table.
Norton was elected mayor of the challenged city — "95 percent black, 95 percent poor," he says — in November 2009. He was just 37. Prior to that, he served as president of city council for four years.
"Within an hour, I can meet a homeless drug addict or a CEO," he says. "When I pick up the phone, I never know who it is."
In addition to economic challenges, he faces the challenge of changing the view of his city as being run by grifters and opportunists. His immediate predecessor was Eric Brewer, a pot-stirring independent journalist who made national headlines when photos of him in women's underwear surfaced during the campaign. Prior to that, Emmanuel Onunwar's eight years in office ended in 2004 when he was sentenced to nine years in prison on corruption charges.
If it's not exactly a track record of greatness, Norton hopes to break the mold. Armed with a master's degree in public administration from Cleveland State, he's worked in the budget office of Miami-Dade County, Florida; as an assistant to former Cleveland schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett; and as executive assistant to former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones. He's served on civic boards, and he's been a Big Brother. In his neat suit and tie, he's a well-spoken, professional man.
Norton is just one of a new generation of black politicians who hope to lead Northeast Ohio into the future, building on the legacy of the groundbreaking generation that rose to power with Mayor Carl Stokes in the late '60s. Those leaders — Stokes, his brother, former Congressman Louis Stokes; former Cleveland City Council President George Forbes; Carl Stokes' campaign manager and later Cleveland school board president Arnold Pinkney — are all aging or, in the case of the former mayor, gone.
Ask around, and you'll get a long list of other eager young contenders. There's Julian Rogers, the 37-year-old county council member. Sharon Cole, 41, who ran against Rogers for county council. (Each one names the other as a possible future star.)
There's computer scientist Curtis Thompson, who at 28 has already been president of the influential Cuyahoga County Young Democrats and ran for Cleveland City Council against Mike Polensek. There's Anthony Hairston, who boasts that, at age 24, he is the youngest ward leader in Ohio. There's 42-year-old funeral home director Pernel Jones Jr., who, after narrowly losing a couple of Cleveland City Council races, won a seat on county council. Terrell Pruitt and T.J. Dow are two young guns on Cleveland City Council.
They've got college degrees and advanced degrees, they've worked on campaigns and joined — or started — organizations. They've run for office, and some have won. They've grown up in the post-civil rights era believing they can serve the whole community, not just the black community. They're hoping to change the view of what African American leadership is — or can be. And so far, they're doing just that.