No regrets

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At 13 years old, Michael White should have been playing ball and running a paper route. Instead, the then-political wanna-be volunteered to work on a campaign that whetted his appetite for politics.

Thirty-seven years later, White is winding down his final term as mayor of Cleveland, saying he wants to raise his children and spend time with his wife. During his 12 years in Cleveland’s City Hall, White never sugar-coated the truth or danced around the issues.

One thing that can be said about the White administration era is that it was never lukewarm. Cleveland’s movers and shakers either loved or hated the man who successfully divided and united Cleveland’s political machine at the same time.

His plans? Rest. His regrets? None. SBN Magazine talked with White about his legacy, his leadership and where Cleveland’s business community goes from here.

Mayor White, is there a legacy you leave to Cleveland’s business community?

I’d like to believe that our economy is stronger than it’s ever been, that more people are working, that our business sector is strong in all areas and that our construction of seven new industrial and commerce parks has lent itself to improving the economic environment. Our recognition by Inc. (magazine) that we have the most significant group of growing inner city small businesses is a part of the legacy.

But also, I think that there’s an inextricable link between a city’s economic strength and (its) education strength. The better prepared your children are, the stronger your secondary education system is and the better and more competitive a community’s going to be in the area of business.

People are either very hot or cold about the White administration era. Why do you think that is?

Frankly, that’s not a matter I’ve dwelled on. I’m a person that pretty much sets the course, and as long as I believe it’s a good course, I’m going to try and achieve my end.

Why say goodbye to politics now?

I walked into city hall at 24. Two weeks from this coming Monday, I’ll be 50. (White turned 50 in August.) I worked my first campaign at 13. I spent two-thirds of my life in politics and half of my life in government. For me, now is a time that will offer me a chance to have what I’ve not had in a long time — time with my family.

Second, it will allow me to spend a lot more time with my wife and do some things we haven’t been able to do. Most people don’t get in as early as I did, but I’ve been doing this a long time.

What do you hope the next mayor of Cleveland will concentrate his or her efforts on?

First of all, I pray to God that the next mayor of Cleveland will defend the town. There are a lot of forces out here that are trying to marginalize the city, minimize the city with new buzz words like regionalism, and sell off assets. I think it’s extremely important that the next mayor do what I’ve tried to do, and to especially do what Tom L. Johnson (mayor of Cleveland from 1901 to 1909) did, and that is defend the city.

Education should remain at the top of the list and also continued expansion of the airport, which is extremely important for the creation of new economic opportunities.

Do you look back on your administration and have any particularly proud turning points or nagging regrets?

I’ve thought a lot about that, and I’m not quite sure what it says about me, but I don’t have any regrets. I’ve seen a lot of politicians who think the public expects us to be perfect. The public doesn’t expect us to be perfect. What they do expect is for us to come to work every day on their behalf and do the best and most honest job we can do.

I believe that if I had run (this year), I would have been elected, because the majority of people in Cleveland know I come here every day with the belief that I work for them, that they’re my shareholders and I’m going to do the very best job for them.

I’m not going to always win the Mr. Popularity contest, but I don’t have a high need to be loved. I do have a high need to achieve. I’m proud of a lot of things that we’ve been able to do, but probably the one thing that I’m most proud of is very intangible, and that is that Clevelanders no longer are walking around with bowed heads. Our heads are erect and straight. We’ve got a spring in our step.

We’re very proud of where we come from, and we’re not afraid to tell anybody anywhere in the world that, yes, I’m from Cleveland, and I’m damn proud. We’re a town that believes in itself again. We’re a town that knows now we can run with the big dogs and not just survive. We can prevail.

Are you disclosing who you are supporting in the race?

No, not at this time.

What is the biggest challenge the new mayor will face?

The most important things that leap out at me include education and completing the expansion at Hopkins Airport. We’re building a second runway and we’ll need a third in about 15 years. The Brookpark agreement is key to achieving not only a new runway, but peace with all of our neighbors at the airport.

I hope our new mayor will understand how important that is. I also hope that my successor will never sell the airport or any other asset owned by the people of the city of Cleveland.

Can the new administration concentrate on the airport and diversity issues simultaneously?

Absolutely. They go hand in hand. Cleveland’s business community will never be a world-class business community unless it clearly embraces diversity. That world is black and brown and yellow and red, and they speak 123 different tongues with more than 600 religions.

We are microscopic in terms of how we reflect the rest of the world. Embracing diversity is a major key if our large corporations are going to be players on the world’s economic stage.

What thoughts would you like to leave with as you prepare to say goodbye as Cleveland’s leader?

I guess I would just leave one point. My goals as of Jan. 1, 1990, have been to make Cleveland as competitive a community as possible. And I don’t mean competitive in a negative sense, but one that can attract growth, attract new residents, attract expansion and create jobs.

As I look at my time winding down, I’m confident that we’re a far more competitive community today than we were in January of 1990.

Deborah Garofalo ([email protected]) is associate editor of SBN Magazine.