The Life & Times of Ralph J. Perk

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The late 1960s and early 1970s, like today, was a time of unprecedented changes for the city of Cleveland. A series of economic downturns, a major population reversal, and a dwindling tax base all but obliterated the city's post war gains. Many voters felt betrayed by elected officials who appeared to put their own self-interests ahead of the people. Corruption wreaked havoc everywhere. Insecurity and despair replaced self-confidence and optimism.

Politicians in Washington, D.C. did very little to quiet these fears. Preoccupied with the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights movement, urban unrest, and a faltering economy, federal officials increasingly relied on macro rather than micro decision-making to resolve many of our nation's toughest problems.

Macro decision-making with its "one-size fits all" strategy proved minimally successful. More often than not, it gave the illusion of decisive action without instituting any meaningful change. In modern parlance, it was all smoke and mirrors. However, the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s seemed to condone such of action. Conventional wisdom said that it was better to make a decision, any decision, rather than leave it unresolved. In retrospect, this line of thinking was highly flawed. Growing economic and social disparities left many major cities including Cleveland in dire straits.

The highly publicized Model Cities program along with a host of other, equally heralded, federally-sponsored education programs, economic stabilization packages, and tariff revisions reflected this new macro decision-making approach. Ardent supporters claimed that these new programs would eliminate poverty virtually overnight by expanding existing educational and job opportunities for the most disadvantaged within our society. At the same time, these reforms would bolster our nation's sagging economy. In retrospect, these reforms fell far short of their stated goals. Instead of providing a solution to our nation's urban woes, they made the situation worse. By the mid 1970s our nation faced double digit inflation, ever growing unemployment, and mounting deficit spending.

America might have weathered the recession of the mid to late 1970s better had the U.S. Congress limited its reform impulse. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Instead, Congressional leaders introduced sweeping tax reforms along with a new highly complex Revenue Sharing package. These initiatives were intended to promote a more equitable distribution of wealth throughout the nation.

Reform advocates took this equitable distribution of wealth idea to a new plateau when they insisted that large industrial cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh should no longer enjoy demographic, economic, or political advantages over Sunbelt communities.

Offering lucrative tax incentives to large Northeast and Mid West corporations willing to relocate to the Sunbelt represented an important first step in this massive economic and demographic shift. Apparently, many local business leaders agreed. Over the next ten years, one hundred major companies left the greater Cleveland area. Massive unemployment, staggering revenue losses, and unparalleled inner-city poverty remained in their wake. Cleveland's political hierarchy was ill prepared to handle such devastation.

Modern-day politicians face similar challenges. Today's discussions often focus on what course of action the city might take to recoup more recent losses. Some of the riveting questions posed by contemporary leaders include the following. What expanded role might small, highly specialized local businesses play in our city's rebirth? How might the new leadership handle the growing number of inner-city poor? What part might job training play in encouraging further eastern European migrate to Cleveland? How might the city generate new tax revenues? Is regional government the answer to our current dilemmas? How might the city eliminate graft and corruption?

Cleveland leaders in the 1970s asked similar thought provoking questions. The leadership at that time determined that any rebuilding effort must resonate from the top down. This meant, among other things, ousting entrenched politicians and replacing them with new hardworking individuals who were untainted by corruption.

Ralph J. Perk exemplified this kind of new leader. He reflected Cleveland's best values. A lifelong resident of the Broadway-Fleet neighborhood, a respected family man, and a devout Roman Catholic, Perk never forgot his humble origins. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty for a just cause.

A practical politician, Perk knew the value of a dollar. He dedicated himself to providing the best in affordable public services. Perk also abhorred partisan politics. He claimed that it led to gross management inefficiency and waste. It also encouraged antagonism among opposing groups. Failed attempts by Perk and a group of reformers during the 1950s to bring together various warring factions for the good of the community reinforced this premise. Therefore, eliminating partisan politics became a top priority during his administration.

Mayor Perk believed that free and open dialog between government officials and business leaders was essential for sustained growth. To do otherwise was fool hardy. Adopting cost effective new governing procedures and methods represented a crucial first step in that effort.

A second step focused on the city's cultural legacy. If Cleveland hoped to remain a viable urban enclave then its politicians must begin to earnestly publicize its many cultural, ethnic, and religious advantages to potential outside investors. Mayor Perk spent countless hours doing just that.

What made Ralph Perk so special with the people was not his civic vision. After all, many of his cronies expounded similar beliefs. His positive approach to public services and his strong commitment to customer service distinguished him from others. He firmly believed that Cleveland's best years were ahead and that insightful leaders would meet the many challenges yet ahead.

Ralph Perk's first term as mayor was his proving ground. He tackled the city's operating deficit by joining forces with the Ohio state legislature and Cleveland's business community. His conciliatory action averted bankruptcy. He also secured federal funds for new development and safety programs.

During his second year, Perk spearheaded efforts to create the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. He also supported the new Lake Erie Jetport. During his second term, Mayor Perk worked diligently to establish locally-based Community Development Corporations. He also got Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns to sign a new 25-year Municipal Stadium lease with an estimated yearly value exceeding $500,000. Other proud accomplishments during Perk's second term included adopting a new EMS telephone system county wide, and inaugurating the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, a new highly successful regional bus and light rail transportation system.

His third term led to the establishment of the Office of International Trade at City Hall. He also stayed off the eminent sale of MUNY light to CEI in 1977 by arranging for that fledgling company to purchase outside power at a greatly reduced cost using existing wires. Lastly, mayor Perk modernized Cleveland Hopkins Airport, crusaded against pornography, and introduced tax abatements.

Dedicated to serving the people; he was proud to be one of them. Many modern leaders apprear to lack such pride and honesty. Recent federal probes into allegations of graft and corruption among city and county officials credence to that supposition.

Contemporary politicians might learn greatly from earlier leaders like Ralph Perk. Unfortunately, they rarely look to the past for advice. Perhaps the problem originates with our fast-paced electronic age. Little time is allowed for daily reflection let alone in-depth analyses of past events or people. This is most unfortunate.

Many earlier politicians, including Perk, were highly successful, highly skilled leaders. Although circumstances may change over time, the underlining economic, physiological, political, and social realities associated with modern urban life do not.

With this in mind, now is a very relevant time to re-examine the policies, strategies, and thinking of Mayor Perk. An honest and very capable leader, Perk remains above reproach. Many still marvel at his rare ability to communicate with everyone. His pro-business stance insured lucrative new development for this city for years to come. He brought integrity back into municipal government. Ralph Perk left his mark on all of this and so much more.

This proposal calls for an in-depth study of Cleveland's 52nd Mayor. It will begin with an interactive website dedicated to the life and times of Ralph Perk. Destined to become a part of Special Collections at Cleveland State University, this website will highlight his entrepreneurial skills, unique leadership talents, and political triumphs. Ralph Perk enjoyed extraordinary political success. His achievements spanning nearly 50-years illustrate what a politician may accomplish when he places his constituents first.

The second phase of this study will be an outgrowth of the website. It will encompass a detailed biography including his career achievements, government policies, and program strategies and how his actions reflected the economic, political, and social uncertainties of his own era.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Ralph Perk found himself less than prepared for the economic, political, and social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. The inevitability of these changes notwithstanding, Perk shed conventionality quickly. The old adage of business as usual no longer applied to local politics and he knew it.

Yet, in embracing the new order, Perk did not forget the importance of traditional ethics and values. This Web site will deal with how the mayor adjusted to these unheralded new demands while maintaining his sense of honor and integrity. This was no small task. His reaction to issues and problems affecting Clevelanders then remains relevant in today's political scene.

— Richard Klein, Ph.D.