Cleveland Councilman Mike Polensek smiles at being city's longest-serving elected political figure

CLEVELAND - If Cleveland City Councilman Mike Polensek were a boxer, even with 34 years of fisticuffs under his belt, he would still lace up the gloves and go back into the ring.

In many ways, Polensek has been in a boxing ring, jabbing when he had to jab, but always looking for an opening to throw the knockout punch.  Polensek, 62, is being celebrated at Cleveland City Hall as the longest-serving elected political figure in Cleveland's 216-year history.

"I feel very passionate about Cleveland," said the councilman from the city's Collinwood neighborhood. "I always have so that's why I stayed."

Not only has he stayed in his council seat since he was first elected in 1978, he has elected to remain in the city. It is obvious Cleveland has been his heart.  

Polensek grew up on the northeast side of Cleveland. He was graduated from the historic Collinwood High School, which is the neighborhood's centerpiece at St. Clair Avenue and East 152nd Street. Throughout his life, he has not ventured far from that intersection, which he has represented since voters first sent him to city council in 1978.

He almost didn't get there. His grandmother advised him to stay out of politics. Polensek said she told him "politics is not for us." Grandmother pushed further. 

"We're workin' people; we're not politicians."

"I said maybe that was the problem," Polensek said. "Maybe we elect too many people who aren't like us." With that, Polensek was off and running, but did not get too far. His first venture into politics fell short, maybe because the $500 he spent on getting elected did not go too far. 

The second time he ran, he spent $1,500, but did not do much better than the first time.

"I figured if maybe I spend two grand, I'll get elected," said Polensek.  The third time was the charm and Polensek marched into Cleveland City Hall at the age of 28.  

He said he learned from the longtime politicians on the council. Indeed, he often came out firing politically. He was never one to shy away from controversy; often inviting it in with his comments about the ups and downs of how the city was run.

"My people don't want the bull," he said, in an interview as he leaned against a desk in the city council chambers.  It is the room where he has made a name for himself and the same place where, at times, he became a target of those who disagreed with his assessments.

"My people want you to tell it like it is," he said, emphasizing every word. "They want you to be up front."

He credits former city council president George Forbes with helping Polensek strengthen himself.

"I learned the ropes from George," said Polensek, who often battled Forbes on procedural issue.

Today, he said the men remain friends. The public fighting of city hall is nowhere as pronounced as it was when Polensek entered politics. Often called "The Monday Night Fights," city councilmembers openly feuded with mayors years ago. 

In recent years, the battles have not been so pronounced. Certainly, when Polensek entered the ring, Cleveland was in the midst of heavyweight battles, where various factions in city government were at each other's throats.

Cleveland hit the bottom in 1978 as the city went into default, unable to pay the banks the money it had borrowed, freshman legislator Polensek was there. 

I sat in this very chamber," he said, sweeping his arm across the room of leather chairs, high ceilings and chandeliers, "when we went into default." 

It was a very troubling time that cast the city, then-mayor Dennis Kucinich, and all of government in a negative light.

"I watched the clock tick down and then watched it strike 12."  It was the bewitching hour of Cleveland. Legally, the city had entered default.

"What a night," said Polensek.

The kid from Collinwood, who was a member of the United Auto Workers laboring at the old White Motors Company, which built truck bodies, but saw that job disappear with layoffs. The company was located on St. Clair Avenue, just a few miles from where Polensek lived. Perhaps that was the incident that pushed him toward politics. He has always been a voice for blue-collar workers. Certainly, Polensek has seen the jobs leave Cleveland over the decades.  He pointed to thousand of manufacturing jobs that were in his native Collinwood area and nearby communities on the east side of Cleveland.

Still, there is optimism in his eyes as he looks into the future. He thinks Cleveland is trying to turn the tide and become a different kind of city from the one when he was a child, where "everyone in the neighborhood had a job." He sees the entrance of Jimmy Haslem, new owner of the Cleveland Browns, as a sign something good is continuing to happen in the city.

"He sees that spirit in town and he's commented publicly about the deep spirit and traditions in this town."

However, the problems of Cleveland persist. Polensek, who has long studied the problems of the city, cites the need for middle-class families to remain in the city, especially black middle-class

families, who like many whites, have left for the suburbs. 

Always fighting crime, Polensek continues to take a hard edge on fighting the criminals, who pepper the city streets.  Over the years, some of his comments have drawn the ire of citizens.  He has often made references to "street punks," who have killed and robbed.

Undaunted, Polensek vows to continue the fight against crime, urban blight and too little funding for education.  He lays some of the blame at state-level politicians who have cut the funding for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, the same system that educated him at his beloved Collinwood High School.

He lays much of the blame at the administration of Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled state legislature. 

"I see the things that were done wrong," said Polensek, using his hands to emphasize his points. "I see the things that we should have done differently."

Polensek said he has no plans to retire. At 62, he seems just getting his punching and footwork together. He believes the city can win on many front, but it includes cutting through "the bull."  He knows he has been criticized for speaking his mind without regard for what others may think.

"When the day comes that I have to be politically correct and I have to toe the line," said Polensek, "I don' t want to be here."

However, it is evident that day is nowhere near.  He said his passion is more evident now than it was when he walked into city hall and someone showed him the desk he would use in the historic chamber that has become his home away from home.

Polensek is a fighter. He is still throwing the leather in the ring and has no plans to hang up his gloves. 

"I'm gonna cut through the crap and tell it like it is," he said, jabbing his left hand at an invisible opponent. "God willing, I plan to run again with the support of my constituents... That is my plan right now." 

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