Adele The Tireless
I first met Adele Eisner about 15 years ago. A work colleague told me about an engaging woman who was going door-to-door in University Heights, running for a seat on the suburb's council to try to do her part to clean up some petty corruption. It intrigued me, both as a writer and as a citizen. I figured I'd go take a look for myself, never really intending to write anything. Lord, if only I knew what I was getting into.
Over several visits and many hours of talking, she described a bizarre scene in which she kept demanding public information, only to be stonewalled in the rudest possible fashion. She said the council members responded to her in open council by loudly crumpling paper into a microphone in hopes of drowning her out, and once even ritually turned their backs on her. I kept pulling on the string, interviewing others, examing the minutes of council meetings, trying to understand just what the hell had gone on there. Her story was a mess on several levels, though an intriguing mess, because she had begun her bird-dogging as a stringer (or part-time, non-staff correspondent) covering the council for the Plain Dealer. That muddied the situation even more.
Anyway, the result of all this sound and fury was a five-thousand-word cover story I wrote on her in 1991 in the Cleveland Edition, the town's first alt-weekly. It carried a cool photo of her in front of City Hall, as if demanding to be let in to a locked door, and the headline said it all: The Right to Be a Pain in the Ass. And if you know Adele, you know she's surely that, though generally for all the right reasons.
She was panicked at first. She called me the day the article hit the streets, and you could hear how jittery she was even over the phone. She talked about how the story contained various errors and even suggested she might sue. It turned out to be a routine case of journalism jitters, the result of that weird process of having one's life reduced to a story in a newspaper, especially when the story is an invasive, warts-and-all treatment. Anyway, she quickly changed her mind about it as she got a chance to step back and see the larger picture, and understood that it was an utterly sympathetic portrait of a crusading woman who refused to accept what she saw as injustice, and who, like all of us, happens to have some flaws (though hers are more endearing than most). People began coming up to her and congratulating her, some even treating her like a modest folk hero. Eventually, in fact, she asked the paper for the right to reprint the article as a campaign handout. Several weeks later she won office, with what was at that time the largest vote total in the city's history. And as you might guess, University Heights politics proceeded to get really interesting, as her new colleagues who then as now ran a suburban political machine were a little harder-pressed to keep the details of city business from her now that she was officially one of them. I'm pleased to say that she soon graduated from mere profile subject to lifelong friend.
Well, Adele is in the news again these days. Now a grandmother, her particular subject of concern is a little different, but in more important ways she's up to the same thing--trying to keep politics honest. She's driven to distraction by stonewalling county elections officials and electronic voting systems that seem ripe for abuse, and so she's been all over the place as a certified election observer. And this week my friends at the Free Times did a great write-up on her. The author of the piece, James Renner, is a dazzling talent, possibly Cleveland's best young journalist (though the PD's Rachel Dissell and his FT colleague Charu Gupta could give him a run for the money). He sees her clearly, explains the complicated dynamics well, and gets the story cold. I hope it helps at least in a small way to advance her vital work.
Tomorrow I'll post my original story about Adele.