Journalists like me rarely admit to liking people in the news.
But I have no qualms or shame in admitting that I shed huge, salty tears after hearing that Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the Democratic Ohio congresswoman, died Wednesday from a brain aneurysm. She was 58, and she was my friend.
I came to know the congresswoman shortly after moving to Cleveland in 2000 as a metro columnist at the city's daily. Columnists are paid to have—and express—opinions. I had license to be subjective, whether in praise or criticism of her.
We disagreed often and spiritedly, in public and in private. I took issue with her penchant for secrecy and what I considered to be mistaken judgments on federal policies and local politics.
I was tough on her. But she could take it. "You do your job, and I'll do mine," she once told me. She grinned that gummy smile and bear-hugged me.
Stephanie—as nearly everyone in Ohio's 11th congressional district called her—and I visited each other's homes, exchanged confidences and consoled each other during personal dramas. We played bid whist. She inspired my daughter—whom she called "Babygirl"—to give something of herself in community service. Her cell phone number remains on speed dial in mine; I don't know when I'll find the strength to remove it.
Stephanie cared deeply, intimately about the people in her district.
And, in return, they loved her back. At the time of her death, she was running for re-election, assured of returning yet again to Washington to represent a diverse and raucous electorate.
I live in her district, which includes both poor and inner-city residents along with some of the region's most affluent and well- educated folk. She bridged the gap like few political leaders could. For as long as her district remained intact, she was guaranteed an unassailable seat in Congress. She replaced the highly regarded Louis Stokes in Congress. I can't imagine who will replace her.
Of course, not everyone shared my high opinion of her. Racist gibberish popped up almost immediately on the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Web site when it was announced she was nearing death, forcing a shutdown of the comments section.
Less evil, but perhaps just as emotionally intense, were the comments that stalked her support of Sen. Hillary Clinton's quest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Stephanie was the first member of the Congressional Black Caucus to throw her support to the New York senator. She campaigned across the land, smiling and boasting of friendship with Clinton and touting her in that unmistakable loud voice as the "best qualified person" to be the next president. When other CBC members went quiet as Obama surged, she penned a piece for The Root defending her unwavering support of Clinton.
Of course, this wasn't a popular move back in the district, where so many (black) folks were pinning their hopes—and votes—on Barack Obama. Politically engaged friends from across the nation called me to ask: "What's up with your girl, Stephanie? Why is she doing this to Obama?"
So I punched the buttons on my cellie and asked her.
"Sam, I gave my word," she said. "I know what people are saying about me, but I don't care, because I gave my word. If giving my word means I don't have this job, then that's just fine with me."
As a journalist—no, as a human being—who can't admire a principled friend like that? Or resist crying over her passing?
Sam Fulwood III is a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and lecturer at Case Western Reserve University.