The Justic Department sued Euclid under the Voting Rights Act to give candidates like Kandace Jones -- Euclid's first black city councilperson -- a fighting chance. Now Euclid itself has an opportunity to move beyond old divisions.
Kandace Jones is the first black city councilperson Euclid has ever elected.
Even though the city has been integrating since the late ’70s, and one-third of its residents are black, whenever black candidates ran for Euclid City Council before this year, they always lost and almost always came in last.
Nine months ago, a federal judge ruled that Euclid’s system violated the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department had sued Euclid in 2006, arguing that the town’s election system watered down black residents’ voting power and allowed longtime white residents to band together and keep control of every seat at City Hall. The judge rewrote the rules to create a better chance for black candidates like Kandace Jones.
So we could say that Jones’ victory in March’s election was a huge step for Euclid. We could say that black residents will now feel they have more of a voice in their government. We could say Jones’ election might even prove a turning point, the moment when Euclid put some rough years behind it, got beyond racial and political division and unified to tackle its other challenges.
But Jones doesn’t say that. “I’m not running because I want to be the first African-American on council,” she says in February, taking a break from campaigning at a Euclid Avenue McDonald’s. “I’m running because I am concerned about the quality of life in my ward and the city.”
Jones didn’t run to be the voice of black Euclid. She’s a smart, quiet woman in her early 50s, a computer systems engineer, veteran of community groups and appointed city boards. Every town has go-getter volunteers like her, ready to run their first campaign for local office. Judge by her resume, and she seems like the type of candidate any town would elect.
“Commitment, Integrity, Compassion,” her campaign literature says on the front. “Safe Neighborhoods, Housing, Stability,” it says inside.
Her color-blind approach to politics fits the way she’s always looked at the world.
Kandace Jones and her family moved to Ohio from New Jersey in 1968, when she was 12. Her dad handled public relations for the United Negro College Fund, and her mom was a night manager at Hillcrest Hospital. She was the first black student ever at Mayfield High School.
“I’d always grown up not to look at things as a racial thing, even though I’d always heard about Martin Luther King, and the drive [for civil rights], and I’d been educated about that,” she says. She made friends easily at school. “I did feel people were looking at me a little differently, but nobody said anything to me negatively.”
After graduating, Jones became a computer programmer. She got married in 1981 and moved to a high-rise on the lake in Euclid. In 1984, the same month she gave birth to her son, Cardell, she and her husband bought a house in the southeast part of town, off Euclid Avenue near I-90. When they divorced in 1987, she stayed.
“Over the years, after I got divorced, my parents tried to talk me [into] moving from there,” Jones says. “The area I was living in was deemed an unpleasurable place to live.” She heard that drug dealing and fighting were taking place in the apartment complex behind her house.
“It was a beautiful area when she first moved there,” remembers her mother, Florence Young, 75. “The neighbors were lovely. Everyone treated her well. But the neighborhood began to deteriorate. I said, ‘Kandace, why don’t you move out? I think you can do better than this.’ People weren’t living in the homes. Some were boarded up.” She and Jones’ father tried to convince her to move back to Mayfield Heights, or to Highland Heights, closer to her job at Progressive insurance.
But Jones wouldn’t go. “I thought, I can’t just move out because of the negativity in the neighborhood, unless I want to do something to try to change that,” she says. “I could move somewhere and the same things could happen. And then what do I do? Do I move somewhere else?”
Instead, Jones got to know her neighbors better and founded a neighborhood association. They pushed for more community policing: bike patrols, sweeps of troubled spots. They held meetings on how to report crimes to the police, how to give them helpful details: a guy in a brown coat driving a yellow car. Meanwhile, the apartment complex landlord evicted troublemaking tenants and better screened new ones.
Next, Jones joined the committee that runs the local Weed and Seed program, which uses federal funds to support neighborhood police and programs for kids from tutoring to Christmas-gift parties. Life in her part of Euclid got better. People on her street did more work on their homes. She was appointed to the city recreation commission. Neighbors and relatives started telling her she’d make a great city councilperson.
Then, last August, the judge struck down Euclid’s method of choosing its City Council and carved Euclid into eight wards, two with more black voters than white.
Jones looked at the new map. It put her in Ward 3, southeast Euclid, a mostly black area she already knew well from the Weed and Seed program. Jones got the mayor’s endorsement and ran for council.
She didn’t talk about race when she went door to door. Neither did residents. They complained about crime, about vacant and foreclosed houses — and about one other thing.
“They want stability within the city government and the City Council,” Jones says. “Residents keep saying, ‘Why does City Council have to argue? Why does there have to be so much argument on TV?’ ”
Euclid’s political blood feuds are so nasty, they’ve horrified people throughout Greater Cleveland. “When I go to work,” says Jones, “my co-workers say, ‘What’s going on with Euclid now? Why is there so much bickering and fighting and arguing?’ ”
In 2004, Jones went to Euclid’s City Hall to watch City Council debate whether to let a black church into town. Providence Baptist, based on Cleveland’s Kinsman Road, wanted to build a new church and dozens of houses in southeast Euclid, not far from Jones’ house.
“I was all for them building on that property,” Jones says. “That property had been sitting vacant for 30-plus years. I think the church would’ve been — and will be — a great asset to the community.” Jones liked how Providence offered to open up classroom space for community meetings and classes. She hoped Sunday crowds would attract new restaurants to Euclid Avenue.
But angry residents argued against granting the church a zoning variance. They wanted to keep the land’s industrial zoning. Churches don’t pay property taxes, they complained. “But my perspective was, what was coming out of that property?” Jones says. She figured houses would pay more taxes than vacant land.
Some speakers at the meetings were so furious, so suspicious of Providence, that its supporters began to ask if race was the real reason some opposed the church. “I kinda felt that,” says Jones. “Nobody came out and said it. … Was it an under-the-cover racial issue? There was some connotation that that’s what it was.”
Whatever the motivations, the church got caught up in the long feud between Euclid’s political factions. Mayor Bill Cervenik supported Providence; the rivals he’d beaten in 2003’s bitter election came out against it. They spent two years brawling over the issue. After council voted to let the church build, a petition drive and referendum overturned the decision. Providence sued, alleging religious discrimination. The mayor, convinced the city would lose in court and face a multimillion-dollar judgment, settled the case, allowing Providence to build. The anti-church crowd mounted a recall campaign, but the mayor won the special election. His opponents struck back in the next election, winning an 8-1 council majority. They quickly revoked the mayor’s power to settle lawsuits.
Providence’s plan — a black church building homes in a mostly black part of town — would have sped up changes Euclid is already experiencing.
“This city is old-time, blue-collar, second-generation immigrants,” says Frank Ilcin, a retired accounting partner active in town politics. That longtime white ethnic community — lots of Eastern Europeans and Irish — moved into Euclid’s bungalows and colonials in the ’40s through the ’60s, attracted by the factories in the town’s industrial belt south of I-90. Southwest Euclid, next to Cleveland, was the first part of town to integrate in the late ’70s. Since then, black renters have found the many apartment complexes along Euclid Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard an affordable way into suburban life. Three out of four white Euclid residents own their homes; three in four black Euclid residents rent.
Some residents call Euclid’s industrial belt the Mason-Dixon Line, the no-man’s land between the mostly white neighborhoods by the lake and the black population along Euclid Avenue. But that’s changing, too: While plenty of white homeowners still live south of I-90, many black residents have moved into those starter homes south of Lake Shore Boulevard.
“They have the same concerns as most homeowners,” says Chris Gruber, a white councilman who serves the mostly black southwest corner of town. “They’ll tell you, ‘I moved from my neighborhood because I don’t want burglar bars on my door. I didn’t want a pit bull next door to me.’ It’s a cultural thing. But you all want the police to come when you call them, the fire department to come, the streets fixed, the garbage picked up.”
Like in a lot of integrating suburbs, white residents are still a majority, but most public school kids — 73 percent — are black. Lots of white parents either send their kids to Catholic or charter schools or have adult children, while many black residents, newer in town, are younger parents with school-age kids.
But while Euclid has changed — to 31 percent black in the 2000 census, probably a higher percentage now — its politics hasn’t. In 2003, just before the fight over Providence, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division began investigating why Euclid had always had an all-white City Council. In July 2006, the federal government sued, charging that Euclid’s voting system — five council members elected citywide, four elected from wards — made it too hard for blacks to win office. Though Cervenik criticized the lawsuit and said Euclid had done nothing wrong, he says he wanted to compromise with the feds last summer to avoid a trial.
But the council refused to settle. “The way it was presented to council was that the city would have to admit guilt,” says councilman Daryl Langman. “I don’t think the city’s guilty of anything.” Langman says the old voting system was worth defending: “First of all, the folks can vote for six people. Second, the at-large folks serve a vital purpose. They can look at the city in its entirety.”
During the two-week trial, the feds didn’t have to prove that Euclid’s system was designed to discriminate. They just had to show that the system diluted black voting power, that blacks and whites in Euclid tend to vote as blocs, and that whites’ votes almost always defeated blacks’.
That wasn’t hard. Seven of the eight black candidates who ran for Euclid City Council between 1995 and 2005 came in last. The government hired an expert to compare voting results to census data. The results: On average, the black candidates had gotten only 13 percent of the white vote.
The Justice Department also showed that the mayor’s political slate had only endorsed one black candidate in its history, the anti-mayor slate none. It showed that City Hall had dragged its feet throughout the 1980s and 1990s on passing and enforcing a fair-housing law.
The feds introduced hard evidence of racism in Euclid: results of two mail-in surveys, one City Hall sent out about quality of life, another from the mayor’s political opponents asking how to make Euclid better. Ten percent of those who returned each survey gave racist responses, and almost 20 percent complained about black youths. “The influx of diversity population is leading to the downfall for the city of Euclid,” one resident wrote to City Hall. “Get the blacks out of Euclid and our streets. Ha-ha, just kidding,” one wrote to the candidates. “Have Stephanie Tubbs [Jones] tell the blacks to get a job and pay taxes,” wrote another.
In August, Judge Kathleen O’Malley ruled that Euclid’s election system violated the Voting Rights Act. “White [Euclid] voters vote consistently as a bloc to prevent black candidates from being elected,” she declared. She rejected the city’s arguments that the all-white council was a result of low black voter turnout and black candidates’ poor-quality campaigns. She blasted Euclid for not having settled the case, saying the evidence was overwhelming. O’Malley ordered the city split up into eight wards, ensuring that the mostly black neighborhoods south of I-90 would elect councilpeople of their own.
The new system broke the anti-Cervenik slate’s hold on council. Almost all its leaders live on the northeast edge of town, near the lake. “There are only two council members who essentially aren’t neighbors in a small, compact area of the city,” the judge noted. That alone, she ruled, helped establish that Euclid’s election system excluded too many people.
The battle cost Euclid $600,000, a point Cervenik reminded voters of during the November mayor’s race. He beat his archenemy, City Council president Ed Gudenas, with 63 percent of the vote.
If you can’t build your dream home, make do with what you have — maybe that’s the lesson tonight. Or maybe it’s this: Be careful who you turn away; you may come to depend on their hospitality later on.
Candidates and voters enter The Manor Party Center in Euclid, passing under a chandelier and turning right past three mirrors flecked with gold paint. In the next room, a couple of hundred chairs face a long table dotted with microphones. A divider hides a second room with a wooden dance floor for wedding receptions.
This is the temporary Euclid home of Providence Baptist Church — which discovered, after settling its suit against the city and paying its lawyers, that it wasn’t financially ready to build the church and housing it had planned.
“The housing industry is very low,” explains the Rev. Rodney Maiden, Providence’s pastor. “We’re waiting until that changes. The church, we’re building soon. We’re growing the church before building a building.” Providence holds a service at Manor each Sunday, and a lot of Euclid residents have joined.
Tonight, Providence is hosting a League of Women Voters election forum. The new eight-ward system has opened up Euclid politics: a record 32 candidates are running for City Council. Voters pass by a placard showing the new voting map, which you can tell was drawn in court: the wards, in bright colors, look like compact blocks, not the gerrymandered freak-shapes politicians usually create. A note in one corner recalls the strife that led up to the election: “Prepared by the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division.”
“We wanted to make our presence known in the community, to show Providence is a community church,” Maiden says. “What people don’t know, that’s what frightens you. But when they get to know you, they’ll see you’re an asset to the community, not a liability.”
Some of the candidates at the forum, the pastor is reminded, were against his church coming to town.
“That’s probably true,” he says.
How does he feel about that?
“I welcome them. I hope we can work together.”
The first part of the forum includes the wards south of I-90. Five candidates are black, seven white. Some tell the voters they want Euclid to be a “melting pot,” but otherwise there’s little talk about race. The candidates mention issues that are common in Cleveland suburbs these days: coping with vacant, foreclosed houses; attracting businesses to old storefronts and industrial properties.
Kandace Jones looks calm and composed, her head turned to listen to the candidates from wards 1 and 2. Her opponent, Kim Sims, sits next to her, looking straight ahead, bouncing a little like she’s nervously tapping her foot.
Jones, 51, leans on her experience. “Ward 3 needs a representative who understands where we’ve been,” she says. “As a 26-year resident of Euclid and a 23-year homeowner, I’ve seen a lot of changes and been involved in a lot of those changes.”
Sims, 37, pitches herself as a concerned newcomer to politics. “This is about protecting our investment. That is the reason why I’m running: Because I want us to have safe and vibrant neighborhoods.”
In five days, one of them will make local history. Sims is also black, so whoever wins, Ward 3 will have a black representative. The Justice Department’s lawsuit will have accomplished its goal.
Sims grew up in Collinwood and went to work at age 15 at an office in southeast Euclid. She thought the streets of homes nearby looked like a great place to live and decided she’d move there someday. Twenty years later, after living in a Euclid apartment complex for years, she did. In 2006, she bought a foreclosed home, and she’s been fixing it up.
The battle between the mayor and his rivals has carried over to Ward 3. While the mayor endorsed Jones, several current councilpeople support Sims. Her son Derek, 12, and their kids play soccer together. While Jones runs on her experience, Sims is mounting an insurgent’s protest campaign. “This is the product of our current leadership,” reads one of her mailings, next to photographs of empty commercial buildings on Euclid Avenue. “Euclid deserves better.”
Sims lives down the hill from Providence Baptist’s land. She says she and her neighbors opposed the church’s development plan. They thought the houses the church wanted to build were too small and would compete with Euclid’s countless starter homes. “I think that was misinterpreted as something other than what it really was: economics,” Sims says. “We’re not trying to make it racist — I’m black!”
Sims has mixed feelings about the Justice Department’s suit. On one hand, she says, “Euclid has a long history that cannot be ignored with how they’ve treated people who are different.” Like a bank customer making all withdrawals and no deposits, she says, Euclid hadn’t built up enough trust with black residents to draw on when the suit came. On the other hand, the federal government’s calculations about voting patterns didn’t convince her that “we need a black ward to vote for black people,” she says. She thinks Euclid would have eventually elected black leaders without the suit. “If African-Americans were strategic about which positions they were going for, I believe that would’ve happened already. It’s just that right now, people are positioned in a way where it’s strategic for them to run.”
Like Jones, Sims doesn’t want race to be the story of her campaign. “I would prefer people to say, we have a person who understands this is about inclusion, this is about economic development, this is about empowering our communities, our wards — and she happens to be black.”
However, if not for the lawsuit, neither woman may have run for council. Sims says she was happy with the council incumbents; Jones says her former ward’s councilwoman did a good job. Would she have faced different odds in the old, larger ward? “I would hope not!” she says.
Like affirmative action, the lawsuit created a paradox: To get beyond race, it created awkward, race-conscious new rules. Then the candidates who benefit from those rules insist on being judged in a color-blind way. But maybe it all works out. The rules break up the old-boy network, giving new candidates a better chance. Next, everyone refuses to dwell on race any further. That way they can move on toward real color-blindness — and deal with the city’s other big issues.
Late on election night, as a blizzard wipes out Euclid’s roads, Jones rests at the Irish-American Club on Euclid’s Lake Shore Boulevard, in the victory party for her slate. Boisterous voices chatter happily. Jones has a small lead over Sims in the absentee ballot results, and it looks like Mayor Cervenik’s supporters will capture a majority on City Council.
Jones is pleased. “I’ve worked with them in the past,” she says of the other candidates in the hall. “I know their personalities, their ideas, their strategies, and they are almost the same as mine.” If her slate wins, how will council change? “I see the new council working in more of a team effort,” she says — her polite way of saying she thinks the old council’s fights with the mayor have been divisive.
Across the room, Cervenik looks relieved. Jones is a longtime supporter who volunteered for all his mayoral campaigns, including the recall election. This fall, she politely convinced him to spend more to fix her neighborhood’s flood-prone, potholed streets.
“The thing about Kandace Jones is, she did it all in a very positive manner — she didn’t do it in an in-your-face or a combative manner,” Cervenik says. “That’s what the city has been lacking for the last two years from City Council: a positive attitude.”
The mayor and council have fought over everything from small purchases, such as spending $10,000 in recreation funds on curling equipment, to the larger issue of developing the lakefront: whether to build a marina, whether to support a developer’s plans for a restaurant, shops and new housing.
“On every major issue, the mayor fails to lead and fails to build consensus,” responds Langman, one of the two councilpeople from the other slate who kept his seat in the March election. “Because he is not inclusive, it engenders a negative reaction to folks who may not agree with him. The art of government is to listen to all sides.”
Five years of political feuding have cost Euclid more than $1 million, Cervenik says: hundreds of thousands of dollars each to hold a recall election and fight Providence’s discrimination suit, plus the $600,000 bill for fighting the voting-rights suit. “And the negative publicity, there’s no price to put on that. But when you’re looking for young, middle-class black and white families to move into the city, and they read in the paper that you’re involved in lawsuits to stop open participation for all people in the community, it makes you think long and hard about whether this is where we want to move in.” Actually, the mayor adds, Euclid is doing a lot to improve itself: tearing down vacant homes, expanding the police force and recreation programs, spending $11 million to revitalize downtown.
In 10 years, Euclid will be almost half black, half white, Cervenik predicts. “The goal is that we become a city of want, where people want to move — blacks and whites together, middle-class families that want to attend our schools and go to our recreational programs,” he says. “I was born and raised here, so I’ve seen the demographics change. And we need to welcome that change.”
At the front of the room, the mayor grabs a mike. Results are trickling in from the board of elections.
“Kirsten is still well over 1,000 votes ahead,” Cervenik says — meaning Kirsten Holzheimer Gail, his slate’s candidate in the citywide race for council president. She’s running against a leader of the petition drives to stop Providence Baptist and recall Cervenik.
The mayor reads new totals from Ward 5: His candidate has taken the lead. The crowd cheers. Though the counting won’t be finished until early morning, they already sense what the results will be: They’ll have a 7-2 majority on council — including Kandace Jones.
Holzheimer Gail takes the stage, thanks supporters, then looks for Jones in the crowd. “There she is!”
Jones heads to the front. “Yay, Kandy!” someone shouts.
“It is a historic election in Euclid,” Holzheimer Gail says, putting her arm around Jones, “because we will have our first African-American candidate elected” — more cheers — and “the first female president of council.”
Jones beams. It’s a smile of victory — and maybe also a smile at being welcomed, a smile of belonging.
Jones beams. It’s a smile of victory — and maybe also a smile at being welcomed, a smile of belonging.
12:00 AM EST
April 23, 2008