One of the more depressing features of the Cleveland area is the malaise that has bear-hugged its high-level elections like an overfamiliar uncle. There are elections held, surely, with primaries and debates and forums and handshaking and filling in bubbles on ballots. A suburban mayor or a county judge may upset a rival here, or a city council seat might be decided by a coin toss there. But at the top tier of local Democratic politics — Cleveland mayor, Cuyahoga County executive, county prosecutor, seats in Congress — boredom on election night has become too familiar.
To find a true 50-50 nail-biter for any of those jobs, or even a 45-55 contest, one must time travel to what feels like the Precambrian age. The race to replace Rep. Marcia Fudge, then, will be a refreshing change of pace, worth watching to catch both the spectacle of a rock ’em-sock ’em, anyone-can-win race for one of the Cleveland area’s biggest political jobs, and to consider the larger philosophical quandary the race poses: just how liberal are Northeast Ohio Democrats?
Local politicos were watching closely this fall as Fudge lobbied the incoming Biden administration for a post as secretary of agriculture. Fudge, who has represented the 11th congressional district since 2008, was instead nominated to head the department of Housing and Urban Development.
The announcement of her nomination set off a free-for-all scramble for her seat, as several local Democrats rushed to file paperwork and raise money. The field could widen, but as of this writing in early January, former state Sen. Nina Turner, Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown and former Cleveland Councilman Jeff Johnson have all decided to run. They are pursuing a rare prize: one of the most heritage-rich and secure Democratic districts in the nation.
The district, back when it was the 21st congressional district, was shaped into a bastion of Black political power by the Stokes brothers in the 1960s, and has remained so since. Though the proportion of the Black vote there has shrunk, it is still a majority-minority district, where Black residents make up about 52% of the population. It took its current shape, which a gerrymandering lawsuit infamously called “a detached shoulder blade with a robotic arm” encompassing Cleveland’s Near West and East Sides, suburbs such as Beachwood, Euclid and Warrensville Heights, and a sliver of Akron, following the 2010 redistricting. Its storied past, celebrated every year with a lavish and wildly popular Labor Day parade, makes representing it the most attractive job an ambitious local Democrat can seek.
“I have always appreciated the historic nature of this seat,” says Johnson, whose 1998 run was derailed by a now-expunged corruption case, and who is now seeking the seat for a third time. “I met Congressman Stokes when I was a student leader at Kent State University, and he signed a photograph with the words ‘aim high.’ ”
Whoever holds the 11th district seat is almost guaranteed a long and uninterrupted career. Since 1990, only three people have occupied it. They generally receive between 75% and 85% of the general election vote, if they face a Republican opponent at all. Serious primary opponents are just as rare. Fudge has faced only a handful of challengers in her last five primaries. Last year, her opponents included a satirical musician. She collected a whopping 90% of the vote.
That job security sets up whoever occupies the 11th as a left-of-center giant. Fudge already falls into that category, as did Louis Stokes, who used the seat as a platform to form the Congressional Black Caucus and rose through the ranks to oversee the nation’s spies as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. From the same seat, Stephanie Tubbs Jones voted against the Iraq war.
But the district’s solid-blue reputation can be deceptive. Voters there have a moderate streak. When a coalition of progressive activists banded together to derail a deal to use public dollars to renovate Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, then called Quicken Loans Arena, in 2017, Fudge’s high-profile intervention kept the project on course, at virtually zero political cost in her district. Progressives were unhappy with her, but Fudge faced not even token opposition in the 2018 primary.
An open seat falling from the heavens of the 11th district is then an opportunity for progressives and moderates alike. As of early January, the campaign hasn’t started in earnest yet — the list of candidates mulling whether to hop in is long, Fudge must first be confirmed by the Senate, now in Democratic hands, and Gov. Mike DeWine must schedule a special election — but a moderate-progressive conflict looms.
Turner enters the race as a rarity in Northeast Ohio: an ardent and well-financed progressive with strong local ties and media wattage bright enough to light up two Terminal Towers. Having headed Our Revolution, a political group founded by Bernie Sanders, she has already collected more than $630,000 to finance her campaign, according to Politico, and has made no secret of her intention to prod the Biden administration. “For people who are fans of The Squad, she would make a great addition to The Squad,” says Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus political director Steve Holecko.
Brown, meanwhile, has been a low-key presence on County Council and comes from the party’s more moderate wing, having beat out a progressive candidate to lead the county party in 2017. She has strong roots in the East Side suburbs, especially Warrensville Heights, where she got her first job on city council, and could paint herself as a representative in Fudge’s image.
With the race shaping up as a showdown between progressives and establishmentarians, Johnson has declared himself the centrist, a moderate for the moderates and a progressive for progressives. He points to his status as a card-carrying member of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, his support of a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 and police reform in Cleveland, his opposition to Medicare for All (he supports a public option instead), and his early support of Biden as evidence of his all-sides bona fides. “I am a Biden-Harris progressive, as well as someone who also supported Hillary Clinton,” says Johnson. “We do exist.”
Candidates like Johnson won’t be the only ones navigating a complex fight. Progressive activists will be too. Key among them is the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, which grew out of the Sanders campaign and has many members in the 11th district. As of this writing, the CCPC plans to begin its endorsement process in March. But overall, Holecko says, progressives see the race as a chance to shift local Democratic politics left. “A victory by Nina [Turner] is huge, in the sense that it’s a defeat for Shontel and the establishment politics,” says Holecko. “So then we have her as a solid progressive who immediately becomes one of the biggest power brokers in the county like Marcia Fudge is now.”
Whether 11th district voters even want such a shift is very much unanswered. But they will have their pick from the entire lefty spectrum. At the very least, we can be thankful that the race will bring back a feature now too uncommon in our little democracy by the lake: competition. This election night, when it arrives, will finally, finally be more than a footnote in the history books.