Ask Shontel Brown about her brief and ascendant career in politics, and she spins a tale of happy coincidence. “I sit in the seat of gratitude,” she says.
In six short years, Brown has gone from no political aspirations to Warrensville Heights councilwoman to the first black female chairperson of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party. A former appliance and Radio One advertising salesperson, she was shaken into civic action by an earthquake.
Back in 2011, Brown saw a news story about the quake and tsunami in Japan and wondered, If we had an emergency situation, what’s the evacuation route for us?
So, she attended a Warrensville Heights City Council meeting and asked. The fire chief addressed her concern, but it led to another meeting and another. At each one, her councilman would report out in the same way: “All is well in Ward 5.”
Yet as a seven-year resident of that ward, Brown knew all was not well. The neighborhood was clearly in decline. Encouraged by Brad Sellers, who was running for Warrensville Heights mayor at the time, she launched a door-to-door campaign asking residents what needed improvement. Then, Brown called the city on their behalf to get trees cut and sewers cleaned.
On Election Day 2011, the then-36-year-old won her first seat by seven votes.
She was unopposed in her next election and, she says, didn’t aspire to higher office. But then in 2014, her name was floated as a successor to retiring Cuyahoga County Councilwoman C. Ellen Connally. “I had no idea,” Brown remembers.
She spoke to Sellers, then mayor, about running. “He said it’d be nice to have a rep from Warrensville,” Brown recalls. Sellers also connected her with Rep. Marcia Fudge, the 11th Congressional District’s power broker. With backing from Sellers, Fudge and Connally, and a more than $24,000 war chest, she cruised to victory.
On County Council, she has been a quiet force, most proud of instituting a text 911 system for the county’s 25,000 hearing-impaired residents.
Then in April, Brown attended a Fudge event in Shaker Heights. Fudge tapped her shoulder: “Would you have time for a call later?” Fudge pitched her on running for Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chair.
“It wasn’t something that I woke up and said, ‘I want to be party chair,’ ” Brown says. “It was somewhat of a seed that was planted and, with the help of people that I know, trust and have a lot of confidence in, it’s started to flourish.”
She was part of a three-way struggle over the direction of the party that pitted her against Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins and state Sen. Sandra Williams. Elkins, backed by the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, had been campaigning for months with a five-point plan for a county party that would hire a full-time political field director and throw its weight toward 2018. Brown ran on a similar platform of the three R’s: rebranding, rebuilding and reviving.
But instead of an argument over how best to build, the election became an intraparty proxy war. When the votes were counted in August, it took two ballots to elect Brown.
The schism apparently still gapes. In an interview with Cleveland Magazine after the election, Elkins pegged Brown as a figurehead for factions in the party associated with Jimmy Dimora-era machine politics. “The folks that won, I wish them the best,” Elkins says. “But they’ve got a track record and a history as well. A tiger doesn’t change their stripes.”
Implications she can be controlled by anyone are untrue, Brown says. “I am a person who is collaborative and thoughtful,” she says. “You can be recruited. You can be coached. But when you’re in the game, you’re the player and you make the decisions.”
In her new position, Brown intends to show up often at the party’s clubs, build a new volunteer database and step up fundraising. Democrats have fared badly statewide, and Brown wants the county party to be a big part of changing that. A transition team is helping formulate a strategic plan, which was set to be released in November.
She will also be faced with the challenge of bringing her opponent’s supporters into the fold. “I think we’re at a crossroads in this party,” Elkins says.
Brown thinks she has a personality that can bring people together. “We can sit down and talk about it and move forward,” she says. “We don’t even have to talk about it, because to me, that’s in the past and it’s time to move forward.”