Editor’s Note: Who wants to be mayor of Cleveland? Everyone, it seems. The number of candidates continues to grow. On Monday, State Senator Sandra Williams jumped into the race, adding her name to an already-long list of formidable contenders. Additional candidates could also join before the filing deadline. This story, written in early April, explores the early dynamics of what is shaping up to be an exciting race.
This year’s mayoral election season started with so little pageantry, muted as it was by the coronavirus, that you could have almost missed the beginnings of the most consequential mayoral contest in two decades. The spring campaign season, which is usually marked by a sweaty cavalcade of candidate announcements, press conferences, ward club visits, fundraisers and door-knocking, was instead restricted to the septic confines of Zoom, if it existed at all. Several candidates even chose to bide their time, waiting until warmer months to make their official announcements. As far as election kickoffs go, this spring was, to paraphrase Veep’s Amy Brookheimer, “like an earlobe — just there, wobbling.”
But the low-key start belies an election that has the potential to realign Cleveland’s power structure, and in the process usher in a new and history-making approach to the mayor’s office. For four terms, a mind-boggling 16 uninterrupted years, Mayor Frank Jackson has been the dominant force in Cleveland’s politics. (As of this writing, he has not ruled out running for an unprecedented fifth term.) Over that time, Clevelanders have gotten used to Jackson’s restrained model of mayoral power, as embodied by his semiofficial slogan, “It is what it is,” which the mayor has said is not so much a shoulder-shrug as an expression of pragmatism. Whereas other politicians may be enraptured by idealistic programs that try with varying amounts of success to rearrange some element of the local social or economic order, Jackson has instead embraced the policy of the possible.
Sticking doggedly to that philosophy has won Jackson much-deserved admiration in many quarters, and a workmanlike approach was at the center of Jackson’s biggest successes, like the Cleveland Plan to overhaul the city schools. But the dominance of Jacksonian pragmatism has also led to a generally held view of the mayorship as an inherently constrained role. The word this year’s mayoral candidates used most frequently to describe Jackson’s approach in recent interviews was “manager,” and Jackson’s longevity in office has created the impression that the mayorship is a gig not suited to candidates with grand visions, far-reaching ideological projects or aspirations for higher office.
“I think he has managed the city as a public administrator, not as a visionary CEO,” says Justin Bibb, a young nonprofit executive who was the first to declare his candidacy in January. “There is a difference between being a good manager and being a good leader.”
A new mayor unburdened by the Jacksonian model could make more expansive use of their power. Through board appointments, policymaking, budgeting, politicking, sloganeering and storytelling, the mayor of Cleveland can still reshape life in the city and affect the fate of the region beyond the city’s borders profoundly. But even more enticing is the possibility that the mayor of Cleveland could embrace a model that is more activist than in the recent past, painting themselves as a highly visible crusader against national ills that affect Cleveland acutely, like segregation, regional inequality, the digital divide or the racial wealth gap, and crafting their policy and rhetoric to match.
The most exciting thing about this year’s mayoral election, then, is that a new kind of mayor, and a new approach to mayoral power, might emerge from the bubbling cauldron of latent possibility that has been the Jackson years. After almost two decades of politics by the Jackson recipe, the ingredients of the mayorship have at long last been divvied up for reapportionment: perhaps a dash of crusading against the forces of “privilege,” like Tom L. Johnson or Newton D. Baker? Or a peppering of business-friendly image-making about Cleveland’s comeback, like George Voinovich? Or maybe a dollop of reform and environmental policy, like Carl Stokes? Or perhaps an entirely new ingredient might enter the pot, added by someone unexpected, with a flavor all its own.
The campaign will heat up this summer, and more candidates could jump into the race before the filing deadline June 16. Voters will cast their ballots in a September primary, and the top two winners of that primary will go head-to-head in November, with the winner taking office January 2022.
In interviews this spring, six of the declared mayoral candidates laid out their visions for the city. They all detailed how they would approach the power of the mayor’s office. Each, of course, has their own ideas, but there was one commonality between them all: the feeling that this is going to be a transformative election, one that will determine not just who becomes mayor of Cleveland, but the prominence and purpose of the office they will occupy.
“The nation is thirsting for the mayor of the city of Cleveland to come back onto the national stage,” says Zack Reed, who ran against Jackson in 2017, and declared his second go-round as a candidate in March. “And I’m going to give the people what they want.”