The Race Is On For Cleveland's Mayor Seat The Race Is On For Cleveland's Mayor Seat
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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.”

The wood-inlaid office in 601 Lakeside has seen its fair share of buffoonery, from Ralph Perk infamously lighting his hair on fire with a blowtorch to Frank Jackson stumbling over his words and declaring that the city is no longer “the butthole of the world,” thus seeming to validate that incorrect view in the first place. Such missteps, relatively minor though they are, feed into a narrative, particularly among non-Clevelanders and wizened skeptics, that the mayor of Cleveland must always be either a goof or an idiot, and thus the mayorship they inhabit must be similarly diminutive, a provincial little office with powers befitting a provincial little city. 

That notion could not be further from the truth. The mayor’s powers are vast, even by the standards of a major American city. They oversee a government that, in total, has an annual budget of almost $2 billion, including a general fund budget of $659 million, and employs 7,000 people. Under their direct control is a public safety department that takes 427,000 calls for police, 105,000 calls for EMS and 103,000 calls for fire trucks every year. They manage 172 parks, 86 tennis courts, 39 swimming pools and 1 golf course, not to mention the West Side Market, which the city owns and runs, and FirstEnergy Stadium, which it leases to the Cleveland Browns. And, in a situation unique to Cleveland, the mayor has selected the members of the school board since 1998, ensuring that they will have an outsize role in determining the future of 37,500 schoolchildren.

And that’s just inside the city’s borders. The mayor’s reach also extends well beyond city limits, even if one sets aside their ability to create political organizations and engage in party politics. They manage the region’s airport, which is vital to the regional economy, with about 160 flights landing and departing every day. They oversee Cleveland Public Power, which serves 80,000 customers inside the city, and is in theory supposed to be a check on the monopolistic might of the investor-owned electrical utilities that dominate the rest of Ohio. They appoint four members of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority board, the most of any other single appointing entity, ensuring that the city has significant sway in regional transit. And they helm the water department, responsible for providing safe water for 1.4 million customers across 79 municipalities in a region of more than 2 million people. 

So, if elected, what will this year’s candidates do with such sweeping powers? The priority, inevitably, will be to deal with the long tail of the coronavirus, which has upended daily life, disrupted the economy and, as of early April, killed 436 Clevelanders. 

“These are challenging times right now, with the global pandemic. Our economy is struggling. People are hurting,” says City Council President Kevin Kelley, who announced his candidacy in early April and has already raised over half a million dollars in campaign donations, making him sure to emerge as a frontrunner. “People have lost jobs, people have lost income, people have lost loved ones. The pandemic has exacerbated existing problems in our community.”

Kelley, a Democrat who represents West Side neighborhoods like Old Brooklyn, started his career in the late ’90s, first as a social worker. After getting his law degree in 2004, he won office in 2005 as a city councilman. Though he has been the target of considerable ire from progressives — particularly due to his opposition to a proposition that would have raised the city minimum wage to $15 (he favored doing so on the state or federal level) — Kelley has also been a remarkably effective wielder of the powers of the council presidency. “I’ve focused on process and getting things done,” he says. “I’ve never not gotten a vote that I needed on Cleveland City Council.”

The pandemic has hurt people who work service sector jobs, women and minorities disproportionately, says Kelley, and so his immediate focus as mayor would be on charting a way out of the pandemic for people in those communities. “To me, the path isn’t back to where we were,” Kelley told Cleveland Magazine in February. “To me, the path is to where we can be.”

Top priority, says Kelley, should be closing the digital divide and creating more workforce development programs to help workers displaced by the pandemic get back into jobs. At the start of the pandemic, CMSD estimated that 40% of its families didn’t have sufficient internet access. Kelley’s ward already has a free Wi-Fi program, and as a councilman, Kelley is part of a coalition of groups that has gotten to work on the problem, including through financing a new, cheap network of access points being created by DigitalC. It’s an effort Kelley would like to build on and expand. “It was a problem before the pandemic,” he says. “It’s a crisis now that we’re living in a digital world.”

Reed, who previously ran against Mayor Jackson, also says that the immediate priority of the new mayor should be to confront the pandemic fallout. Most recently, Reed, who is a Democrat, worked as minority affairs coordinator for Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican. Before that, he represented East Side neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant and Union-Miles for more than 16 years on City Council. Though he lost to Jackson in 2017, Reed’s name recognition alone is bound to make him a formidable candidate. 

“We need a mayor who is going to be out there on the frontline every single day,” says Reed. “First of all, persuading people that they’ve got to get this shot.” 

Beyond advocating for everyone to get vaccinated, Reed says that his priorities will be to make Cleveland “cleaner, healthier, safer and much more educated” as it emerges from the pandemic. He says that new leadership is required at all levels of city government, from the health department to the police chief to CEO of CMSD. The city should hire more police officers to tackle a recent wave of homicides, he says, as well as build new firehouses and embrace a new community policing plan, which would send social workers to nonemergency police calls. He also supports additional small business assistance programs to help after the pandemic, and wants more workforce development, particularly in CMSD schools. 

“If we’re not making our citizens healthier, if we’re not making our citizens safer, if we’re not educating our young people, we’re going to continue to spin our wheels, as we have been for far too long,” says Reed. “And I’m not going to do that.”

As Reed and Kelley present visions of a post-pandemic city that are mainstream by local Democratic standards, Justin Bibb has begun to stake out a position to their left. Bibb, at 34 years old, is the youngest candidate in the race, and has emerged as a progressive challenger to Cleveland’s status quo. He has raised more than a quarter million dollars and amassed a small army of volunteers, making him a serious contender. But it remains to be seen whether his brand of politics will find purchase among local voters. 

The son of a social worker and a police officer, Bibb was raised in Mount Pleasant, before attending American University and getting postgraduate degrees at Case Western Reserve University. He seemed on a rocket ship to the C-suite, with stops at the national polling firm Gallup, a vice presidency at KeyBank, and tenures on the boards of Destination Cleveland, Land Studio and GCRTA. But his native city’s problems prompted Bibb to jump into politics instead.

Like the other candidates, Bibb says that  one of the new mayor’s priorities should be creating a post-pandemic recovery that focuses on the city’s most needy residents, particularly in areas of the city like Mount Pleasant, where Bibb favors “hyper-local economic development.” 

But Bibb says that more radical solutions should be up for discussion as well. In particular, he says that Cleveland should join a growing number of cities, like Atlanta, Newark and Stockton, California, that are testing universal basic income programs, which would cut checks to low-income residents every month, no questions asked. Though untested on a wide scale, such programs have been shown to reduce poverty and raise the standard of living.

“I think about the history of someone like mayor Tom Johnson, and being a model of progressivism. We’ve almost forgotten our roots there,” says Bibb. “What we’ve seen with the pandemic is that mayors really matter. So looking at exploring a pilot for universal basic income in Cleveland is something that should certainly be on the table.”

To achieve ambitious policy programs like that, Bibb says the culture at City Hall needs to change. “We’ve had a culture of mediocrity and a culture of complacency,” says Bibb. “It’s been a cancer on our city.”

That stance is sure to set Bibb on a collision course with Kelley and Reed, who have both collected city paychecks. (Former mayor and congressman Dennis Kucinich, State Senator Sandra Williams and Cleveland city councilman Basheer Jones are as of this writing in early April also mulling getting into the race.) Although all signs point to Jackson leaving the political stage when his term is up, Bibb’s presence in the race has already brought to light what is likely to be the central conflict at the contest’s all-Democratic top tier, one shaped irrevocably by the long shadow of Jackson: the pragmatists versus the idealists. 

For most Clevelanders, however, the biggest day-to-day change that could come out of this election will not be any single policy proposal, but a shift in mayoral visibility: expect to see the new mayor’s face a lot more. Jackson, though he has his charms, has never been much of a retail politician. He seems to loathe the handshaking and media appearances that are required of him, instead preferring the intricacies of governance that he calls “the work.” He fought many battles at the state level, most recently over the Fannie Lewis Law, which was struck down in court in 2019. But he never emerged as a statewide political presence like, say, Dayton mayor Nan Whaley. That demure style of politics will leave office with Jackson. 

There was general agreement among the top-tier candidates that the mayor of Cleveland should be a higher-profile combatant in politics outside the city’s borders, and a more conspicuous personality in the city itself. Kelley says that as mayor he would team up with the mayors of other large Ohio cities to fight in the statehouse for more funds. Reed pledges to make trips to Columbus and Washington D.C. to fight on behalf of the city personally. 

“I think people get hope when they see their mayor getting coffee at a coffee shop, they see their mayor at the West Side Market, they see their mayor getting a late-night dinner at Mt. Pleasant BBQ,” says Bibb. “It shows the mayor is a resident of the city too. I think we’ve missed that in the Jackson administration.”

Even the neophyte candidates that Cleveland Magazine spoke to, like West Park resident Ross DiBello and lawyer Dick Knoth, both Democrats, and Landry Simmons Jr., a Republican, emphasized the importance of the mayor taking on a more eye-catching role in Cleveland’s civic life than Jackson ever did. “The mayor is a much more private individual,” says Knoth. “I can see, especially at this time when cities are so competitive for deliverables, that at this juncture we need a more outward-looking leader.”

Knoth entered the race, somewhat unexpectedly, with a February City Club appearance. He is a partner at the law firm BakerHostetler and a resident of the Shaker Square area. He stands little chance of being seriously competitive, and his signature proposal — take Cleveland Hopkins International Airport out of city hands and give it to a regional authority, a significant concession of mayoral power — might find more traction than his candidacy. But it was Knoth’s past service as co-chair of the Cleveland Community Police Commission, rather than any mishaps at baggage claim, that led him to the most important pillar of his candidacy: air out City Hall. 

While co-chairing the Community Police Commission, which is responsible for getting community feedback on police policies, Knoth saw city officials refuse to answer questions from the public unless they were provided with the questions in writing beforehand. That experience led him to set transparency as one of the top priorities of his platform. “The process was so cumbersome that it defeated the whole purpose,” says Knoth. “I’m not going to have any of that.”

The Jackson administration’s opacity is by now infamous, especially among members of the local media, who have become sadly accustomed to basic public records requests languishing for months, and interview requests being denied. Every mayor, of course, naturally ends up in a confrontational stance with reporters. But the press corps are not the only ones uncomfortable with the selective transparency of the later Jackson years. The  prevalence of that discomfort, in fact, has led all of the candidates to make the case, at least rhetorically, that the next mayor’s administration should be more open and accessible. Kelley proposes a city open data initiative. Bibb pledges to introduce legislation to improve public access to records. Reed says he will open up the mayor’s office to all comers on Saturdays. “Transparency is going to be up and down my administration,” says Reed.

Simmons, a West Park resident and Cuyahoga County sheriff’s deputy (he will be retiring in June), echoes that sentiment. As a Republican in a city so blue it could get its own show on the Vegas Strip, Simmons’ chances are slim. He is running on a law-and-order platform, and says the city should address the recent homicide wave — 177 last year — by reopening the Police Athletic League to get young people off the streets, reopening the Cleveland police mini-stations and allocating funding for more youth programs. But for any of his proposals to work, he says, it’s imperative that the mayor be transparent, so they can be held responsible when things go wrong. “As mayor, we will be held accountable for those actions,” says Simmons. “It’ll be a different kind of City Hall, a different kind of administration. Citizens come first.”

In addition to pushing for greater transparency, some candidates are also proposing ways to improve Cleveland’s democracy. Voter turnout for the city’s off-off-year municipal elections, which don’t even coincide with the congressional midterms, has been dismal lately: in 2017, the most recent one, Reed qualified for the general election with around 7,300 votes in a city of 388,000 residents. That November, only 23% of registered voters cast a ballot. The causes of that phenomena are complex — likely some combination of scheduling, poverty, single-party rule, a sclerotic political culture, ever-thinner media coverage and a city administration closed tighter than a bank on Sunday. 

But if the causes of low-turnout elections are baroque, in at least one case the effects are easier to suss out: for Ross DiBello, they were a call to action. An attorney and former professional poker player, DiBello has called for opening the hood on the city’s elections. They should be held in presidential election years, he says, and the donation caps for local political candidates should be lowered. He also proposes mayoral term limits, the elimination of the “appointment system” by which council members can choose their successor if they leave in the middle of a term, thus bestowing on them the benefits of incumbency, and the immediate implementation of a City Council public comment period. 

An avowed political newcomer, DiBello knows his candidacy is perhaps a little quixotic, likening it to Lawrence Lessig’s 2016 run for president, in which the longtime political activist made the case for campaign finance reform. But he hopes it draws attention to issues with Cleveland’s democracy. 

“I love this city, and I just see the results that come out of City Hall with these elections, and it seems like the system is very broken,” says DiBello. “People have got to run. So that’s what I’m doing.”

The role of mayor is hard in any city, but it is doubly difficult in a declining one, and triply hard in Cleveland, where the systemic nature of the city’s problems are so vast that even the most dynamic, capable executive will soon find themselves confronted with the limits of their power. Acknowledging that those limits exist can be useful, even good. But on occasion, it is nonetheless important to test where they lie, like a child inching carefully into the 12-foot-deep end of a pool.

There is the possibility that such an inching out could be positive — perhaps we’ll get some of that systemic change that everyone’s always talking about but never quite accomplishing fast enough. But there is the possibility for negative change too. One byproduct of life under Jackson has been that he and his brand of pragmatic coalition-building brought the institutional wars, which used to be an inevitability in city politics, to an end. The two largest-scale political battles in recent years, over the $15 minimum wage and the Q deal, were waged not by actors inside the halls of government against each other, but by outside groups, like the Greater Cleveland Congregations and SEIU 1199, against a generally united power structure. During the Jackson years, institutions that had previously butted heads unproductively and publicly for decades — City Council versus the mayor, the county versus the city, the business establishment versus the city — have been at uneasy peace. This election could close the chapter on that truce. 

But maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. Political conflict throws into sharp relief who and what a city stands for. A boisterous and attention-grabbing election, which it looks like this one is shaping up to be, is certainly more desirable to a sleepy one. What is the old bumper sticker? Oh yes: “Cleveland: You Gotta Be Tough.” Maybe after 16 years of relative comfort, a little rough-and-tumble will do us some good. As the vaccines hopefully reach more and more people and temperatures grow warmer, the candidates will hit the campaign trail in earnest. And with all of them painting themselves as bringers of change, each Clevelander will have the opportunity to size each of them up and decide for themselves: just how far into the deep end should we go?

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