City Council Races to Watch
City Council Races to Watch

While the race to become our next mayor is garnering the lion’s share of civic attention right now, equally important are the races for Cleveland City Council. After all that’s where our laws come from. And this year offers a genuine opportunity to remake the Council in terms of what issues it will emphasize, how it responds to ongoing dilemmas, and who should be the prime beneficiary of city government itself. (Hint: it’s the people). The September 14th primary will help sort a lot questions out. One rule of thumb is to keep an eye on an incumbent’s percentages in the primary as it may offer some insight into what to expect in the November runoffs.

Considering that we know we’ll have a new mayor and for the first time in seven years a new president of Council as well, the outcome of some of these races could legitimately alter the ideological landscape of our city’s government.

Ward 12

This is the most intriguing race and probably the greatest opportunity to unseat an incumbent. Public-interest lawyer Rebecca Maurer is waging an impressive and undeniably vibrant campaign against incumbent Tony Brancatelli. They’re both intelligent, reside in Slavic Village, and seem to get along with one another. But, (hyperbole alert!), this race could well be labeled a battle for the soul of government in Cleveland, as their attitudes about how to deal with entrenched power here diverge quite a bit.

The finances of each campaign will be something to watch. The midyear reports aren’t due until the end of July so we won’t know for sure where things stand until August. But, the reports filed in January of this year show Maurer dwarfing Brancatelli in fundraising. Needless to say this is incredibly unusual for a first-time candidate taking on an established incumbent, and a testament to Maurer’s dedication. Barring some assistance from the largely depleted Cleveland Leadership Fund, or some other infusion of cash, Brancatelli will be outspent, outraised, outworked, and out-public-relationsed by Maurer. Yet, the crux of the issue will be discovering whether Brancatelli has done enough over 16 years on Council in terms of constituent relations. Are there enough people he has helped obtain dumpster permits for? Or getting nuisance trees torn down? In short, are there enough people in Ward 12 who’ve been affected positively by the incumbent? Or, who view the ward as better today than it was 16 years ago?

Local politics frequently begets juicy coincidences, and this race is a prime example. Maurer wrote the impressive lead-safe housing legislation that CLASH, the grassroots organization formed to tackle high levels of lead in city homes, was trying to get adopted into law. Eventually, Cleveland City Council adopted their own lead-safe ordinance, and do you want to know who the only councilmember to vote against that bill was? You guessed it, Tony Brancatelli. Also, unlike other city wards, the incumbent councilmember is not the Democratic Ward Leader in Ward 12. Who is? Rebecca Maurer, of course.

Brancatelli is knowledgeable about the laws affecting our city, likeable, and (for now) the Council’s go-to expert on housing issues. But if the word buzz saw can be used affectionately, then Rebecca Maurer is a buzz saw.

Ward 4
Appallingly, Ken Johnson will be an odds-on favorite to make the runoff. Once that happens will residents of the ward, and good government types throughout the city, be able to band together with his general election opponent to defeat him? That’s the essential, and in many ways, the only question that matters when it comes to this race.

As of today, there’s no shortage of those looking to take Johnson down with 11 candidates set to appear on the primary ballot. Deborah Gray, twin sister of Ward 5 Councilmember Dolores Gray, could be the candidate emerging from the race. (For the record, we haven’t had siblings serving on City Council together since the mid-1980s when Dennis and Gary Kucinich served together).  

For those who think Johnson will win in November solely because of the 40 years he’s been on Council, I would say tread lightly. In 2017, before the indictments, and even before the brouhaha over his using city garbage trucks to promote himself, Johnson only won the general election by a count of 57%-43%, a relatively low margin of victory for a long-time incumbent. This, coupled with his significant legal difficulties, means he is incredibly vulnerable.

Ward 13

With incumbent Kevin Kelley running for mayor, this race is notable simply because whoever wins will represent a clear break philosophically and ideologically from the last 15 years. Kate Warren and Kris Harsh are both more-than-qualified to represent this ward. And they’ll have the time to sharpen their focus as there will be no primary in September since they’re the only two candidates running. For the candidates, the only downside of not having a primary election is that it prevents them from gauging their standing before the November general election.

Warren, a fellow at the Center for Community Solutions and a master at explaining the importance of complex data about the city and its demographics, is one of the most genuinely thoughtful people I’ve encountered in local politics here. Harsh also has an extensive history in political and civic activities, and he just stepped down as the Housing Director for Metro West CDC to run for this seat.

One question. Assuming Kelley does not get elected mayor, and does not endorse in this race, will he hover over this seat and attempt to reclaim it in 4 years? We shall see. But, whichever one of these eminently capable candidates wins, the real winner will be the people of Ward 13 and the city of Cleveland itself.

Ward 11

Turnout may be the key in the September primary for this west-side ward. Donna Woods, a longtime resident of the ward and current president of the West Denison Baseball League, and progressive Mike Hardy who also boasts a good deal of civic experience, are challenging the appointed incumbent Brian Mooney. Remember this is the seat current County Councilmember Martin Sweeney was circling before his appointment to the county position. And, in a not subtle attempt to protect Mooney, several high-profile players including Dona Brady and Council President Kevin Kelley supported Sweeney’s appointment to shield Mooney from defeat.

I’ll be keeping a special eye on the percentage the incumbent gets in the primary. Residents will be seeing a lot of Mooney’s face in their mailboxes, but his goal must be somewhere at or around 50% in the primary, and though he may have the means to reach every voter by mail during the general election, anything below 45% might foretell problems in November.   

Mooney himself is somewhat of an enigma. We do know he served on Brook Park City Council, and resided in Lakewood at the time of the appointment in Ward 11. Yet, he hasn’t really staked out any tactical or ideological positions on Council. And word is literally mixed about his constituent services record in the ward. Several have told me he’s been a tremendous help in dealing with city bureaucracy and the services system while others have bemoaned his response times along those lines. Hardy and Woods are somewhat well-known in parts of the ward, but will they be able to raise the necessary funds, and find an issue or issues to capture the imagination of enough voters?

Ward 7

With Councilman Basheer Jones aiming for the Mayor’s desk, a whopping 11 candidates are running to succeed him in this east side ward. TJ Dow is trying to reclaim the seat he lost to Jones four years ago by just 13 votes. Yet, the surprising entrance of State Representative Stephanie Howse, herself also once a member of Cleveland City Council, will make this something of a dogfight. With nine other candidates it’s tough to say with any certainty how this race will go. Just over 1,900 votes were cast in the September 2017 primary. So, any one getting over 500 votes this September should feel good about their chances of making the runoff.       

Ward 8

I could be wrong, but I believe incumbent Michael Polensek has held this seat since the Roosevelt era. And I mean Teddy, not Franklin. Nevertheless, Polensek is certainly not the worst member of Council in terms of opposing genuinely necessary legislation, nor from an ideological standpoint. However, while incumbency often does have its privileges, will there be any pushback against 44 years of incumbency? Aisia Jones is a passionate and personable challenger, and member of the local Black Lives Matter movement, who will keep Polensek honest and could generate waves in a locale with some history of wave-making.

One item of note about this year’s Council races: there are a lot of genuinely passionate and talented women running for Cleveland City Council this year. Whether they all win, all lose, or something in between, let’s hope that trend continues. Three out of seventeen is simply not enough.

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