Last week was a busy one for politicking in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood. The return of the Independence Day parade drew thousands along the Lorain Avenue-Rocky River Drive corridor, including five of the seven candidates for Cleveland mayor who marched in the parade (inexplicably two did not). Meanwhile, Thursday evening saw the biggest public forum yet involving the candidates for mayor. Organized and moderated by Ward 16 Councilman Brian Kazy and Ward 17 Councilman Charles Slife, all seven appeared, which is a testament to the neighborhood and its propensity for voting. Considering it rained so much throughout the day that I briefly searched for an ark, it was civically invigorating to see well over 300 people in attendance.
Scene’s Sam Allard wrote a top-notch piece about the event and the candidates’ performances you can read here. Writing an article about any topic after Sam Allard feels a little like coming up to bat after Mickey Mantle just hit a grand slam, but nevertheless here goes.
Crime. Change. Downtown interests as the epitome of evil. Cleveland Public Power. Those were four topics and themes touched on by nearly all seven candidates. Though few in the West Park neighborhood where this was held are CPP customers, Councilman Kazy pointed out in a question to State Senator Sandra Williams there are 80,000 CPP accounts in the city, so its management and fees resonate elsewhere.
The format itself was somewhat unique as the two moderators utilized different approaches. Slife asked questions in a round-robin format with each one pertaining to some specific issue the city is currently confronting. His topics varied from the mundane but essential—like the one about reinstituting a citywide recycling program—to the creative but practical one on the city’s customer service procedures in dealing with resident needs.
Meanwhile, in between each cycle of the round-robin, Kazy followed with individual questions tailored for each candidate. They were incisive, though entirely fair questions. While avoiding overtly gotcha or below-the-belt questions they were clearly designed to allow each candidate to sink or swim. None of them sank, and a few like Justin Bibb requited themselves well. Bibb is the only candidate supporting the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland initiative to establish a Community Police Commission that would trump the mayor’s ability to discipline police officers. Kazy asked in essence why Bibb supports the initiative and feels comfortable ceding the mayor’s executive power. Bibb deftly explained some of the issues the police department has encountered and emphasized he isn’t running for mayor so he can amass personal power but to remake the city.
Councilman Kazy’s question for State Senator Sandra Williams was to me the toughest of the lot. Clearly having done his homework he brought up the $30,000 she’s received from FirstEnergy over her career as well as the fact that she was the only Democrat in the Ohio legislature to co-sponsor HB 6 and wondered how residents could rely upon her to defend CPP, “one of the city’s greatest assets.” Unlike in other settings where Williams seemed to defend the decision, she showed spunk for really the only time of the night by asserting that other Democrats voted for the bill and stating she donated the money to a charity.
I spent much of my time during and after the forum talking to dozens of spectators, asking for impressions of the candidates. Bibb, Jones, and Kucinich were the names I heard the most in terms of positive response. No candidate had a moment that led spectators to walk away muttering phrases like “Well, I’m not going to vote for that person now,” or “So-and-so has no business being Mayor.” Thus, in that sense each of the candidates can be pleased. And since this was not a Republican forum, out-and-out lies and historical fallacies were minimal.
For those who’ve watched, or attended, Council meetings, the exceptional questioning shouldn’t come as a surprise as Kazy is one of the best interrogators on the Council. It was he after all, during the ill-fated meeting where the Wolsteins received a 60-year TIF, who uncovered the mystery corporation benefitting from the public funds. Why that was a secret until then, speaks to the way Council has been run. And Slife routinely asks penetrating questions during Council meetings.
It’s hard to imagine this, but I almost feel a twinge of sympathy for Kevin Kelley. I may be wrong, but at times during the event I got the distinct sensation that he realized this thing was slipping away from him. Though at no time did he fumble an answer or get caught off guard, his responses seemed somewhat rehearsed, and his overall manner called Al Gore to mind. Meanwhile, many of his answers were accompanied by audience murmurs of “Why hasn’t he done this already?” After all, while being City Council President provides power and recognition the other side of that sword brings with it a responsibility for what the city government has and has NOT done for the past seven years. This is the exact reason why the question Kazy posed to him was so pertinent. Utilizing Kelley’s campaign slogan of a “New Path,” Kazy asked what was wrong with the previous path and how Kelley could be the one to embody a new one.
Council President Kevin Kelley
Kelley may yet benefit from the intensive mail operation he’s put together and the large staff he’s procured due to his fundraising success, but it would be difficult to say the evening was a success for him.
I disagree with assessments that Kucinich was out of his element or even did poorly. Though he was a tad repetitive, he accomplished three of his goals: asserting his desire to tackle crime, reminding people of his history refusing to kowtow to corporate or financial interests, and asserting his ability to lead from day one. It may not seem like a flashy strategy to some following the race, after all Kucinich is the antithesis of new, and he’s been rightfully criticized for using/defacing the Cleveland sign for campaign purposes, but he had his supporters at the event who feel he may provide a steadying hand. Besides, people are legitimately worried about crime and many were unaware of the $70 million dollar surplus and rainy day fund the city possesses that Kucinich referred to multiple times.
Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich
Zack Reed is a forceful personality and he came across relatively well while being the most ardent in terms of criticizing Council President Kelley. At multiple times he labeled the current city government the “Kelley-Jackson administration.” Some of his other points however might’ve got lost in dustups with Bibb and Jones. Running against an unpopular incumbent—as he did in the 2017 runoff—and running against a relatively established and diverse crew of six others is something altogether different. And while he should be rightfully proud of his work for the trailblazing Willie Brown, his multiple references to that are lost on the average Clevelander.
Many forum attendees were encountering Basheer Jones for their first time Thursday, and if first impressions matter, he succeeded. Something he could’ve done a few days earlier by appearing at the aforementioned parade, but for reasons I can’t comprehend, he was the only one not there. (Sandra Williams also did not march in the parade but was there interacting with residents throughout). He reiterated the compelling circumstances about his challenging, and at times homeless childhood, along with the indomitably generous spirit of his late mother during those trying times. He took a little while to get warmed up and as we know, Jones is not afraid of wading into the verbal deep end. Somehow he was even able to work in some criticisms of the dreary interior of City Hall itself. He also delivered by far the evening’s most memorable remark responding to criticisms from Reed by saying “if we Google Zack, we all know what’s going to come up.” A direct reference to Reed’s three drunk-driving arrests. A facet of Reed’s history that is incredibly relevant to many voters, despite the attempts of many to tiptoe around it publicly.
Councilman Basheer Jones
Bibb himself showed some fighting vigor, surprising some in attendance who might view him as non-confrontational by telling Reed that “his grandmother was still waiting for that phone call.” A reference to something Reed said earlier about reaching out to his constituents. Yet at times the Reed-Jones-Bibb dustups over their neighborhoods of origin were overwrought and had little bearing on the crowd. But Jones scored points on magnanimity in saying he wouldn’t disparage Bibb since he wouldn’t be a party to young Black leaders criticizing other young Black leaders. There may have been political motivations for this, but it surely came across as sincere Thursday evening.
Until this event, other than dotting gas stations, convenient stores, and used car lots with yard signs, Jones seemed secure in a strategy that relied overwhelmingly on getting enough votes from the east side to propel him to the runoff. Which may explain why Brent Larkin failed to even mention in him in a recent column. Though he missed a chance at visibility by ignoring the 4th of July parade, he may choose to make up for it after this forum.
West Parker Ross DiBello often made passionately resonant remarks, as he did when he said, “I’m running for you because we don’t need to worry about billionaires and millionaires and their homes.” But, surely due to a lack of experience, a promising start to an answer would sometimes lead to a trailing off or disjointed segues. I believe however he was also the only candidate to make mention of the city’s hemorrhaging population. He may not have gained many converts, but the guy has pluck and sincerity, two qualities that don’t often go together in candidates running for office.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kazy and Slife work well together as this isn’t the first time they’ve joined forces on a project for the neighborhood. Working with members of the Ward 16 and Ward 17 Democratic Clubs on a combined effort last year, they helped with a massive get-out-the-vote effort that saw over 30,000 doors hit in the two wards alone.
Lost in the hullabaloo surrounding municipal elections is the fact that the #2 position in city government will also be changing hands come January as a new president will be chosen by members of City Council. I’ll be delving deeper into this in the near future, but after nearly seven years on Council, Brian Kazy would seem to be in a solid position for the post, something only reinforced by his planning and executing of this event. He doesn’t brandish an ideological agenda and most certainly is not in the pockets of downtown interests, something the mayoral candidates seem to universally view as a positive. Time will tell on this issue.
I left the event with one overriding thought, the city of Cleveland will be in better hands come January 1st than it is today, no matter which candidate is chosen.
MORE LINGERING QUESTIONS
Will any of the combination of Jones, Williams, or Reed score a surprise performance in Ward 17? It will be the biggest voting ward and if one of them finished third (as I believe Bibb and Kucinich will finish first and second in some order) it could auger well for their final position.
How will Dennis Kucinich perform west of the Cuyahoga River? That could tell us how deep his support is and set the stage for an interesting runoff if his opponent is Bibb.
How will Sandra Williams do, period? The size of her base as a state senator is massive, but she has yet to establish any compelling issue or otherwise gain much traction.
REVISED ODDS TO MAKE THE RUNOFF