While much of the city’s political attention was fixated on a Congressional campaign and the continuing race for Cleveland mayor, Cleveland City Council will be choosing a new president sometime before the year is out. Council President sets the agenda, decides what legislation and issues will be addressed or ignored, and serves as a facilitator for the mayor or a stop on his/her agenda. In short, President of City Council is second only to the mayor, not just in terms of prestige and power-wielding, but in the ability to impact the future of the city at a time when a thriving tomorrow is hardly guaranteed.
Race will almost certainly play a role and be tied to whoever takes over as mayor. So, should Kevin Kelley win, there will be a strong push, not without some rationale, for a Black president. However, should Justin Bibb take over as mayor, race will be a less cogent factor. Those are just the realities of living in a (relatively) large city.
A few other dynamics to keep in mind. One, there could be a sizable shift in the ideological landscape of Council after November’s municipal elections. We know for certain that at least three seats will be changing hands. We also know that Ward 13 will have a more progressive representative on Council. And Ward 12 could as well. As could Ward 11.
Two, the recently released, though incredibly flawed as it pertains to our city, Census data indicates Cleveland could lose two council seats. (I repeat COULD as I’ll have more to say on this issue). Which also may impact the vulnerability of councilmembers and potential candidates for President. For the time being, some councilmembers are considering altering the city’s charter to make seventeen wards permanent.
Finally, do not overlook the role chicanery could play in this process. Current Council President Kevin Kelley, presently running for Mayor of Cleveland, clearly wants his #2, Blaine Griffin, to take over as the next President. Griffin’s recent endorsement of Kelley for mayor was a clear indication that he’s angling for the position along these very lines. Thus, Kelley—whether he wins or loses in the mayor’s race—could orchestrate a vote on the issue and even invoke the unit rule: an arcane procedure that compels all members to vote as one, or risk being kicked out of the caucus. Hardly necessary considering all members are currently members of the Democratic caucus on Council. And, this could be undertaken anytime between now and when the new Council is sworn-in.
The names listed below are people I have reason to think might seek the position later this year. Will any of these members break from tradition and wage a public campaign? The early indication is that yes, Griffin and Kerry McCormack, whose own late-in-the-game endorsement of Bibb was a clear indication his hat is in the ring so to speak, will seek to build public support for the position. Moreover, cleveland.com recently ran a story highlighting the behind-the-scenes efforts Griffin and McCormack are both undertaking in terms of campaign assistance for other candidates for council in their efforts to become president. Will the public, kept largely disengaged by the current City Council President, have any say on this issue? We will see.
Widely viewed as the current frontrunner for the position, the current Majority Whip and his supporters surely believe he’s done his due diligence, serving as a loyal agent of Kelley’s Council’s current leadership. He’s a dynamic. likable personality and second-to-none in constituent relations. Along the way, he’s also asserted himself as the leading figure on Council for the lead issue, despite Kevin Kelley’s mayoral campaign assertions that he was the one who accomplished this.
However, the continuity argument is a double-edged sword as some will argue this is the very reason he should not ascend to the top job. It’s difficult, using any objective metrics, to say the presidency of Kevin Kelley has been a net positive for the city. On the contrary, without digging too hard into statistical data, it’s relatively easy to say it has been just the opposite. Population down. Poverty up. Voter turnout down. Crime up. And all the while, Griffin has been faithfully supportive of Kelley’s leadership, including a bizarre speech on the floor of Council chambers defending his president, and Councilmembers generally, from disparagement, after Kelley was asked to leave an SEIU event a few years back.
Though chair of the important Operations Committee, and a member of Council since 2014, Hairston hasn’t done much to distinguish himself from other members on this list. Indeed, conversations with a few of his Ward 10 constituents about the possibility of him becoming President had them scratching their heads. Nevertheless, he does know how the Council operates and some might see the fact that he’s one of only two unopposed incumbents this year as evidence of effectiveness at his job. Should councilmembers balk at Griffin as president, Hairston my well be an alternative for some of them.
This brings us to the other unopposed incumbent. Though rarely seeking media attention, Kazy has shown a good deal of independence during his time on Council. Indeed, over the past few years he’s voted ‘no’ more often than any other member. (An action the current Council leadership does not take lightly. Which, in my opinion, is one of the reasons new leadership is needed in the first place). This is due in part to his innate skepticism for large corporate giveaways, particularly in the form of TIFs. He was after all the leading voice opposing the abominable 60-year TIF given to the Wolsteins for their east bank of the Flats project. Kazy is a human bridge between the burgeoning progressive voices on Council with whom he frequently joins (as with the fight over public comment at Council meetings) and the more moderate impulses who he’ll join at other times. Either way, it’s hard to say he’s beholden to any specific interests.
Kazy does his homework and is a master at conveying complex information to his constituents in laymen’s terms. Since joining Council in 2015, he has near-perfect attendance at meetings. Which may seem of little significance, but as a recent investigation by cleveland.com has shown, there are at least a few members who take a much more cavalier approach to attending Council meetings. Lastly, not only does Kazy not have an opponent this year, but no one even pulled petitions to run against him, which is surely a testament to how he’s viewed by Ward 16 residents.
Ward 3 Councilman McCormack is arguably the most adept user of social media on Council. Which could give him a leg up in any public waging of a bid for President of Council. Overtly or subtly. It’s also no secret that he’d like the job, and his recent endorsement of Justin Bibb for mayor can be viewed partially through this prism.
Though a progressive by Cleveland City Council standards, and one of the first to support the recent push for public comment at Council, there are two primary obstacles McCormack will face in trying to become the next president. One, representing the downtown business district is a brightly flashing red light for some who believe corporate influence is already too great in our city. And two, should Justin Bibb win, it seems inherently undemocratic that both the mayor and council president come from the same ward. Particularly if that’s Ward 3, which covers not just downtown and the Flats but the bustling neighborhoods of Ohio City and Tremont, where multi-million dollar developments and creeping gentrification exist side-by-side. This isn’t to say that McCormack can’t comprehend all that takes place in the city outside of his ward. He can. But there’s a reason the Constitution prevents the President and Vice-President being from the same state. McCormack could be a capable president, but I for one would be adamantly opposed to any member as president for the two reasons I just listed.
The candidate on this list facing the most spirited opposition for re-election, despite winning the primary handily, Polensek is also the only one on this list who’s previously served as Council President, having held the job for a couple of years prior to current Mayor Frank Jackson earlier this century. Polensek also might not make any designs he has on the position public. He’s an intelligent and devoted public servant who takes his job seriously, but my guess is the only way he gets the job would be as some sort of compromise candidate. However, he could be something of a power broker in terms of swinging other votes based on who he supports for the position.
One person I considered including was Ward 14 Councilwoman Jasmin Santana. She currently serves as Minority Whip, a position she ascended to, and agreed to, just a few months ago. It’s hard to imagine Santana accepting essentially a lame duck position under a Council administration that will be coming to an end, if she didn’t have at least some designs on the top job. But the reality is that Santana simply may not want this job this year.
*Interesting development: On September 20th, City Council passed legislation to set aside $20 million to expand broadband access. Who will benefit from this, where it’s going, how it will be implemented, or exactly who will provide it is literally unknown at this point. The initiative was led by Kevin Kelley and Blaine Griffin. The only two no votes? Brian Kazy and Kerry McCormack.
So, this is our prospective list. It’s possible another candidate may emerge, or that one or two of these will demur. And in a few years, dynamic members like Jenny Spencer or Charles Slife may seek this position as well, but for now their newness probably prevents its. Nevertheless, the race for mayor is important, but in terms of the influence a City Council President can exert on our region’s future, this race deserves equal examination. Before the public’s chance to weigh in has disappeared.