Sam Allard / Scene
Jackson and Mooney, preparing to spar... err, "discuss challenges."
Mayor Frank Jackson discussed some of Cleveland's "high points and challenges" in his State of the City conversation Wednesday afternoon at the Cleveland Public Auditorium.
The annual address — Jackson's 10th — was indeed a conversation (not a speech), moderated by KeyBank President and CEO Beth Mooney, who also serves as Chair of the Greater Cleveland Partnership and is a serious annual contributor to Frank Jackson's campaigns.
After laying out the ground rules for the conversation, ground rules which she and Jackson evidently had established in earlier correspondence — "be candid, don't be afraid to ask the hard stuff and leave plenty of time for questioning" — Mooney promptly abandoned all three, lobbing big-picture softballs and asking Jackson to characterize the city's progress on multiple topics.
(For the record, Mooney can't be blamed for not being a journalist; she certainly did an adequate job framing important talking points, if perhaps a less adequate job reeling the Mayor in when he rambled. The larger issue is that, given the time constraints, if Jackson's not going to pit himself against an independent interlocutor bearing down and actually
asking tough questions — "What do you mean, specifically, when you keep saying 'substantive change'?" — or at least getting beyond the campaign rhetoric, why bother with the "conversation" format at all? It's inefficient, insufficient,
and takes the heat off Jackson in any potential critique. If the address is poorly received, for instance, the administration can share blame with the moderator.
Just write a speech, dude. Give us the State of the City. Give us specifics. No one cares about the stances you've articulated at least nine times before.)
At any rate:
When asked to identify major areas where the city needed to "stay the course," Jackson said education, equity, and quality of life issues were his top three.
"I'll say again," Jackson said when urging listeners to place his remarks in context. "If we are truly to become a great city, our greatness will be determined by how we do for the least of us."
When pressed about education and, specifically, job readiness — "A lot of us are employers in the region," Mooney reminded Jackson — he stressed a holistic approach, ensuring that a child not only achieve academic success, but learn how to "interpret" and "cope with" the world around him/her.
Mooney asked Jackson to give his Schools plan a grade, to which Jackson said that it was entirely dependent on the individual school in question.
"Some I'd give A-pluses," he said. "Others I'd give Fs. There are Ds, Cs, Bs."
Mooney steered the conversation toward the Department of Justice and Public Safety. (It's worth noting that neither Tamir Rice's nor Tanisha Anderson's name was mentioned once. When talking about "challenges," those who died at the hands of Cleveland Police officers were euphemized as "November tragedies.") Mooney asked Jackson to frame his intentions for the gathered crowd.
Jackson responded with one of the afternoon's most bankable quotes: "Hard times is what I do," he said. He reiterated his preference for long-term, "substantive" change, not the "quick fix" he keeps saying local groups are after. Though he's never specified what this institutionalized change will look like, only to say that it differs (apparently dramatically) from the shitty, shortsighted reform everyone else wants.
"This approach might not be politically convenient, it might not be popular," he said, "but I really don't care." He emphatically stated that he will not sacrifice the quality of public safety reform for expediency's sake. (And that's pretty much all we got on that.)
A brief Q&A period saw another long-winded response on the Cleveland Public Schools, in which Jackson outlined his support for Common Core standards — yawn — and a question about attracting immigrants to which Jackson alluded to building infrastructure for refugees. One man approached the mic and accepted Jackson's apology, on behalf of Cleveland citizens, for the city's insensitive response to the Tamir Rice wrongful death lawsuit. Another thanked him for his hard work in office.
Though Beth Mooney, at the outset, said she feels a sense of "optimism and brightness" as she looks to the year ahead, it was hard to leave the conversation with anything other than feelings of confusion.