Mayor Frank Jackson outlined his policy priorities in a by-the-numbers State of the City address Thursday afternoon. The speech, Jackson's 12th of its kind, gave voters a taste of what they can look forward to if they elect him to an unprecedented fourth term in office this fall.
To a packed house of the city's business and non-profit leaders at the Cleveland Public Auditorium, Jackson presented "four to five core transformative decisions" that he would make to address the "disparities and inequities" facing Cleveland. They included making progress in the realms of education, youth violence, diversity and inclusion, and neighborhood development.
"The question is: Do we have the will, do we have the courage, to engage and overcome those challenges?" Jackson asked.
His appeal to the audience echoed one he made last year, when he invited the audience to think about how committed they were to reform. Last year's address served as a pitch for an income tax increase, one that passed in November and will net the city roughly $83.5 million in additional revenue. Making Cleveland a great city, last year, meant getting behind Issue 32.
This year's address had another purpose: It was designed to show Jackson as the only leader capable of completing the city's transformation. The national attitude toward Cleveland has shifted, Jackson said, "but it's not enough." The question for the audience, then, was not whether they would elect Jackson again, but whether they would have "the will" and "the courage" and "the sense of urgency" to do so. Jackson's focus on neighborhoods could easily have been taken as a direct rebuke to challengers like Jeff Johnson, and even Brandon Chrostowski, who've argued that Jackson is unduly concerned with development downtown. The only way for Cleveland to become a great city, this year, is to keep Jackson in office.
The themes, though, and even specific bullet points, were nearly identical to previous addresses.
About the only difference between this year's address and last year's is Mayor Jackson's tie.
Like last year, Jackson spoke without notes, walking back and forth on the auditorium stage. Bob Littman, the President of the City Club's Board of Directors, introduced Jackson, and mentioned several key issues facing the city: the controversy on Public Square; the ongoing implementation of the consent decree; the scourges of lead poisoning, poverty and opioids.
To the extent that Jackson addressed those issues, he did so mostly in the context of the income tax increase and its positive effects. He went "into the weeds" for a bit, delineating specific ways the money would be used, including major enhancements to personnel in various city departments: the creation of a division of Quality Control and Performance Management; the hiring of 33 new employees in Building and Housing, 21 in Public Health, and 93 in the Department of Safety.
Sam Allard / Scene
Jackson didn't mention Public Square at all in his address. Nor did he mention deliberations surrounding the Quicken Loans Arena renovation. He did, in a quotable, feel-good finale, advise that too many people had "gotten into comfort zones" about Cleveland.
"To be a great City, there will be anxiety," he said. "We will have to go beyond what has made us comfortable. To be a great city, we have to go beyond our self-interests and focus on the people's best interests. That means all of us... We have to get uncomfortable to go beyond where we are and where we've been before."
The traditional City Club Q&A followed Jackson's address, but there wasn't much substance there. The two most interesting questions — one asking Jackson's position on The Cleveland Public Power "ecological adjustment fee" and one asking about contributions from PACs linked to corporate interests — came from a table sponsored by the Service Employees International Union, a labor group that has endorsed Jeff Johnson for Mayor. Nevertheless, Jackson's rambling responses to both questions failed to inspire much confidence.