Unexpected Winners and Losers in Cleveland Mayoral Forum

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From L-R: Robert Kilo, Jeff Johnson, Tony Madalone, Eric Brewer, Zack Reed, (standing) Brandon Chrostowski - SAM ALLARD /  SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • From L-R: Robert Kilo, Jeff Johnson, Tony Madalone, Eric Brewer, Zack Reed, (standing) Brandon Chrostowski
Three days before signatures must be filed with the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, six mayoral challengers met at VFW Post 2850 in Cleveland's Clark-Fulton neighborhood to introduce themselves to voters and to answer a thorny bouquet of their questions.

Mayor Frank Jackson declined an invitation by the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus and the Ward 14 Democratic Club, the event's co-hosts. This was by no means unexpected, as the CCPC is planning to protest outside the Mayor's Gates Mills fundraiser Wednesday.

But in his absence, the Mayor was repeatedly skewered: by the hosts — "Anybody seen Frank?" — and by the challengers. While divergent in their pet priorities, the candidates were unanimous in their frustration with the current leadership at City Hall, which they described as stale, complacent, and out-of-touch. More than anything, the clearest and loudest message from the Monday forum was that Jackson had to go.

Tony Madalone even gave him a new nickname: "Reaction Jackson," to signify that Cleveland had become a reactionary city under his leadership, and that it ought to take pro-active measures to solve the city's problems.

Cleveland City Councilman Jeff Johnson, EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute Founder Brandon Chrostowski, Fresh Brewed Tees founder Tony Madalone, Ohio City businessman and community relations consultant Robert Kilo and former East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer were all in attendance. Councilman Zack Reed arrived about halfway through, having dashed from a public safety meeting on the southeast side.

The two-hour forum suffered from a few organizational issues, chiefly related to formatting. But it was, on the whole, the best presentation of the candidates yet. They are much easier to compare and contrast when they're literally answering the same questions in sequence. For various reasons, some of the candidates fared better than others. The event was not framed as a "debate," so there were no official winners or losers, but points were nevertheless scored and lost. Here's how we'd rate the performances:

WINNER: Jeff Johnson
Jeff Johnson, Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17) - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Jeff Johnson, Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17)
Johnson was by and large smooth and forceful in his delivery. His introduction outlined his qualifications and his experience. He stated that he wanted to "open the windows and doors" of City Hall, airing out the stale leadership, and point Cleveland in a new direction. He said he wanted to close the income inequality gap, break the cycle of violence, and — most importantly — redirect downtown development money back toward the neighborhoods.

Johnson never rambled and only grasped for the right words once or twice. He successfully presented himself as a capable politician who'd been fighting in the trenches of the legislative branch against a stubborn executive (which he has). When asked about the relationship between the police and the black community, Johnson said that under his leadership, both Michael McGrath and Martin Flask would be gone. He characterized the Q Deal as "yet another example" of the Mayor and City Council leadership (Kevin Kelley) advancing a flawed agenda of trickle-down economics. He seemed, more than anyone, like a man who knew where he stood. He didn't waffle and didn't retreat to buzzwords.

Perhaps just as crucially, Johnson won on style points. He arrived a few minutes late, but managed to come off as a man in demand. He'd been on an important phone call in the parking lot. He was never disrespectful to the other challengers, and unlike Chrostowski, Kilo and Reed, he answered questions from behind the table, (which was frankly preferred).

He also acknowledged his wife and stepdaughters who were in attendance, and he must know that they are a tremendous asset. Felicia Johnson was radiant and charming as always. She and her two daughters seem like wonderful people. In the mingling before the official program, Robert Kilo introduced himself to Felicia, asking for her consideration. She admitted that she was Jeff Johnson's wife, but didn't embarrass Kilo for not knowing who she was. She wished him luck and took his literature — a real classy move.

LOSER: Zack Reed
Zack Reed, Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17) - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Zack Reed, Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17)
Reed arrived late, but only missed three questions. His weakness was not that he didn't get enough of an opportunity to make an impression; it was that he returned to his familiar talking points repeatedly.

Reed has run perhaps the most successful early campaign. That's largely because he has carved out a specific message: "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." He's hammered that message home, and his messaging has been coherent and consistent. But leaning on that messaging in a wide-ranging Q&A format worked less well. Reed kept addressing questions of violence and employment, which are critical, but he came off as a one-trick pony.

His most damaging moment came in a question about Tamir Rice. Reed is a die-hard fan of surveillance cameras, and in his advocacy for more police cameras, he said that "we still don't know what happened" in the moments leading up to Tamir Rice's death. (He was suggesting that had a dash cam been in operation, Frank Garmback and Timothy Loehmann would've had even less of an excuse for their actions and wouldn't have been able to escape conviction.) The room read it differently. There were audible objections, but Reed doubled down. "We still don't know," he said. He elaborated on that idea, suggesting that increased training and technology on the police force would be important, but it seemed to leave a bad taste in many voters' mouths.

WINNER: Robert Kilo
Robert Kilo, Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17) - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Robert Kilo, Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17)
Robert Kilo, (KY-low), a God-fearing conservative businessman, had hands-down the evening's most memorable, and worst, line.

"I know that I will not be judged by the color of my skin," the white man declaimed, "but by the content of my character."

The MLK Jr. quote was a mysterious one, especially in response to a question about relations between the police and the city's black community, but it was in keeping with Kilo's performance all night — aggressive, clipped, almost military in style. Here was a man with a son named Lincoln who loved the hell out of God and gave no shits that nobody had a clue who he was.

His views were in opposition to most of the progressive attendees — Kilo is a Republican — but his tactic, when asked about controversial issues (the Q deal, the dirt bike track, $15 minimum wage) was to insist that these issues were for the voters to decide. He presented himself as a pure and inviolate steward, a vessel, 100-percent a servant of the people. And the shtick appeared to work.

He mentioned God and the community's blessings more times than I was able to tabulate, but that didn't seem to bother the crowd. He came off as a candidate sufficiently outraged at the city's bungling of the lead crisis, and made safety and education his central issues.

The real reason Kilo was a winner? If nobody knew him before the forum got underway, they certainly know him now. And even if they don't like him, they'll probably remember the white guy who un-self-consciously quoted Martin Luther King.

LOSER: Tony Madalone
Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17) - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17)
Sweet Tony. The youngest candidate in attendance, Madalone wore his jeans cuffed and his shoes without socks. He was every bit the hip Ohio Homecoming alum and t-shirt entrepreneur that he's been desperate to tell voters he's more than.

And while his intentions were pure as ever — Madalone genuinely seems like a guy who wants to make changes at City Hall, to make government function more efficiently for everybody — his lack of experience flashed brightly when juxtaposed against the other challengers.

Madalone is all heart, all good intentions. But he just can't articulate, really, what he intends to do once he becomes Mayor. He is in support of what would seem to be the right things — transparency, accountability, efficiency — but had difficulty addressing questions in anything other than the abstract. He did say that Martin Flask should be sent packing (or at least asked why he hadn't been) and said that the "lowest-hanging fruit" a new Mayor could tackle would be getting rid of inefficient department heads. He stressed how open he wanted his administration to be.

In a weak moment, he dodged a question about the $15 minimum wage by suggesting improving adult illiteracy — a pet issue — would be even more valuable, because it would give residents access to even higher paying jobs. It wasn't quite in Kilo's "God and the American Dream" territory, but people tend to see right through that sort of answer. Functionally illiterate senior citizens aren't, as a rule, angling for C-suites. They want a living wage.

The forum was structured (poorly) so that the candidates answered in the same order every time, and Madalone was last. That meant that he was frequently referencing what other candidates had just mentioned, and added little of value himself. He often spoke in rhetorical questions  — "Why couldn't we use more technology?" Why wasn't Flask let go?— and ultimately spoke less than everyone, even Reed.

He may have won over some Ward 14 voters who were justifiably seduced by a young, energetic, good-looking and good-hearted guy with noble intentions. But he may have lost just as many who were, equally justifiably, fearful that despite this dude's hustle and savvy, he just might not have any idea how to run a major city.

WINNER: Eric Brewer
Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17) - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17)
The brash former East Cleveland Mayor was a surprise smash hit, playing the part of intellectual, historian and grumpy old coot all at once.

While questions about the legitimacy of Brewer's candidacy remain, he appealed to voters in his startling (apparent) command of the City Charter and Ohio Revised Code and in his sometimes audacious suggestions. Brewer, it would seem, would prosecute everybody in city government for failing to adhere to this or that obscure ordinance. Applause!

His slam-dunk moment came when he suggested that most city officials, and indeed, most police personnel, hadn't even read the consent decree. (He also characterized city council as a band of lazy, money-grubbing neanderthals.) He said that one "low-hanging fruit" that a new Mayor could tackle would be to write memos to department heads and force those heads to read the memo aloud to their staffs. He said he'd make the department heads sign off that they'd read the memos and then place the signed documents in their personnel files. If they ran afoul of the memos, Brewer said, "I'd fire their ass."

Overall, Brewer countervailed against the lofty language of the other candidates by suggesting that the job was way more technical, way more practical, than was being described. He'd been a mayor, was his pitch, and he knew how to conduct himself in the mayor's boring daily tasks. He said he could read, for example, a waste-collection bill.

It sounds basic, but Brewer also knew how to answer questions. He incorporated his personal history deftly into otherwise complex policy matters. He may have run the risk of being overly technical, but it impressed quite a few folks, not the least of whom was Robert Kilo.

"That's the kind of guy I'd like to have in my administration," Kilo said.

LOSER: Brandon Chrostowski
Chrostowski, Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17) - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Chrostowski, Mayoral Candidate Forum, Clark-Fulton VFW (6/26/17)
Chrostowski, who started strong, fell victim to the evening's formatting. Like Madalone, who answered last, Chrostowksi found himself in the unenviable position of answering first every time. This meant, obviously, that he had less time to craft his responses. And he suffered for it.

Chrostowski handled this sportingly, to his credit, leaping up from his chair every time a new question was being read, and often playing off the audience. When unhappy rumblings coursed through the crowd as he was asked for his thoughts on the dirt-bike track, he gestured to the aggrieved attendees: "I think that's your answer right there."

Chrostowski actually may have given the cleanest introduction. The remarks were prepared and they ended, prematurely, with an impromptu double high-five with an engaged first-row attendee who shouted that his time was up — a cute moment.

But as the first man out of the gate during the Q&A, he too frequently resorted to hyperbole. The Q Deal was "the worst thing [he'd] ever seen in politics." The dirt bike track was "the most ludicrous thing [he'd] ever seen."

The restaurant founder and CEO seems, like Madalone, to be very well-intentioned and to have quite a bit of emotion and energy behind his convictions. He's even more willing than Madalone to call out the current administration for their misdeeds. But as a political figure, he doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence. He seemed, time and again, like a nice guy who was was out of his depth. It begged the question, though: How would he have fared answering in the middle of the pack?

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