Harshita Mahajan Photography / Courtesy of Ellen Cleary
In Cleveland's Ward 16, a challenger rises on Triskett.
Ellen Cleary is young — she'll turn 30 next week. Ellen Cleary is smart. Ellen Cleary is a St. Joseph Academy alumna with deep ties to and love for the west side. She said she couldn't sit by and watch council incumbent Brian Kazy get re-elected without a fight.
"I never really wanted to be in the public eye like this," Cleary told Scene
in a phone interview this week. "But it didn't seem like anyone else was gathering signatures or trying to get on the ballot. In my mind, it's not a democracy if you just get to waltz right in."
While this is her first time running for office, Cleary has worked in or adjacent to politics for many years. In high school, she volunteered at Dennis Kucinich's Lakewood office. In college, she worked for a Green Party Senate candidate in Illinois. She graduated from Loyola Chicago in 2010 and thereafter worked in San Francisco, managing a real estate firm worth $850 million. She returned to Cleveland for a chance to work on the Uptown Project — "my baby," she calls it — where she coordinated with public and private partners and gained experience in urban planning and economic development.
"I was surprised, though," she said, "by the lack of engagement by the City Councilpeople."
That lack of engagement, Cleary argued, has resulted in declining quality of life for residents in Cleveland's neighborhoods on the east and west sides.
"I was away from Cleveland during the recession," she said. "And I was really shocked, when I came back, by the progress downtown and the obvious regression in areas like West Park, Bellaire-Puritas and Jefferson. Crime, poor infrastructure and vacant storefronts are now abundant in what were once very stable neighborhoods."
Cleary grew up in West Park. Her mom has been a Cleveland public schoolteacher for 20-plus years at Garfield Elementary, where Cleary said she started a youth arts camp for students when arts funding was slashed. Cleary's mom also started the neighborhood community garden, and Cleary proudly still maintains a plot. These days, she works at Case Western Reserve University as the Assistant Director of Housing.
Sam Allard / Scene
Brian Kazy yard sign in Ward 16.
While she has no personal beef with councilman Brian Kazy, Cleary said she worries that because he was appointed to his seat, he is beholden to council leadership.
"He can't be his own independent person," she said. "He's voted with everyone else 98 percent of the time. And I know they all caucus together, but still."
(Kazy was hand-selected to take over Ward 16 by departing council president Marty Sweeney in 2014, a move that was widely decried
and was thought to be a reward for Kazy's failed run against Brian Cummins in Ward 14 the preceding year.)
Cleary cited Kazy's failure to successfully vote NO on the dirt-bike track proposal, (in one of City Council's many bizarro procedural shenanigans of 2016
), and his support for the Q Deal as blots on his recent voting record.
**Correction: Brian Kazy voted NO on the dirt bike track in a very close 9-7 City Council vote Jan. 24, 2017. (That story here). Cleary was referring to Kazy's unsuccessful NO vote in a Municipal Services and Properties Committee hearing Jan. 10. During that hearing, Kazy left for an unrelated meeting, and Council President Kevin Kelley appointed himself to fill in.
From Leila Atassi's Cleveland.com account: "Kazy returned just as committee members had cast their votes and said he wished to vote no. But by then, Kelley already had voted in favor of the proposal and said Kazy was too late for his vote to count."**
Cleary said she is a member of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus — she was a Bernie Sanders supporter — and is endorsed by that group and the Cleveland Action Democrats. But unlike candidates Alex Karrfault in Ward 15 or Michele Burk in Ward 13, she is not a member of the SEIU (though she is likely to win their endorsement), nor did she run at the behest or suggestion of any group. She decided to run on her own, she said, and is, at least for now, self-funding her campaign.
Sam Allard / Scene
Ward 16's George's Kitchen
In addition to constituent services, Cleary said she's energetic about crafting sensible policy citywide. More legislative steps need to be taken to address the opioid crisis, she said. And industry-specific workforce training and development programs should be supported.
Ward 16 is home, for example, to PPG
, the largest manufacturing and technical center for automotive coatings in North America. Cleary said that creating an adequately trained, not to mention healthy, workforce is good for businesses like PPG and good for Cleveland. Cleary said she's also interested in environmental legislation, lakefront development and the pursuit of national businesses in the innovation economy.
If elected, Cleary would join Ward 3's Kerry McCormack as the only other millennial on council. She would also be one of very few women. She said that as she's canvassed the neighborhood (usually in the evenings, after she gets home from her 9-5), the reactions to her candidacy have been mixed.
"I've run into a lot of women who have said they will vote for me specifically because I'm a woman," she said. "And I've had other people who say, "tell your dad he should do X or Y.' They assume I'm not the candidate. There's definitely a lot of weird sexism that occurs, but I'd like to inspire people, to show them that, yes, being a councilperson is a huge responsibility, but that women can succeed in politics. Women can do it. I can do it."