Clevelanders First Feared They'd be Labeled Racists in Council Reduction Campaign

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Anti-council reduction campaign literature, distributed in West Side Wards. - IMAGE PROVIDED TO SCENE
  • Image provided to Scene
  • Anti-council reduction campaign literature, distributed in West Side Wards.

Questions swirled late last week in the wake of some surprising news: A group which had gathered signatures to place two city council reduction measures on the March ballot was pulling their petitions after reaching an agreement with a coalition of clergy members. Among the most basic questions: What happened?

Word was that Clevelanders First, the grassroots council-reduction group backed financially by Westlake restaurateur Tony George, had been meeting or attempting to meet with city council for more than a month, but that Council President Kevin Kelley hadn't taken the process seriously.



"He was very cavalier about it," Bill Ritter, one of the leaders of Clevelanders First, told Scene Wednesday. "His whole attitude was, 'bring it on.'"

But it was the Cleveland Clergy Coalition, led by former assistant county prosecutor Aaron Phillips, which broached the subject of race. Phillips and his coalition said they feared the ballot measures could potentially lead to an "East Side, West Side split."



Indeed, this was the message presented by Phillips at a press conference Friday, at which the petition withdrawal was announced. Pastor E.T. Caviness echoed the sentiment in comments to ideastream. He said the ballot measures would “cause harm to our city in terms of East and West, black and white, and we did not want that."

Ritter told Scene that he hadn't personally seen evidence that this was the case — the "concern" was purely speculative, and in fact had been contradicted by anecdotal evidence in our own reporting. But there were indications, Ritter said, that council would be running its opposition campaign with explicitly racial overtones, i.e., that the council reduction campaign was racist because it would result in fewer total council members on the city's overwhelmingly black east side. 

Scene had been shown anti-council-reduction literature (see image above) that emphasized Clevelanders First's funding from Tony George, even blurbing Scene's coverage and characterizing the measures as being orchestrated by a "millionaire fat cat."

Ritter said that whether council continued with the Tony George attacks or shifted to calling Clevelanders First racist — historically the trump card in local political battles, opportunistically wielded by no less than Carl Stokes, Dennis Kucinich and George Forbes — commissioning a study on the issue would give the council reduction measures more validity. "The study would be credible and unbiased," Ritter said.

Regardless of the theoretical benefits of a study, Ritter said the fact is the Cleveland Clergy Coalition specifically asked them pursue one. 

"They said it would make them more comfortable, and we didn't want to push back," Ritter said. "The last thing we wanted to do was create divisiveness."

He said that once the study is completed, Clevelanders First intends to present council with the results and ask them to follow its recommendations. Depending on council's response, the group is prepared to launch another citizen initiative. "This issue is not going away," Ritter said.

In response to a Tuesday Cleveland.com story about the ballot measures' timeline, Ritter said that the delay in withdrawing the petitions was due in part to unforeseen personal circumstances. He said lawyers were "making sure it's done properly," and he anticipated they'd be withdrawn early-to-mid next week.

"I know that with these things, until the last 'I' is dotted, there's always speculation," he said, "but we're committed to doing what we said we would do."

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