At 23 years old, Stefan Knaack is far and away the youngest candidate for Cleveland City Council in 2021. The recent Cleveland State University alum and diehard Cleveland sports fan has announced his candidacy
in Ward 11, a west side ward that includes the eastern sliver of Jefferson, the western sliver of Cudell and the residential streets off of West Boulevard.
"It also has this weird section [North of Madison]" Knaack told Scene in a recent phone interview, "that was pretty much just created to include Dona Brady's house."
Knaack currently works as a delivery driver for Jimmy John's and said his campaign is about elevating residents living on the margins and "forgotten" communities like Ward 11.
"Like a lot of people, I'm disillusioned with the way politics works in Cleveland," he said. "There's very much an 'in-crowd,' both in terms of politicians and neighborhoods. Ward 11 is not one of them."
Knaack is not a lifelong resident of the ward. As the child of divorced parents, he spent his youth in a number of western suburbs and graduated from Brookside High School in Sheffield Lake. He went on to study political science and sociology at CSU, where he was active in a number of left-wing student political organizations and with the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016. He moved to Ward 11 in 2018 with four roommates, to save money on rent.
"I'm running for council because our government leaves too many people behind," he said. "People have been abandoned for so long that they aren't even interested in participating any more. My campaign is about fighting for them."
Knaack told Scene that he's also explicitly interested in challenging what he views as "political dynasties" in Cleveland, perpetuated by council's appointment process.
"Nothing against [current councilman] Brian Mooney, but he's a continuation of the Dona Brady dynasty that's been in Ward 11 for decades. What has that got us?" He asked. "Not very much."
Longtime councilwoman Dona Brady appointed Mooney in early 2020
. She was reportedly so intent on preserving his (and by extension, her) control in the ward that when former city council president Martin Sweeney threatened to launch
a campaign there, though he lived in Ward 16, Brady and her husband Dan helped orchestrate Sweeney's election
to Cuyahoga County Council last month, replacing the outgoing Dan Brady.
Knaack recognized the long odds in taking on political forces such as these. Furthermore, he acknowledge his lack of legislative and professional experience — "I mean Mooney's a lawyer, I'm not,"— but said he would offer a different perspective for residents who are interested in actual representation.
"The job is to be a representative, right?" Knaack said. "Well, I want to represent them. I'm a renter, just like 63 percent of Ward 11, and I've had to deal with many of the same struggles they have. I know how hard it is to have to decide between paying rent or putting food in your stomach."
As for specific ward projects, Knaack said he'd like to gather more input from residents. But he knows firsthand that they complain regularly about the condition of roads and the regularity of snow plowing relative to adjacent wards. He also said he'd like to use discretionary funds to establish a ward office that he would use as his home base, and which he said would help promote resident engagement and accessibility.
As with other candidates, the pandemic has complicated traditional campaign activities, but Knaack said he still intends to do direct voter outreach and has a small group of committed volunteers to help knock on doors. He is raising funds through ActBlue.
"City council needs youth and a surge of new ideas in every ward," he said. "Cleveland deserves better."
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