Winners and Losers from Progressive Caucus Mayoral Forum: Mr. Diablo on the Hunt

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PHOTO: ANDREW WELLS / COURTESY ROSS DIBELLO
  • Photo: Andrew Wells / Courtesy Ross Dibello

Political forums are flourishing in the tangerine glow of the Northeast Ohio moon. Though the official mayoral debates aren't until August, local voters aren't hurting for early opportunities to microwave some popcorn and watch the City Hall hopefuls spar before the Sept. 14 primary.

Last week, the seven Cleveland Mayoral candidates tried their darnedest to discuss environmental issues. Tuesday, they'll gather at Edgewater Park for some sort of exclusive conversation about real estate. Monday, though, they endured the militant muting of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus and made their cases virtually to members of the grassroots political organization that mushroomed out of the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.



As in previous events, most of the candidates had a shining moment or two. All of them have repeated their stump speeches and platform bullet points enough to deliver an opening statement with confidence. Some of them are better speakers than others. Some of them are more endearing on a personal level. Some have more coherent policy agendas. But for voters who care deeply about progressive issues, Ross DiBello was the evening's winner by a clear and convincing margin. The others 'won' or 'lost' only by degrees.

The forum's most interesting question was its last. After discussions on public safety, CPP, CMSD, Progressive Field, women in leadership, and relevant work experience, moderator Deb Kline asked the candidates what their "most progressive policy" would be if elected mayor. The following were their answers:
  • Justin Bibb: Enforcing police accountability via the Citizens for Safer Cleveland charter amendment.
  • Ross DiBello: Ending the blanket 15-year tax abatement; starting a public bank to issue home and small business loans for those unable to secure private financing. 
  • Basheer Jones: Police accountability; helping seniors fix homes; helping small businesses.
  • Kevin Kelley: Providing broadband access for all.
  • Dennis Kucinich: Creating a Civic Peace Department and making peace the city's organizing principle.
  • Zack Reed: Doing something about poverty; refusing to sign a budget that doesn't attempt to address it. 
  • Sandra Williams: Awarding contracts to minority businesses; capping property taxes for long-term residents.

There's no denying the shortcomings of virtual forums. Apart from the technical glitches, inadvertent mutings and occasional bufferings that come as part of the Zoom package, CCPC elected to host the forum as a meeting versus a seminar, meaning that the names and faces of all the attendees were present on screen. Whether by design or by accident, the outcome was that the candidates weren't always grouped together on the first page. The strict enforcement of one-minute answers seemed both excessively harsh and occasionally counterproductive, in that candidates learned they could wind down the clock without addressing tough parts. To the question asking candidates about CPP and their relationship to FirstEnergy, for example, Sandra Williams spent her minute ably discussing the city's 50-year power contract and was muted before she had to put on ballet slippers and dance around her HB6 entanglements.



Here are the winners and losers. 

(Caveat, as always: The below are my first impressions of the candidates' performance at this particular event. It doesn't signify an endorsement and is subject to change at a moment's notice.)

WINNER: ROSS DIBELLO

"Greetings my fellow progressives," DiBello said Monday night, alerting viewers that he was a member of the caucus hosting the event. From the outset, he seemed to enjoy the comforts and emotional edification of an underdog with home court advantage.

In this context, he was more combative than we've yet seen him, calling out his opponents by name and challenging their talking points. If they actually gave a damn about crime, he said (paraphrasing), they should be promoting policies that address poverty's root causes and the vast wealth inequality in Cleveland. We can't keep doing slightly better versions of the same things we've been doing, he insisted. Systemic changes are required. 

During the question about a looming Progressive Field deal, just about every other candidate's answer was some variation on: "I will negotiate with the team, but I will do so in the residents' best interests." Kucinich talked about getting corporate stock as leverage. Williams talked about wages and benefits for construction workers. Reed and Jones talked about their opposition to the Q Deal. DiBello's tone was almost fatigued when he answered forthrightly, "No, I do not support public funding of Progressive Field."

He rattled off a handful of Cleveland's ignominious distinctions: number one in the nation in poverty, worst city for Black women, least digitally connected. 

"Our fiscal priorities need to start matching our humanitarian priorities," he said, pleading. "We have to stop this exact thing [public funding of stadiums] and deal with things that matter when we look in the mirror." 

That DiBello's energy was supercharged was evidenced by the other candidates. They seemed to recognize that they can no longer ignore him. By the end of the night, Zack Reed announced that only he and Ross DiBello were the candidates talking about poverty with any regularity or conviction. And when discussing their most progressive policies, Justin Bibb claimed that he was the only major candidate in the race to support the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland charter amendment. DiBello, on his Zoom screen, made a face of bemused offense at this shade. (He, too, supports the charter amendment.)

The man once erroneously referred to as "Mr. Diablo" spit fire in closing remarks. He referred to Kucinich as the candidate of "70s-era progressives" who is now aligned with police interests and uses blood-stained campaign mailers. Throughout the evening, he communicated to progressives and all Cleveland voters that it's no longer six serious candidates in the race, plus the well-meaning Ross DiBello.

It's seven. 

LOSER: Sandra Williams

Williams accomplished the unthinkable. She sounded more like Frank Jackson than Frank Jackson and more like Zack Reed than Zack Reed.

Several of Williams' answers very well could have sprung from the mouth of Frank himself. She was opposed to the charter amendment because it didn't go far enough, for example, much as Frank was opposed to the Consent Decree when it was first implemented. Her most progressive policy would be giving contracts to minority businesses!

Her strongest answer was about women in leadership. Unlike the others who expressed support for women in general and fondly cited the influence of their mothers and/or daughters, Williams said she had her eye on several top local women in different fields and planned to actively recruit them. (FWIW: Only DiBello put forth a policy mechanism to achieve this recruiting: following in the legislative footsteps of Toledo and Cincinnati to make salary histories blind, thereby promoting gender pay equity.) 

When she started speaking in the third person, as favored by Zack Reed — "No one has provided more for Cleveland than Sandra Williams," she said — it was like watching 2017 all over again.

WINNER: Kevin Kelley

The candidate least likely to win a Progressive Caucus endorsement acquitted himself honorably in hostile territory. Kelley is and always will be the candidate representing business interests. His support for a Progressive Field deal with earnest talking points about maintaining a public asset left no mystery on that score. But his was nevertheless a more self-assured performance than in recent weeks. Perhaps his was a drunkard's courage, devil-may-care courage, but Kelley answered the questions that were posed and did so coherently. (In previous elections, that might have been sufficient to challenge for the top two spots.)

Folks have every reason to distrust and dislike Kelley, but establishing citywide broadband is indeed a progressive policy. And he had a memorable line regarding CMSD: "We cannot fail kids from K-12 and then put a program in place that's going to make them career ready," he said. That's true! 

While Kelley sometimes reframes questions to his advantage — when asked if he would accept contributions from the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, he responded that he would not seek their endorsement or their funding — in general, he did not dodge. When given 10-second warnings, he tried to conclude his answers as best and as completely he could. On CMSD and charter schools, virtually everyone dodged the charter school portion. Kelley answered it: He said partner charter schools are okay; for-profit charters are not.

To be clear, Kelley will not and should not, under any circumstances, be a consideration for Progressive Caucus voters — he has been their chief antagonist — but on the most superficial level his performance was solid. 

LOSER: Basheer Jones

Jones' appeal is rhetorical. He paints an aspirational picture of Cleveland that can fill one with hope and warmth. But in more recent appearances, the policy framework undergirding his message of equity and change has revealed itself to be unsteady at best. There's limited evidence that Jones can translate his direct service success in Ward 7 to citywide leadership. Keep the metaphors coming, though. 

WINNER: Justin Bibb

Bibb has well thought out answers to most questions thrown in his direction, a credit to his preparation. Like Kelley, he answered with clarity and specificity throughout the evening and remains very strong on public safety, (dig at DiBello notwithstanding). Moreover, Bibb seems like he has a plan for addressing problems, a portfolio of 1,2,3-step strategies that instills confidence in how he'll clean up existing and emerging messes. Bibb bends technocratic, and despite his competence in forum settings, progressive caucus voters may view his paeans to transparency and participatory budgeting with some skepticism. The nagging dilemma: Bibb looks like he's best poised to modernize Cleveland, but will the young executive achieve anything more than making City Hall a more modern, responsive servant of elite interests?

NEUTRAL: Dennis Kucinich, Zack Reed

Kucinich is coasting on major endorsements and looks to be fortifying his position as the race's early frontrunner. His campaign issued a press release Tuesday Morning titled, simply, "chaos," and he continues to assert that violence is the central issue of the race. Kucinich was nevertheless fairly sedate Monday, quietly reciting his long list of progressive bona fides and championing a civic peace department. When CCPC introduced the candidates and invited them to wave to indicate who they were, Kucinich flashed a peace sign. Both Kucinich and Reed have proposed public safety plans that want it both ways: lots more officers and lots more accountability. Reed's rhetoric was forceful through much of the evening — "Cleveland should be ashamed!" he shouted at one point, referencing poverty — but simply has not yet broken through the pack with a trademark proposal, catchphrase or locked-in constituency. He continually cited the influence of his political mentors, Willie Brown and Maxine Waters, but was more bark than bite. "When you talk about progressive," the recent employee of Frank LaRose said, "I'm Mr. Progressive!"

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