Winners and Losers from First Cleveland Mayoral Debate: Sandra Williams' Emergence, Zack Reed's Resilience

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Though the day's storms had subsided, lightning struck Tuesday night at the Idea Center at Playhouse Square as the seven candidates for Cleveland mayor convened for the first debate of the 2021 election season. Most of them, suits unwrinkled and hair unfrizzed by the edge-of-the-jungle humidity outdoors, pounced on the opportunity to make first or lasting impressions on what was undoubtedly their largest viewing audience to date. 

After an endless procession of issue- and neighborhood-based "forums" over the past several weeks, the debate offered a more confrontational mode of exchange. The City Hall hopefuls were not only allowed but expected to respond to one another, to challenge their opponents' records and flimsy ideas, to match wits, clash swords, compare notes, etc., as they answered questions posed by Cleveland residents.



Hosted by The City Club of Cleveland and Ideastream Public Media and moderated by Ideastream's own Rick Jackson, the lively, 90-minute event covered an array of front-of-mind topics and featured the highest number of total questions presented to the candidates in a single evening: Public safety, racial equity, health equity, housing and government transparency were all on the menu. And though I'd privately expressed skepticism about sourcing questions exclusively from voters, I'll eat my words! The event coordinators managed to corral both incisive and personal material — on video to boot — which enhanced the viewing experience on WVIZ. (Full video embedded above.)

From the perspective of civic engagement, the debate was a smashing success. From the perspective of entertainment, perhaps more so: Voters got to watch, for the first time, the gloves come off as candidates tested out alliances and unleashed prepared attacks on presumed rivals ahead of the Sept. 14 primary, moving around a RISK! game board the precise dimensions of the Westfield Insurance Studio Theatre.



Watching from the press room at the Idea Center, it was obvious that tortoiseshell eyeglasses and white pocket squares were the fashion statements du jour. The men sported haircuts and pinstripes of extremely tasteful widths. Sandra Williams wore pearls. 

From left to right they stood at their lecterns, exposed in turn by the probing and unforgiving camera lens: State Senator Sandra Williams, Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley, attorney Ross DiBello, nonprofit executive Justin Bibb, former city councilman Zack Reed, former mayor and congressman Dennis Kucinich, and councilman Basheer Jones.

As in prior outings, some candidates fared better than others. The following is my best attempt, in the immediate wake of the sultry affair, to assign victory and defeat to the evening's contenders. The "Winner" and "Loser" designations connote only my impressions from the evening, nothing more. 

Winner: Sandra Williams

Before Tuesday, the primary field of seven had seemed to be narrowing to four heavy favorites: Dennis Kucinich, Kevin Kelley, Justin Bibb and Basheer Jones. A combination of fundraising, name recognition and early campaign energy had separated them from those below. Ross DiBello was the only candidate who seemed to relish his chaff status, which status he has further cemented by refusing to speak to The PD / cleveland.com; and neither Sandra Williams nor Zack Reed had raised enough money to mount opposition via advertising or had defined their campaigns in unique or splashy enough ways to mount opposition via substance or style. That Williams had failed to do so as the lone woman in the race was an indictment of her performance thus far.

In prior events, she rarely looked pleased to be there. As others described their visions and repeated their campaign slogans in introductory remarks, Williams always recited biographical information, ticking off the boxes of her resume and touting various legislative accomplishments at the Ohio Statehouse, naturally avoiding all mention of her HB6 co-sponsorship. Scene has written before that of all the candidates, Williams represents the closest approximation of Frank Jackson. And in true Jackson fashion, Williams was cultivating a reputation for putting audiences to sleep. 

Tuesday, though, she was transformed.  

The clip that will be endlessly replayed involved Zack Reed — poor Zack — who, in response to a question about AAPI representation, made a comment about talking the talk vs. walking the walk. He said that only he and two others had attended Cleveland's Stop Asian Hate rally in March. Rick Jackson asked who was present, and all but Sandra Williams and Dennis Kucinich raised their hands.

Sandra, then (~29:35):

"If the mayor is going to deal with the issue of hate in our community, it doesn't have to be every time a camera shows up," she said. "Because many of the people on this stage show up when a camera shows up ... I'm not the type of person who shows up only when they're going to get a sound byte on the camera. That's not what people are looking for. People are looking for you to solve issues."

Reed was asked in the next question about racial tension in the city, and he opened by looking at Williams and saying that attacking him wouldn't solve anything. Williams rebutted:

"First of all, I was not pointing out any particular candidate on this particular stage," she said, "but if a hit dog hollers, evidently it means something." 

Kablam!

The moment loses a bit of its punch on re-watch, but live, Williams was all over Reed, the clear victor in one of the evening's most memorable exchanges. It's important to understand that with seven candidates on stage and with so much material being processed in 90 minutes, starring or even co-starring in a single memorable moment is often more valuable than answering multiple questions competently. Just ask Basheer Jones, who was the consensus big winner at a west side forum last month, largely on the basis of one slam-dunk quote.

Williams was otherwise distinguished by her carriage. She simply seemed more present, more insistent, than in forums past. She used hand gestures, for example. She raised her voice. She was physically positioned furthest left, and this dramatized the stark gender imbalance in the race. She probably scored points with voters in a question about residential development when she advocated capping property taxes for longtime homeowners, but Williams leaned, as she has in the past, far more on her experience than on her ideas, talking about the money she's secured for Cleveland as a state legislator.

The chatter on social media agreed that Williams was strong. And though her arrival is delayed, her performance seems to assert that she should not be counted out just yet, an assertion with which her institutional backers and Columbus colleagues will no doubt be thrilled. Everyone else has can justifiably entertain some confusion: Where has this Sandra Williams been all along? Is she here to stay? Incidentally, what does she stand for?   
  
Loser: Ross DiBello

The race's longest shot and the runaway champ from last month's Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus forum looked barely alive for the first hour and 15 minutes of the debate, stumbling over his favored talking points and struggling to provide coherent responses to questions posed.

DiBello is an ideologically motivated attorney who believes ardently in enhanced public participation and systemic government reform. He has a tendency to relate questions back to his foundational principles: corruption is bad, for example; moneyed interests control the levers of governmental power, etc. These principles happen to be correct, but throughout the debate, this tendency prevented him from engaging with the policies residents were curious about. Food apartheid may indeed be related to corporate subsidies, and brownfields may indeed have something to do with tax abatements, but his ideological commitments became crutches instead of buttresses in the debate setting. It always felt like DiBello was sleepwalking on the periphery of relevant subject matter.

Moreover, DiBello simply could not make eye contact with the camera, and he got off to a petulant start by centering his opening statement on the failure of the mainstream media (i.e. The PD/cleveland.com), to cover his campaign. Earlier in the day, he'd made the frankly outrageous claim that by ignoring his press releases, cleveland.com had put his health and the health of his family at risk, because it hindered the potential creation of a campaign team. (Sorry, but no.) DiBello's refusal, now, to speak with cleveland.com has only steepened his uphill climb.

I personally regard DiBello's abstention as a major tactical misstep, if succeeding in the primary is his actual goal. But DiBello initially explained his decision by saying that cleveland.com was an outlet doing the bidding of oligarchs. While the abstention would still be an error in judgement (in my view), one could argue that it's consistent with his campaign's animating values. His explanation now, though, is much more about revenge for perceived slights — never mind that cleveland.com was barely covering any of the candidates until June — and just seems petty and dumb.

DiBello continues to celebrate the heroism of his lone-wolf signature-gathering effort, but has failed to move meaningfully into the campaign's necessary next stages. For a man who purports to be pouring 18+ hour days into the race, Tuesday he seemed ill-prepared and out of his depth. 

Winners: Justin Bibb and Basheer Jones

"Promise. Vision. Hope." Thus began a glittering endorsement of Justin Bibb by The PD/cleveland.com Sunday, an endorsement on which Bibb is likely to be riding high for some time.

The biggest victory for Bibb, in that context, is that no one ganged up on him. He miraculously escaped without a scratch. Both he and Jones — young, handsome, well-funded and well-prepared — avoided the evening's dust-ups and looked downright comfortable in the harsh glare of the Idea Center's stage lighting. Bibb continues to be the candidate who most effectively presents new ideas. Jones continues to be the candidate who most effectively cuts through others' talking points. 

Like many candidates, Bibb has a penchant for answering questions in the form of stories, introducing topics by citing family members and/or residents he's met on the campaign trail. The scripted nature of these responses I personally find somewhat disingenuous — nowhere near as eye-roll inducing as his quote hunting, i.e. "from the streets to the suites," I've been fighting for diversity, lol — but there's no denying that when they land, they vividly dramatize an issue. When he said his grandma has to take two buses to get to the closest grocery store, it communicated the seriousness of the food desert problem better than any other candidate's answer. 

Jones has danced around prior comments about defunding the police, a position he now claims to oppose. But Tuesday, he artfully reframed the question when asked about mental health experts and police response. Without advocating defunding the police, Jones noted that the public safety budget has been increasing every year, while results have moved in the opposite direction. "As my grandma said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result," Jones stated in his opener, "is the definition of insanity."  

The highlight for both Bibb and Jones came in their separate, but related, attacks on Kevin Kelley, who was honestly having a strong night until the field turned their blades on him. Jones accused Kelley of being the "biggest obstacle" in the quest for public comment. (Undeniably true.) And after Kelley responded that unlike city councils past, he was actually instituting public comment (in the weakest way imaginable), Bibb retorted in a later answer that if it came to pass, it would not be due to Kelley but to local activists with Clevelanders for Public Comment. He then attacked Kelley for his hypocrisy, given his track record, and called Cleveland one of the most anti-democratic cities in America. 

"Regardless of how you feel about these issues," he said. "Minimum wage? Vote denied. Quicken Loans deal? Vote denied. People don’t trust government because career politicians think they have the answer. The residents have the answer."

That these two formidable candidates are consolidating support and raising big bucks while avoiding attacks from the rest of the field is somewhat remarkable.

Losers: Kevin Kelley & Dennis Kucinich

In their mythic quest for Boomer votes in Old Brooklyn and West Park, Kelley and Kucinich spent much of the evening relitigating the 1970s and promoting the police.

Kucinich opened with a peppy endorsement of can-do thinking and continually averred that Cleveland residents know him. It's true that Kucinich's name recognition is by far the highest in the field and that he leads in early polling. But given the antic nature of his campaign thus far, in which violent crime has been grotesquely centralized, even longtime Kucinich fans feel like they don't know him at all.

Where, for example, are Kucinich's comments on the Progressive Field deal, which area leftys would expect him to oppose with fervor? Kucinich made one passing mention to the deal Tuesday in a question about transparency — he called the deal a "black box" — but he's not railing against it on principle in ways that he would have in the past. Shouldn't this be in Kucinich's wheelhouse? And not just as a matter of transparency but as a matter of democracy, fiscal priorities, and social and economic justice?

Kucinich also had the evening's marquee slip-up. 
Kelley is shrewd enough to recognize that his key west side rivals will be Kucinich and Bibb. In addition to his early Kucinich salvos on public safety, he devoted his closing statements to contrasting his recent City Hall experience with Kucinich — "there's no time for going backwards" — and Bibb — "there's no time for on-the-job training." 

But Kelley's self-assured presentation and command of his talking points early on crumbled disastrously in the debate's second half, when Jones criticized him on public comment and the Progressive Field deal.

"The Progressive Field deal hasn't come [before council]," Kelley said. "There's going to be all kinds of hearings and I think you know that... This is at the very beginning of it. It's going to have plenty of public input. To say that it's done—I didn't vote on it, did you vote on it?"

Absolutely lame-brain, disgusting lies from the guy who ensured that 22,000 Cleveland residents would have no say at all on the Q Deal, which as Kelley well knows was passed by Cuyahoga County Council and Cleveland City Council unchanged from its announced version.   

Winner: Zack Reed

Despite a wobbly performance, you'll hear no Zack Reed slander from me tonight. The poor earnest sod convinced himself by the end of the debate that his opponents were taking pot shots at him because of his experience.

"Rest assured that this election is about neighborhoods," Reed said, in closing remarks, "and you saw the abuse I had to take tonight simply because of my experience."

Though that's clearly a self-edifying misread, I honestly can't say for sure why everyone suddenly ganged up on Reed, or why he has become the race's default punching bag. Perhaps a candidate like Sandra Williams senses she could vault into the top tier if she commandeers a percentage of another candidate's supporters and believes Reed to be most susceptible?

The root of the Tuesday tussle, at any rate, was Reed's suggestion that he was the candidate who would show up to things. While other candidates would make promises about appointments and sweet talk about policies, he was the guy who actually had the residents' back and has proven it time and time again by being there for them in person, when it counts. Variations on that theme appeared in a number of answers from Reed. In his telling, he was on back porches, front porches, in the front lines, in the trenches, standing up, showing up and showing out for the causes most important to Clevelanders.

The other candidates may not regard this omnipresence as an important leadership quality, but Reed is not exaggerating. This is one of the most legitimately commendable and endearing traits about him, for my money. Whether or not he articulates polices clearly or even advances fresh policies at all — he's still out here talking about opening up City Hall on Saturdays, God bless him, (which I think is great!) — it's clear to me that Reed cares.

One of his central themes Tuesday was that what Cleveland needs desperately is a sense of urgency: on crime, on poverty and on city services. Disregard for a moment that the line was borrowed from Justin Bibb, who has made a "sense of urgency" central to his pitch via his campaign's defining hashtag, #CleCantWait. Disregard also that beyond the Cure Violence model, Reed's solutions to crime, poverty and city services are ill-defined. The point is Reed does have a sense of urgency. The problem is he doesn't know what exactly to do with it. 

But Sandra Williams' one-liner about certain candidates only showing up for the TV cameras doesn't apply to Reed. It's true he shows up for media coverage, and like every politician in the race actively seeks it out. But he also shows up when the media is nowhere in sight. The man shows up to the most obscure and poorly attended events all over town. His indefatigable hustle is what made him a top-two finisher in the 2017 primary, it's what made him a beloved councilman, and (I suspect) it's what made him a valued minority outreach coordinator for Secretary of State Frank LaRose. His opponents would be unwise to wave him off this year.

As ever, Reed's remarks Tuesday were littered with mispronunciations and gaffes — additional endearments, at this point — and I know I'm always perched on the edge of my seat whenever he speaks for the next barely relevant John F. Kennedy quote or reference to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

But I find myself increasingly impressed with Reed's resilience. I'm not just blown away *Keanu Reeves voice (Hardball, 2001)* by his ability to show up, but by his ability to weather such constant, withering criticism and keep showing up. His "abuse" at these mayoral events is of course sometimes earned, but it's small potatoes compared to the abuse he receives from the electorate on a daily basis. Reed continues to be mercilessly criticized for his trio of DUIs, for example, and is often mocked for various elements of his speech or ideas. When Reed hosted an event to launch his Burke Lakefront Airport plan last month, a passing driver screamed "DUI! DUI! DUI!" from a window as Reed spoke. His perseverance in the face of this treatment, and his continued efforts to learn and improve, speaks not to his ego, I think, but to his genuine desire to make Cleveland a better, more equitable, place. Even if he's often misguided or misinformed in his pursuits, Reed's ability to keep taking punches, and then to keep standing back up, to keep trying, is something that Cleveland should savor and celebrate. 

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