Seven Enter, Two Leave: A Primer on the 2021 Cleveland Mayoral Primary

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It's a battle royale to emerge from the Cleveland mayoral primary - ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN G.
  • Illustration by John G.
  • It's a battle royale to emerge from the Cleveland mayoral primary

Early voting is underway in the 2021 Cleveland Mayoral election, and the vitality of the summer campaign season has testified to the race’s importance. There’s a reason it feels like mayoral forums are colonizing every weekday square on the August calendar: Voters are taking seriously — indeed, they seem to be relishing — the fact that they get to pick a new city leader for the first time in 16 years.

It’s a big deal.



Frank Jackson, Cleveland’s longest-serving Mayor of all-time, announced in May that he would not seek a fifth term, his fourth having been dominated by personal scandal and the exigencies of the Covid-19 pandemic. He leaves behind a city that is ranked number one in the nation in poverty and dead last in social and economic mobility for Black women. The underfunded public health department remains in disarray and only 36% of the city’s population has been vaccinated. The financial outlook is equally bleak, especially as a commuter income tax legal tussle looms and the city’s coffers will be depleted for years to come as it signs over millions to the Dolan Family as part of a Guardians lease extension.

Jackson’s replacement will inherit this mess.



Seven candidates want the opportunity to do so: They are nonprofit executive Justin Bibb, West Park attorney Ross DiBello, Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones, City Council President Kevin Kelley, former mayor and congressman Dennis Kucinich, former Ward 2 Councilman Zack Reed, and State Senator Sandra Williams.

All of them have been pounding the pavement like mad through the sweltering heat and torrential downpours of July and August, attending forums, debates, backyard meet-and-greets, policy discussions, podcast interviews and community events, and canvassing from Ward 1 to 17 in the meantime as they chase down one of the top two spots in the Sept. 14 primary.

Only two will advance to the November general, and among the seven, six are regarded as legitimate contenders. Ross DiBello, the attorney from West Park, has mounted a noble effort, motivated by progressive ideology, but is unlikely to compete with the race’s deeper pockets.

Kevin Kelley is the big-money candidate, with caboodles of financial resources from the business community and the construction trades. Sandra Williams has corralled endorsements from Armond Budish and many of her colleagues at the Ohio Statehouse. Elementary school quarterback Dennis Kucinich continues to lead the field in name recognition and early polling. Justin Bibb, with a network of paid staff and youthful volunteers, is more or less the consensus pick on the near west side and has fortified support among the young and affluent. Basheer Jones is a dynamite public speaker who has fared well in debate settings though his failure to deliver anything deeper beyond style on talking points and campaign issues has drawn note. Zack Reed continues to campaign his heart out, but has looked outmatched on the trail despite enduring popularity on the southeast side.

The race is just as unpredictable as when it began, in part because there’s so much to like and dislike about all of the candidates. There’s also a good deal of overlap. In the only commissioned poll of likely primary voters, 21% of respondents said they remained undecided. And while Kucinich led the field, with 20% of respondents identifying him as their top choice, Kelley, Bibb, Jones and Reed were all clustered between 11 and 13 percent.

For many voters, the pick on or before Sept. 14 will be a challenging one. It’ll come down to idiosyncrasies in individual political commitments and — let’s face it — brand preferences. For those voters on the fence, here’s some info to take with you to the polls:


JUSTIN BIBB

Age: 34

Relevant Experience: Special Assistant to Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald; VP at KeyBank; Chief Strategy Officer at Urbanova; board member at GCRTA

Campaign Themes: Bibb’s pitch centers on returning City Hall to functional good governance. He plans to do a “top down audit” of every city department in order to create efficiencies and wants to modernize the bureaucracy to make interacting with the city easier for both residents and businesses. His campaign hashtag, #CleCantWait, is meant to dramatize the urgency of the moment, and wants to inject youthful energy and new ideas at City Hall. Bibb is one of only two candidates to support the Citizens for a Safer CLE ballot initiative to create enhanced, citizen-directed police accountability and has advocated adding social workers as a component of 911 emergency calls. He has waged attacks, on the campaign trail, against predatory property manager Holton-Wise and wants to update and rigorously enforce the city’s housing code to punish slumlords and out-of-state investors. He is backed by a number of real estate developers and local nonprofit executives. Despite an upbringing in Mt. Pleasant, his most concentrated support comes from Tremont, Ohio City and Detroit-Shoreway.

Key Endorsements: PD / Cleveland.com; former Cleveland Mayor Michael White, Cuyahoga County Young Democrats, Our Revolution Ohio, Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, Cleveland Stonewall Democrats  

Supporter Tweet: The only candidate with the intellect, passion & magnetism to chaperone City Hall from the dark ages into the 21st century. His professional & lived experiences have helped him build bridges with both business leaders and residents. Bibb is the antidote to the Jackson years.

Opponent Tweet: WTF has he even done? Worked for KeyBank? Cool. Worked for Urbanova, some BS nonprofit in Spokane? Cool! This dude has *corporate shill* written all over him. He has dressed up a status quo campaign in progressive language that appeals to your average Buttigieg voter. Pass.

ROSS DiBELLO

Age: 38

Relevant Experience: Professional poker player; clerk/lawyer for Judge Cassandra Collier-Williams

Campaign Themes: DiBello’s is a one-man crusade against the system, symbolized by his (practically) lone-wolf signature gathering effort in and around West Park. DiBello’s support is confined to pockets of the west side, but his themes are universal. He is ardently opposed to the corrupting influence of money in politics and has spoken against corporate handouts. Every candidate in the race, except DiBello, has said that public safety is the city’s most important issue. DiBello believes that it is poverty. Though he has failed to raise much money or build much of a campaign infrastructure, he has continued to campaign against the anti-democratic actions of City Hall, which he says have created a “stagnant, toxic” political culture in which the city’s most urgent issues — housing inequality, lead poisoning, public transportation — have reached crisis levels. He has proposed ending the blanket 15-year tax abatement and instituting a public bank that could, among other things, help low and moderate-income Clevelanders finance home repairs and mortgages.

Key Endorsements: None

Supporter Tweet: Literally the only candidate not popping blood vessels about dirt bike riders. Call him an idealist if you want, but at least he’s got convictions. He says poverty is the city’s biggest problem and has articulated realistic strategies for reducing it. That’s enough for my vote.

Opponent Tweet: Who?

BASHEER JONES

Age: 37

Relevant Experience: Cleveland City Councilman, Ward 7 (2018-current)

Campaign Themes: Jones, who spent part of his childhood at a Salvation Army homeless shelter in Cleveland, is attuned to the challenges of those living in poverty and otherwise on the margins. On the campaign trail, he has highlighted his efforts as a freshman councilman to fight for equity, including his support for public comment and the homeless population. He wants to be an “education mayor” and has championed investments in the social-emotional elements of education in addition to investments in teachers. Unlike many of the other candidates, Jones has been less strident in his opposition to defunding the police. At forums, Jones’s public safety comments are more measured, arguing that in many communities, the presence of more police officers doesn’t necessarily lead to a greater perception of safety. He intends to create an Office of Grief and Condolences to respond to victims of violence and their families. Jones is the premier orator in the field, and has performed well in two televised debates in recent weeks, though he has been dogged by prior comments about women and by irregularities in his campaign finance reports.

Key Endorsements: Black Contractors Association, Ward 1 Councilman Joe Jones, Cleveland Pastors group

Supporter Tweet: When Basheer speaks, I know he speaks for me. He connects with the most vulnerable members of Cleveland’s population and has stood by them on Cleveland City Council. He communicates the city’s potential with real eloquence and passion.

Opponent Tweet: Oh, does Basheer live in Cleveland now? Tight. Is he still out here trying to reclassify sexist diatribes as uplifting family messaging? Tiiiiight. Will he govern from City Hall, or from Cairo, where he traveled with campaign cash during Covid? Just wondering.

KEVIN KELLEY

Age: 53

Relevant Experience: Cleveland City Council President (2014-current), Ward 13 City Councilman (2005-current), social worker

Campaign Themes: Over the past year or so, Kelley has worked extremely hard to rebrand himself as crusader for social justice. Among the achievements he now touts are the Cleveland Lead Safe ordinance, an infant mortality task force, and right to counsel legislation, which guarantees legal representation to tenants facing eviction. (Kelley has not mentioned on the campaign trail his efforts to quash the local $15 minimum wage petition, the Q Deal Referendum or the CLASH-led lead ordinance.) Kelley’s campaign messaging has been consistent. His topline policy prerogatives are related to economic recovery after the pandemic. Like others, he wants to create broadband access for all, and is arguably the most equipped to do so, after his success creating a broadband network in Old Brooklyn. He has also proposed a Jobs program which he likens to the New Deal’s WPA. He wants to employ out-of-work Clevelanders on a number of projects citywide. Kelley has next to zero support on the overwhelmingly Black east side and has therefore poured considerable financial resources (and those of aligned PACs) into attacking Dennis Kucinich, his top competitor on the west side.

Key Endorsements: Mayor Frank Jackson, Building and Construction Trades Council

Supporter Tweet: Kelley is the safe route. He knows his way around City Hall, for starters. He is a competent manager, and I believe he is a decent man. His political experience is necessary as the city recovers from the pandemic.

Opponent Tweet: Stop. Kelley’s record of contempt for Clevelanders is well-known. His pursuit of higher leadership is another middle finger to the electorate and should be disregarded without argument. An unconscionable candidate.

DENNIS KUCINICH

Age: 74

Relevant Experience: Cleveland Mayor (1978-1979); Ohio State Senator (1995-1997); U.S. Congressman (1997-2013)

Campaign Themes: Kucinich spent the months preceding his mayoral announcement talking extensively about the West Side Market and Cleveland Public Power, but his summer campaign has been dominated — to the exclusion of most other topics — by violent crime. In histrionic language, Kucinich has railed against the “lawless marauders” on dirt bikes terrorizing Cleveland and has described neighborhoods besieged by raining bullets and bloodthirsty criminals. His policy solution is to hire 400 new police officers, 100 new “safety assistants” and to create a Civic Division of Peace. Kucinich actually has an extensive public policy platform, including reducing utility rates, investing in the West Side Market, building affordable housing, and returning to an elected school board. But his campaign has been all crime all the time. If elected, Kucinich would have the distinction of being both Cleveland’s youngest and oldest mayor ever. He was born four days after Frank Jackson.

Key Endorsements: North Shore AFL-CIO, Former Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar

Supporter Tweet: Obviously the public safety messaging has been a little much, but that’s just Dennis!, who campaigns opportunistically but *governs* progressively. He cares about things we should all care about: peace, justice, the environment. This is not the reckless Boy Mayor of 1978.

Opponent Tweet: From the bottom of my heart: Retire, bitch.

ZACK REED

Age: 60

Relevant Experience: Ward 2 Cleveland City Councilman (2000-2017), Minority Outreach Coordinator, Secretary of State Frank LaRose (2019-2021).

Campaign Themes: Reed, who lost in a landslide to Frank Jackson in the 2017 mayoral race, returned to the fray this year with a much less catchy slogan (“Experience you can count on”) than last time around, (“Nothing stops a bullet like a job”). But just like in 2017, Reed has been hustling, shaking hands and slapping backs across town as he preaches a message of healthy communities, safe neighborhoods and a strong economy. Like others, Reed believes in more resources for the Division of Police, but wants to bring the “Cure Violence” model to Cleveland, which targets high-crime areas with violence interrupters. Reed has a development plan for Burke Lakefront Airport that retains the airport on a smaller portion of the available land and opens the rest up for mixed-use development. He continues to promote minor improvements that could have a measurable effect on trust in government and quality of life: He wants to open up the Mayor’s Office on the weekends for “office hours,” for example. A supporter of RTA, bikes and alternative transportation, Reed has also proposed closing MLK from the shoreway to University Circle to vehicular traffic on weekends.

Key Endorsements: None

Supporter Tweet: Wasn’t always a Zack fan, but he’s won me over with his hustle & heart, qualities upon which CLE has historically prided itself. He may not have the most original ideas, but he’s amenable. He’s a hard worker, and I believe in his commitment to transparency and good government.

Opponent Tweet: Cleveland needs a fresh start, not some headline-chasing, cop-worshiping councilman from the 2000s who’s most famous for drunk driving. Gimme a break.

SANDRA WILLIAMS

Age: 52

Relevant Experience: Ohio State Senator (2015-current), Ohio House of Representatives (2007-2014), Vice Chair, Cuyahoga County Democratic Party; U.S. Army Reserves; Corrections Officer, Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department

Campaign Themes: Williams is the spiritual descendant of Frank Jackson. She presents exactly as Jackson did: steady, capable, boring, deferential to business interests, focused on economic development. In campaign appearances this summer, she has leaned heavily on her legislative record in the Ohio General Assembly and promoted the millions of dollars she has secured for Northeast Ohio projects. (She does not mention, of course, that she co-sponsored HB6 and introduced the “decoupling” amendment that ensured sky-high profits for FirstEnergy.) Housing affordability has been a recurring topic on the trail, and Williams has said that her most progressive policy, if elected, would be instituting a cap on property taxes for longtime homeowners to prevent displacement and to facilitate aging in place. She has many of the trappings of a status quo candidate, but is distinguished by demographics. She is the only woman in a crowded field, and would be the first Black woman to serve as Mayor of Cleveland if elected.

Key Endorsements: Service Employees International Union 1199, Emily’s List, State Senator Nickie Antonio, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, and Nina Turner

Supporter Tweet: Feels so good to cast my vote for Williams, who would be the first Black woman to serve as Mayor of Cleveland!!!

Opponent Tweet: In a city with constant outages and a forthcoming reckoning over public power purchasing contracts, it feels absolutely psychotic to vote for the candidate with the deepest connections to FirstEnergy and HB6.

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