Sam Allard / Scene
Blaine Griffin announcing his endorsement of Kevin Kelley outside the DREAM mural at E. 110th and Woodland, (9/16/21).
Ward 6 Cleveland City Councilman Blaine Griffin and six of his council colleagues have called for a council caucus Friday morning. The sole purpose, according to a memo sent to all 17 council members elected Tuesday, is to select the body's next president, who will formally succeed Kevin Kelley in January.
A November caucus vote on the council presidency is typical, even though new members have not yet acquainted themselves with their colleagues, have not learned who might be interested in the council presidency and may have not considered what ramifications their votes presage.
For Council leadership, that has not mattered. In 2017, Kevin Kelley called the vote to reinstate himself as Council President in November, before two council members (Joe Jones and Basheer Jones) had even been certified as victorious by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. Both ultimately won extremely close races in their wards.
Kelley knew then that the votes of the Jones' were immaterial. He'd managed to secure support from the majority of his colleagues and could therefore invoke the Unit Rule to demand conformity and ensure a unanimous vote.
As Scene wrote in 2017
, "the Unit Rule is an outdated political instrument which mandates that all council Democrats must vote with the majority or else face banishment from the party caucus. While the U.S. Democratic Party abolished the Unit Rule for its own nominating conventions in 1968, the rule actually does make sense in a politically divided legislature, where voting blocs can use it to leverage the full might of their membership. But in Cleveland City Council's current makeup — that is, 100-percent Democratic — the Unit Rule's function is authoritarian. It serves only to silence dissent."
Blaine Griffin intends to do the same tomorrow, and he may — like Kelley before him — call a vote to invoke the Unit Rule before a majority is even established on the matter at hand: his presidency.
This likely means Griffin believes he has a majority of council members in his corner. When Scene asked Griffin Thursday if this was the case, he responded diplomatically, if not coyly, via text message: "We'll see," he said.
Of the six others whose names appeared on the council memo — Ward 2's Kevin Bishop, Ward 8's Mike Polensek, Ward 9's Kevin Conwell, Ward 11's Brian Mooney, Ward 14's Jasmin Santana and Ward 15's Jenny Spencer — all but Polensek and Spencer publicly endorsed Kevin Kelley for Mayor and received contributions from the Council Leadership Fund
for their recent council races. Blaine Griffin is Kelley's majority leader and has allegedly controlled the council leadership fund since September.
Griffin's election would subvert a council custom which has historically sought to achieve racial balance between the mayor and the council president. (If the mayor is white, the custom goes, the council president should be black. And vice versa.) That is why the mayoral election this year came to resemble a slate, in which Blaine Griffin was seen as Kelley's natural successor as council president were he to win the mayor's race, and Ward 3's Kerry McCormack the presumed successor if Justin Bibb were to win, which he did. McCormack was in fact the only incumbent council member to publicly endorse Bibb. (Bibb has stated that he's staying out of the council presidency fray.)
One current council member whose name appeared on the memo told Scene Thursday that they weren't convinced all six necessarily backed Griffin. "We just called the meeting," they said.
But the hasty vote has rankled at least one new council member. Rebecca Maurer, who unseated incumbent Anthony Brancatelli in Ward 12, posted an official statement saying she'd received the council memo by courier at her home address less that 24 hours after polls closed Tuesday. Griffin then called her, she said, to alert her of his intentions to run for council president and invoke the Unit Rule while doing so.
"Ultimately, my job is to make sure I can deliver better city services and a stronger legislative process to the residents of Ward 12," she wrote. "The needless speed and out-dated process for this vote make that job harder."
If history is any indication, the caucus vote — which will be held only among council members-elect,
not those incumbents who lost Tuesday — will select the council president. The January vote will merely be a formality. The Friday meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. and will not be live-streamed.
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