After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor - Episode 1: Countdown

The seven candidates for Cleveland mayor at a forum in the West Park neighborhood on July 8.
The seven candidates for Cleveland mayor at a forum in the West Park neighborhood on July 8. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
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Let's step back 16 years for a moment.

It was 2005, and Mayor Jane Campbell was running for a second term.

Cleveland was still digging out of the 2001 recession. Thousands weighed in on a massive lakefront development plan. Business leaders and politicians debated where to build a new convention center – and whether to stick the public with the bill. Cleveland saw protests after police fatally shot a 15-year-old while serving a warrant. They said he had a knife. The ranks of police officers themselves were thinner after a budget problems, brewing for years, led city hall to lay off workers.  

DAN MOULTHROP: [applause] “Candidates, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the City Club’s forum for the mayoral primary…” [fade under]

And, in that year’s election, the president of council said it was time for a change.  

FRANK JACKSON: “It’s very important to me that we have a city that works, one that functions.”

Frank Jackson made a bid to become the first challenger in 26 years to upset a sitting Cleveland mayor.

FRANK JACKSON: “A city where we can educate our children so they can have hope and opportunity for the future. A city where we can do economic development and create jobs so our people can take care of their family, and stability in our community. And to have our street safe, where the people of the city of Cleveland can walk in the street and be safe, and our children aren’t gunned down in the street. And when we do this, we look at these things, and they’re just tools. Tools for what purpose? To be used. To be used to make Cleveland great again.”

Okay, so he didn’t put it on hats. But that’s the promise Jackson ran on in 2005. To make Cleveland great again. So, four terms, two recessions and one pandemic later, is Cleveland great?

According to Jackson last year, no.

Jane Campbell and Frank Jackson at the City Club of Cleveland.

Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell debates Cleveland City Council President Frank Jackson at the City Club of Cleveland in 2005. [The City Club of Cleveland / Michael Schwartz Library Cleveland State University]

FRANK JACKSON: “Now, just words, just identification of a problem or even the promise of something better will not be enough to forestall this disaster. Without substantive and sustainable institutional change, we will never become a great city, we will never create communities where all people can thrive and share quality of life and prosperity.”

Sixteen years after Jackson made his run at the mayor’s office, many of those challenges from 2005 sound familiar. And new ones have reared their heads. The city has a new lakefront plan. Cleveland police are undertaking federally mandated reforms. Some neighborhoods are booming, while thers are still struggling to recover after the 2008 financial crash.

And as Jackson heads toward retirement, seven candidates say voters should pick them to lead the city next.

Each week until Election Day in November, we’ll be telling the story of Cleveland at this moment of decision. The stories of the candidates, of the voters, and of how politics in Cleveland really works.

I’m Nick Castele, and this is “After Jackson: Cleveland’s Next Mayor,” a podcast on the 2021 race for City Hall from Ideastream Public Media.

Episode One: Countdown.

CASTELE: “Hey, how’s it going?”

ROSS DIBELLO: “Hey Nick, how ya doing?”

CASTELE: “I’m good. How are you?”

DIBELLO: “I’m doin’ well. Thanks for coming out.”

CASTELE: “For sure.”

DIBELLO: “Ready to have some fun?”

It’s April 24, 143 days before the September primary.

I’m with Ross DiBello – he’s an attorney who decided to take a shot at running for mayor. On this Saturday morning, he’s on West 29th Street in Ohio City collecting signatures to get on the ballot.

WOMAN: “I am, but I’m sorry, we’re in a rush and we got to keep moving.”

ROSS DIBELLO: “Have a great day. So you know you’re going to see a lot of different types of interactions today. I don’t know how long you’re going to stay with me, but, I have a lot of fun with it.”

DiBello is not a name in Cleveland politics, and today, his campaign infrastructure is some clipboards, a backpack and a bottle of sunscreen.

He’s on his own here on the city block known as Hingetown, working his way toward the 2021 ballot, signature by signature.

ROSS DIBELLO: “Excuse me, miss. Are you a Clevelander by chance? My name is Ross DiBello. I need 3,000 signatures to make the ballot for mayor. Would you mind signing?”

WOMAN: “Uhhhhhhhhh.”

ROSS DIBELLO: “It just gets me into the debate. I’ll give you a little placard about me, but it just gets me into the debate.”

This voter says she’s already backing a candidate and moves on down the street. But a couple minutes later, she come back.

ROSS DIBELLO: “Most people, it’s still too early, or they wouldn’t care anyway. I mean, most people don’t vote in off, off-year elections.”

WOMAN: “Okay, I quickly read through, and figured, why not.”

ROSS DIBELLO: “You know, if my mom sees me on the ballot, that’s going to make her year, man.”

WOMAN: “Just so you can at least be on the ballot.”

This is how the morning goes for DiBello, he wins some and he loses some. But the groundwork pays off. By the June filing deadline, Ross DiBello made the ballot.

So did six other candidates.

They have just two months now to convince people to show up and vote for them in a primary election that in recent history is pretty low turnout.

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