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Door To Door: A Peek Inside The Smoke-Filled Zoom

Martin J. Sweeney speaks to Ohio House colleagues in 2018. [Ohio Channel]


Martin J. Sweeney, the former Cleveland City Council president and state lawmaker who was boxed out of a state senate seat in 2018, came up with a rebound Saturday.

Democratic precinct committee members in Cuyahoga County District 3 elected Sweeney to serve out the rest of retired County Councilman Dan Brady’s term, which expires in 2022. The county charter places the vacancy-filling power in political parties’ hands, rather than in the hands of the voters.

The now-too-familiar technological chaos of Zoom provided the morning’s only suspense.

On the first ballot, Sweeney fell one vote short of the number he needed to win, which was 50 percent plus 1 among all of those voting. One committee member dropped off the call and struggled to rejoin, temporarily depriving Sweeney of victory.

On the second ballot, Sweeney won 35 votes out of 64, two more votes than he needed for the win, and Brady’s council seat is his.

The West Side Democrat made a single campaign promise. “I will be responsive when you call,” Sweeney said. “I will call you back and I will be helpful to you. When the residents call, I will be helpful to them as well.”

The runner-up, with 27 votes, was Brendan Heil, a Detroit-Shoreway native and head of the Cuyahoga County Young Democrats. Heil had the backing of former City Councilman Matt Zone and Zone's successor, Ward 15 Councilwoman Jenny Spencer.

“Our Democratic Party is at a crossroads,” Zone said on the call. “We can be a party of the past, or we can be a party of the future. We need to reexamine and look deep within our own Democratic structure and ask ourselves, ‘How can we grow as Democrats?’”

It was clearly a shot at Sweeney’s insider, old guard status.

Heil, in his remarks, thanked state Sen. Nickie Antonio of Lakewood, who defeated Sweeney in a 2018 Democratic State Senate primary.

But while Heil’s supporters had a message, they did not have the votes.

On social media, many younger local Democrats voiced their dismay at the outcome, for a few reasons.

There was Cleveland’s $60,000 payment in 2007 to settle a sexual harassment allegation against Sweeney during his tenure as council president. Sweeney denied wrongdoing at the time.

Then there was the fact that Sweeney’s West Side home is not in the district he’ll represent. In December, he changed his voting address to a property in District 3.

And there was this procedural objection:

The weekend before, Democratic ward leaders named more than 20 new committee members to fill vacant seats in the district. Those members were able to vote seven days later, despite county party bylaws requiring new appointees to wait 60 days.

That 60-day rule apparently had been nullified. In December, the Ohio Democratic Party granted the county party a dispensation, according to an email shared with ideastream.

“A 60-day waiting period is certainly something that is meant to limit participation of a member, and thus, is unenforceable as it violates a rule of the Ohio Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee,” ODP Secretary Bill DeMora wrote in the email to Cuyahoga County party officials.

It was unclear whether that fact was widely known. Some committee members complained they’d been in the dark about the process and rules.

One could arguably see this contest as more than just a local political tussle. It’s also the opening skirmish in a year that will put the local Democratic establishment’s strength to the test.

Shontel Brown, the county party chairwoman, is running for Marcia Fudge's seat in Congress. She’ll face a formidable opponent in Nina Turner, a Bernie Sanders surrogate who will bring national media attention and national money to the race.

Kevin Kelley, the party executive vice chairman and Cleveland City Council’s current president, has his eyes on the mayor’s office. Though he hasn’t formally declared himself a candidate, he did enlist a PR firm to tip off journalists this month to his half-million-dollar campaign bank account.

He’ll likely face a gamut of opponents, including Dennis Kucinich, the former mayor, congressman and long-shot presidential contender. Also running is Justin Bibb, the 33-year-old first-time candidate who has many fans in Cleveland’s civic sector.

This past weekend’s vote shows how an inside-track candidate can ride to office with the help of allies and a knowledge of how to turn the gears of party politics.

Rather than pounding on the doors of the party inner sanctum demanding to be let in, a successful outside-track candidate might want to look elsewhere: register new voters, rally the support of people on the margins of the political process.

It would be a difficult campaign. But it might help resuscitate Cleveland’s voter turnout.

Nick Castele’s “Door To Door” column appears monthly in Noon(ish) and online at ideastream.org.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.