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Cleveland Council President Kevin Kelley Enters 2021 Mayoral Race

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley announces his mayoral bid from the steps of City Hall Thursday. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley announces his mayoral bid from the steps of City Hall on Thursday.

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley officially joined the 2021 mayoral contest Thursday, making his announcement alongside his family at a sparse event on the steps of City Hall.

While candidates call every election the one most important in voters’ lifetimes, Kelley said, he believed the statement is true for the 2021 municipal races.

“Cleveland is mired in a recession, the second in the past 10 years,” he said. “We are coming out of a global pandemic that has afflicted thousands. It has taken over 400 Cleveland lives and has left countless others unemployed or without hope. Making matters worse, this has been the most unequal recession in history.”

To respond to that crisis, Kelley said as mayor, he would use an expected $541 million in federal coronavirus stimulus funds to expand internet access, create a Works Progress Administration-style jobs program, improving residents’ health and fixing infrastructure.

But the No. 1 issue on Cleveland voters’ minds, according to Kelley, is crime. He promised to hire more detectives to investigate homicides, sex crimes and domestic violence – an issue that has vexed city council members in recent years.

Kelley said he would continue efforts to expand police staffing, while remaining within the guidelines of Cleveland’s consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department. He also pledged to study restoring neighborhood-based police offices known as “mini-stations,” a popular program that fell victim to budget cuts almost two decades ago.

“My plan is going to be much more neighborhood focused,” he told ideastream. “It’s going to be much more personal. It’s going to involve a lot more hands-on policing in our neighborhoods. And it’s going to be more about building relationships between the division of police and the community. It’s not just a matter of hiring more police.”

Mayor Frank Jackson has so far left many guessing whether he’ll make a fifth run for the job. Though Kelley has supported the mayor, he pitched his campaign as a step in a different direction for Cleveland.

“Mayor Jackson was the right mayor at the right time, but I believe it’s time for a new path forward,” Kelley said.

Underscoring that point was the slogan on Kelley’s campaign signs: “Forging A New Path.”

Kelley, who represents the city’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood as Ward 13 councilman, has been forging a path as  president of city council since 2014.

He said he will not step down from the council presidency during the campaign, nor will he relinquish his position as  executive vice chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.

“I am extremely proud of my record on Cleveland City Council,” Kelley said, pointing to council-driven initiatives to provide attorneys for tenants facing eviction, a lead paint program passed in 2017 and a campaign to lower infant mortality.

In recent years, Kelley has also tangled with activist groups and SEIU 1199, an influential Midwest labor union, over raising the city’s minimum wage and supporting an NBA arena expansion with admission taxes and other public funds.

If Kelley’s electoral opponents raise those issues against him, they will likely meet a well-funded defense. The 53-year-old former social worker entered the 2021 election cycle with more than $524,000 on hand, the largest stockpile of campaign resources in the field. His list of donors includes many frequent contributors to local campaigns: law firms, local business leaders and building trade unions, according to the latest available disclosure.

With the June 16 filing deadline still two months away, the full slate of mayoral candidates has not yet solidified. Former councilman Zack Reed, a 2017 mayoral runner-up, is running. So is Justin Bibb, an RTA board member and city policy consultant. Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich has formed a fundraising committee for a possible return to Cleveland City Hall, but has not officially announced a campaign.

A host of other candidates have pulled petitions to put their names on the ballot, including Councilman Basheer Jones and attorney Ross DiBello, according to a board of elections candidate list.

The field will narrow to two after the nonpartisan Sept. 14 primary. The general election is scheduled for Nov. 2.

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