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Second Cleveland Mayoral Debate Highlights Candidate Differences

The seven candidates for mayor and moderator Nick Castele during the Aug. 17, 2021, debate at the Idea Center. [Michaelangelo's Photography]
Seven Cleveland mayoral candidates stand at podiums at the Idea Center in Cleveland's Playhouse Square.

Updated: 11:33 a.m., Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021

The seven candidates to succeed Frank Jackson as mayor of Cleveland spent Tuesday night's debate differentiating themselves on topics including public education and economic development.

On the topic of public education, there was widespread consensus that more investment is needed into job preparedness and wraparound services to make the system more effective.

Council President Kevin Kelley and State Sen. Sandra Williams sought to establish themselves as the most prepared candidates and defend against ongoing issues like the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s low grades on the state report card system.

“The grade card system that we have in place on the state level is not a direct and accurate reflection of what is happening within the Cleveland Municipal School District,” Williams said. “We have people coming from outside the city of Cleveland, putting their children in our schools.”

Kelley, who recently received the endorsement of four-term Mayor Frank Jackson, also defended the progress made at the school district during the Jackson years.

“We need to make sure we have outreach coordinators, that we have family coordinators that are reaching directly out to families to bring them in and show them all the great opportunities that CMSD provides,” Kelley said.

In 2012, Williams cosponsored the bill that enabled the Cleveland schools transformation plan. [Michaelangelo's Photography]

The other candidates focused on improvements needed at CMSD.

Nonprofit executive and political newcomer Justin Bibb called for more investments in teachers and in nonprofit groups like the Boys & Girls Club.

“Those types of programs go a long way to meet the whole needs of our child, and without that comprehensive approach we can’t have a thriving public education system that works for all of our families,” Bibb said.

Other candidates said there should be more focus on job training than CMSD currently offers.

Councilman Basheer Jones, who’s pitched himself as the new generation of political leadership, answered questions about public education, saying he’d start by listening to residents.

“We have to have teachers that are culturally competent, that understand the children they are educating,” Jones said. “This is not just words. I have been in the classrooms. No one here has been in more classrooms than I have.”

Economic development was the second major topic of the debate hosted by Ideastream Public Media and the City Club of Cleveland.

Lawyer and political newcomer Ross DiBello pitched himself as the most progressive candidate on the stage, calling for an end to the automatic 15-year tax abatements for new home construction and to subsidies for “millionaires and billionaires,” presumably referring to public dollars going toward sports stadiums.

“Let me be clear, Cleveland – we need significant change. Let me be clear – we’re not going to get it with any one of these six,” DiBello said during his closing statement, referring to the other candidates sharing the stage.

In one exchange in response to a question from a resident about ensuring a living wage in Cleveland, former Councilman Zack Reed and former Mayor and Congressman Dennis Kucinich attacked Kelley for his opposition as council president to a 2016 citywide  $15 minimum wage initiative.

“I will remind you that you weren’t here during that debate,” Kelley said to Kucinich. “I was talking to the owners of grocery stores. I was talking to owners of small businesses. I was talking to those who would be affected. You were talking to Fox News.”

“And you were talking to members of the legislature not to increase the minimum wage. Let’s get real,” Kucinich responded.

That initiative failed after the state legislature passed a bill preventing cities from raising their minimum wage. A court subsequently overturned that law, but no candidates said they would restart a campaign for a $15 minimum wage as mayor.

In 2016, a labor-backed initiative would have put a $15/hour minimum wage on the ballot. At the time, Kelley argued against any increase that only affected Cleveland. [Michaelangelo's Photography]

The debate, moderated by Ideastream Public Media senior reporter and podcast host Nick Castele, used pre-recorded questions from residents and did not allow for follow-up questions.

There was, however, space for exchanges between candidates.

The other heated exchange during the debate involved Reed again, this time with Councilman Basheer Jones, over whether there’s a pathway for new political talent in Cleveland.

“There’s no succession planning in our city. There’s no pathway for young people to even sit at the table,” Jones said, repeating a frequent theme of his campaign.

“First of all, I’m young,” responded Reed, which got a laugh from Jones. “If you’re saying you don’t have opportunities, it’s because you haven’t gone out there and got the opportunities, sir.”

Reed tussled with Jones over their records on city council and with Kelley over their positions on the $15 minimum wage. [Michaelangelo Photography]

Later in the debate, the city’s halted recycling program came up. Mayor Jackson’s administration recently announced plans to restart recycling, giving residents until October 22 to sign up.

Kucinich sought to hang the year-and-a-half loss of recycling on Kelley, who said the restarted recycling program would work more effectively once residents were better educated on the program’s rules.

“You cannot blame the people of Cleveland for the failures of waste management. You have to blame City Hall,” Kucinich said. “You don’t want to recycle failed leadership.”

Kucinich punctuated his last line with a long look directly into the camera.

Early voting for the Sept. 14 primary is under way. The top two vote getters will appear on the general election ballot on Nov. 2.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.