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Open race for Cuyahoga County executive draws two Democrats, one Republican so far

Lee Weingart, Annette Blackwell and Chris Ronayne, left to right, have announced campaigns for Cuyahoga County executive. [Weingart, Blackwell and Ronayne campaigns]
Cuyahoga County executive candidates Lee Weingart, Annette Blackwell and Chris Ronayne

The three declared candidates for Cuyahoga County executive are hoping to harness the electorate’s desire for change in their 2022 contest for the county’s top political job.

The Cuyahoga County executive may not carry the history or gravitas of the Cleveland mayor, but the county exec holds plenty of power. The county government runs the jail, owns a Downtown hotel, provides a constellation of social services and manages a $1.5 billion annual budget.

Two Democrats and one Republican are revving up their campaigns to succeed Armond Budish, who will leave office after eight years on the job.

Republican Lee Weingart has been talking with voters and building his name recognition since announcing his campaign in February.

“There is a great dissatisfaction with the county government,” Weingart told Ideastream Public Media. “There is a sense that the government is disconnected from the citizens, doesn’t understand the challenges they face on a regular basis, and that there is receptivity to change.”

Change will be the watchword in this race, especially after Justin Bibb’s change message won him a term as mayor of Cleveland.

Although the GOP party label could hold Weingart back in this highly Democratic county, he said he’s running on a platform, not on party ID. That platform includes helping 10,000 families build or renovate homes – a strategy, Weingart said, to build wealth in places that are hurting.

“I think we need to change the model entirely and help create an environment where wealth is generated and stays in those communities,” he said, “so that families can help themselves, and can cut the tie with the government.”

Weingart served as county commissioner in the 1990s. He said he believes it’ll take $2 million to win this race. Weingart will have some time to bank those donations while the Democrats compete in the primary.

The most recent Democrat to join the race is Maple Heights Mayor Annette Blackwell. She’s now in her second term at the head of this southeast Cleveland suburb of 23,000 people. Blackwell is running on her experience leading the city and its safety forces.

“I make the executive decisions as safety director,” Blackwell said. “So I do this in one city out of the 59 cities. But I think I have some very transferable skills, my professional skills that I brought to this mayorship.”

Blackwell worked as a property tax analyst before winning election in 2015. At the time, Maple Heights was in fiscal emergency. A year ago, the state of Ohio declared that emergency over, after the suburb increased property tax millage and saw new businesses arrive.

“I want to build up communities like Maple Heights that have challenges like fiscal emergency,” she said. “No city should be left behind, and the county should be providing those partnerships, those collaborations, those initiatives, those strategies.”

One way to help inner-ring suburbs like Maple Heights is to encourage banks to lend there, Blackwell said.

Blackwell announced her campaign last week. Her Democratic opponent, Chris Ronayne, has had a head start. He’s been running since the summer, when he left his job as president of University Circle Inc.

One way Ronayne is looking to harness the political change energy is by hiring it. He recently brought on a West Side field director from the Bibb campaign.

Ronayne told Ideastream that he’s campaigning on growth.

“We don’t want to see any more population loss,” he said. “We want to turn the corner toward growth. But it’s also leveraging these resources for an economic development strategy that really brings a bright future.”

To achieve that growth, the county could make better use of assets like the Cuyahoga River, Lake Erie, medical institutions and the arts, Ronayne said.

County government should be communicative and trustworthy, he said.

“All of this comes down to leadership, and I think as our residents are seeing the opportunity for new leaders in these seats, I think they’re seeing an optimism again about how we can grow,” Ronayne said. “Our message is basic: It’s about healthy communities, it’s about a healthy economy and it’s about a healthy government system that can be trusted.”

The partisan primaries are scheduled for May. The November general election is still 11 months in the future.

But the first big event of the race will come sooner than either of those. The Cuyahoga County Democratic Party is likely to take an endorsement early next year.

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