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Shirley Smith mounts a second bid for Cuyahoga County executive

Former state Sen. Shirley Smith is one of three Democrats running for Cuyahoga County executive. [Ohio Senate Democrats]
Former state Sen. Shirley Smith stands holding a microphone.

It’s months from any election, but the race for county executive has already produced two campaigns that ended almost as soon as they began.

Maple Heights Mayor Annette Blackwell threw her name in for consideration. Then, she abruptly bowed out just before Warrensville Heights Mayor Brad Sellers entered the race. Sellers withdrew after Cleveland.com started reporting on his property taxes.

Shirley Smith was following this and said she supported Annette Blackwell.

“When she decided to get out of the race, I got in the race,” Smith told Ideastream Public Media. “Because I do feel very strongly about having a woman's voice in this race. You know, when I look back over the past four decades, it's been men.”

Men, largely, in leading elected positions around the county.

Now, Smith is the only woman in the race to lead Cuyahoga County government. Also seeking the office are Chris Ronayne and Tariq K. Shabazz, both Democrats, and Republican Lee Weingart.

Cuyahoga County Democratic Party leaders vote Wednesday night on which Democrat they’ll endorse. Smith criticized the party for taking that vote a week before the filing deadline with the board of elections.

“How does the Democratic Party endorse a candidate if they're not validated?” she said. “That in itself is a farce. That's absolutely egregious.”

Smith worked in radio and TV before getting into politics. She ran unsuccessfully for a Cleveland City Council seat in the early 1990s and won election to the Ohio House in 1998. After hitting her term limit in the House, she moved to the state Senate.

In 2014, she joined a crowded Democratic field vying to replace Ed FitzGerald as county executive. Smith won 20 percent of the primary vote, finishing a far second place to Armond Budish.

Smith was on the ballot last year in August’s special congressional primary.

As a state lawmaker, Smith strongly opposed the death penalty. She chaired the state committee that inspects Ohio prisons. After Smith left the legislature, then-Gov. John Kasich appointed her to the Ohio Parole Board.

Prisons, and prisoners, have been a focal point of her time in public office.

“Those are the folks that have been disregarded,” she said. “People tend to think, at least that's what I found out, and from my observation and also talking to a lot of people, that people who are in prison are at the bottom rung of the ladder, and they're forgotten.”

In 2019, Smith quit the parole board. At the time, she said the board too often took the side of prosecutors, and that the board doesn’t “seem to care about humanity.”

Smith said she’ll put her knowledge of the criminal justice system to use overseeing the Cuyahoga County jail and those locked up there.

“When no one is looking out for those people, it makes not only the system worse, but it makes it worse for us when they come home,” she said.

Still, Smith declined to say exactly what improvements the jail needs, or whether the county should move ahead with plans to build a new one. She said she’d need to get into office first and visit the jail herself.

Smith said she supports putting limits on rising property tax bills as the county’s reappraisals bump up home value estimates. As for other issues facing county government, Smith named infant mortality, lead poisoning and low morale among county workers.

“There is a huge morale problem,” she said. “That's one of the places I would start. I get it all the time. People call me in secret and talk about the morale issue there.”

Smith did not elaborate, saying she wanted to respect the privacy of those phone calls.

Whoever wins the Democratic Party’s endorsement will sail on to the May primary with the wind at their back. Smith says voters should look deeper than the party’s stamp of approval.

“I am hoping that people start to do that rather than look at a piece of literature and say, ‘Endorsed Democrat,’” she said. “I'm hoping that they do a little bit more research from this point forward.”

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