After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor - Episode 15: Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin Kelley speaks outside the childhood home of Carl and Louis Stokes.
Kevin Kelley speaks outside the childhood home of Carl and Louis Stokes. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
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After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor Podcast

In less than one week, on Nov. 2, Cleveland will pick a new mayor.

Last week, we took a look at Justin Bibb’s journey to this moment. In this episode, Council President Kevin Kelley, whose own journey has been much more public.

I sat down with each candidate in the days after their October debate at the Idea Center. I started each interview with the same question.

CASTELE: “I think at least, you know, one of the core things that any candidate has got to convince voters at the end of the day is, you got to tell people that you get them, you get their lives, and that they can trust you. How do you make that case to voters that you understand what they're going through and that they can trust you with this office?” 

KEVIN KELLEY: “Voters should trust me based on my very available public record of accomplishment. It is so easy to talk about things. It's so easy to talk about, you know, things you want to do or what you're for or what you're against. The hard work isn't getting stuff done, and people need to understand that I take their concerns very seriously. I build coalitions. I listen to people.”

Kelley, in his answer, also made sure to get in a few lines about his opponent, Justin Bibb. He brought up Bibb’s job changes, his absences from RTA board meetings and Charter Review Commission votes. We covered those issues in Bibb’s profile last week.

KEVIN KELLEY: “You can trust a person based on past performance. Here, I have a record of past performance that I am happy to – that is publicly available to anybody. And I'm really running against somebody who does not have a history of achievement.”

This mayoral race is arguably the biggest fight of Kelley’s political career. But he has wound up in the middle of a few big battles in his eight years as president of Cleveland City Council, often defending his and Mayor Frank Jackson’s positions against ballot-drive challenges.

It’s put him at odds with some progressive voters in town, as well as with the Service Employees International Union District 1199. We’ll tell that story later.

Kelley doesn’t often seek the spotlight, but through the initiatives he has passed during his tenure as council president, he has sought to etch out a political identity of his own.

Kevin Kelley was born in Cleveland in 1968. His Irish Catholic family has its roots in the West Park neighborhood. They moved to Chicago when he was young, and that’s where their lives took a difficult turn. Kelley and his mother, Margo, told the story in a video the campaign produced last year.

MARGO KELLEY: “Eventually things were not good. My husband lost his job. He had a drinking problem, which he never admitted to. He was out of work for a couple of years, more than that. He also left us. I was losing the house, obviously had nothing, nothing at all.”

KEVIN KELLEY: “My father lost his job. We went on public assistance and our home was foreclosed upon. My father died, and my family was there to move us back to Cleveland. And it happened in a very short window of time.”

Back in Cleveland, Kelley attended St. Edward High School, an all-boys Catholic school in Lakewood. He graduated in 1986 and went to Marquette University. After graduation, he joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a Catholic service organization with a presence on Cleveland’s Near West Side. That’s where he met his wife, Elizabeth.

KEVIN KELLEY: “I worked at the West Side Catholic Center. And I worked there, that was a one-year commitment. And while I was at the West Side Catholic center, I did basic needs. I dealt with, I served meals to people in the homeless drop-in shelter. I distributed clothing to the men's clothing program.”

Kelley’s time at the West Side Catholic Center led to a job in social work with Neighborhood Counseling Service. There, Kelley says he helped connect people with benefits like disability and Medicaid. He got a master’s degree in social work from Case Western Reserve University and became program director at Community Assessment and Treatment Services in the Slavic Village neighborhood.

KEVIN KELLEY: “I showed up, and I went to the old nurse's dorm at the Old St. Alexis Hospital. And there was no paint on the walls. There were no beds in the room. There are no blinds on the window. There were no clients and there were no staff. And I was basically told that people are coming, and I needed to set up this program in this building to help people that were coming out of the criminal justice system. And the end goal was going to be to have them reintegrated into the community. When I say there was nothing there when I started, there was nothing there when I started.”

Kelley says he helped build that program up. Today, Community Assessment and Treatment Services has its own building at the corner of Broadway and Harvard Avenues.

Kelley joined the boards of May Dugan and the Ohio City Near West Development Corporation. After seeing how program funding often hinges on the decisions made by boards and elected officials, Kelley says he became involved in politics.  

KEVIN KELLEY: “That's when it first dawned on me that politics is good. It is a good profession and you can be an advocate for people. You can be that – it's a higher level of advocacy to be in an elected position and direct resources and really be the, you know, decide how programs get funded. And that's where I really started thinking that, you know, this would be something that I wanted to do.”

In 1997, at the age of 29, Kelley ran for Cleveland City Council in Ward 14, on the Near West Side. This was after the incumbent for that ward, Helen Smith decided to challenge Mayor Michael R. White.

Kelley had the endorsement of the Plain Dealer, but was eliminated in the primary. Nelson Cintron won the seat in the general election.

In 2000, when he was 31, Kelley ran for office again. This time he sought a seat in the Ohio House.

CASTELE: “And at the time you were the young, newcomer upstart. And I—”

KEVIN KELLEY: “I was.”

CASTELE: “I can imagine people saying things about you as a candidate that they might be saying about your opponent today.”

KEVIN KELLEY: “Well, perhaps, but they didn't, because I was, you know, the seat I was running for. Plus, by the time I was doing this, I had my master's degree, and not only did I have my master’s degree, I had a history of accomplishment. I had a history of staying at jobs and proving results. Like I say, I took a, you know, an empty dorm at an old hospital and turned it into a program.”

Kelley wasn’t the only one seeking that Ohio House seat. So was former Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar, who brought name recognition and more political connections to the contest.

Kelley tried to land the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party’s endorsement in that primary. He met with party executive committee members, worked the phones.

If he couldn’t get the party to endorse him, he at least wanted to fight to a draw, stopping the party from endorsing anybody. But then Kelley got a lesson in how things were done in the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.

KEVIN KELLEY: “But I was charging hard to get this endorsement. So the way it used to work is the ward leaders made an endorsement on one Saturday, and then the following week, the executive committee would take that endorsement under consideration. The ward leaders split 3-3. So that was the recommendation was going to go to the executive committee. Between this one week, Jimmy Dimora put six new executive committee members on the executive committee, all that voted against me, giving her the endorsement. And that was just kind of a life lesson that, you know, this is the way things happen sometimes.”

CASTELE: “I mean, did you walk away from that thinking that was wrong or unfair or they rigged the game against you?”

KEVIN KELLEY: “Of course, that's what – because they did. But again, sometimes those things happen, and you can cry about or you can just move on.”

According to a Cleveland Scene profile of that 2000 race, Kelley did have support from some people within the Democratic Party: the O’Malley brothers, Pat and Michael. At the time, Pat O’Malley was the county recorder. Michael was a Cleveland City Councilman from Old Brooklyn.

Along with Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne and County Prosecutor Bill Mason, they made up an organization of West Side politicians known as D-2000. Kelley says he met them along the way in West Side campaigns.

In the years after that, Kelley went to law school at Cleveland State University. He was admitted to the bar in late 2004.

His big political break came in 2005. Mike O’Malley was leaving city council to take a job in the administration of Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell. And Kelley lived in his ward.

In city council tradition, O’Malley appointed Kelley to fill out the final months his term. Kelley trounced his opposition in the primary and general elections, and he’s been on city council ever since.

O’Malley is now the Cuyahoga County prosecutor. In July of this year, he endorsed Kelley for mayor. At the time, I asked them both about their relationship. You’ll hear Kelley first, and then O’Malley.

KEVIN KELLEY: “Mike coached soccer when my kids were playing. We were at St. Thomas More, his kids played football, my daughter was a cheerleader there. He was a part of the community, I was a part of the community, we had mutual friends. And yeah. He’s a good person in addition to being the county prosecutor. He’s a good father, a good member of the community. So yeah, we’ve been friends for a long time.”

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: “Let me say, when I was leaving Cleveland City Council 16 years ago, I had to look for a person in the community who had a commitment, the intelligence, the leadership, really the commitment to Old Brooklyn, who could be a successor that would demonstrate the values that I believe I possessed, but would faithfully handle the duties of that office. And Kevin was the obvious choice.”

Frank Jackson took office as mayor in 2006, and Councilman Martin J. Sweeney became council president. Sweeney named Kelley to his leadership team and appointed him to chair committees.

Early in his council days, Kelley opposed a plan to take a fire truck out of his ward. The firefighters haven’t forgotten. This year, their union endorsed him – both the local and the international.

Also on council Kelley pieced together funds to set up a free WiFi network in his Old Brooklyn neighborhood.

On the political front, in 2010, Prosecutor Bill Mason announced he would not seek another term. In 2011, Kelley, from his council seat, entered the crowded Democratic primary contest to replace him.

Kelley, like the other candidates, made a bid for the Democratic endorsement. Here he is in November 2011 talking with Mike McIntyre, Ideastream Public Media’s executive editor who then hosted the Sound of Ideas.

MIKE MCINTYRE: “Kevin Kelley, you’ve talked about your commitment to the Democratic Party, and you’ve spoken very closely with Democratic insiders about that. And in fact said to them in a letter that if you were elected, you would bring the values of the party to any office. What does that mean, the values of the party?”

KEVIN KELLEY: “Well, let me answer that question by first saying that my commitment to the Democratic Party is only a small portion of the campaign. I’m also running on my legal credentials and my credentials as a public servant.”

Kelley withdrew from that race in early 2012, but a new opportunity would crop up late the following year, when Martin Sweeney said he would step down as council president.

Kelley made a bid for the job. At a caucus meeting in November 2013, he faced no opposition and his colleagues elected him council president.

KEVIN KELLEY (in 2013): “I consider this just a tremendous responsibility and I’m going to take it very seriously. And I’m confident that you will not be disappointed in your vote today. So thank you very much, it means everything to me, so thank you.” (applause)

KEVIN KELLEY: “I had been counting votes long before that caucus meeting and. I became council president not because of any one thing, but because of the relationships that I had developed over the previous years.”

Here’s one way Kelley described the job of council president in our interview.

KEVIN KELLEY: “I have to manage a legislative branch of government where I have to manage 16 people that I cannot discipline. I can't fire them. I just have to build coalition with them.”

That process can be messy, and sometimes it happens out in the open. Take this caucus meeting in March of 2015.

Many roads that year were in pretty bad shape. Kelley had gotten the Jackson administration to allocate more money toward resurfacing residential streets. But Kelley’s plan included a crucial change in the way things were done. Instead of dividing the street money equally among all the wards, places with the worst roads would get the most funds.

Some council members, like Jeff Johnson, feared council wouldn’t have as much discretion in weighing in on which streets get fixed.

JEFF JOHNSON: “What is the reasoning why you’re removing council members from–?”

KEVIN KELLEY: “We’re not, no, no, I’m not even going to. No, councilman, you asked a question. Councilman, you asked a question. Do you want an answer? I’m not removing council from the equation. Council’s always going to be involved. Council is going to be –but it’s got to be based on data…”

Kelley has talked about this streets policy on the campaign trail. I asked him about it not too long ago.

KEVIN KELLEY: “I put forth a system that was more based in equity, more based in where is the need. Because we weren’t getting anywhere under the old system. We were going backward under the old system. And under the old system, if it was like this small chunk of money that was cut up, not only did I change how they were distributed, but I tripled the budget.”

In 2016, Kelley and city council faced what turned out to be the first of a few petition drives that were opposed by the city’s leadership.

The Service Employees International Union District 1199 gathered signatures for an initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour within Cleveland’s boundaries. Kelley and other city leaders opposed it, as did the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the region’s chamber of commerce.

The political fight unfolded throughout the summer. Eventually a proposal to phase in the minimum wage was set for a vote at the ballot box.

According to Cleveland.com, Kelley and other leaders spoke with lawmakers in the Republican-dominated state legislature, which passed a measure prohibiting city-only minimum wage hikes. The petitioners backed down.

KEVIN KELLEY: “I've always supported higher minimum wage, support it at the federal level, state level, not Cleveland-only. I heard from too many businesses that had other options other than Cleveland, manufacturing plants. We had just lost four grocery stores. And again, put yourself back, not in the 2021 economy, where there's a labor shortage and wages are increasing. You’ve got to put yourself in this 2015 economy when we're still clawing over the last recession.”

The second fight came in the summer of 2017, just as the mayoral race was in swing. Two city council members who often clashed with Kelley – Zack Reed and Jeff Johnson – were among those challenging Mayor Frank Jackson.

The fight was over a stadium financing arrangement known as the Q Deal. The city would extend the life of an admission tax to help pay for a major facelift at what was then known as Quicken Loans Arena, now Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Cuyahoga County was kicking in money, too.

KEVIN KELLEY: “Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for being here on this beautiful day in Cleveland, Ohio. And I’m here to announce that an already good deal has gotten better through the hard work of a lot of people just over the past few days…”

This is Kelley in the hours before council voted to approve that deal in April 2017. He was announcing that the Cavaliers had added improvements at school and recreation center basketball courts to the deal, and that the city wouldn’t be short-changed by the splitting of admission tax dollars between the Q Deal and the general fund.

The deal passed. But as it turned out, this was not the end of the story. A coalition of opponents of the deal tried to take it to a referendum on the ballot.

Among them were the faith group Greater Cleveland Congregations, labor unions SEIU 1199 and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 8 and the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus.

City council refused to accept those petitions, saying they interfered with a contract. The issue went to court. Long story short, the petitioners eventually withdrew their petitions after reaching a deal with the county to fund mental health treatment.

Kelley stands by his support of the Q Deal.

KEVIN KELLEY: “But I look back on that as a great deal. Because what happened out of that? First off, we were just going to keep doing what we're doing and keep this asset, keep the Cavs until 2037, improve this asset that we, the public own. And in doing so, they also agreed to refurbish every CMSD high school gym floor, every city of Cleveland rec center.”

On the campaign trail, he has taken hits from his opponents on both the Q Deal and the minimum wage. It was the basis of one of Justin Bibb’s attacks on Kelley during their debate that I moderated.

JUSTIN BIBB: “The council president continues to deny the will of the people. He does not believe in resident voice. I know the facts, and I have the experience to lead on day one.”

KEVIN KELLEY: “But, I’m sorry—"

CASTELE: “A little bit more time, sure.”

KEVIN KELLEY: “That I don’t believe in democracy is just, you’re running out of charges against me. This is something where, again, people have a right to petition their government. They have a right. Just like this issue 24 is going to the ballot. I can’t stop that. The facts are the facts.”

JUSTIN BIBB: “So why did you stop a vote on the minimum wage?”

KEVIN KELLEY: “The facts are the facts. The petition committee on the minimum wage withdrew the petitions. I don’t have the authority to do that, and you should know that. If you’re running for mayor of the city of Cleveland, you should know how government works, at least a little bit.”

Not everyone sees Kelley’s calls on those issues as a negative, though. Mayor Frank Jackson says he endorsed Kelley because of how he handled things like the Q Deal and the minimum wage.

Here’s Jackson talking about his endorsement of Kelley with the Outlaws Radio Show, a local podcast focused on Black audiences.

FRANK JACKSON: “So my point is that he has made some difficult decisions and when it wasn’t necessarily in his political interest, but they were the right decisions for the city of Cleveland as a whole and for the people. Now it’s those kinds of things that demonstrate to me whether or not somebody can handle the job. Whether I agree with people or not is one thing. The question is, can you handle this? Or are you just going to go with wherever the wind blows?”

Kelley has been running on his involvement in Cleveland’s push to protect children from lead paint. The city has long struggled against the contaminated paint that lurks in the windows, doorframes and exteriors of aging homes.

In 2017, then-Councilman Jeff Johnson proposed a measure requiring nearly all housing to be certified as lead safe. He put the measure forward in the summer of that year, as he was running for mayor.

Council eventually tabled it. I asked Kelley about that.

KEVIN KELLEY: “There were numerous reasons why it was tabled in terms of what is the, you know, what would be the best way to attack this this program. And again, that was many years ago. The details kind of elude me right now, but I know at the time there were there were numerous problems with it. But that didn't mean that there wasn't a problem at the core that we were going to solve for. And that's when we, you know, really started pushing forward.” 

In 2019, Kelley and other city leaders announced a broad coalition to finally solve the city’s lead paint problem. Kelley, along with councilmen Blaine Griffin and Kerry McCormack, introduced new legislation that was focused more narrowly on rental properties, which the city regulates.

At the same time, a new citizen group emerged, Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing, or CLASH. They started collecting signatures for a lead safe ballot initiative, in the event that council didn’t act.

Council gave its own lead-safe measure a hearing at a summit on lead poisoning that summer. Here’s Kelley speaking at the summit opening.

KEVIN KELLEY: “But if you look around here today, this is more than a public-private partnership. This is a community partnership. The philanthropic community, the healthcare community, the business community, the real estate community, government. Everybody came together because we care about an issue, an issue that’s very important to all of us.”

Council passed the ordinance, and the city began enforcing it in phases this year. It’s gone slowly. Kelley says everyone is frustrated by the pace, and that the COVID-19 pandemic slowed things down. One big issue, he says, is building up a workforce of lead inspectors.

KEVIN KELLEY: “Whatever happened in the past has happened in the past. What do we need to do moving forward to create a lead-safe Cleveland? My belief is that we have to start with the idea that we do not have enough certified trainers. We have to invest in developing that workforce, making sure that we are putting in the market enough inspectors that can do all the inspections that we are demanding.”

In addition to the lead issue, Kelley has campaigned on his work bringing community groups together to fight infant mortality. And another plank in his platform is the right-to-counsel initiative. In the last few years, Kelley has worked with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland to provide attorneys to low-income tenants facing eviction. Here’s Kelley talking about the idea at the City Club of Cleveland in 2018.

KEVIN KELLEY: “Something like this will go a long way towards, I believe, better landlord behavior. Knowing that there will be – that they can’t just evict somebody and not think that they’re not going to show up with somebody that says, you know, ‘Your roof is leaking, there’s no hot water, and this tenant has rights.’”

This year, as the mayoral campaigns got rolling, Kelley faced another citizen-led push, this one for public comment at council meetings. The supporters of public comment drafted an ordinance to make it a part of city law. Several council members quickly endorsed it. I wrote a column in Ideastream’s newsletter and on our website in April saying it was a good idea.

Kelley said he was open to it and referred the idea to two committees. They drew up changes to council’s internal rules enabling public comment. The push came up in one of the primary debates in August in this exchange between Kelley and councilman Basheer Jones, who has since endorsed him.  

KEVIN KELLEY: “The 18th, I forwarded rules to Cleveland City Council to change our process to allow public comment.”

BASHEER JONES: “About time.”

KEVIN KELLEY: “It’s been a long time, but I’m the first council president to do it, I’m pushing it forward, and it’s going to happen.”

It took longer than advocates wanted, which they pointed out in a recent letter to the Plain Dealer. But as of October, public comment is a part of council’s regular Monday night meetings.

One perk of being the president of Cleveland City Council is control of a political action committee called the Council Leadership Fund.

It was created in the early 1990s under then-Council President Jay Westbrook, during Mayor Mike White’s first term. The leadership fund raised money from businesses and law firms and supported council incumbents.

This year, in 2021, the leadership fund has made $3,000 maximum contributions to several council members. On top of that, the fund paid for yard signs and mailers for them, too.

Nearly all of those council members supported by the fund have endorsed Kelley for mayor. The spending in Ward 12 is now the subject of a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission alleging that it amounts to coordination over and above what’s allowed in Ohio.

The commission has yet to hear or decide that case.

Kelley says he turned over the reins of the fund to his majority leader, Blaine Griffin.

KEVIN KELLEY: I am no longer the vice president of the Council Leadership Fund. There's no way I could do that and run for mayor. But I've obviously I've been, as the president of Cleveland City Council, I've been involved with the fund before. And there is we there is nothing that is not proper in terms of how the fund is spent, and there is there is no coordination between candidates in the time that I have had my, you know, been in charge of that fund.

Griffin is seeking to succeed Kelley as council president next year.

Kelley’s allies on city council have joined him at campaign events around the city, particularly in Black neighborhoods. Kelley is white, and has looked to African American council supporters to help make the case for him with their constituents.

It’s given Kelley a chance to introduce himself to voters who don’t live in the West Side neighborhoods where he performed best in the primary. Like voters in Marshall’s Barber Shop in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood.

KEVIN KELLEY: “So a little bit about me. I was, I know the struggles of a lot of Clevelanders, because my story is like a lot of Clevelanders. I come from a single-parent family…”

At one event this fall, Blaine Griffin argued that Kelley – the council president and executive vice chair of the county Democratic Party – is not the establishment man people think he is.

BLAINE GRIFFIN: “People are trying to make it seem like Kevin and this council represent the establishment, the boardroom, the people who are out of touch with the community. And it’s actually the exact opposite. We represent the neighborhoods, we have homes here in the neighborhood.”

This cuts to the heart of two arguments Kelley has made in his campaign. One, that his experience in city government makes him the more reliable choice. And two, that if voters want change after 16 years of the same mayor, Kelley knows how to make it happen.

Kelley says those two ideas are not in conflict with one another.

KEVIN KELLEY: “Change, as a word, is easy. Change, as a verb, is hard. Making change, changing, that is hard to do.”

In the last days of this campaign, Kelley’s messaging has focused heavily on his opposition to Issue 24, which would give the Community Police Commission a say over the process of disciplining police officers. It’s a key difference between himself and Bibb, who supports the measure.

KEVIN KELLEY: “The reason that I think it's so important is that safety is the No. 1 issue in our community right now, in every community in Cleveland. And the time would never be right for Issue 24. It's absolutely positively wrong right now with the crisis that we are facing in violent crime.”

Before we ended our interview, I asked Kelley if there was anything else voters ought to know about him. He delivered his closing message.

KEVIN KELLEY: “This is complicated. This is no time for platitudes. This is time for progress. This is no time for rhetoric. This is time for results. And I want the residents, the voters of the city of Cleveland to say, ‘Who do you trust with this important job?’ Who do you trust? Who that's worked in government is supporting whom? And to me, the people that do the work are supporting me right now. The people that understand the challenges, that have been through challenges together and believe our best days are ahead of us, that's who supporting me. That's my coalition. And that's why I'm going to be mayor.”

Kelley’s fate rests with the voters, who will render their decision in less than a week on Nov. 2.

This is After Jackson: Cleveland’s Next Mayor, from Ideastream Public Media.

Next week, the results of Cleveland’s first open race for mayor in 20 years.

Our podcast was edited by Mike McIntyre and Annie Wu.

Music by Drew Maziasz.

I’m Nick Castele

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