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At long last, Cleveland mayoral race super PACs reveal finances

A film crew shoots footage of mayor candidate Kevin Kelley in a barbershop for the super PAC Citizen's for Cleveland's Future. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
A film crew shoots footage of mayor candidate Kevin Kelley in a barbershop for the super PAC Citizen's for Cleveland's Future.

Updated Friday, Feb. 2 at 5:05 p.m.

Months after Justin Bibb won the hand in the Cleveland mayoral race, two super PACs that backed his general election opponent are finally showing their cards.

Citizens for Change PAC and Citizens for Cleveland’s Future PAC — both of which sought to aid Kevin Kelley’s candidacy — filed financial disclosures with the Federal Election Commission in the last few days.

The disclosures reveal short lists of financial backers, among them Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, retired Forest City CEO Albert Ratner, real estate developer Wesley Finch, Minute Men Staffing owner Jason Lucarelli and the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades.

Federal rules do not require super PACs to report fundraising and spending before off-year local elections, which enabled the PACs to conceal their finances until months after the Cleveland mayoral race was over.

Citizens for Change raised about $252,000 to sink Dennis Kucinich’s campaign in the September primary. The PAC funded broadcast ads and a glossy mailer criticizing Kucinich’s record in Congress and as Cleveland mayor from 1977-1979. The PAC also funded a mailer in the primary attacking Bibb over traffic court infractions and a dispute with a former landlord.

Defeating Kucinich in the primary was a chief goal for the Kelley campaign, which competed with the former Congressman for West Side votes. Kelley finished second in the primary, beating Kucinich by less than 3 points. Bibb finished first. The top two moved on to the November general election.

Citizens for Cleveland’s Future was formed in the general election and supported Kelley’s unsuccessful quest to defeat Bibb. It reported raising $293,000.

There was overlap between the two PACs' donor lists. The Haslams, Lucarelli, Finch and the building trades gave to both political action committees. The Haslams gave $44,000 to Citizens for Change and $50,000 to Citizens for Cleveland’s Future, filings show.

Albert Ratner is not listed as a Citizens for Cleveland’s Future donor, but RMS Investment Group — which was founded by the Ratner family and others — did give money to that PAC, which focused on the general election.

Citizens for Cleveland's Future also picked up financial help from two of Kucinich’s key donors after he was eliminated in the primary: restaurateur Tony George and James Kassouf, a real estate investor pardoned in 2020 by President Donald Trump. It was a big change in direction for George, who had opposed both Kelley and Bibb during the primary, supporting four other candidates against them.

Also among Citizens for Cleveland’s Future’s contributors was a nonprofit called Citizens for a Better Cleveland. In the primary, that nonprofit purchased a Cleveland Scene cover wrap ad backing Kucinich and criticizing Kelley. Once its candidate was ousted, the nonprofit chose Kelley over Bibb in the general.

In a filing with the FEC dated Jan. 29, Citizens for Cleveland’s Future disclosed a $50,000 contribution from Rock Holdings Inc., which is owned by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

But days later on Feb. 2, Citizens for Cleveland's Future filed an amendment reporting that the $50,000 came from the Construction Employers Association, a Brooklyn Heights-based membership association for construction companies. The PAC made the amendment "upon receipt of clarification of wire details" from its bank, according to the filing.

Tim Linville, the president of the Construction Employers Association, told Ideastream Public Media that his group did make a contribution in that amount to Citizens for Cleveland's Future.

Another Citizens for Cleveland's Future contribution came from contribution from LNE Group, the lobbying firm run by Lee Weingart, the Republican candidate for Cuyahoga County. Bibb worked briefly at LNE Group while in college, Weingart told Ideastream Public Media recently. His firm contributed $4,000.

In a text message Weingart wrote that his company contributed to the PAC in order to oppose Issue 24, the police oversight charter amendment. Bibb supported the amendment, while Kelley made opposition to the amendment a central piece of his general election campaign message. Weingart also noted that he gave $1,000 to the Bibb early in the campaign. 

During the general election, the Citizens for Cleveland's Future PAC filmed a pro-Kelley TV ad featuring council members Blaine Griffin, now the council president, and Kevin Conwell.

The PAC gave $20,000 to the American Center for Economic Equality, a nonprofit formed by Norman Edwards. Edwards is the head of the Black Contractors Group and became a vocal supporter of Kelley after backing Basheer Jones in the primary. The payments are listed in FEC disclosures as being for community outreach. A message seeking comment was left with a number listed for Edwards.

Bibb’s candidacy also received super PAC assistance. Conservation Ohio, a PAC created by the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, spent money on advertising and organized poll greeters to support Bibb.

Conservation Ohio received contributions from the League of Conservation Voters, a national environmental political group. It also received $115,000 from the Green Advocacy Project, a 501(c)4 based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Unlike Citizens for Change and Citizens for Cleveland's Future, Conservation Ohio filed monthly disclosures prior to last year's election.

Cleveland for All, a super PAC funded by the Ohio Women’s Alliance Action Fund, paid for mailers supporting state Sen. Sandra Williams in the primary and Bibb in the general.

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