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Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson To Retire, Won't Seek 5th Term

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson celebrates a first-place finish in the 2017 primary. Jackson announced Thursday that he will not seek a fifth term in office. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson celebrates a first-place finish in the 2017 primary. Jackson announced Thursday that he will not seek a fifth term in office.

Updated: 6:58 p.m., Thursday, May 6, 2021

Cleveland’s longest-serving mayor will exit City Hall at the end the year, his 16th in office.

Mayor Frank G. Jackson on Thursday told a telephone town hall audience he will not seek a fifth term this year.

The news ends months of speculation about Jackson’s political intentions, while numerous contenders – from first-time candidates to long-tenured elected officials – clamor to replace him.

The decision marks the finale of a 32-year political career for the former councilman from Central who helmed the city through the Great Recession, a federal investigation of Cleveland’s police force, the 2016 Republican National Convention and now the coronavirus pandemic.

Jackson said he would not endorse a successor yet, pledging to review the candidates in the crowded field before making a decision.

“This is a relay race, not a sprint,” he said. “The race is not over, and we are not yet a great city. Your job, this is your job, will be to ensure that the runner in the next leg of this race runs hard and he runs true.”

Even as Jackson took the moment to celebrate his long career, taking phone calls from residents who thanked him for his time in office, he said deep-rooted inequalities and racism persist in Cleveland.

“There are things, however, that haunt me,” Jackson said. “Things that are implanted in my brain, things that no matter how much I have accomplished, and no matter how much work I put in, or how this system measures success, as the lyric of the song ‘Sounds of Silence’ says, ‘Those visions still remain.’”

Those nightmares, according to Jackson: crack-cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s, the opioid epidemic, the funerals of “children murdered in the drug game and the street culture that has no mercy” and men returning from prison with few options for a new life.

“This has always been personal to me,” Jackson said. “And I’ve come to this game of politics not trying to be anything, but really to use the positions that I’ve gained as tools to grapple with the causes of the visions that haunt me.”

Those visions haunted Jackson’s early days in politics, too.

As the chairman of a community group in the city’s Central neighborhood in 1988, Jackson pressed city leaders to do more to eliminate drugs, maintain public housing and protect Black and poor residents from displacement. The following year, he ran against Ward 5 Councilman Preston H. Terry III and won.

In 2005, running on a pledge to “Make Cleveland great again,” then-City Council President Frank Jackson unseated incumbent Mayor Jane Campbell. In subsequent elections, Jackson trounced his electoral opponents with support from business leaders, building trade unions and much of the Cleveland political establishment.  

With the help of the state legislature in 2012, Jackson reorganized the school system, giving the mayor’s office more power over the district. Voters approved a property tax hike for the schools that year, renewing it in 2016 and increasing it 2020.

Cleveland’s division of police drew federal scrutiny after a pursuit on Nov. 29, 2012 ended with officers killing two unarmed people in a hail of 137 gunshots. The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation months later, determining in late 2014 that city police exhibited a pattern and practice of civil rights violations.

That announcement came on the heels of the November 2014 fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a police officer.

The DOJ probe resulted in a years-long, court-mandated police reform effort that will continue into the administration of Jackson’s successor.

While Cleveland’s population continued its decades-long decline, the Jackson era saw new buds of development — supported by city tax incentives — in neighborhoods like Downtown, Ohio City, Tremont, Detroit-Shoreway and University Circle. But many parts of the city still bear the scars of the 2008 financial collapse, dotted with vacant lots where abandoned homes once stood.

In recent state of the city addresses, Jackson told supporters and civic leaders the city had a chance at greatness, but also that it was confronted by a “beast” of entrenched inequality. That disparity showed itself in the COVID-19 pandemic and during the unrest after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Jackson said last year.

While civic boosters and skeptics debated whether Cleveland’s position among U.S. cities had slipped over the last 50 years, Jackson offered his own take: Cleveland is a big city with big city problems, too.

“We’re not Disneyland,” Jackson told a group of reporters on a trolley tour of the city during his 2013 reelection bid. “We're a real urban center with all the feel, and the smell, the taste, the sound of an urban center.”

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