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Cleveland Mayoral Candidates Must Clear High Bar To Get On Ballot

Attorney and Cleveland mayoral candidate Ross DiBello collects signatures in Ohio City. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Attorney and Cleveland mayoral candidate Ross DiBello collects signatures in Ohio City.

Last Friday evening in Old Brooklyn, Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley walked up and down West 50th Street asking for neighbors’ signatures.

“How are you doing?” Kelley said at one woman’s house. “Good to see ya. I’m your councilman, Kevin Kelley, and I’m running for mayor. And I just wanted to stop by to say hello and see if you’d consider supporting me.”

But before this voter signed Kelley’s petition to get on the ballot, she had some business to bring up.

“I talked to your secretary last summer…” she began. A storm drain near Estabrook Playground behind her home was filling up with debris again.

Kelley, who said he brought his kids by last year to help clean up the mess, pledged to send someone out to deal with it.

“It’ll probably be my kids again, too,” he joked, before turning back to the campaign. “Would you consider signing my petition?”

She signed, and before moving on, Kelley took a look at the backyard.

Before Cleveland’s candidates for mayor can truly compete in this year’s election, they have to clear this big, first hurdle: gathering 3,000 signatures from registered voters. Candidates have about a month and a half left to gather enough names to make the ballot. The deadline is June 16.

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley canvasses his Old Brooklyn neighborhood for mayoral petition signatures. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

A campaign aide helped Kelley drop off flyers that Friday, encouraging voters to put pens to the paper of his mayoral petitions. And the two of them weren’t at it alone.

“We have crews out across the city tonight, and doing this,” Kelley said, “but I really think it’s important I do this in my own neighborhood, and walk my neighborhood.”

Cleveland’s mayoral signature requirement is steep. It’s more than the 1,000 signatures Columbus requires of citywide candidates or the 500 needed to run for mayor in Cincinnati. In 2018, Cleveland’s city charter review commission proposed changes to the candidate and petitioning rules, but left the 3,000 signature requirement untouched.

Not every name and address will pass muster in the end, meaning campaigns have to overshoot, turning in up to twice the number they need, if not more.

“It does take a lot of support and a lot of help, and it requires a good organization and a good following and a good network of people,” said Jeff Rusnak, CEO of Ohio political consultancy R Strategy Group.

Clearing the 3,000 hurdle can take money, too. It’s not uncommon for campaigns to hire professional signature collection firms to help their efforts. That move could cost a candidate around $10,000 to $25,000, if campaign finance disclosures from the 2017 mayor’s race are any guide. 

This year, hiring a petitioning company could be even more expensive – in the range of $30,000 to $60,000, according to Rusnak. He’s not currently working for any Cleveland mayoral candidates but he has seen proposals from companies hoping to win signature collection work, he said.

“The proposals that I saw for signature gathering for a mayoral candidate in the city of Cleveland were, I would say, staggering amounts of money,” Rusnak said.

Ross DiBello gathers signatures in Ohio City. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

For attorney and mayoral candidate Ross DiBello, it’s taking some clipboards and patience with rejection. On Saturday morning, he flagged down passers-by in Hingetown, the collection of shops, bars and gyms on West 29th Street in Ohio City.

“How are you doing sir?” DiBello said to one man. “Trying to get on the ballot for mayor. Are you a Clevelander, by chance?”

“I’m okay, thank you,” the man said as he passed.

DiBello wished him a good day. “Yeah, so you get a lot of that too,” he said. “‘I’m okay.’”

Over the course of the morning, DiBello added names to his growing list of signatures, chatting up voters about their dogs and asking them to tell friends and roommates about him. At times, he raced across the street, making sure he didn’t miss any opportunities.

The coronavirus pandemic has added new challenges to signature collection. In previous elections, candidates could roam the circuit of neighborhood Democratic Party meetings, DiBello said.

“Your most caring citizens that would sign everybody’s thing and want to hear what you have to say, those are ward club events,” DiBello said. “I come from the world of judicial politics, and you have to go to all these ward club meetings. And they’re in the flesh and they’re indoors, and it’s an older crowd a lot of times.”

Mayoral candidate Justin Bibb speaks to supporters in Cleveland's Mill Creek development. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Since signatures can’t be collected over Zoom, canidates have to find other ways to get their petitions in front of voters.

Justin Bibb’s campaign held a small coffee-and-donut petition drop-off event on Saturday in Mill Creek, a development in Cleveland’s Slavic Village Neighborhood. Bibb gave a stump speech and took photos with supporters.

Bibb said he has more than 200 volunteers around the city helping him get on the ballot, ranging from Cleveland State University students to his mother, “who is hitting the pavement hard.”

His campaign has been at it since late December, he said.

“And it’s been an uphill battle,” Bibb said. “And so I’m so happy we got an early head start to make sure we had the infrastructure of an engaged volunteer base to help us get our petitions signed. But we got a long way to go, but I’m optimistic we’re going to be in good shape to get on the ballot.”

Shortly after that, a campaign staffer ushered Bibb into a nearby car for a drive across the East Side to the next event – and more signatures.

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