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Kevin Kelley rallies Black supporters as mayoral race enters final month

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley rallies supporters in Ward 2 on Wednesday morning. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
Blaine Griffin, Yvonne Conwell, Kevin Kelley, Kevin Bishop, Basheer Jones, Norm Edwards, Cordell Stokes and Pastor Aaron Phillips

At a Wednesday morning rally outside Sure House Baptist Church in Cleveland’s Union-Miles neighborhood, one of Kevin Kelley’s top supporters portrayed the council president and well-funded mayoral candidate as something he’s not often called.

An underdog.

“This is a race about the boardroom and the streets,” Ward 6 Cleveland City Councilman Blaine Griffin told Kelley backers and the media. “And I’m asking you to vote for Kevin Kelley if you believe in the streets of Cleveland.”

Griffin and several other Black supporters of Kelley urged voters to consider their candidate’s council record when deciding whom to send to the mayor’s office Nov. 2. Kelley and opponent Justin Bibb have been working to win over Black voters on the East Side as the campaign enters its final month.

Kelley, who is white, finished second in the September primary. He knocked Dennis Kucinich out of the race, but fell almost 3,200 votes short of Bibb, the Black first-time candidate who claimed the primary's top spot running on a change message. The top two vote getters advanced to the general election.

Now Kelley’s supporters face a twofold challenge: contrasting the council president’s experience with Bibb’s greenness, while also defending Kelley from charges that he represents a moribund status quo.

Kelley pledged to spend the city’s $1.8 billion budget equitably, investing in nieghborhoods and supporting community policing plans.

“How can I assure you that I am going to invest in our African-American neighborhoods? Just look at my history,” Kelley said. “We will invest where the need is, and I understand where the need is.”

After the event, Griffin – one of the contenders to succeed Kelley as council president – told Ideastream Public Media that observers of the race have been looking at it the wrong way.

“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,” he said. “And it’s actually the exact opposite. We represent the neighborhoods. We have homes here in the neighborhoods.”

Although Bibb has not held elected office, he has rallied many in Cleveland’s political world to his side, including former Mayor Michael R. White, former Council President Jay Westbrook and Jane Campbell, who served as mayor from 2002 to 2006. U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Cleveland resident, has endorsed Bibb, too. 

“A lot of people that are endorsing other folks are from way in the past,” Griffin said at the rally. “We don’t represent the 90s. We represent the 21st century dynamics of this city.”

Griffin and other Kelley-endorsing officeholders at the event – Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones, Ward 2 Councilman Kevin Bishop and Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell – said Kelley shared their concerns and could deliver results in neighborhoods they represent.

Also backing Kelley at Wednesday’s event were Black Contractors Group head Norm Edwards, Sure House Baptist Church Pastor Aaron Phillips and Cordell Stokes, the son of the late Mayor Carl Stokes.

Kelley’s event comes less than a week after Bibb secured the endorsements of numerous Black religious leaders in Cleveland, including Revs. Otis Moss Jr. and E. Theophilus Caviness.

Next week, Kelley and Bibb will face each other for a general election debate hosted by Ideastream Public Media and the City Club of Cleveland.

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