Q&A: Analysis of the Cleveland mayoral debate

Justin Bibb and Kevin Kelley at a debate in the Idea Center
Justin Bibb and Kevin Kelley at a debate in the Idea Center. [Michaelangelo's Photography]
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After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor Podcast

Cleveland mayoral candidates Kevin Kelley and Justin Bibb had a head-to-head debate on Monday, with just three weeks to go before the Nov. 2 general election. Ideastream Public Media's Nick Castele, who moderated the debate, joined "Morning Edition" Host Amy Eddings for analysis of their performance. 

Nick, the candidates disagree on Issue 24, the community police commission charter amendment. You brought it up in your first question, and it seemed to showcase how the two are positioning themselves in this campaign. How did they parse out their differences in the debate?

Well, I think that this is one issue where there's a very clear difference between the candidates. Justin BIbb supports Issue 24. Kevin Kelley opposes it. It would do a lot of things, but one of the key things it would do is take the Community Police  Commission, which currently has an advisory role as part of the consent decree, and it would give the commission disciplinary powers and investigative powers within the structure of disciplining and investigating officers. And so, you know, Bibb made the case the city needs change, the city needs, you know, more citizen input in the police discipline process. And Kelley took the opposite tack, saying that this is a naive measure and is one that will drive police out of the city.

"Without citizen voice and input, we're going to continue to see more frustration on these issues," Bibb said. "We need a mayor who believes in the will of the people and taking real public input from day in and day out, all the time."

Kelley responded, "This is a perfect example of not having a command of the basic facts, and it shows a naivete towards how government works."

So, I think that you hear in their dispute there also their core campaign messages, right? Bibb is running on change and Kelley's argument is that Bibb does not have the experience to run CIty Hall and that he does.

Right, Kevin Kelley, council president for the last seven years and Bibb, a political newcomer, a nonprofit executive. So, what was your impression of how the two candidates interacted with each other overall? Were there other sparring points? It didn't seem, it was nothing like the presidential debates of last year. 

No, and I guess I'm grateful for that. I didn't have to step in to try to inject myself back into the conversation. There were a few points where they went back and forth, particularly over these points of criticism they have of each other. Bibb criticized Kelley at different points for his past actions opposing a ballot measure that would have increased the minimum wage within the city limits of Cleveland, as well as for supporting the Q deal, [a] public package to renovate [the] then known as Quicken Loans Arena. And, you know, Kelley's criticism of Bibb was that he's not experienced enough and doesn't know government like he does. And I think there were a few moments where we had dust ups between them over those points.

Generally speaking, I thought they could have gone after each other a lot harder. And it seemed, I think, that they were both trying not to do any harm by sticking their necks out where maybe they weren't prepared to make an argument. I think these are two candidates who, despite their differences, also have some similarities in that they are cautious and methodical people. And I think they were careful about taking risks last night.

One of the big issues before Cleveland City Council is the proposed lease extension deal with the Cleveland Indians/Cleveland Guardians that would include $435 million in mostly taxpayer funded renovations. The next mayor is likely to inherit whatever decision is made on this, since the team and the Gateway Economic Development Corporation want something before the end of the year. What did Bibb and Kelley say about spending that kind of money on the ballpark?

Well, I was trying to get them to answer a simple question, "Is this a good deal for the city of Cleveland?" I wanted to hear them offer their assessments of the deal. I don't think we heard either candidate really get into the specifics about whether they thought it was a good idea to spend this money from these revenue sources, etc. Instead, you know, the argument became one about process. You know, both candidates sounded open to the premise that the city needs to spend public money to keep the teams in town and to keep the ballpark in good shape.

The disagreement was over how you present that deal to the public. Bibb's argument was that basically nobody knew the details of this deal until it was done, until, you know, the parties came forward and said, here is our deal, here are the terms. And Kelley's response was, he is planning to have city council hearings on this deal, and that's the way the process outta work. You wait for the term sheet and then you take it through the council process. And so, it became this discussion about how do you present the deal to the public. It was not really a discussion about what's in the deal and is it good for the city.  

Nick, election day is three weeks from now. What are these candidates going to do in the next 21 days to make it across the finish line?

Well, they gotta get the people who voted in the primary to show back up and vote again in the general, and then they've gotta find new voters and get them to the polls.

Ideastream's political reporter, Nick Castele, will have more in the next episode of the podcast, "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor." It drops Wednesday.

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