The downer came, as it frequently does, with the first question.
"How old are you?" a woman asked.
Bailey, whose sparse facial hair and unbridled eagerness betray him, answered with dignified maturity.
The revelation sparked an excitement at the Black Women's Political Action Committee forum -- an excitement that talk of tax abatements never could. Women old enough to be his grandmother immediately launched their hands airborne. After Bailey answered the next question about where he went to school -- Cleveland -- those same hands came together in furious applause. When he was through speaking, the hands reached out to him. One committee member mouthed the words, "I'm so proud of you."
Al Bailey is an anomaly. From his crisp white shirt to his careful enunciation, Bailey seems more prep school than public school, more put together than self-made, more pristine than politic. Yet he is a survivor. Not just of the embattled Cleveland schools, but also of the child welfare system. Those two facts weigh more heavily in his favor than any campaign promise.
"I can't become a statistic like all my other counterparts," he says. "This run for state board is a testament to the fact that a child who grows up without things doesn't necessarily have to be a person without things."
Those things to which he's referring could very well be confidence, poise, and chutzpah.
Bailey is one of nine hopefuls trying to unseat District 11 incumbent Charles Byrne. At age 18, most people are just registering to vote. Bailey's ready to run the state public school system. His challengers are the likes of Shirley Hawk and Jackie Swails, ex-Cleveland school board members, and Virgil Brown Jr., a former state school board member. Aside from their musically recognizable names, all three are seasoned candidates with more friends and more money.
But that didn't stop hope from alighting on Bailey at the forum. He wouldn't know until much later whether the audience thought him the most deserving candidate or simply an inspiring young man -- whether their adoration was political or maternal. It's one thing to be the darling of the political forum and get the most applause. It's quite another to win a hotly contested election as a relative unknown.
Bailey's background makes his candidacy seem nothing short of miraculous. When he was eight years old, he says, he attempted suicide after being molested by a family friend. His mother had him hospitalized. When she couldn't pay the bills, she gave him to the child welfare system, which bounced him to 20 different placements over the next 10 years. Bailey says he remained a troubled child throughout much of his youth, eventually requiring the intervention of yet another institution -- the juvenile justice system.
Two years ago, Bailey decided to stop getting into trouble. He turned his attention to the one system he thought he could help change: the schools. Although he attended a Catholic school in kindergarten and second grade, he spent 10 years in public schools, 8 of them in Cleveland. The two years he spent out of the district, in the Parma, Canton, and Lawrence County public schools, convinced him of the inadequacy of the Cleveland schools.
"I left at 17 to get my GED, because I felt my education was becoming second-rate," says Bailey, now a nurse's assistant who plans to attend nursing school in the spring. "I saw the disparity in the Cleveland schools compared to these other schools I was going to, and it hurt me. I wanted to get out of this, so I could do better for myself."
Disparity to Bailey is having to take biology without a book and avoiding part of the school when it rained because of a large hole in the ceiling. He also saw apathetic teachers and disruptive students. So he turned to politics.
According to Isaiah Porter, who met Bailey when they were both living in a group home, the latter has been talking about becoming a politician since he was 11.
"He said that one day he was going to be mayor," recalls Porter, a computer engineering student at Cleveland State University.
At 14, Bailey worked for Councilwoman Patricia Britt. In 1997, he helped the Cleveland Teachers Union with its ballot initiative to limit tax abatements. "Alfonzo" was the only student working on the campaign on a regular basis, says Meryl Johnson, CTU second vice president. The initiative failed, but it didn't dim Bailey's belief in the political process.
This spring he voted in his first election. He calls the experience "the best thing that ever happened to me."
"It meant a politician couldn't tell me anymore that I don't matter," he says. "I used to walk up to some council people, and they would walk on by because I didn't matter, because I didn't vote."
Bailey hates when people pass him by. Campaigning in front of Tower City at rush hour, he hands out leaflets. On them, Bailey's smiling, poorly photocopied face stares back at prospective voters, if only for a few seconds, before they discard them in the nearest trash receptacle. The leaflets reveal more about his attitude than his platform. "Energized for change," "Committed to excellence," and "Ready for renewal," they read.
Like many of his competitors, Bailey's stance on vouchers and charter schools differs considerably from Byrne's. (Bailey doesn't support anything that takes money away from the public schools.) Yet his smart grasp of the issues and his flushed-cheek youth are enough to rouse kind words from officeholders.
"Al's been running down here since he was 15 years old, so you know he has a panache for this," says Councilman Robert White. "He's got good ideas, and they're not farfetched either for an 18-year-old."
After the Black Women's forum, County Recorder Pat O'Malley and North Randall Mayor Shelton T. Richardson pulled the visibly delighted Bailey into the seat between them, where they congratulated and encouraged him.
"My first mayoral endorsement," he gushed. "I'm so pleased."
As much as Bailey's political mentors would like to see a child of the system take a seat on the state school board, most have not endorsed him. Nor do they express much confidence in his chances.
Bailey is cautiously hopeful. "With 10 people in a race, anything can happen." If he loses, he plans to run again.
In the next month, Bailey will keep a busy campaign schedule. Because his district includes most of Cuyahoga County, he has forsaken the traditional door-to-door approach. Instead, he's started aggressive leaflet-distribution efforts at shopping malls from Euclid to Lakewood.
"Al Bailey running for state school board!" he shouted at Tower City to a mostly uninterested mob headed for home. "I need your help in November."
One woman stopped. She looked down at the leaflet, then at him.
With familiar disbelief, she asked, "How old are you?"