Political Stomping Grounds 

For Cleveland City Council members, home is not necessarily where the ward is.

"That's my community," Ward 13 resident Joe - Santiago says of Ward 14. - THOM  SHERIDAN
  • Thom Sheridan
  • "That's my community," Ward 13 resident Joe Santiago says of Ward 14.
Joe Santiago lives in a century-old house on West 14th Street in Tremont, a block away from I-71. The 34-year-old retirement home worker and ex-Navy cook has ambitions: He wants to be a Cleveland city councilman. And he's not going to let one little city block stand in his way.

Santiago likes his representative on council, Joe Cimperman, who lives a few blocks from him. So this fall, he's running in Ward 14, on the other side of I-71. And he's eager to rattle off the reasons he's an honorary resident of the ward he doesn't live in.

"That's my community, that's where I grew up, that's where I went to school," says Santiago. "Everyone in that community knows me, knows my family."

His brother, sister, and father live in Ward 14, the heavily Hispanic district that encompasses most of the Ohio City and Clark-Fulton neighborhoods. His own house, which he grew up in, was part of 14 until a redistricting 10 years ago.

Santiago's candidacy may surprise people who assume that, when they elect leaders, they're electing one of their own. But in Cleveland, you don't have to live in a ward to represent it.

That quirk of the law does not make Ward 14 Councilman Nelson Cintron happy. "If [Santiago] wants to run, he should look at the place he lives in. He should look at Ward 13," Cintron says angrily. He plans to make his challenger's residency an issue in his race. "People are smart enough to want their representative to live in their district."

But every election year in Cleveland, people jump ward lines to run for council seats. Two councilmen currently live outside their wards: Craig Willis represents a ward next to East Cleveland, but lives near Shaker Square; Zachary Reed lives just outside his southeast Cleveland ward.

Councilman Michael O'Malley thinks candidates should live where they run. Last year, still stinging from a 1999 special election in which three of his opponents lived outside his ward, he proposed an amendment to the city charter that would have created a residency requirement for council candidates.

"And my dear colleagues shot it down," he says with just a touch of bitterness. Though a few councilmen, including Cintron, supported O'Malley, the idea never made it to the floor for a vote. Other council members told O'Malley they were afraid redistricting could become a political weapon under his plan, that "if you had a dictatorial council president . . . he could eliminate [enemies] by drawing them out of their ward."

Council President Mike Polensek helped nix O'Malley's proposal. He says the timing wasn't right, with redistricting and elections this year.

"Myself, I've always maintained you should live in your ward," Polensek says. But right now, he and his colleagues are poring over maps, negotiating how they'll expand the size of wards that lost population in the 2000 census and shrink those that gained people. Sometimes, ward lines divide a neighborhood. Polensek still complains that, 10 years ago, he had to give up part of Collinwood, including his grandparents' street.

Polensek says he's trying not to pencil any incumbents out of their current electoral stomping grounds. But if that's unavoidable, he asks, what's a victim of redistricting to do? "Are they denied the right to run in their old ward, not through any fault of their own, but because of where they live?"

If that sounds like a case of politicians protecting each other, Polensek insists it's also fair to challengers. "You lived in the ward today, tomorrow you're not going to live in it -- do you deny that person the right to seek office? Do you deny them the right to run in that community?"

Of course, even with a residency requirement, anyone could still run for office. Some candidates, though, wouldn't be able to run in friendly, familiar territory. By keeping the current system, council spares itself the vicious battles common at other levels of politics, where redistricting can end political careers, pitting incumbent congressmen and state representatives against each other or separating them from their most loyal voters.

There's a long history of councilmen pledging their loyalty to wards where they don't live. Charles Patton served two terms as a councilman for the far southeast end of Cleveland before his 1997 defeat. Some say the fact that he lived near Shaker Square was one of the reasons he lost.

Most line-jumping council members have lived within a ward or two of their electorate. No one, in Polensek's memory, has dared to flaunt Cleveland's political fault lines and represent an East Side ward while living on the West Side or vice versa.

Matt Zone owns a house on West Boulevard in Ward 18, but is running in nearby Ward 17, a neighborhood his father and mother represented for a combined 22 years. He recounts all the reasons that 17, the West Side district stretching south from Edgewater Park, is his true ward: It's where he grew up, went to school, and served on a precinct committee -- and it's where his wife and family work, where his son goes to school, and where he goes to church.

If that's not enough, Zone has pledged to move if he wins. "When I'm elected, I will be a resident of the ward I serve," he says.

Craig Willis represents Ward 9, which borders East Cleveland, but he's registered to vote at his house in the Shaker Square area, which is inside the city of Cleveland yet part of the much-envied Shaker Heights school district.

In 1998, when news reports revealed that Willis's kids were going to Shaker Heights schools, he was accused of violating a peculiar provision of the city charter: If council members do live in their ward when elected, they can't move out. During the brief media frenzy, Willis got into a scuffle with TV reporter Carl Monday, who had staked out one of Willis's homes. Eventually, the city law department let Willis keep his seat, ruling that he had been maintaining two residences for some time.

Until this year, Willis listed two addresses in the phone book (now he's unlisted). His name is still on the mailbox of his house on Ward 9's Beulah Avenue, but the phone number has been reassigned, and the place looks as though it hasn't been lived in for a while. Disheveled shades and blinds block the windows, the siding is covered with soot, and two old cars sit in the driveway -- a VW Beetle, with its rear window missing, and a Lincoln, with year-old newspapers yellowing in the backseat. His three-bedroom home on tree-lined Becket Road is much more picturesque, with a spacious lawn and a porch with an arched roof.

Not surprisingly, residency is not Willis's favorite topic of conversation. His voice rises when he's asked where he lives.

"It should be irrelevant where someone puts their behind when they go to bed," he says. "[The issue] should be, are constituent needs being served?" Ward 9 is enjoying new development, increased voter participation, and a stable population, he says. "All of this is happening because of my goodwill and efforts."

Zach Reed, appointed this year to the Ward 3 seat, which includes most of the East Side's Mount Pleasant neighborhood, actually lives a half-block outside the ward. That's close enough, he says. "I truly believe that, if you really enjoy working and doing [things] for your community, the effect of where you live at is not as important as where your heart is. If your heart is where you grew up, where you've had a business, where you went to church, you're going to work as aggressively for that community as [for] where you live 24 hours a day."

If a residency requirement is proposed again, Reed says he'll oppose it. Still, he plans to move soon -- "the house I'm living in right now is getting a little too crowded" -- and he'll look for a new place inside the ward he represents.

Councilwoman Dona Brady has long owned a house on Bosworth Road in her ward, a fairly big but plain white house with a well-kept flower garden. She and her husband, state Senator Dan Brady, also own a five-bedroom house with a huge porch on stately West Boulevard, outside the councilwoman's ward. (Both houses are inside Dan Brady's state senate district.)

"I live in my ward," says Dona Brady, reached by phone at her Bosworth home. "I only have one residence." The Bradys did live on West Boulevard for a while, she says, but now her husband uses that house as a district office.

Unfortunately for Brady, a private investigator is running against her for council this year. "She doesn't live in the ward. She's running back and forth between two wards," says Chris Giannini, who plans to make Brady's residency the biggest issue of his campaign. Brady splits her time between the two houses, claim the snoops at Giannini's company, International Investigations; they see her husband only at the West Boulevard house, not the Bosworth one.

Back in Tremont, Joe Santiago insists his address won't hurt his campaign. With only slightly more than 20,000 people in each ward, the current law allows for more competition and a better choice of candidates, he says.

But like a true politician, he straddles the fence. He says he'd probably support a residency requirement if elected. "If people think it does matter, then I would be willing to move."

More by Erick Trickey


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