The Man With the Plan: Jackson and Reed Square Off in Lone Cleveland Mayoral Debate

click to enlarge Frank Jackson and Zack Reed, with Rick Jackson between them, - (10/19/17). - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Frank Jackson and Zack Reed, with Rick Jackson between them, (10/19/17).
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and City Councilman Zack Reed took their best shots Thursday afternoon in what Jackson has made certain will be the only public mayoral debate before the Nov. 7 general election. Both men presented themselves as the man with the plan and their opponent as "all talk."

Indeed, "conversation" and "dialogue," which are generally regarded as signs of responsive leadership, were Thursday decried as the enemies of action. Jackson several times accused Reed of doing little but talk about issues. He repeated a version of the "what have you done" speech with which he closed the primary debate in August, and he reiterated what he'd said at the Plain Dealer endorsement interview earlier this week: Reed would, sooner or later, have to do something. Thursday, Jackson's "what have you done" became, "How are you going to build your wall?" (An allusion to Donald Trump?)

But Reed leveled similar charges at Jackson. He said it was the Mayor who was all talk, while he was the candidate who would reverse the decline of the past 12 years. "He talked about the future," Reed said in a closing statement, "but he didn't lay out what he was going to do."

These back-and-forths were at times virtually indistinguishable from bad absurdist theatre, though the debate was not without substance. Moderator Rick Jackson, from Ideastream, and a panel of local journalists — WKYC's Russ Mitchell, Ideastream's Amy Eddings, and's Chris Quinn — presented a series of incisive questions that forced the candidates into uncomfortable admissions and tense responses.

In what was far and away Reed's weakest moment, Russ Mitchell asked him about the five police officers who'd taken part in the shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Willliams, (in the infamous #137shots incident), who were re-instated on the Cleveland Police force today. How did Reed feel about this news, Mitchell asked him, and prefaced the question with Samaria Rice's request that Reed disavow the endorsement of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association. 

"I may not have made that decision, I may not agree with it," Reed said. "It doesn't matter what I think about it. I have to follow what was laid out [in the Constitution and the City Charter]."

When Mitchell doubled down, Reed dodged again — "I may not agree with it," he said. But in light of the CPPA endorsement, the answer came off as a direct appeal to the police and incredibly weak-willed. The re-instatement of those officers should be condemned, especially given Reed's comments about the "debacle" of police promotions during the Consent Decree era. 

Jackson scored big points when, a moment later, he characterized the answer as a pattern of Reed's: "You change how you feel depending on which way the wind is blowing politically," Jackson told his challenger.

Jackson, however, was not without weak moments either. Multiple times, he accused Reed (and his former primary challengers) of not owning up to mistakes. He accused Reed of attacking him, though wouldn't acknowledge a recent campaign attack of his own. When he mailed out literature highlighting Reed's three DUIs, Jackson said, it "wasn't about the councilman's drinking and driving." It was merely to show an error in judgement, and to highlight Reed's preternatural unwillingness to accept responsibility. In a high-pressure job like being Mayor, judgement in high-stress situations is an important consideration. (That's an awfully convenient spin on a negative campaign ad.)

Jackson also said that the other candidates, and certainly Reed, can't admit when they make mistakes. Jackson then proceeded to give himself a C+ on the Cleveland Schools, to totally mischaracterize the debate over Public Square and to qualify the city's population loss as "population gain in certain areas."

Both candidates had solid answers to a question about reconciliation between the police and the community (posed by Amy Eddings). Jackson mentioned something that should be obvious: Before you can talk about reconciliation, you need to have parties who are willing to reconcile.

Reed, who again talked about being open and transparent — and stressed that the police officers he wants to hire would be community-oriented officers who would "walk the beat" — received a phone call during his answer. 

"Right on time," said Jackson.

The moment turned out to be a strong one for both candidates. For Reed, it highlighted his accessibility. He said he has given out his cell phone number on the campaign trail, and lo and behold, here was an example. Reed said, further, that he would hold office hours at City Hall every Saturday so that anybody in the community could come speak to the Mayor one-on-one.

It was a strong moment for Jackson, also, because he laughed. It was frankly a delight to see Jackson amused by an amusing moment. The conversation between these two men is often so fraught with tension and vitriol, and Jackson is always so dour and sleepy anyway, that it was refreshing to see him smile.

Another small thing: Before answering his first question, Reed thanked the City Club for hosting the debate and thanked the gathered guests for attending. He did the same thing before he answered his first question before the PD editorial board. It's a common courtesy, but it's something that Jackson overlooked on both occasions. This is not a serious issue, but it's worth pointing out, an edge for Reed in the "style points" category.

In an opening answer, Jackson re-hashed the same key talking points that he has been making for the past five years: He has built an environment, he said, whereby in the next term, Cleveland will begin to witness the completion of projects now underway. He said he wanted to measure his success by how the city treats the "least of us." He said Cleveland has a bright future.

Reed's response, then, rang true. "We can't go through four more years of the same rhetoric," he said. " know his famous saying: It is what it is."

Jackson's ultimate response was more or less that he was a consistent and reliable leader, where Reed was malleable and shallow. And to Jackson's credit, he is famously consistent. Although many don't view the trait favorably. Some refer to it as intractability; stubbornness, if you like. And while Jackson has counseled Reed that leadership means taking a stand, and making a decision and doing something, he has not addressed what it means to be leader when the things you do and the stands you take are in open defiance of your constituents. What must a mayor do then?

If you ask either candidate, both will surely tell you they have a plan.