Seven Cleveland Council Challengers Disqualified by BOE, All From High-Poverty East Side Wards

click to enlarge Ward 9 Council Candidate Bishop Chui - Courtesy of Bishop Chui / Photo by Gary Oliverio
Courtesy of Bishop Chui / Photo by Gary Oliverio
Ward 9 Council Candidate Bishop Chui

Until Monday, Bishop Chui was a candidate for Cleveland City Council in Ward 9. The Glenville resident, who moved back to Cleveland after going to school in Washington D.C., was running against popular incumbent Kevin Conwell and wanted to prioritize issues, like gentrification and income inequality, that he felt were being overlooked.

But the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections determined that Chui, along with six other council candidates, did not gather enough valid signatures to qualify for the primary ballot in September. On Monday, his name was removed from the list of 2021 candidates.

Another Ward 9 candidate, Guy Coleman, was also removed from the race based on insufficient signatures, which means that Kevin Conwell will win another council term without a challenger. He joins Blaine Griffin, Anthony Hairston and Brian Kazy as council incumbents running unopposed. Griffin, like Conwell, is the lone remaining candidate in his ward only after the BOE invalidated the signatures of his opponent.

Chui is an organizer and activist who got a relatively late start to his campaign this spring. He said he initially paid one canvasser to circulate petitions but gathered the majority of his signatures personally and with volunteers. He said he thinks the BOE's stringent enforcement makes gathering signatures a challenge in poverty-stricken wards.

That's borne out by the BOE's rulings earlier this week. The candidates disqualified for invalid signatures were from Wards 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 12, all of which are on the city's east side. Ward 12, which includes portions of Tremont, Brooklyn Centre and Old Brooklyn in addition to Slavic Village, is one of only two wards that spans the Cuyahoga River. With a median household income of $26,505, it is also the wealthiest of the wards where candidates were disqualified. In Chui's Ward 9, more than 8,000 of nearly 21,000 residents live in poverty.

"The BOE has a responsibility to confirm that the signatures are genuine," Chui told Scene, "but they take it a step further. They'll invalidate the signature of an octogenarian who has suffered a stroke because her handwriting doesn't look the same as it did when she first registered decades ago." 

Chui said that the biggest issue he encountered going door-to-door in Glenville was that residents living in poverty don't always have stable housing. There were some who signed their names to his petitions who were unregistered — many people don't know their voter registration status — but even more who were registered at previous addresses in other communities. People living in financial precarity move around a lot, as a rule. Chui said that, in addition, the BOE's voter rolls aren't always up to date and include registered voters at addresses that no longer exist, usually due to demolition.

Ward 9 is unique in one other respect: At least one of its precincts is dominated by Case Western Reserve University students, most of whom, if they are registered at all, are registered in their home communities, often out-of-state.

"I'm not pointing fingers, but the whole situation is unfortunate," Chui said. "I think there's this idea that gathering signatures is supposed to be an arduous process. Like it's supposed to be this hazing for people getting into politics. I think that's the wrong way to look at it. It should be easy and accessible."

Chui said that gathering signatures, which can already be intimidating and confusing for newcomers in any ward and especially challenging for those running in high-poverty wards, is exacerbated by entrenched incumbents who leverage their ward connections to circulate petitions at local institutions — churches, for example — and who publicly promote a narrative that signing a challenger's petition means "going against" them. 

Still, the 300 valid signatures required for council candidates is nowhere near the 3,000 required for the mayoral race. Chui mentioned that at Monday's meeting, the BOE noted "irregularities" in a small number of mayoral candidate Justin Bibb's signatures. Addresses attached to about 40 signatures had been crossed out and replaced by new, correct addresses.

"They wanted to call out [Bibb's] campaign," Chui said. "But they're so brutal with the way that they invalidate that I can't fault someone whose job it is to make sure those signatures are correct. You've got to have all your Is dotted and Ts crossed."

Chui said, by way of example, that he'd collected the signature of a woman who moved within the same apartment building — from Apt. #412 to #502 — and because she listed the new number, which didn't correspond with her voter registration, the signature was invalidated.

"This absolutely gives an advantage to established candidates and those who live in wealthier areas with more stable housing," he said. "What's sad is that there's a real energy across Cleveland for new leadership on city council, and you saw a number of first-time candidates who put themselves out there this year. Maybe I could've caught more of these errors, but I don't think you should have to be an attorney or a paralegal to file petitions." 

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