Winners and Losers in the Cleveland Mayoral Debate: Bibb Kicks Kelley's Ass

click to enlarge BIBB VS KELLEY CAGE MATCH LET'S GOOOOOOOOO - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene

In nonprofit executive Justin Bibb's view, he is the mayoral candidate best suited to usher in a new era for Cleveland, one who will modernize City Hall, reimagine public safety and create the conditions for Cleveland's children to meet their God-given potential.

But according to City Council President Kevin Kelley, it is he who is best equipped to take the reins from four-term mayor Frank Jackson. It is he who has the experience and know-how to guide Cleveland through its pandemic recovery. It is he who would deliver results to Cleveland voters, not just rhetoric.

Both men tried to plead their case and gain the upper hand during the 90-minute Cleveland mayoral debate Monday night, trading the occasional barb but mostly sticking to the questions presented by host Nick Castele of Ideastream and panelists Lawrence Daniel Caswell of Cleveland Documenters and Elizabeth McIntyre of Crain's Cleveland Business.

The evening's topics were crime and safety, equity and inclusion, economic development, education, public health, and infrastructure.

The following is my best attempt, in the immediate aftermath of the duel, to assign victory and defeat to the evening's jousters. (The "Winner" and "Loser" labels have no actual significance and are always subject to change.) At this stage of the game, there can only be one winner.

It was Justin Bibb. And it wasn't close.

WINNER: Justin Bibb

In body language, preparation and mien, Bibb looked every bit the frontrunner all night. The 34-year-old performed well in debate settings during the primary — never claiming the night's big moments, but never faltering either. He shone Monday once again, speaking with poise and confidence and forcing his opponent to play defense. When he attacked Kelley, he did so "with all due respect," and generally spoke with enough conviction on substantive issues that Kelley was scrambling to rebut Bibb's points and reframe his own action or inaction on City Council. This dynamic resulted in Kelley often defending the status quo, playing directly into Bibb's narrative about how Kelley — who's been a city councilman for 16 years and city council president for eight — does not represent a new path for Cleveland at all. He is merely an extension of the current dysfunction at City Hall and the politics that have led to such dismal quality of life for so many Clevelanders.

Though there were areas of minor disagreement between the two candidates, the widest chasm is undoubtedly their respective stances on Issue 24, the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland ballot initiative. Bibb is for the amendment, arguing that the culture of policing in Cleveland has to change, and that more citizen voices at the table is essential for restoring trust between the police and the community. Kelley, on the other hand, is strongly opposed. He argues that the measure, which would place police accountability at the ultimate discretion of a civilian board, would result in hundreds of officers quitting the force. This would lead to a more dangerous city, he said.

Both men used their opponent's position to level their central criticisms. For Kelley, Bibb's support indicated that he was politically naïve, all about buzzwords without understanding the context of the policies he champions. "He offers platitudes, not progress," in Kelley's words.

For Bibb, Kelley's opposition indicated that he was opposed to democracy. He was taking a stance, once again, against a ballot measure with broad community support.

And it was frankly hard not to agree with Bibb's points. Black and brown Clevelanders have been killed by police for years without adequate (in fact often with flagrantly inadequate accountability). Something has to change. Bibb said he was willing to try something new, especially because similar measures have worked in other cities and because the measure emerged from the community itself. Kelley's argument felt like a sequel to the bloody Kucinich summer. He wanted to scare Clevelanders into opposition.

Both candidates leveled versions of their critiques throughout the evening, but Kelley's simply did not land. He kept adopting this patronizing tone and attacking Bibb for his "rhetoric," but it's not as if Bibb was just reciting "Hope!" and "Change!" He was offering far more specific plans than Kelley was.

And given the thick catalogue of Kelley's hostility to voters, Bibb had no shortage of source material to attack Kelley on his democracy allergy. It was impossible for Kelley to defend himself without looking like an imbecile or a liar or both. During a question about the Progressive Field Deal, Bibb said that there was frustration citywide because Clevelanders — from residents to city council members — are the last to know about these deals. Kelley responded that Bibb must not know how government worked, because the Progressive Field Deal was before council even now, and that nothing happens without a council greenlight.

Even the press room at the Idea Center could not help but chortle. Everyone knows that council does absolutely dick on these stadium deals. Kelley has ensured that the arrangements are ratified just as the teams draw them up. There is no mystery or question about Kelley's anti-democratic behavior.

And so when he raged that it was the Q Deal petitioners who withdrew the Q Deal referendum — he was rebutting a Bibb point on the subject and said he would have expected Bibb to get his facts right, though Kelley was making the dumbest argument imaginable — Bibb looked at the camera and asserted that Kelley was distorting the truth and continuing to deny the will of the people. He had much more restraint while doing so than many of us would have.

But Bibb's strongest moment came in the discussion of the lead paint crisis. Bibb celebrated the work of CLASH activists and said it was a shame it took their efforts to finally force city government's hand on lead. He said he wants to beef up housing code enforcement to ensure landlord compliance, appoint a lead czar in his administration and spend ARPA dollars to establish an endowment to fully eradicate lead poisoning in Cleveland. Ambitious? Sure.

But Kelley took exception to Bibb's plan to "beef up" code enforcement — this was another buzzword, presumably — and talked about the challenges of recruiting employees in the building and housing department. Though he did say the city can't make excuses, he said the lead safe Cleveland initiative had been stalled by the pandemic.

Bibb then delivered his marquee speech:

"This is the part of politics in Cleveland that frustrates me," he said, "and why our campaign is resonating with so many folks across the city. We can't be afraid to try hard things. There's always an excuse. It's too hard, so we give up. People want change. We've had 16 years of the failed status quo. And on this issue we need urgent leadership. We need to try hard things."   

Kelley tried to respond — he'd done hard things — but was battling uphill for the rest of the night after this gulf had been so precisely mapped.

Bibb gets bonus points, from this publication, for referencing the Cleveland Clinic's alarmingly low charity giving when asked about the poverty in the neighborhoods surrounding the hospitals.

LOSER: Kevin Kelley

Poor Kevin Kelley was out here trying to defend keeping Burke Lakefront Airport. 

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