As Kevin Kelley Attempts to Rehab His Image for a Mayoral Run, His Campaign War Chest Reveals More Than His Words

click to enlarge "Fault Lines" virtual forum live stream, (4/29/20). - City Club of Cleveland
City Club of Cleveland
"Fault Lines" virtual forum live stream, (4/29/20).

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley’s City Club appearance late last month was widely (and properly) viewed as a pretext. During the frenzied weeks when residents have been focused, to the exclusion of other stories, on the coronavirus, the April 29th virtual forum was a chance for Kelley to butt in and begin publicly laying the foundation of a mayoral campaign platform, to get his name and face in the news.

Organized at Kelley’s behest, the appearance was titled “Fault Lines: Building a More Inclusive Cleveland” and was ostensibly a Q&A moderated by the City Club’s CEO, Dan Moulthrop. During the first half of the program, Moulthrop obligingly served up softballs that allowed Kelley to paraphrase, if not quote directly, a Medium post he’d published the day before about the immediate and long-term health of the economy. (This was in the context of Gov. Mike DeWine’s lately announced re-opening plans.)

Unless he’s coordinating Cleveland Rising 2.0, Kelley’s rhetoric certainly seemed to assert his mayoral aspirations. He said that the pandemic must be a “call to action” and that Cleveland must no longer ignore the “systemic issues that continue to hinder our growth and progress.” He cited the digital divide, the so-called “skills gap” which accounts for thousands of unfilled high-paying jobs in the region (many in the manufacturing sector), and health disparities as top priorities for the future administration he was not-so-subtly inviting viewers to imagine.

“[He] laid out broad policy suggestions, sounding much like a chief executive setting an agenda for the future,” observed in its write-up later that day.

At the tail end of the program, Moulthrop asked Kelley if he’d be running for Mayor in 2021, and Kelley did precisely what a good candidate is supposed to do: He said he couldn’t possibly focus on a political campaign when there were far more urgent matters to attend to. “Right now, we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “I’m not focused on anything other than coming back from this crisis at this point.”

If the City Club appearance left any doubt, much clearer and scarier indicators of Kelley’s ambition are revealed in his most recent campaign finance filing, which Scene obtained via public records request from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

More than a year removed from the 2021 primaries, Kelley has assembled a fearsome war chest, backed by a version of the same coalition that has long backed Mayor Frank Jackson. It is composed foremost of the construction industry’s unions and executives, real estate developers, and the city’s top law and accounting firms which tend to handle real estate transactions. Plus the pro sports teams.

Kelley currently has $340,000 on hand, more than $76,000 of which was raised in the latter half of 2019. This recent fundraising, to say nothing of the total reserves, are more than any candidate other than Frank Jackson raised during the 2017 mayoral campaign cycle.

This fundraising is even more significant because, at least for the moment, individual contributions to Kelley are capped at $1,500. Thanks to Kelley's efforts to jack-up campaign finance limits in 2016, once he’s officially running for mayor he’ll be able to solicit individual contributions of up to $5,000. That’s a dynamic which Frank Jackson exploited in 2017, and one which makes front runners who are backed by the region’s wealthy donor class functionally unreachable.

It’s not really an overgeneralization to say that, with very few exceptions, these donors represent pieces of the region’s elaborate real estate development machinery, the regular greasing of which has become the chief legislative function of city government. These wealthy donors are the constituents that Kelley, like Frank Jackson and Mike White and George Voinovich before him, will continue to serve if elected.

With all this money in hand, though, the first critical step for Kelley’s budding mayoral campaign will be image rehabilitation. The goal will be to present himself as someone who cares about Cleveland – that is, the physical city and the people who live within its boundaries — by using words like “equity” and “inclusion” and championing legislation like right to counsel for the evicted and issues, like infant mortality, that “test the soul of this community.”

It is a standard public relations campaign, in other words. Much like Frank Jackson, whose election-season PR generally consisted of proving he was still alive, Kelley will have ample funds at his disposal to execute this effort, which (rest assured) will be in effect for exactly as long as it takes to win the election. Once victory is in hand, he’ll go right back to serving the interests of the people who provided him the money in the first place. This is what’s known as democracy.

Kelley’s efforts are already underway, which is to say he is already trying to rewrite history. Surely one of the more head-spinning moments of his City Club appearance was during the audience Q&A, when he was asked about his record of blocking citizen-led initiatives.

“I’m not sure what the questioner is asking,” Kelley said, “because I don’t have the power to block initiatives.”

Moulthrop, who'd read the question from Twitter, mentioned off the top of his head the $15 minimum wage campaign of 2016 and the recent initiative to reduce the size and pay of City Council, both of which Kelley derailed. (The Q Deal referendum and the CLASH initiative are the other two biggies from recent years.)

“Whatever initiative you could come up with, the petitioners withdrew that on their own,” Kelley said. “I don’t have the power [to do that]. I encourage everybody who believes that they are not receiving the representation from the government to do ballot initiatives, to reach out. It’s an important part of our democracy. Ultimately though, if you look at any example that you just mentioned – and I could mention some more, but I’m sure we want to move on – I don’t have the ability to take something off the ballot. The petition committee, in each event, did so themselves.”

For just about everyone, the above will be immediately recognizable as disingenuous pap.

“Even Dan saw through the BS,” one longtime Cleveland political figure told Scene in a call discussing Kelley’s appearance. The implication was that Moulthrop, himself fluent in, and by now inured to, blasé non-answers from Cleveland's non-leaders, might be unable to detect what were obviously lies, but that in this case the revisionism was a bridge too far. Moulthrop sort of nodded, unsatisfied, and moved on to the next question.

The point is that anyone who’s been paying even minimal attention to City Hall over the past several years knows well that Kelley has been the chief architect of City Council’s anti-democratic actions and postures. It was Kelley who enlisted the Republican Batchelder Group to lobby for the attachment of preemptive legislation to an unrelated statehouse bill in order to ensure that cities like Cleveland could not pass minimum wage hikes, thus killing the local Fight for $15.

It was Kelley who worked his ass off to concoct the legal strategy by which more than 20,000 signatures were rejected out of hand for the Q Deal referendum. His bogus argument, signed by substitute council clerk Alan Dreyer, was that the referendum would violate the contracts clause of the United States Constitution, an argument later struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court.

It was Kelley and his minions who took special delight in hunting for technicalities on which to invalidate the petitions of both the CLASH coalition and the group seeking to reduce the size and pay of city council.

This stuff is not a big secret. It’s out in the open. It has been reported on in depth over the years by The Plain Dealer,, Scene and others. Most engaged Clevelanders know that this is what Kelley has done, and that he's very good at it. 

This means Kelley has a challenge. What he must overcome in the 2021 mayoral election is a perception issue. A branding issue, if you like. And in this case, the perception happens to be the truth: He is local democracy’s fiercest and most effective nemesis. It should be obvious to anyone who has tried to offer public comment at a city council meeting in the past decade that this is so.

But if it’s not obvious, the campaign finance report is strong supporting evidence. He is now being backed by forces who clearly appreciate the consistency of his anti-democratic efforts. These are folks, the vast majority of whom reside in the suburbs, who are angling for the continuation of lengthy tax abatements and handsome public subsidies on real estate development projects, or else for contractual work related to the construction or financing of those projects. Folks belonging to these groups are overjoyed to support a guy like Kelley, who has made it abundantly clear that he’s on their side, that he will do whatever it takes to deny citizens the right to weigh in on how the city spends its money and conducts its business. To make crystal clear: This is his hallmark.

Take, just as one example, the Q Deal.

Any of the 20,000+ citizens who signed the referendum petition and were terrified of spending millions more public dollars on sports facilities that the public has already paid dearly to build and maintain would have been astonished to hear Kelley express confusion about his role in blocking citizen-led initiatives.

But the people on the other side of the Q Deal, the forces pushing for its passage, know well what Kelley accomplished. (Note that Kelley's image rehabilitation charade is not to fool his donors, very few of whom will be voting in the Cleveland elections anyway. They know better than anyone the product they're buying.)

Len Komoroski, the Cavs CEO, for example, donated $1,000 to Kelley’s campaign in September, of 2019. He was joined by JACK Entertainment’s CEO, Mark Dunkeson, and Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock CFO Glen Tomaszewski and General Counsel Daniel Reinhard. All three are Michigan residents. They each contributed $500.

When the city improbably took itself to court to settle the Q Deal dispute – an unbelievable dereliction of duty and waste of public dollars – it was represented by the firms of Roetzel & Andress and Walter Haverfield. Partners at both firms, Lewis Adkins and Todd Hunt, respectively, made individual donations to Kelley’s campaign in December. (Roetzel made an additional $1,000 contribution, as a firm, to Kelley’s campaign in July.)

Fred Nance, of Squire Patton Boggs, was one of the Q Deal’s A-list public exponents, routinely called upon to wax apocalyptic about Art Modell and the Browns’ relocation of the 90s. It was he who stressed that Cleveland was “punching above its weight” as a midsize city with three pro teams and would have to pony up in the form of eternal public subsidies to stay that way. Via the D.C.-based Squire PAC, Nance donated $1,500 to Kelley’s campaign in December.

If these contributions from the Cavs and their Q Deal allies can be interpreted as gratitude for Kelley's job well done, (that is, for helping to stall and then kill the referendum, thereby greenlighting the city’s projected $88 million contribution to the Cavs), campaign contributions from the Browns may be interpreted as preemptive gratitude, a signal that they expect similarly favorable treatment for upcoming asks. In societies less beholden to business interests, and less in thrall of pro sports franchises, we might refer to these campaign contributions by another name. 

Both Jimmy and Dee Haslam each contributed the individual maximum, $1,500, in December. David Jenkins, the Executive VP and COO of the Browns, pitched in the max as well. Haslam Sports Group VP and General Counsel Ted Tywang donated $250 at the same December fundraiser.

Much of the rest of the $76,000 raised near the end of 2019 came from real estate developers and construction firms, many of whom are also recurring contributors to the Council Leadership Fund, an instrument Kelley has long wielded to enforce conformity and obedience from his council underlings.

Representatives from the Marous Brothers, the DeGeronimo Family (Independence Excavation), the Snavely Group, Cumberland Development, Geis Cos., The Landmark Companies, Millennia Cos., First Interstate Properties, Carnegie Development, K&D Development, Petros Homes, The Finch Group and others all donated between September and December of 2019.

This is the depressing way the city works. You read these reports and understand instantly how the city's governance is puppeteered by real estate. When residents bang their heads against the wall, wondering why City Council refuses to ever meaningfully consider amendments to its ludicrous blanket tax abatement policy, to take one example, a policy which has exacerbated existing inequalities while enriching real estate developers and local construction magnates, campaign contributions are a big reason why. Just like in Sherwin-Williams' case, the residents aren't the ones calling the shots.

Other recent donors to Kelley show the prominence of real estate as the engine of successful political campaigns. Not only Dave Wondolowski's Cleveland Building and Construction Trades group ($1,000), but also the Pipe Fitters Local 120 ($500), IBEW Local 38 ($500), Sheet Metal Workers 33 ($3,000), and a mechanical and plumbing contractors group ($500) donated, eager to partake in juicy projects on the horizon.

On the finance side, law firms and their individual partners were of course serious donors, as were brokers like Terry Coyne from Newmark Knight Frank. Donor Edward Asher, President of Weston Equity, "raises equity for real estate deals" and Ryan Sommers, managing director of the finance team at Project Management Group, per Crain's, "helps put together multiple sources of money from private and public sources to fund big real estate deals."

If Kelley's donors have their way, that'll be the Mayor's job too.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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