Few Winners and Lots of Losers in Rowdy East Side Mayoral Forum

click to enlarge L-R:  Zack Reed, Eric Brewer, Jeff Johnson, Brandon Chrostowski; Mayoral Candidates' Forum 7/24/2017 - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
L-R: Zack Reed, Eric Brewer, Jeff Johnson, Brandon Chrostowski; Mayoral Candidates' Forum 7/24/2017
Seven Cleveland mayoral hopefuls threw off their gloves in a raucous barroom brawl billed as a "candidates forum" in Cleveland's Lee-Harvard neighborhood Monday night. It was the second such event hosted by the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, and this one, co-hosted by the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition and held at the Harvard Community Services Center, was considerably rowdier than last month's event in Clark-Fulton.  

Cleveland City Councilmen Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed; restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski; former East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer; businessman Robert Kilo; grandpa Bill Patmon; and Dyrone "Who is You?" Smith appeared before the packed room of energized (and vocal) voters. Patmon and Smith did not appear at last month's forum. Tony Madalone, who appeared last month, was absent Monday — he'd informed the CCPC that he had a prior engagement. Mayor Frank Jackson, for the second time, was a no-show.

The primaries are September 12, and the summer campaign season is clearly in full swing. Candidates for various council and judicial seats — including Ward 1 City Council candidate Joe Jones — were in attendance, along with supporters in t-shirts passing out cards and info sheets.

The standing-room-only crowd was not easily swayed by catchphrases and campaign promises. Candidates' trashing of the current administration occasioned swells of applause, but dodges and deflections were met with cries of "he didn't answer the question!" or, when the crowd didn't approve of a message, "time's up!"

Moderators from the CCPC effectively held candidates to the one-minute time limit — a challenge — and, in response to comments from last month's event, altered the order in which candidates' answered questions.

These were the issues discussed. (Questions were submitted by audience members):
  • The lead paint challenge and environmental concerns
  • Effective ways for "honest politicians" to make change
  • The militarization of the police; the consent decree
  • Administrative priorities ("First five things")
  • Neighborhood development vs. downtown development;
  • Job growth and training;
  • Grocery stores and food deserts
  • The Opportunity Corridor and public transportation.
Again, the framing of the event was a "forum," not a debate. Yet Monday night's soiree included much of the name-calling and brash tactics that we witnessed in the Republican primary race of 2015 and 2016. Eric Brewer fueled much of the bare-knuckle exchanges, but even without Brewer's influence, the tension — readily apparent on the faces of Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, the race's two most serious challengers to Frank Jackson — was more elevated than it has been previously.

Overall, it cannot be overstressed that this was an enormously entertaining event. Seeing the candidates up close, witnessing their personalities alongside their policies, was immensely valuable. And the sometimes combative nature of the campaign trail, not to mention the enthusiastic engagement of the crowd last night, made for great fun. Here were the winners and losers, so to speak:

click to enlarge Brandon Chrostowski; Mayoral Candidates' Forum 7/24/17 - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Brandon Chrostowski; Mayoral Candidates' Forum 7/24/17
WINNER: Brandon Chrostowski
The evening's big winner was Chrostowski, chiefly because he knocked Eric Brewer down a peg.

After Brewer spent the first few questions attacking the competency of current leaders — and specifically citing Bill Patmon and Jeff Johnson in Johnson's felony extortion case — Chrostowski turned the tables on him, saying he'd gone too far. Chrostowski invited Brewer to look at his own track record, and even called him "Mister," an incredible moment. He suggested that Brewer bore some of the blame for East Cleveland's demise.

I was in the front row, but it was difficult to hear Chrostowski's full statement because the crowd was on fire when he turned on Brewer. It was like being in the crowd for a UFC cage match. Both Brewer and Chrostowski had sizable contingents of supporters there, but the balance of the audience seemed to enjoy a bully (Brewer) getting a taste of his own medicine. The substance of Chrostowski's answer was almost irrelevant — it was the fact that he confronted him that impressed the crowd.

Like last time, Chrostowski had a loosely prepared opening statement. (Side note: Why don't these guys prepare opening statements? It's unbelievable to me that so many of them just try to riff and end up totally surprised when their time's up and they're cut off mid-sentence. It's the one thing they can prepare! Here's some free campaign consulting: Prepare a statement! Practice it! Be aware of the value of first impressions.)

In general, Chrostowski appeared genuinely bothered by the ills of the current administration and capable of turning the sinking ship around. He remained short on concrete suggestions for solutions, but his answer on the job training question was strong. He referenced the curricula he'd prepared not only at EDWIN's but for demolition work and for manufacturing jobs in Tennessee, and he suggested that it's not enough to throw money at a problem — you've got to be able to implement policies that work.   

click to enlarge Eric Brewer; Mayoral Candidates' Forum 7/24/17 - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Eric Brewer; Mayoral Candidates' Forum 7/24/17
LOSER: Eric Brewer
Brewer's schtick was a hit last month: the way he cited specific ordinances within the City Charter and the Ohio Revised Code as solutions for solving complex problems. But Monday, folks weren't buying it. The recitations came off as a kind of parlor trick.

Couple that with his attack-dog stance last night, and the picture was one of a bully and megalomaniac. At one point, he said that current leaders don't use the power accorded to them. "I will use all the power," he said, suggesting that he would fire Police Union President Steve Loomis (and anyone who stood up to him). It was frankly frightening.

Jeb Bush famously (and ultimately, incorrectly) told Donald Trump in 2015 that he wouldn't be able to insult his way to the presidency. But given Trump's success, Brewer seems to be trying the method on for size. Not that it's foreign territory for a man known for his sailor's language on social media. As he's said before, Brewer finds the current city council to be peopled by illiterates and morons who are unfamiliar with municipal law (which may be largely true). But Brewer's solution sounded deranged: He said he'd use the Mayor's seat to purge the city of low-IQ employees and suburbanites.

(Author's note: The above is imprecise. Brewer did not say directly that he would "purge" the city of low-IQ employees and suburbanites. In general, he displayed antipathy for the incompetence of City Council, and his comments on suburbanites, in response to a question about workforce development, were as follows:

"One of the things that I would do is make sure that we realign the government's resources to do what we're supposed to do. There's 7,800 jobs in the City of Cleveland. We've had a residency law since 1982. It has not been enforced today to the extent that we've got 82 percent of our workforce non-residents. I'm hiring an HR director, and I'm telling him to put the suburbanites aside."

In my notes, I had written: "Hiring HR. Purge suburbanites," which is what led to the language above.)

Brewer paid due homage to the Herculean Civil Rights work of Carl and Louis Stokes, and lamented the lack of progress since the 70s. But his vision for the future (while ambitious) was undercut by its unhinged articulation.

click to enlarge Robert Kilo; Mayoral Candidates' Forum 7/24/17 - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Robert Kilo; Mayoral Candidates' Forum 7/24/17
WINNER: Robert Kilo
I'll be damned if this corny son of a musket isn't winning your correspondent's heart. Last month, Kilo cited MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech," a ludicrous move. And last night, he cited — with perfect accuracy — the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence!

If it hadn't been clear before, it was certainly clear last night: Robert Kilo does hold these truths to be self-evident, dammit. He has embraced the Christian ideals of Servant Leadership and is amped to the gills by the rhetoric of both the Holy Bible and American founding texts.

Do these values a Rust Belt Metropolitan Mayor make?

Probably not, if we're being honest. But Kilo, once again, was forceful in his answers to questions. He spoke with a conviction that didn't require excessive volume to communicate.

He had one of the evening's more memorable answers. In a question about the "first five things" he'd do in office, he referenced his personal history in athletics — he has been both a quarterback and a point guard, he said — and vowed to install a "shot clock" at City Hall to make sure deadlines for key projects were being met. It was an original image that communicated an important message. (Incidentally, only Jeff Johnson, who answered the question first, managed to name five things he'd do within the one-minute answer time. And while his fifth action — "work hard every day" — was a bit of a cheat, at least he got to five.)

Kilo managed to name four things. In addition to his shot clock, he also suggested "getting the voice of the people back on the school board," i.e. having elected seats in addition to the appointed ones — a specific and good suggestion the crowd appreciated.

Kilo is kind of a joke candidate, but his performances at both of the forums indicate that he takes this stuff very seriously. And his intensity — while sometimes, indeed, a little corny — is impressive in its earnestness.  Like other candidates without political experience, Kilo often speaks in the abstract. But in his principled diagnoses, one does find oneself warmly yearning for the nobility and purity of things like "excellence" and "equality" and "democracy" and "citizenship," whatever those might mean.

(In his final answer, though, Kilo adopted a "Make Cleveland Win Again" slogan, which threatened, by association, to derail the totality of the good vibes accrued. "Winning" is such a silly, macho thing to be passionate about.)

click to enlarge Bill Patmon; Mayoral Candidates' Forum 7/24/17 - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Bill Patmon; Mayoral Candidates' Forum 7/24/17
LOSER: Bill Patmon / Dyrone Smith
With all due respect, these men aren't worth talking about. By the second question, the crowd was openly laughing at Patmon, who is 71 years old and talks like a man much older. He's got nothing but love for his wife and anecdotes about his days on the City Council finance committee, but he's a distraction. He was utterly unprepared and had a hard time providing relevant or even related answers to the questions at hand.

"One minute, sixty seconds in it!" Patmon averred, in reference to his allotted speaking time, in response to the opening question about lead. He concluded with: "If that lake [Erie] goes, everybody goes."

Dyrone Smith was far worse, a fringe candidate with nothing, at this juncture, to recommend him. His introduction consisted of a harrowing story about how he'd been racially profiled by the police and the concluding statement: "And now I'm running for Mayor." He spent the rest of the evening decrying unions and railing against both "socialists and capitalists."

In response to the final question, which asked what each candidate was personally passionate about, Smith said his daughter's fifth grade teacher couldn't add fractions. His solution: End collective bargaining.

Blessedly, the crowd didn't brook his nonsense. Every time Smith picked up the microphone, members of the audience would cry, "Who is you!?"

No candidate should be written off immediately — they should be given the opportunity to present their platforms and visions like anybody else — but it's safe to say that neither Patmon nor Smith could capably serve as Mayor and deserve no further attention or seriousness.

NEUTRAL: Jeff Johnson / Zack Reed
Neither Johnson nor Reed made much of a splash.

The conventional wisdom holds that Frank Jackson and one of either Johnson or Reed will take the top two spots in the September primary. Name recognition is on their side. On Harvard Road, en route to the Community Services Center, the prominent yard signage showed support for Jackson and Reed. (Reed is councilman in Mt. Pleasant, on the city's southeast side; Johnson's in Glenville and St. Clair-Superior on the northeast side.)

Both councilmen hammered their messages hard: Reed on safety, Johnson on neighborhoods. Neither had particularly memorable answers or slam-dunk moments. Johnson was able to speak about his new proposed lead legislation early on and got a rousing response when, in a question about grocery stores, he rebuked Reed's claims about crime. He said that crime "is a symptom, not the cause," and ended with a stirring declaration of hope. His night was sabotaged, though, by Brewer's references to his extortion.

Neither Johnson nor Reed stooped to direct name-calling. Their biggest feud centered, hilariously, on who between them had first said that they would fire Marty Flask and Michael McGrath, the city's snoozing safety leaders.

Reed, in one of the funnier comments of the evening, said that Flask and McGrath had been at City Hall since "horse and buggies" were doing police work. One of the first things he'd do in office, Reed said, was fire them. He rejected Johnson's claim that Johnson had espoused firing these guys earlier than Reed on his website. But Reed used his "first five things" answer to directly rebuke Johnson's claim.

Reed and Johnson seem to have internalized that the battle is for second place.

LOSER: Tony Madalone
Madalone's probably fighting for fourth place in the crowded field and can't afford missed opportunities for publicity.

LOSER: Frank Jackson
More disappointment from our somnambulant incumbent. Jackson may indeed waltz or trip or sleep-walk into a fourth term, but his campaign has been a discouraging case study in opportunism and moral lassitude.

In a Channel 5 report yesterday, Jackson denied being invited to the forum, a claim immediately rebuked in the report with email documentation. (Those emails were distributed to the media last night to prove that Jackson had indeed been invited.) When caught in his lie, Jackson indirectly hinted that CCPC was lying — "people say a lot of things," Jackson said.

The Mayor will appear at an official City Club mayoral debate at CSU on August 25. That event will feature (now that Eric Brewer has accepted the invitation) all nine candidates.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

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...
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.