In Ward 14, Cleveland's Ugliest City Council Race is Getting Even Uglier

Jasmin Santana - Photography by Karin McKenna
Photography by Karin McKenna
Jasmin Santana
Tuesday evening, Cleveland City Councilman Brian Cummins fielded prepared questions and a barrage of extemporaneous ones from a small audience at the W. 58th St. Church of God in Clark-Fulton. Technically, the church is located within the southwestern jetty of Kerry McCormack's Ward 3, but the location feels much more of a piece with Cummins' ward than McCormack's.

In a surprising revelation, Cummins said that due to multiple redistricting efforts by council leadership, this was the first time in his more than a decade on council that he was running to represent the same geographic area that he ran to represent in the previous election.

These days, Ward 14 spans the demilitarized zone between the destination neighborhoods of Cleveland's near west side — Ohio City, Detroit-Shoreway — and Old Brooklyn. It is composed, mostly, of Clark-Fulton and Stockyard. Among other things, it is the city's most densely populated Latino area. 

The Tuesday evening event was supposed to have been a debate between, or at least a forum featuring, both of the Ward 14 council candidates: Cummins and Jasmin Santana. Cummins had challenged Santana to a debate on the steps of City Hall in early October and many of the ward's divided residents wanted to see the opponents face off. The race figures to be very close and continues to be contentious. Santana was one of only two non-incumbents to win a primary. Scene featured her in a cover package about female council challengers this week. 

But Santana was a no-show Tuesday. She announced in a Facebook video later that evening that she'd never been invited to the event. She hosted her own town hall Wednesday evening at the VFW Hall on W. 61st and Storer, at which the first neighborhood mayoral forum was held during primary season.

Here's Santana's statement from Tuesday:

Claims that Santana made in the video above are false. She said that neither she nor her campaign had been contacted by email or by phone to participate in the Tuesday forum.

But Gloria Ferris, who organized Tuesday evening's event, said that that wasn't the case. Not only did she send an email to Santana's official campaign account and publicize the email on her Facebook page and website, Ferris told Scene that when she learned Santana's campaign email and Facebook account weren't regularly checked, she reached out to three of Santana's known supporters to make sure she'd received the message.

Santana described "tremendous" pressure on her supporters to participate in a debate and said that typically, in political debates, a third party negotiates a date and time, "but this never happened."

But it did happen. Gloria Ferris was the third party. She is an active community member and has been organizing debates in Ward 14 for decades, always, she said, in a non-partisan capacity. She told Scene that this year she supported another candidate in the primaries and has strongly disagreed with Cummins on several neighborhood issues in the past, but respects that he accepts criticism. Most recently, Ferris organized the Ward 14 primary debates, which Santana did not attend either.

The "tremendous" pressures that Santana described above, in another interpretation, might merely have been the attempts to contact her that she said she never received.

(For obvious reasons, Scene is especially touchy right now about candidates' selective willingness to participate in debates.)

And while Santana said she has been firm in her commitment to only participate in a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, ostensibly on the grounds of neutrality, the event Tuesday utilized the California League of Women Voters' rulebook. Ferris said as much in her email invitation, sent to the candidates on Oct. 9.
It has been more of a challenge to find venues and available dates this fall than it was this summer because of the number of events being hosted by our venues.

Therefore, there are three dates available for the community forum and one time frame 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm.

They are as follows:
Tuesday, October 24th 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm
Wednesday, October 25th 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm.
Wednesday, November 1st 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm

If you could check your calendars and get back to me as soon as you possibly can, I will be able to confirm the venue and we could all begin promoting as quickly as possible.

We will again use the League of Women’s [Voters] format for the event.

· All Questions will be written.
· Keep questions clear, concise and to the point.
· Keep questions appropriate to the council race.
· Pose general questions that both candidates can answer.
· Screeners/sorters will be available for help with wording and writing questions.
· Pages will be in the room to pass out pencils and cards throughout the forum and to collect the questions.
For Cummins and for others in the ward, Santana's repeated refusal to participate in debates is evidence of at least two things: that she is being manipulated by powerful forces in Ward 14, for one; and that, if put to the test, she'd be unable to articulate a vision of her own. In short, they feel that she is a puppet.

Prior to the Q&A at Tuesday's forum, two attendees advised the gathered crowd to attend Santana's event the following evening as well, but to do so with different questions for the candidate, "to see how she thinks on her feet." The assumption was that questions from Tuesday would get back to Santana and she'd have time to prepare. Both commenters were almost certainly Cummins supporters. One said explicitly that Santana was not equipped for political leadership and disparaged her lack of higher education. 

Democratic Club Backing: 
There are two main forces backing Santana: the region's Latino leadership and the Ward 14 Democratic Club, represented prominently by Ward Leader Rick Nagin and Ward President Diane Morgan. For these forces, Santana is thought to be the means to two very different ends. 

For Nagin and Morgan, the ends are merely removing Cummins from power. Both are virulently opposed to the incumbent for political and personal reasons.

Rick Nagin ran for city council against his employer, Councilman Nelson Cintron, in 2009. He even made national headlines for his Communist Party affiliations. He ultimately lost to Cummins in a close race. (Cummins' races are always extremely close.) Cummins said Nagin has been working to unseat him ever since.

In addition to other tactics, it was Nagin who propped up the dummy candidate Kyle Cassidy in this year's primary. Cassidy is a young white Republican and the nephew of sitting councilman Brian Kazy. Kazy lost to Cummins in the Ward 14 general election in 2013 and was thereafter appointed by departing Council President Martin Sweeney in Ward 16: the West Park, Jefferson and Bellaire-Puritas neighborhoods. Cassidy didn't bother to campaign, and only secured 31 total votes in the primary.

For Cummins, the fact that Nagin is the Ward Leader of the Democratic club and worked to get a Republican on the ballot — even if the ultimate aim was to attain the seat for Santana — crossed an ethical line. Scene listened to audio of Cummins confronting a volunteer who'd collected signatures for Kyle Cassidy who admitted that he did it "as a favor" to Rick Nagin. The volunteer thought Cassidy was a Democrat.

(*Correction: Cassidy voted Republican in the 2016 primaries, but may have done so only to thwart Donald Trump. Scene has not verified with Cassidy himself, and we're not certain with which political party he is currently affiliated.)

Diane Morgan was an early candidate in the current election cycle herself, but dropped out by late 2016. She currently serves as Santana's campaign manager. When Scene inquired whether or not Santana would debate Cummins by email early this month, it was Morgan who responded, explaining that she had tried to set up a debate with the League of Women Voters.

The Latino Connection:
Scene spoke with Omar Medina at length Wednesday. Medina was a Ward 14 council candidate as well. He now officially supports Cummins. Medina was one of the first people to announce his candidacy back in 2016, but fared poorly in the primary, securing only 44 total votes. He attributes this dismal performance to Jasmin Santana and the Latino leadership behind her. 

Medina said he was betrayed. Jasmin Santana, after all, had worked for his campaign. They had been friends since they graduated together from the Hispanic Alliance Leadership Development Initiative (HALDI).

"She was not my campaign manager," said Medina, "but she was kind of my right-hand person."

Medina showed Scene texts between himself and Santana through the fall of 2016 and the first two months of 2017. The extensive correspondence related almost exclusively to Medina's campaign activities — printing flyers, setting up meet-and-greets with residents, etc.

On March 2, Santana invited Medina to Las Dos Fronteras restaurant on Fulton Road and told him she'd be running for council. Medina said he was confused at first, but offered to support her, assuming she was running in another ward. But Santana said that no, she was running in Ward 14.

"She said that God told her to run," Medina said. (Santana is religious. Medina is a pastor at an Evangelical Christian Church.)

Medina had pulled his petitions in late January — he estimated Jan. 20 — and said that by early February, his campaign manager, Jerry Pena, was getting antsy, wondering why he hadn't collected the required 200 signatures. Medina replied that he had ample time to collect them and was still getting to know residents and building his platform. (One of the knocks on Medina was that he resided in Ward 15. He said he is moving to Ward 14 on Dec. 1.) At the time, Medina's campaign team consisted of Pena, Luis Cartagena, Michael Bowen, who is now running Mayor Frank Jackson's campaign, and Jasmin Santana.

The turning point in the race came long before the heat of the summer primary season, in mid-February. Medina said he was summoned to a meeting with Juan Molina Crespo, the Executive Director of the Hispanic Alliance.

Crespo had been grooming Medina for two years, Medina said, and had long complained about Brian Cummins and the lack of Latino leadership in the ward. At their February meeting, Medina said Crespo told him the Latino community was now concerned. If Medina wanted the support of the Hispanic Alliance (and by extension, the rest of the region's Latino leadership) he would have to agree to weekly meetings to keep Crespo abreast of his campaign "and to ensure that the Latino agenda was being met."

Medina balked. He said his whole campaign was built around inclusiveness and "bringing everyone to the table." He didn't agree to the weekly meetings or to make Latino issues the central plank of his campaign.

In a separate interview, Brian Cummins — who is intimately aware of the blocs against him — said that Crespo wanted Medina to run a negative campaign against Cummins. Medina said an anti-Cummins directive wasn't specifically mentioned at the February meeting, but it was implicit. He said the whole point of his being groomed was to oust Cummins and to secure Latino leadership.

Reached by phone, Juan Molina Crespo said that as a 501(c)3, the Hispanic Alliance does not endorse candidates. He confirmed that he had supported Omar's campaign "to the extent that Omar was part of [HALDI]. In that capacity, we always support efforts by the individual candidates as they look for promotions and try to get into jobs or get into elected office. We encourage them all to seek civic leadership positions throughout the area, but to say that I was a supporter or him or Jasmin is a misstatement."

When asked about the meeting Medina described, Crespo first said he "had no idea what [Medina] was talking about." He then said that a meeting may have occurred, "but it wasn't a meeting I was at."

When pressed, Crespo said that he and Medina did in fact meet at about the time Medina described. "But that particular issue, in my recollection, doesn't come up," he said. 

In any case, two weeks after what Medina described as that pivotal meeting, Jasmin Santana took him to Dos Fronteras restaurant to tell him God told her to run for office.

The announcement was an ugly one, as far as Medina was concerned, not only because Santana had been on his campaign team, but because Santana was an an employee of Crespo's at the Hispanic Alliance. She worked in community engagement there until she stepped down in August amid complaints from her opponents.
click to enlarge Jasmin Santana Campaign Flyer - Facebook: Jasmin Santana for Ward 14
Facebook: Jasmin Santana for Ward 14
Jasmin Santana Campaign Flyer
A day after Medina's lunch meeting with Santana, his campaign manager Jerry Pena and Michael Bowen jumped ship. Others followed. He saw his Latino support base shift. The platform that he had created with his team was soon being pushed by the Santana campaign.

Medina even referenced a line in Scene's interview with Santana this week — "I want to serve the community as a whole," Santana said. "I want to be more a public servant than a politician," — and said that that had been his line, his idea.

Medina said he could only speculate, but that given his own relationship with Juan Molina Crespo, he had a good idea of what the relationship with Santana will look like.

"He wants money for the Hispanic Alliance and Hispana Villa," Medina said. "But more than that, he wants influence. He wants someone he can control."

For Medina — and for Cummins — the trouble with the support of Crespo and other Latino leaders is that many of them don't live in the Ward. Crespo, for example, lives in Lorain County. Medina was among the first in a group of Latino religious leaders who came out in support of Cummins and said that there is now a divide. Many of the faith-based and grassroots Latino leaders (largely Ward 14-based) support Cummins; many of the non-profit executives and business leaders in the Latino community (across the region) support Santana.

This has created tension. Medina said that he has been getting angry messages from area Latinos accusing him of being racist or a race-traitor for not backing the Latino in the race. Medina showed Scene texts from two parties, and a Facebook screed, to that effect.

"But I can't support corruption," Medina said. "For me, it's about ethics and principles."

Jasmin Santana was unavailable for comment Thursday, but her campaign manager, Diane Morgan, responded to a series of emailed questions. She said that when Jasmin decided to run, "she did not discuss it with [Juan Molina Crespo]," and that Crespo had remained neutral in his capacity with the Hispanic Alliance.

As for Tuesday's invite discrepancy, Morgan parsed Gloria Ferris' account and said that neither she nor Santana had received personal invite emails.

"Reaching out to supporters is not the same as working with the campaign to negotiate a forum, or as Brian likes to call it, a debate," Morgan wrote. "We never agreed to a date, a place or even to participate. I will add that we would never have agreed to participate in any forum run by Gloria. She is totally biased."

Santana's town hall Wednesday night, however, Morgan said "went very well."

"The best thing to come out of the event," she said, "was the chance for Cummins supporters to actually see Jasmin as a real person, not what Cummins has portrayed her as. She got to speak for herself and answer questions. Additionally, this was a chance to bring a sense of unity and a need to work together in the future. Some great ideas were put forth."

No one reported on those ideas, though, because non-residents weren't permitted.

"The event was for residents only," Morgan said. "We did not want people from outside the ward involved in the town hall. The event was for residents to discuss the issues and concerns they have and live with on a daily basis. Regarding the media, the last thing we wanted was a media circus."
click to enlarge Outside Ward 14 town hall (10/25/17).
Outside Ward 14 town hall (10/25/17).

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About The Author

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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