Nonprofit executive Justin Bibb and Cleveland City Councilman Basheer Jones, two of the youngest and strongest candidates in the 2021 mayoral election, went head to head in a debate Sunday evening moderated by Dr. R.A. Vernon of The Word Church.
Modeled after the hit streaming series Verzuz, which pits the discographies of two musical artists against each other in a format launched on Instagram during the bleak quarantine days of Covid-19, the debate was meant to offer a more in-depth look at two candidates whom Vernon personally supports and who represent, by their own account, the future of Black politics in Cleveland.
Unlike the sometimes cluttered and high-velocity August debates sponsored by Ideastream and the City Club of Cleveland, with strict time limits and a high volume of scattershot rebuttals, the Sunday event was more conversational. Bibb and Jones challenged each other's records and spoke at length about the "alliterative ideas" that Vernon had pre-selected: education, the economy, entrepreneurship, expansion (downtown development in general), equity and experience.
In the Verzuz mold, Jones was far more adept at highlighting his greatest hits, trumpeting his activist work in the community and in Cleveland Public Schools. He constantly challenged Bibb to present his "receipts," to prove by his experience that his money was where his mouth was.
Bibb, on the other hand, was more precise in responding to Vernon's questions about policy prerogatives, focusing as he has in the past on methods to modernize City Hall. Bibb has proposed a "back to basics" approach that he says will make interacting with local government easier for both residents and businesses. Bibb conceded that he didn't have the same activist credentials as Jones, but argued that his experience in the corporate world was a necessary complement to grassroots work and suggested that Jones' accomplishments in Ward 7 could not be attributed to the councilman alone.
Vernon, for his part, tried to get the candidates to be specific about their approaches to reducing poverty in Cleveland. He said in opening and closing remarks that he was inspired to host the Verzus debate — which was originally scheduled to be recorded at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown — because of the importance of this year's election, the primary for which is on Sep. 14.
"I want some fresh music," Vernon said, "not a remix from the 70s."
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...