Kari Oatman Joins East Cleveland Mayor's Race at Critical Moment in City

click to enlarge Kari Oatman
Kari Oatman
On the heels of a mayoral recall last December, the voters of East Cleveland turn now toward a municipal election this November. Current Mayor Brandon King has not yet filed his candidacy with the Board of Elections, but all signs point to him running. (He assumed leadership after former Mayor Gary Norton and former Council President Thomas Wheeler were ousted).

So far, seven candidates have joined the race, including first-timer Kari Oatman. Scene met with her recently to talk about the direction of her hometown and how she came to the point of filing as a candidate.

In the wake of last year's head-spinning presidential election, Oatman joined her friends in taking up the Indivisible movement — a resistance to how politics were unfolding in 2017 and a widespread mobilization of U.S. citizens. One of the underlying tenets of the movement is direct contact with elected representatives, and, indeed, a steady stream of phone calls and emails has rolled into Washington for the past few months — more than double the usual amount.

The Indivisible movement also encourages citizens to run for local office. Oatman says she'd considered running in East Cleveland for years, and 2017 seemed to bring about the right confluence of events for her to make the decision.

"I think there's a time and a place when you have to step up and civically do your due diligence if you want to have change." - Kari Oatman

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Looking around at the state of East Cleveland, it's clear that something has to give. Merger talks with the city of Cleveland have largely publicly stalled, and the conversation about how to fund the city's future continues apace in council meetings, in library meetings, at church.

The city remains in fiscal emergency, according to the state auditor's office. Funding for public services remains a top priority for East Cleveland, and Oatman is very familiar with that.

"We can't just rely on state funding, federal funding and grant funding," she says. The key to a healthier budget, she adds, is growing the city's network of investors and a broader private tax base.

The border with Cleveland's University Circle, of course, is central to that idea. Already, investment is brewing on East Cleveland's southern hemline. Oatman says that the key to working with University Circle stakeholders in encouraging "organic" growth. She says that, as mayor, she would outline three business districts in East Cleveland: Euclid Avenue, Hayden Avenue and Noble Road. "We want to try to get different independent small businesses in," she says. The "spillover effect" from University Circle's economic development successes can be treated as a foundation for East Cleveland's growth.

And for private residents, the housing stock is a vital component of city tax revenues as well. Oatman's plan will determine who owns every home in East Cleveland and urge payment of back taxes or forfeiture to the city — at which point the city will rate homes on a 1-5 scale and either demolish what needs to be demolished or market the rehabbed homes to prospective new residents like single mothers and veterans. "We've got to up our population," Oatman says.

What the development problems — and the infrastructure problems — demand is open communication between city leadership and its residents. For too long, as anyone who’s attended a public meeting in East Cleveland can attest, internal distractions have taken up a lot of public time.

"It is years of infighting, mismanagement," Oatman says. "I think in some cases, lots of things have come to pass that the people who are on council currently inherited. I salute anyone who stepped up to the plate to try to correct this. But you look at things like the financials of the city: Have they been allocated properly? You look at the audits for the city, and there are so many holes and gaps: This is not the proper way that things should be managed. I think that we're going to have to make some drastic changes very quickly if we want to maintain our — and I don't want to say 'sovereignty,' but if we want to maintain our own thing."

There are many visions for East Cleveland, but Oatman's begins with the word "community." She recalls street festivals, neighborhood gatherings at Forest Hills Park and just generally a better sense of morale in East Cleveland when she was growing up in the 90s. "There may not have been a ton of money, but we were better using what we had," she says, adding that the city still has a spectrum of great programs available for residents — but that they aren't being marketed well to the people.

It's hard not to look back at East Cleveland's past, the home of John D. Rockefeller and the wonders of Euclid Avenue. But what's past is merely prologue, and Oatman insists that there's a very important conversation that needs to happen in the city right now.

"There's nothing to say we can't have that back, but we do have to look at it from a modern standpoint," Oatman says. "I don't think our history lies in gentrification. That's worked in Ohio City in Tremont, and that's OK; for us, it's multicultural linguistics. It's learning how we can come together to create new histories, new businesses, new restaurants. We don't even have a coffee shop! How are we going to attract young professional families?"

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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