Sam Allard / Scene
Kevin Kelley, surrounded by his coalition of "doers" (10/6/21).
With early voting now underway and a little less than a month to go before election day, Council President and mayoral candidate Kevin Kelley assembled a coalition of local elected and community leaders Wednesday to drum up energy on Cleveland's east side.
Councilman Blaine Griffin, who is eyeing the council presidency if Kelley prevails on Nov. 2; Councilman Basheer Jones, who finished fifth in the September mayoral primaries and has become Kelley's improbable hype man; Ward 2 Councilman Kevin Bishop; County Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell; Norm Edwards, President of the Black Contractors Group; and Cordell Stokes, son of Mayor Carl Stokes, all spoke on behalf of Kelley at a bee-infested event outside of Sure House Baptist Church Ministries in Ward 2. Sure House Pastor (and president of the Cleveland Clergy Coalition) Aaron Phillips revved up the crowd and emceed.
All of the morning's speakers had previously endorsed Kelley. The event was not an announcement of new endorsements but a reiteration of the leaders' commitment to Kelley and their support for what he would bring to City Hall: in their view, experienced leadership and resources to Cleveland's underserved neighborhoods. Kelley and his surrogates have been campaigning aggressively on the overwhelmingly Black east side, where Kelley knows he must pick up votes in order to challenge Justin Bibb.
Blaine Griffin served up the morning's spiciest remarks. He said he generally preferred to stay above the fray, but that "this is politics," and that he can distribute criticism just as well as he can take it. He said that unlike Bibb, who has been endorsed by leaders of the past, Kelley was supported by "doers" of today, current leaders who understood the Cleveland of the 21st century. (The remarks were no doubt a reference to former Cleveland Mayors Michael White and Jane Campbell, and former councilman Zack Reed, who have all endorsed Bibb recently.)
Griffin also said that people were trying to create dichotomous narratives about the runoff, that the race between Bibb and Kelley was about young vs. old, the present vs. the past, black vs. white, non-establishment vs. establishment. Griffin rejected these.
"I want to make it plain and I want to make it simple," he said. "This race is about the board room vs. the streets. And what you see here today is the streets, people who represent the neighborhoods and have been fighting for the neighborhoods.
"People say they want something new," Griffin continued. "Well, we all want something new, new cars, new things. But you know what, you've got to earn it."
Griffin called Kelley a "man in the arena" and repeated his endorsement from last month, borne out of his respect for Kelley as a man and for his work standing shoulder to shoulder with him to solve some of Cleveland's most vexing social problems: things like infant mortality, right to counsel for evicted tenants and lead paint. He said he would support Kelley even if he weren't seeking the council presidency and that while Bibb liked to use the word "innovative," city council under Kelley had been innovative in its own right, finding ways to tackle what he characterized as historically significant legislation and reforms.
Basheer Jones, whom Aaron Phillips said he'd personally supported for mayor in the primary, delivered a lengthy speech about his tutelage under Kelley. He described the council president as a patient and knowledgeable master of city politics. Like a good parent, Jones said, Kelley tolerated Jones' early ambitions, and helped facilitate new investments in Jones' Ward 7 even when he could have stalled them over unrelated political disagreements.
"I was the person, as far as activists in the city, who tried his best to be a thorn in the side of politicians," Jones said. "I was always thinking, 'We must destroy the system.' The system isn't working for us, we must destroy it. But when I got into council, I recognized that marches and speeches were not sufficient... When I came in, I was a rabble-rouser. And [Kelley] said, I love your energy but let's talk, this
is how you work the system. He maneuvered, he opened doors I never knew existed, and he put my plug into outlets that I didn't know were working.
"You can't destroy the system," Jones said. "You must give the system indigestion."
Jones said that this prerogative — giving the system indigestion — could only be accomplished from the inside, and that Kelley, as a veteran operator and political insider, was the man to work the system to residents' greatest advantage.
This message was an echo, perhaps unwittingly, of Mayor Frank Jackson, who in recent years has taken to openly lamenting what he calls "The Beast," a system of power that upholds systemic disparities and inequities. Like Jones does now, Jackson has said he believes that this Beast cannot be dismantled or defeated
; it can only be maneuvered around, its injustices chipped away at.
According to Kelley's coalition, the current City Council president is the candidate best equipped to subdue this beast, or at any rate to exploit it. In Kelley's own remarks, for example, he referenced the Q Deal. Of the total contractors on the project, Kelley said, more than 30% were Black, though only 20% were required according to the agreement with the Cavs. He promised that under his administration, no construction project would get done without Black contractors at the table.
He promised that "every nickel" of the city's $1.8 billion in economic power would be spent in a just and equitable way. "And I don't promise anything I can't deliver," he said.
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