Ken Johnson, Barred from Holding Public Office, Could Still Win Ward 4 Election

click to enlarge Ken Johnson - Photo courtesy of Cleveland City Council
Photo courtesy of Cleveland City Council
Ken Johnson

Elected leaders in Cleveland refusing to let go of power has been a theme of the 2021 mayoral campaign. Candidates Basheer Jones, Justin Bibb and others have criticized the status quo, one in which older leaders, in the words of Jones, "step on caterpillars as if the sky is not big enough for all the butterflies."

This dynamic is embodied in multiple local figures. Mayor Frank Jackson, for one, is often criticized for overstaying his welcome at City Hall and for failing to cultivate a crop of rising talent to succeed him. That failure is echoed resoundingly in the Cuyahoga County and Ohio Democratic Parties, where a "comparatively weak bench" was pegged this weekend as one of three key reasons why there aren't more Democrats running for statewide office next year.

Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson represents one of the most extreme specimens. He is almost a parody of a leader refusing to relinquish power. He has served on City Council since 1980 and, earlier this month, was convicted on 15 felony counts related to theft in office. Johnson's felony conviction bars him from holding his council seat. And yet he's running once again. While he was not convicted when he launched his re-election campaign, he'd already been arrested and indicted.

As reports, Johnson nevertheless remains popular in the ward, which includes portions of Buckeye-Shaker and Mt. Pleasant. He is especially beloved by many seniors, whose grass he has cut for years with community development block grant dollars. Johnson very well could advance to the general election and even win in November. 

“This is a mess – messier than I originally thought,” City Council attorney Rachel Scalish told

It actually doesn't appear too complicated. If Johnson emerges victorious, council will declare the seat vacant in January and then appoint a successor. That's a process with which council is intimately familiar. The upsetting element is that Johnson will undoubtedly steal votes from legitimate candidates who are eager and qualified to replace him. Including Johnson, there are 11 candidates who will appear in the Ward 4 primary election.

Neighborhood activists seem to be coalescing, however, around Erick Walker, a 52-year-old Mt. Pleasant resident and longtime Cleveland Public Library worker. 

The grassroots organization Reclaim Ward 4, which launched three years ago with initial plans to recall Johnson, Monday joined the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus and SEIU in their support of Walker.

"Ward 4 needs someone in that seat who will represent our voices, not rubber stamp business as usual," a statement from the group read. "Compared to other candidates, Erick Walker is especially strong in his support for involving the people in democratic reforms at City Hall. He was an early signer of the “Better Council, Better Cleveland” pledge, which promotes public comment at council meetings; resident participation in the city’s budgeting process; and taking City Council meetings on the road to neighborhood rec centers, libraries and public parks. He stands firmly for transparency in government."

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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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