Puppet Masters at Work as County Democratic Party Chair Vote Looms

click to enlarge L-R: Shontel Brown, Trevor Elkins, Sandra Williams; Harvard Community Services Center (8/21/17) - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
L-R: Shontel Brown, Trevor Elkins, Sandra Williams; Harvard Community Services Center (8/21/17)
An element of rot, a kind of residual stink, remains in the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.

Tuesday night, the three candidates for the Party Chairmanship stated their cases to a room full of precinct committee members at the Harvard Community Services Center. The party's behind-the-scenes infighting was barely contained beneath the surface of their remarks.

Cuyahoga County Councilperson Shontel Brown, Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins and State Rep. Sandra Williams are all vying for the position lately vacated by Stu Garson. They presented similar visions for the party, stressing the need for aggressive recruitment and fundraising in the lead-up to pivotal elections in 2018.

But wittingly or not, they represented polarized factions within a party that must come together if it is to tip the scales in upcoming state and national races.

Brief Background: Stu Garson, a trial lawyer from Moreland Hills, has been in charge since Jimmy Dimora's term ended in 2010. He officially announced that he'd be stepping down earlier this month; though, as Cleveland.com's Mark Naymik has been reporting, he has telegraphed his early departure for months. (Garson's term ends in June of next year, but he's said he wants to give the party time to adjust to new leadership, thereby avoiding turbulence during next summer's campaign season.) Among other things, Garson is credited with restoring legitimacy to an organization long caught up in old-guard politics.

"Garson was elected in 2010 to be the boring adult in charge," Naymik wrote in March. "While Garson helped the party regain financial stability and returned integrity to the chairmanship, he never warmed to the idea of playing umpire among party factions and candidates vying for small seats."

Shontel Brown - Cuyahoga County Council
Cuyahoga County Council
Shontel Brown
Who is Shontel Brown, and is she a "Puppet"?
Shontel Brown is the Cuyahoga County Councilperson representing Ward 9, a ward that includes more than 100,000 constituents in Bedford, Bedford Heights, parts of Cleveland's Wards 1 and 4, Shaker Heights, Warrensville Heights, Highland Hills, North Randall, Orange, Pepper Pike and Woodmere. She is a former councilwoman in Warrensville Heights. Like most of her county council colleagues, she voted in support of the Quicken Loans Arena renovation deal.

In opening remarks Tuesday, Brown — reciting a prepared speech from a tablet —  refuted three rumors she said she'd been hearing:  1) that, as party chair, she wouldn't have a backbone; 2) that she doesn't have enough experience; and 3) that she would be a puppet for certain powerful members within the party.

Brown said that despite her sunny disposition, she shouldn't be construed as a pushover: "I didn't get to where I am by being weak," she said, to a round of applause. She also said that her large county ward has given her experience working with diverse communities on a wide range of issues.

Regarding her puppet status, Brown said she was approached to run for the Chairmanship by "many people" and characterized her support as broad.

"To imply that I will be controlled by any group of people is offensive and untrue," she said. "The only people I am beholden to are the members of this fine party.

Elkins' View: Trevor Elkins spoke next. He's the Mayor of Newburgh Heights and an RTA board member known for staunch leftism and a willingness to buck consensus. Though he didn't call Shontel Brown by name, Elkins affirmed that one of his opponents would indeed be a puppet if elected. He said that the same people who approached Brown to run had also approached him. They went searching for Brown one week after Elkins "had the audacity to say 'no.'"

"They wanted to dictate the direction of the party from behind the scenes," Elkins told Scene by phone Wednesday. "I told them, 'there's a difference between loyalty in working together and blind obedience."

The factions: The them to whom Elkins referred were most likely Bill Mason, who still wields power and influence within the party, and his lackeys: Labor leader Dave Wondolowski and Tom Day, the Bedford muni court clerk who owns a printing company. Day is said to want to be the official printer of the Democratic party — i.e., he wants the party printing contracts on a no-bid basis. (Day's printing company and its ties to the party were seen as roadblocks back in 2009, when Day was thought to be a strong candidate to replace Dimora).

Word from party folks in the know is that Mason and Tom Day would both love to be party chair, but wouldn't be able to rally enough support countywide. That faction's guy, initially, was Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley. Marcia Fudge vetoed the idea of Kelley as chair in a hurry. Fudge also wields great influence in the party, and she knew that she couldn't support Kelley politically due to the shenanigans he pulled in Columbus on the $15 minimum wage issue. But Mason wants to install one of his sycophants, North Royalton City Councilman Paul Marnecheck, as the party's executive director (a paid position, unlike the chair), and so he needs a chair who will do as he/she is told. The rumor is: That's Shontel Brown.  

What about Sandra Williams?
Williams tends to be more aligned with Elkins — they both claim to be friends and have said they look forward to working together once the election is over. Unlike Brown, both Elkins and Williams are members of the party's Central Committee. Williams is the party's current interim chair. She described her primary credentials as fundraising acumen and experience. Like Elkins, she described herself (in opposition to Brown) as someone who could "hit the ground running."

"We don't have time for on the job training," she said.

Williams, too, reportedly doesn't want Mason and his crew to return to power.

But the machine appears to be cranked:
Marcia Fudge and County Executive Armond Budish wrote a glowing Shontel Brown endorsement letter to precinct committee members, arguing that Brown had a "strong track record" of advocating for the needs of seniors and youth while supporting economic development and job opportunities. Every sitting Cleveland City Council member, save Blaine Griffin (the Democratic party's acting vice chair) and TJ Dow, also signed on.

But Brown — sunny disposition and track record notwithstanding — has not been involved with the Democratic Party at all until this year. She hasn't even run a ward club.

She maintains, nevertheless, that she will not be a puppet.

"I have experience with building alliances and teamwork," she said. "I will rebrand, rebuild, and revive the democratic party."

Some are worried — Elkins and Williams, certainly — that whether Shontel Brown is aware of it or not, the opposite is more likely to be true: that Brown will be an instrument of those who would revert the party to a familiar, ugly brand.

The vote will take place this coming Saturday at Euclid High School.

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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