State Rep. Monique Smith moved to Northeast Ohio 20 years ago, the week before she and her husband, a North Olmsted native, got hitched. And like other young couples of a social and liberal bent, they gravitated toward Lakewood, the bar-hoppable first-ring suburb on Cleveland’s west side. Not only did they live there happily for 15 years, Smith cut her political teeth as a Lakewood councilwoman from 2010-2014.
But when Smith first ran for Ohio State Rep. in 2020, her Democratic primary opponent, Joe Romano, tried to turn voters in the western suburbs against her for having lived there.
On the campaign trail, Smith told Scene recently, she’d be in rooms talking to voters in Fairview Park or Rocky River, and Romano would cast her as “this crazy former Lakewood lady.”
“I’d just tell voters, ‘Yes I lived in Lakewood, but how many of you here have ever lived there?’ And everyone would raise their hand!” Smith said. “Old people, young people, married people, single people, divorced people – it’s actually a big divorce depot. The joke is that everyone spends a year in Lakewood, right, that it’s the gateway to the western suburbs. [Romano] thought this was a shortcoming for me, but it was actually an asset. He was stuck standing there, and I was like, ‘If you know, you know.’”
Smith is, at this moment, emerging from her Black Chevy Bolt in the parking lot of Bay Middle School, announcing herself with a self-deprecating smile as a “menace to society” and promptly firing up the MiniVAN mobile canvassing app. It’s an early evening in mid-July, and Ohio’s believe-it-or-not second primary election is less than three weeks away. For the next hour, Smith will be door-knocking prime turf here in Bay Village, the northernmost suburb in the new House District 16, where she’s running to retain the seat she won in 2020.
Face-to-face contact with constituents is Campaigning 101, but it’s critical during the home stretch of this particular primary, as even the most enlightened Northeast Ohio voters tend not to have a clue what’s going on. They are aware of the downstate Republican scourge in an abstract way, sure. They shake their heads at the “redistricting scandal” and the unjust and increasingly depraved society that gerrymandering has wrought. But after the fourth or fifth or millionth map was declared unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court this year, with not a whisper of meaningful consequences for the villains drawing them up, the whole saga got a little heady. People stopped paying attention to details.
And who can blame them?
It was once memorably written that those wielding political power are keenly aware of the boredom and cynicism and disgust of the electorate, and they understand well that it is in their interest to keep voters bored and cynical and disgusted to depress turnout on election day. That’s of course true in Ohio, where confusion and dismay over redistricting, to say nothing of the six-week abortion ban, have been the most recent on-ramps to said disgust. But statehouse Republicans have taken it one step further. The naked aim of gerrymandering is not to depress turnout – that’s just a convenient side effect – but to eliminate the power of voting altogether.
Except don’t tell that to Monique Smith. After defeating Romano in the 2020 primary, Smith shocked incumbent Republican Dave Greenspan, defeating him by a razor-thin 51-49 margin and becoming the only candidate to flip an Ohio statehouse district Red to Blue.
Not that the Cuyahoga County or Ohio Democratic Party cared to inquire into her campaign strategy, but Smith was backed by a volunteer army of roughly 250 west-side suburban women, many of them mothers and grandmothers, who’d been mobilized in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency and who channeled their rage into local political action. By themselves, this team of volunteers crafted messaging, designed and distributed signs, wrote postcards, knocked on doors, phone banked and lit dropped their way to Smith’s victory. Multiple women who volunteered for Smith told Scene that the energy around the campaign was infectious, precipitating other Democratic victories in the western suburbs, including in heated school board races where rightwing Critical Race Theory candidates looked to be gaining footholds. In Smith, women who for years had felt alienated or ignored by political leaders in Ohio suddenly had a candidate about whom they were passionate, and in whom they saw a sister and friend. That is to say, they saw themselves.
“She was just one of us,” activist and supporter Susan Polakoff Shaw told Scene, about Smith’s 2020 victory. “She was a mom who lived in the suburbs and was pissed off about the same things we were pissed off about.”
Smith seemed poised for a long political career, cocooned by an engaged and devoted constituency. But this year, she was drawn out of her district, a casualty of Republican mapmakers. After her tour of duty in Lakewood, Smith moved with her husband and children to Fairview Park, but her address didn’t fall within the new House District 16, which includes (from north to south) Bay Village, Westlake, North Olmsted, Olmsted Falls and Berea, and among them just under 70% of the voters who elected Smith in 2020. She is not officially the incumbent in HD16, but she nevertheless has no qualms about calling the district hers.
Smith’s supporters believe she was intentionally targeted by vengeful Republicans. And looking at the new map, it’s easy to see why. House District 17, adjacent to HD16, begins on the shores of Lake Erie in Rocky River, extends down through Fairview Park and Cleveland’s southwestern tip, widens at Hopkins, and dives south along I-71 through Brook Park, Middleburg Heights and the MAGA stronghold of Strongsville.
Like other newly imagined districts, HD17 is less coherent as a political entity than it is as a Republican maneuver, designed to complicate, if not foreclose outright, pathways to victory for Northeast Ohio Democrats. It includes about 32% of Smith’s former district and 38% of the current House District 14, repped by Bride Rose Sweeney. If either were to run in HD17, they’d be forced to face Strongsville Republican Tom Patton in the general election, a tall and unpleasant order.
Bride Sweeney’s registered address, incidentally, is the home of her father, the conniving former Cleveland City Council President and current Cuyahoga County Councilman Marty, who, some may remember, resigned from his statehouse seat in 2018 to make way for Bride. That address, in Cleveland’s Jefferson neighborhood, has been drawn into the new HD13, the Lakewood-centric district repped by popular Democrat Mike Skindell. In the uncertain early months of 2022, Sweeney filed to run not in HD16 or in HD13 but in HD14, the new Parma district that includes Cleveland’s Bellaire-Puritas neighborhood, just south of Sweeney’s registered home. She later changed her mind and filed for a residency change with plans to run in HD16, where none of her current constituents live.
Smith and Sweeney are now vying for the same seat in the August 2nd Democratic primary. It’s a dream scenario for Republicans, who are guaranteed to rid themselves of either a popular grassroots candidate or the ambitious daughter of a major Northeast Ohio political family.
“They’re doing their Dr. Evil laugh,” Susan Polakoff Shaw said of the Republicans.
Throughout the tumultuous process, the Ohio Democratic Party (ODP) and the House Democratic Caucus have cast their lot with Sweeney and seemed content to throw Smith and her volunteers to the wolves of Strongsville. Both Smith and Sweeney have family connections in the new HD16 and have declared residency at the homes of their in-laws in North Olmsted and grandparents in Westlake, respectively.
But Smith – this is what she and her supporters have repeatedly tried to convey – has voters. She is a State Representative, right? Shouldn’t the idea of representation matter to the party? Hello?
Smith filed to run in HD16 on Feb. 1 and had always made it clear that she would run wherever her constituents were. “I’ll go where they go,” she said at a March press conference. The only hiccup, which party leaders pounced upon, was that she was late filing paperwork to change her residency. Smith told Scene (and party leadership) that this was due to the constantly changing district maps. With school-aged children, she didn’t want to file to move to a new address that would require her to move again, or to go through the hassle when a later map might have rendered an initial move unnecessary.
In any case, Smith was alarmed when Sweeney filed to run against her in HD16 in early March. In an email and series of texts on March 17, Smith contacted House Minority Leader Allison Russo to register her displeasure and to set up a meeting to discuss an “incumbent protection plan.”
Russo responded that Sweeney’s filing in HD16 was part of an “important legal strategy.”
“I know it seemed messy,” Russo wrote, “but I can assure you that this leadership team’s intention is to bring every single one of our incumbent[s] back.” She acknowledged that this effort would require “some discomfort at times.”
Smith responded that she wished Sweeney had selected another Rep to run against in whatever legal strategy they were pursuing. Why not run in the district where her registered address was? Why not run in HD14, where there was no other incumbent and where a number of her own constituents remained? Indeed, why not run in HD17, where activists had recruited Troy Greenfield, President of the Fairview Park Democratic Club, to run on the Democratic side as a potential “placeholder” candidate?
“West Shore area women activists are infuriated,” Smith wrote to Russo in a lengthy text, “and felt specifically targeted as the women who did the heavy lift of flipping the only district in the state in 2020. I am happy to tell them we should all move on, but this can’t happen again. It is explosive and bad for [the Cuyahoga County Democratic] party. These are the newest, most idealistic activists our party has seen in years and we need them. We can’t discourage them and turn them off with internal party food fights.”
Russo responded that Republicans were clearly targeting both Smith and Sweeney, “so keeping them guessing as to where you will be running is the smarter approach.”
Near the end of April, the House Democratic Caucus sent an email update that indicated Smith would be running in HD17, not HD16. Smith and her campaign manager, Misty Elek, immediately moved to correct the error and met with party leadership the following week. They reaffirmed Smith’s intent to run in 16, where she had been filed all along. Allison Russo said that this would not be possible, that Smith’s “window to move” had closed and that she would be forced to run where she lived, in HD17.
Through the month of May, then, Smith’s team “reluctantly” considered the possibility of running in HD17, though they were far behind the curve, campaign-wise. Smith’s heart was not in the race, and she ultimately told Russo that she was considering backing out entirely. But after a directive from Secretary of State Frank LaRose on May 28, which extended the deadline for residency changes due to the mapmaking chaos, Smith met with a private attorney and was advised that her easiest and most straightforward path was simply completing her residency paperwork and running in HD16. Running in HD17 would have required an amended petition and legal challenge.
That’s when the gaslighting began.
Members of Smith’s team told Scene that through June, state party leadership deployed a pressure campaign urging local Democratic party leaders to get Smith to back out of the race. In an email to ward leaders in HD16 and HD17, Allison Russo portrayed Smith as going back on her word and painted Bride Sweeney as a conscientious candidate who’d moved to HD16 to avoid a primary with Mike Skindell.
It is my urgent request that you strongly encourage Rep. Monique Smith to continue the plans she communicated to the Ohio House Democratic Caucus to run for HD-17, not HD-16. With Rep. Smith remaining at her home in Fairview Park, we stand an excellent chance at having Democrats win both seats this November. Should Rep. Smith run for HD-16, HD-17 will be essentially abandoned in November's election. Additionally, HD-16 will become an unnecessary and contentious Democratic Primary that will have no positive outcome for our party or Cuyahoga County constituents who will be left with fewer Democratic voices at the Statehouse.
If Rep. Smith does not run in HD-17, we will certainly lose one Democratic House seat in Cuyahoga County to Republicans this fall and one additional Democratic incumbent in the Ohio House. Rep. Smith committed to run in HD-17 in multiple communications and direct conversations with our Caucus, and we committed to fully supporting her in this effort.
To say nothing of the disrespect this correspondence showed for Democratic candidate Troy Greenfield in HD17, (for whom a number of suburban Dem clubs and grassroots groups plan to bust ass in the general), the email inaccurately portrayed Smith’s intentions, her team told Scene. Smith had only agreed to run in HD17 briefly, and then only after being instructed by Russo herself that there would be no legal way for her to run where she wanted to.
Formal correspondence was only one element of the pressure campaign, members of Smith’s team said. Elected leaders across Cuyahoga County implored Smith to back out, asking her if she might like to run for Cuyahoga County Council instead – Smith declined – and even hinted that her endorsements and political future could be in jeopardy if she failed to play ball.
Smith’s activist network, meanwhile, was incredulous at the way the race was being framed. How on earth could Monique Smith, whose charisma mobilized an army of suburban women into action and led to dramatic results at the ballot box, not least the booting of an incumbent Republican, now be branded as a spoiler in the very district she worked so hard to win over? Why on earth was this beloved grassroots candidate being cast as the villain for running against Sweeney, who had never represented a soul in HD16, and not the other way around? For that matter, Sweeney had more constituents in HD17 than Smith did. Why hadn't she been urged to run there?
As state party leadership and Sweeney’s campaign operatives applied pressure, Smith’s campaign manager Misty Elek sent an email to Russo, reminding her of the 2020 victory and the importance of the grassroots coalition that had been cultivated in Cleveland’s Western suburbs.
“Our passion for change is centered around the fact that activists can change things locally,” Elek wrote. “We focus on backyard issues… We saw the fruits of our labor when we elected Monique Smith, who is a true representative of this district. I’d like to counter your statement that, ‘no district belongs to any of us – they belong to Ohio voters.’ Rep. Smith belongs to Ohio House District 16. We fought to get her, and we’ll fight to keep her.”
Elek also noted the tactical wisdom of Smith running in HD16. Smith’s connections and grassroots network, she argued, made her a stronger candidate in a general election.
“Since Sweeney moved to Westlake, what sort of outreach has she done to build a coalition of support in Bay Village, Westlake, and North Olmsted?” Elek asked. “HD16 is not a sure thing for any Democrat. Frankly, Rep. Sweeney’s move to Westlake because of redistricting would be seen as a negative in this district and not a positive. The Republican candidate would surely use this to his advantage. Because, again, it’s about representation – not just politics. Rep. Sweeney could very well lose in HD16 altogether as I'm not convinced that she would amass the same sort of volunteer support as Rep. Smith. We won HD16 because of our ground game that was executed by community members - again, mostly moms - who wanted true representation.”
When reached for comment, Ohio Democratic Party Spokesman Matthew Keyes said ODP had offered the same resources to both candidates in the race and would let the voters decide.
"Our focus continues to be on holding Republican politicians accountable for the ways they've betrayed Ohioans, and how those GOP betrayals have held working families back," he said in a statement.
Smith is still door-knocking, by the way.
In terms of heat out here in Bay Village, the best comparison might be the surface of the sun. Getting barbecued during the summer campaign season comes with the territory, but Smith isn’t complaining, especially now that she’s canvassing leafy Oakland Road, hitting addresses that her app has identified as likely Democratic primary voters. As far as vibes go, Smith is every bit the suburban mom: jeans, Taos sneakers, breezy summer top, tote bag over the shoulder, iPhone accessorized with finger grip. She is a woman who seems fully actualized in her 40s, and like other moms, presents as perpetually ready for action.
“Look,” she says suddenly, pointing and waving at two pigtailed girls riding their bikes. “Oh my God, that is the most Bay thing in the world. I love it.”
Smith is content to talk strategy, lamenting the wacky time frame and geographies that the redistricting process have produced. But she’s careful not to speak too harshly of Bride Sweeney. She even commends the velocity with which her opponent has knocked on the district’s doors.
“It feels like every address I hit, she’s already been there,” Smith says.
(Even Smith’s supporters, who in informal conversations have accused Sweeney of “district shopping,” also recognize that the Republican mapmakers should bear the lion’s share of the blame.)
“I hear from a number of women who think it’s such a shame that there are two Democratic women in this race,” Smith says. “Older women in particular. They are just speechless and heartbroken.”
For Smith and her team, more dispiriting than Sweeney’s political machinations is the fact that Democratic party leadership locally and statewide still don’t seem to recognize the power of grassroots organizing. Leaders can’t hope to grow the party or to win on popular policy reforms if they continue to treat districts like puzzle pieces instead of human constituencies, if they fail to recognize that Smith’s 2020 campaign, and its ripple effects, are exactly what they should be trying to emulate.
But no one was interested in the ingredients to Smith’s secret sauce, she said, which she later summed up for Scene as, “relational organizing, basically working through every PTA mom we’ve ever been friends with.”
In fact, the only person that contacted the Smith team after the 2020 victory was Ryan Puente, then the campaign manager for Cleveland mayoral candidate Justin Bibb. Puente not only gleaned valuable organizing insight, he also acquired key personnel. He hired Zoe Toscos, who had worked in a fundraising capacity for Smith and who became Bibb’s West Side Field Director. (Toscos now serves on Chris Ronayne’s campaign team).
But for Smith and her most active supporters, being primaried by a candidate with statewide party support in a district that they worked so hard to conquer just two years ago is a slap in the face. To some, it represents a version of a narrative that has repeated itself in Cuyahoga County over the past several years: grassroots candidates who harness the power of committed volunteers pitted against “machine” candidates who harness the power of party resources. From Monique Smith in 2020 to Justin Bibb and Rebecca Maurer in 2021 to Cuyahoga County Chair Dave Brock in 2022, the scale appears to be tipping toward grassroots candidates.
But forecasters are predicting historically low voter turnout on Aug. 2, and Sweeney, a gifted politician herself and the ranking member of the House Finance committee, has earned the endorsement of the Plain Dealer – the editorial board backed Sweeney for her “knowledge, Statehouse influence and grasp of legislative nuance” – and has marshaled party connections in North Olmsted and Olmsted Falls. Both are pounding pavement.
In fact, Sweeney is literally on Oakland Road right now, door-knocking herself. As Smith walks up a driveway where women can be seen chatting on the porch, she stops and quickly pivots back to the sidewalk. “It’s Bride,” she mouths, and redirects down a cross street to spare them both an awkward encounter.
When asked what edge she thought she had on Sweeney, given that they were both white Democratic women appealing to largely the same voters, Smith mentioned her “army” of volunteers, her connection to moms, and what she saw as her advantage in a general election based on her history in the area. She paused and looked almost dotingly at a nearby church where she said she recently attended an Eagle Scout ceremony.
“I just feel like this is my corner of the world,” she said. “These are my people.”
*This piece has been updated with comments from the Ohio Democratic Party.