War of the Words: Frank Jackson Wins Big Primary Debate with Mic Drop Finale

click to enlarge Rick Jackson moderates Cleveland Mayoral Debate (8/25/2017). - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Rick Jackson moderates Cleveland Mayoral Debate (8/25/2017).
In the first official Cleveland Mayoral debate, a 90-minute affair that became a war of sound bites, the three-term incumbent Frank Jackson got the last word.

"Anyone who wants to talk about the illusion of what should be, that's a nice conversation," said Jackson, in closing remarks. (He was the last of the nine candidates to speak.) "But when it comes down to reality, I deal with it because I go to bed with it every night. Every night I go to bed with it, and that means I have to bring resolution in order to take care of who I love and who I care about, just like you do. And I cannot live in that illusion. I have to live in a reality. And when you live in reality you have anxiety. And when you have anxiety, that means you have to own success. You have to own failure. You have to own it, and you cannot blame somebody else... What have you done? You ain't raised nothin, and you ain't done nothin."

The crowd of civic leaders and campaign operatives in attendance erupted in applause. They'd been waiting for this moment, for a mic drop of sorts, and they got their pyrotechnic finale. No one knew exactly what Jackson meant — What did raise connote, for instance? Was he saying that his challengers hadn't successfully raised a city out of calamity, as Jackson had raised Cleveland from the recession? Was he talking about raising a family? Raising taxes?

He likely just meant that it's easy to criticize the Mayor when you're not the Mayor, and intended to swat away the (in many cases) minimal or barely applicable credentials of his challengers. But whatever he meant, his supporters were in jubilant hysterics, leaping out of their seats and obscuring the audio of the forum's adjournment. City Council President Kevin Kelley and Jackson's lately retired Chief of Staff Ken Silliman, now a presumed campaign operative, beamed broadly and met each other in a triumphant high-five. The Global Center for Health Innovation jangled with the wind-chime-ish trills that a whole lot of high-end cutlery and plateware make when they collide.  

With nine candidates vying for votes and attention, no one stood much of a chance at Friday afternoon's City Club event, smooth and neutral moderating of public radio's Rick Jackson notwithstanding. Frank Jackson's closing statement will likely be the afternoon's runaway quote — we certainly led with it, although the notion of Jackson "embracing failure" and "not blaming somebody else" is a real knee-slapper.

click to enlarge Cleveland Mayoral Debate (8/25/2017) - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Cleveland Mayoral Debate (8/25/2017)
But it's true: In the 90 seconds allotted for intros and closings, and the 60 seconds allotted for individual answers, the policy "debate" was without a great deal of substance. The candidates could do little but revert to their favored talking points and had no opportunity to engage in one-on-one tussles that characterized, for example, the Republican primary debates. (Even this week's PD/Cleveland.com endorsement interview featured a bit more direct engagement, if not more friction, than this afternoon's event.)

Zack Reed busted out his familiar Frank Jackson "report card" in opening remarks and bashed the Mayor repeatedly for a lack of progress in his 12 years in office. When asked about immigration, Reed didn't even attempt to answer the question — "I can answer that later," he said — and launched instead into a full-scale attack on Jackson's track record. The "safety" candidate stressed the importance of safety, but offered no specific policy antidotes beyond the addition of 400 new officers.

Jeff Johnson was uneven as well. He had two very strong moments — 1) He reminded the crowd of the importance of public transit as an equity issue and called for state, federal and private investment; 2) He returned to a question on coalition building, which he'd not been asked to answer directly, and announced that "all coalitions are not positive coalitions," referencing the City Hall coalition that had worked to "deny and suppress the vote" on the Q Deal. Otherwise, he didn't break through. He was unable to offer specific policy solutions, billing himself (per usual) as the candidate that would represent all 34 Cleveland neighborhoods.

Johnson wasn't even able to respond to Fresh Brewed Tees' Tony Madalone — the afternoon's flame-thrower — when Madalone accused Johnson of exploiting the vulnerability of the citizenry (an allusion to Johnson's SEIU support?) and of using lead poisoning as a political talking point. Madalone accused all the elected leaders in attendance of ineffective leadership and in final remarks lumped the media in as well: The media that supports incumbents are accessories, he said (essentially), helping stunt the city's potential and progress.

If Madalone was after Johnson, Brandon Chrostowski was after Reed. The EDWINS founder mentioned again that he hoped to bring his job training model to the city of Cleveland — he suggested that the city should build five job training centers — and lashed out at Reed for not using his council seat to effect change on the public safety front. "Your campaign is safety first, but it should be excuses first," Chrostowski said.

Former East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer was strong, as he can be in these settings. He read from prepared remarks and cited specific examples of problems he saw and solutions he'd offer. Many of the candidates have said that they would fire Safety Director Michael McGrath and Special Assistant (former safety director) Martin Flask, but Brewer was the only candidate to say that he'd "make a change" at the CEO-level of the Cleveland Schools. He proposed, once again, the idea of having physicians as part of EMS squads. He billed himself as the answer to Cleveland's "out of control" management and said he wanted to continue the legacy of Carl Stokes.

Dyrone Smith continued his crusade against unions and opened with a weird incantation sort of thing that you'd be forgiven for assuming came from the Faceless Men of Braavos. "What you should know about me is that I'm nobody. And yet I am everybody, just like you," the long-shot challenger and 'independent student of economics declared. "I have come to the public sector to serve you, to be your voice and if necessary, to die for you."

State Rep. Bill Patmon said little of note, though he closed with a memorable warning.

"Be careful, be very careful," he said. "The reason I say that is promises and visions: snake oil. Our country suffers from that right now."

Meantime, the number of doors that Robert Kilo has personally knocked on continues to rise. Today, the former director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes said that he had knocked on nearly 15,000, and that hasn't precluded him from continuing to sharply criticize current leadership. His two priorities are safety and education, and he successfully communicated them, citing his "10-point Coalition" for violence reduction that he'd cribbed from Indianapolis with the Mayor's blessing.  Still, he remains out of the fold of the primary contenders. The Republican-endorsed candidate isn't viewed, evidently, as much of a threat.  

The City Club itself and moderator Rick Jackson put on an impressive show for the sold-out crowd. The candidates, to their credit, rarely rambled or went above their allotted answer time. Some of them are clearly taking to heart what Cleveland.com Editor Chris Quinn suggested Friday morning: that in what is increasingly understood as a race for second place, the contenders are going to have to stop aiming their weapons at Frank Jackson and start aiming them at one another.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

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...
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.