What Led to Councilman Brian Cummins' Last-Minute Flip-Flop on the Q Deal?

Councilman Brian Cummins
Councilman Brian Cummins
And just like that, the Gateway Six became the Gateway Five.

With his head down, Ward 14 Councilman Brian Cummins voted YES Monday night on a piece of "companion legislation" (469-17) that would add three new provisions to the existing Quicken Loans Arena renovation deal.

Shortly thereafter, in accordance with rumors, Cummins also voted YES on 305-17, the Q deal itself, which will commit a projected $88 million of city money from 2023-2034 to the project. Cummins' vote pushed the final count to 12-5, a super-majority that grants the ordinance emergency status and puts it into effect immediately. It also complicates the possibility of a voter-led referendum, though that effort should still technically be possible.

Cummins was one of six councilman — dubbed the Gateway Six by Mark Naymik on WTAM Monday morning — who had firmly opposed the deal in earlier votes and hearings. Cummins' opposition was largely philosophical. He'd told Cavs and City Council leadership to their faces that he "just couldn't get there." Among other things, Cummins found it outrageous that after the NBA's negotiation of a major new network deal (worth about $24 billion), a deal that is expected to lead to enormous increases in team valuation, Gilbert could come asking for a handout with a straight face.

The other opponents in the resistance were Jeff Johnson, Zack Reed, Mike Polensek, Kevin Conwell and T.J. Dow. Despite Cummins' objections, he was thought to be somewhat susceptible because he's a newer member of council leadership — he chairs the health and human services committee — and was the lone opposing councilman from the city's west side.

Council Chambers were packed last night with resident opponents who more than once erupted in chants directed at Cummins and Council President Kevin Kelley. "Hey hey, ho ho," etc. (Note: Supporters of the Q deal, including many representatives from the labor unions, were also in attendance.) Yet despite the vocal opposition from citizens and councilmen, the Q deal has been ratified virtually untouched.

Never once did an elected leader at the city or county level attempt to scrap the current deal and re-negotiate on behalf of their constituents. County Councilman Jack Schron merely wanted to postpone the deal to assess it in the context of state budget cuts. County Councilwoman Nan Baker made one alternative suggestion, that the Cavs themselves bear the burden of the financing, but did so in somber final remarks that were shrugged off as a fantasy. There was never any "creative" negotiating, as Armond Budish has repeatedly bragged; a seven-year lease extension represents the one publicized perk for taxpayers.

But in a last-ditch effort to "polish the turd," in the words of one observer, the deal was subject to a "major announcement" Monday afternoon. The Cavs said they'd sweeten the deal by refurbishing 22 gym floors at rec centers citywide and refurbishing gym floors at CMSD high schools. The other two announced provisions were insignificant public-relations gestures. Though Kelley bristled at the suggestion Monday night, the entire afternoon event seemed oriented toward the city's predominantly black east side community, where opposition to the deal is concentrated.  

"Q Deal Will Provide Jobs for Blacks," read one sign that framed the lectern on the steps of City Hall. "Vote Yes!!"

According to Frank Jackson, it was Kelley himself who worked this weekend to negotiate these additional community benefits.

The gym floor promise is nice, but it bears no resemblance to a negotiated community benefits agreement that organizations like Greater Cleveland Congregations have proposed. As a point of clarification: GCC's position all along has not been to reject the deal outright, but to renegotiate the deal with specific community benefits attached — they've proposed a Community Equity Fund. (The "CBA" touted by the city is in fact merely a labor agreement. That's crucially important, but according to the GCC, ensuring baselines in local and minority labor should happen anyway.)

These final amendments were evidently sufficient to persuade Brian Cummins to change his mind. It is well-known by now that the Cavs and their team of negotiators had been lobbying the council opposition hard all week. Dan Gilbert himself even called Councilman Zack Reed to try to turn him. In a conversation Tuesday with Scene, Cummins said that the new provisions were important.

"It's hard to say whether they're substantial," Cummins said, "but the admissions tax piece — over the last five years, that's been on average, about a million per year. And that's a lot better than where we were at two weeks ago."

Not just an insignificant public-relations gesture, in other words.

But it was clear, in talking with Cummins, that political pragmatism played a far greater role in his decision-making than these new alleged benefits (to which no specific dollar values were attached, as Mike Polensek noted last night). Cummins said he hated that he was forced to make this difficult decision, but ultimately, preserving his relationship with council leadership and the mayor's administration was a more beneficial approach for his ward.

"I had to think hard and long about this," Cummins said, "but if I'm trying to garner funds from the mayor's administration, competing with 16 other wards, things like this matter. And that's just a non-debatable fact."

Cummins was frustrated. He said he maintains his objections to the deal on ethical grounds and reiterated that his leadership role on council was not explicitly threatened. But as a former Green party member who was ostracized for years, Cummins said he's had to work harder than most to rehabilitate relationships with council Democrats. It's been an "uphill battle."

"I'm not a lone wolf, but it's hard to always feel like you're leading the opposition," Cummins said. "It's a challenge, and quite frankly, it's tiring."

In the past week, Cummins said he spent more time gauging his constituency and said many of the people he works closely with in Ward 14 recognize that in order to accomplish the development goals that they have for the ward, political relationships are essential.

"As an elected leader, if you're gonna run for office," Cummins said, "you have to play the political game in a good way, to try to get more for the people you represent. This was a really difficult decision, but I was putting my ward first."

Cummins acknowledged the anti-democratic manner in which the legislation passed through legislative bodies at the county and the city, and said that it was extremely difficult to change the ordinance by the time it arrived on city council desks. (As in prior controversial political issues, the debate often hinged on tactics when it should have hinged on fundamentals). But without strong executive leadership from the Mayor and the County Executive, a small caucus of city council opponents could do very little to effect change.

"But if it's this difficult to influence current structures of government," Cummins said, "it's a sign that they need to be changed."

(Cummins said he would be releasing a full statement on his rationale this afternoon.)

Speaking of change, the city council challengers in Ward 14 (the Clark-Fulton and Stockyards area, home to the city's densest concentration of Hispanics) are pouncing on this opportunity to criticize the incumbent Cummins. As we've reported, city council challengers intend to use council support of the Q deal as a lynchpin in their campaigns.

In Ward 14, that's certainly the case.

"I am greatly disappointed that Ward 14’s City Councilman Brian Cummins voted to allow the residents of Cleveland be the LOSERS in this deal!" Challenger Jasmin Santana wrote in a statement, the first we'd received from her. She is one of three candidates, in addition to Cummins, who has pulled petitions (Control-F: "Ward 14"). All three are Hispanic.

"Councilman Cummins was the 12th and LAST vote needed to get the majority to approve the Mayor’s request to give away an additional $88 million of our tax dollars to the Quicken Arena sports palace," she wrote.

Santana contended that the deal was a "perfect example of income inequality" in Cleveland, and said she supported using those funds for services that residents "really need," things like job-training programs and solutions to drugs and crime in the neighborhood.

Santana wrote that she supported "putting the brakes" on the proposal and re-negotiating a better deal for Cleveland residents. Furthermore, she said she supported putting the Q deal on the ballot in November.

Former City Councilman and perennial challenger Nelson Cintron is another candidate in Ward 14. His campaign contacted Scene to alert us that Cintron was "shocked" that Council had passed the legislation, "especially with our schools and crime being among the worst in the country."

Pastor Omar Medina, the third and final challenger, said that he, too, has been opposed to the Q deal from the beginning. He felt that Cummmins' reversal actually would make it more difficult for Ward 14 residents to get their "fair share," something he said he would continue to fight for.

It's worth noting that while Cummins' reversal was indeed the most pivotal, as it facilitated the ordinance's emergency status, and was also a stark departure from his publicly stated opposition, 11 other city councilpeople also voted in support of the deal, none of whom (in this reporter's recollection) expressed any moral reservations whatsoever.  

In the meantime, Mayor Frank Jackson signed the Q Deal legislation into law on Facebook live. "I know this is a great deal," Jackson said, in one of very few public comments he has made on the deal to date. "This is one of the best deals the city of Cleveland has ever made in regards to investing very little of public dollars and getting huge returns in terms of public benefits."

Jackson repeated the lie that the Cavs would be covering all shortfalls on the project — the county will be covering those out of a dedicated reserve — and lauded the Cavs' generosity for covering cost overruns on the construction. In theory, this is true, but the costs of the project are not yet known and may be dramatically overestimated. The public will have no way of learning the actual costs, as the Cavs will manage the construction themselves and are not obliged to open their books. They never have in the past.

The Mayor characterized the recent amendments — the gym floor provision et. al — as "the best community benefits that I've ever witnessed in my life as a public official since 1990."

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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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