Winners and Losers from Cleveland Mayoral Candidates Forum on Criminal Justice

Some of the most well-known candidates for Cleveland mayor appeared alongside some of the most obscure in a virtual forum focused on criminal justice and re-entry Wednesday evening, sponsored by the Greater Cleveland Re-Entry Leadership Coalition and Towards Employment.

The event was theoretically an opportunity for the candidates to stake out positions in the hot-button policy arena of criminal justice — occasioned by Re-Entry Week — but the unanimous agreement on the need for reform, the scripted responses to questions and the lack of direct interaction among candidates made for a fairly dry evening.

Still, some candidates are identifiable as more serious contenders than others in the election season's early going. (You can watch the forum in its entirety above.)

The Mt. Pleasant fellas, nonprofit exec Justin Bibb and former city councilman Zack Reed, were the forum's biggest names. They were joined by candidates Ross DiBello, Arthur Kostendt, Landry Simmons, Lee Wilson and Latorya Witcher. City Council President Kevin Kelley and Councilman Basheer Jones, both of whom have pulled petitions at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, did not attend.

Channel 19's Harry Boomer moderated the round-robin discussion, inviting each candidate in turn to weigh in on the plight of citizens returning from incarceration and asking what specific policy reforms they'd undertake to eliminate barriers in multiple areas. All of those in attendance articulated philosophical opposition to things like cash bail, housing and employment barriers, and racist policing.

Only a few managed to describe specific solutions in response, however. Based on a number of factors, here are the (purely subjective) winners and losers from the Wednesday event.

WINNER: Justin Bibb
Bibb has a skilled campaign team working with him and clearly understands the value of preparation. His opening and closing statements were succinct and memorable, structured in standard three-point rhetorical flourishes that both organized and emphasized his main points. As in prior appearances, Bibb's message was clear: Cleveland desperately needs change, and he is a young executive with the lived and professional experience to tackle the biggest problems head-on. He is uniquely equipped, he said, to connect the city's "grassroots with the grasstops." On criminal justice, his policy responses were specific. He was the only candidate who mentioned the no-brainer police reform of incorporating social workers as first-responders for mental health emergencies. He even said that as mayor, he would make "Mental Health" a fourth option, alongside police, fire and EMS, when calling 9-1-1.

LOSER: Zack Reed
2017 mayoral candidate Zack Reed suffered, first and foremost, on style and technical grounds. He conducted the Zoom call from a personal vehicle and was only intermittently visible. For multiple questions, he had to be instructed to unmute his device. Just kind of a shoddy look. Reed is nevertheless a veteran campaign tactician, and established himself in direct opposition to Bibb early on. He had years of experience, he argued, (with the implication that Bibb had none). He said that unlike Bibb, who wanted to work with existing organizations and entities to scale up successful re-entry programs, Reed was committed to creating a dedicated office of re-entry in City Hall. He said that by doing so, he would communicate to ex-offenders that they had a sympathetic ear at the highest level of Cleveland's government. This sentiment, while a noble one, was Reed's central talking point and smacked of one-upmanship. Throughout the evening, in lieu of providing policy solutions, he touted his experience, which was not always as relevant as he portrayed.

WINNER: Ross DiBello
The soft-spoken attorney from West Park is continuing to carve out the clearest ideological platform among the current candidates. He's the one dead set against the corrupting influence of money in politics. On Wednesday, he effectively connected the woes of the criminal justice system with the city's funding priorities. (A lack of mental health diversion centers vs. The Q Deal, for example.)  DiBello can often seem like a lofty idealist — he referenced the prison system in Norway not once but twice — but his background in the legal field gave his responses an air of authority. Among all the candidates, he had the strongest answer to the first question, which asked everyone to relay their personal understanding of re-entry. DiBello explained how, for those reintegrating into society, the barriers to housing and employment were exacerbated by "the stigma that comes with checking that box." Furthermore, DiBello continually highlighted the poverty in Cleveland and noted that solutions to poverty, (things like improving public transportation and the minimum wage), would have positive ripple effects on the criminal justice system and re-entry programs. He stressed the need for a "forward-thinking, compassionate" platform on criminal justice.

LOSER: Kevin Kelley
The City Council President did not attend.

WINNER: Arthur Kostendt
Kostendt has stiff competition, but is for now the goofiest candidate for Mayor. He is certainly the most visibly Christian, appearing Wednesday in the close-cropped haircut and pitch black suit of a funeral home heir, though he identified as a "licensed blackjack dealer." When Zack Reed referenced a biblical passage early on, Kostendt made the sign of the cross for all to see. In his opening statement, he said that his results from the Ohio bar exam would be coming Friday and asked for everyone's prayers. In closing remarks, he made certain to thank the father, son and holy spirit in addition to Harry Boomer. He also thanked, with specificity and sincerity, all the candidates who participated in the forum by highlighting points they'd made earlier in the conversation. It was one of the evening's highlights, to be perfectly honest. It painted him as an unselfish candidate who was genuinely interested in what everyone had to say, and someone who was willing to uplift the key themes of the forum, to which he'd listened closely, instead of scoring cheap points. In campaign materials, Kostendt's views on law and order seemed to exemplify a rightwing obsession with aggression and retribution. And Wednesday, it's true that his calls for reform were more qualified than the other candidates — he was hesitant to commit municipal funding to educational resources for returning offenders, for example, because he believed that those resources would be more appropriately deployed to CMSD — but it was clear he had answers, and had spent time thinking them through. He didn't present as the reactionary his literature implied, in other words, although purely from a performance standpoint his scripted answers were a bit too wordy for his own good. In multiple instances, the impression was that he was reading his answers, not speaking them.  

LOSER: Latorya Witcher
Like Kostendt, the unknown Latorya Witcher read her scripted answers. Unfortunately, she lacked the specificity to make much of an impression. She is a first-time candidate — and for now, the only female candidate in the 2021 mayoral race — and said she was running to represent the people.

LOSER: Landry Simmons
The Republican law enforcement vet spoke off the cuff and didn't manage to offer much beyond the observations, which he repeated at regular intervals, that various realities of the criminal justice system were "ridiculous," "kooky," "insane" and "absolutely insane."

LOSER: Lee Wilson
The upbeat non-typical candidate said he wanted to shake up City Hall and likened Cleveland to the long-struggling Browns, i.e. in need of a regime change. With his heart no doubt in the right place, Wilson proposed an as-yet unrefined big campaign idea: revolutionizing government by integrating pop culture into its structure. The evening was full of heartwarming gaffes by all the candidates, but Wilson referring to Ross DiBello as "Mr. Diablo" took the cake.

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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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