Winners and Losers of the 2021 Cleveland Election Season Beyond Justin Bibb and Kevin Kelley

click to enlarge Winners and Losers of the 2021 Cleveland Election Season Beyond Justin Bibb and Kevin Kelley
Emanuel Wallace / Scene
That's mayor-elect Justin Bibb in the photo above, savoring victory at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church on election night. Everyone knows by now that Bibb won the Cleveland mayoral election last week and City Council President Kevin Kelley lost. The margin of victory was substantial.

Naturally, there were other winners and losers this election season, and not just among the candidates themselves! Here's a little column featuring some of them, following the same format as the "Winners and Losers" columns I wrote during the campaign, which tried to assess the candidates' performances in the immediate aftermath of forums and debates.

As in those columns, the "Winner" and "Loser" tags below don't really mean anything. It's just an easy way to organize analysis, akin to a "Thumbs Up" / "Thumbs Down,"  "Hot / "Not," "Cheers / Jeers" formulation. Most of these, I think, are pretty obvious.  


Ryan Puente, the baby-faced former Executive Director of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, was Justin Bibb's campaign manager. Bibb described him as one of the brightest political minds in America during his victory speech last week, and he now seems to be in the catbird's seat, professionally, having no doubt received dozens of phone calls about his post-Bibb! plans. He could elect to stay on with Bibb's transition team, and could even serve as a member of Bibb's administration if he chose. Alternately, he could leverage the local victory to sign on with, or manage, a campaign on the national stage.


Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones made a grave political miscalculation when he backed Kevin Kelley for mayor in the general election after his own disappointing primary performance. People watched Jones' Kelley endorsement with a mixture of horror and incredulity. Here was a man who had butted heads constantly with Kelley during his one term on City Council and who, though not always politically savvy, appeared to genuinely care about the most vulnerable members of his community. The Kelley endorsement simply made no sense, which is why many assumed that Jones, like several other black leaders, had been bought, bossed or bothered into supporting the white candidate who'd ignored and stomped on black voters for years. Jones surrendered his council seat to run for mayor, but he surrendered his credibility to support Kelley. He's liable to remain the face of all those who did so for awhile.


Former councilman and mayoral candidate Zack Reed is roughly the photo negative of Jones. Not only did Reed back the right horse after his primary defeat, he also put ego aside to pound pavement. He even put up his own cash to pay for a mailer on the southeast side, where Bibb dominated. Reed made it clear that he was backing Bibb without any commitment from Bibb for a job in his administration—as of this week, Reed is not a member of Bibb's transition team—and in doing so, came off as a candidate gracious in defeat who remained true to his convictions, someone who sincerely wanted positive change for the city and was willing to work for it.


Wondolowski is the Broadview Heights-dwelling head of the Building and Construction Trades Council and a sitting member of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. Wondo and his fellas, who align politically with Cleveland's real-estate-development status quo on the basis of keeping construction jobs flowing, naturally backed Kelley in the mayoral election. Wondo uttered one of the more memorable and least prophetic quotes of the season when he complained about biased media coverage and said that Kelley was going to "kick the shit out of" the media and Justin Bibb after he won the election. The crowd roared at P.J. McIntyre's pub, assuming the approximate tenor and vibe of a lynch mob. Bibb wasn't in the room, praise God, but Nick Castele sure was. Castele was the only local reporter to cover the mayoral race in detail and was often at campaign events solo. The Trumpian "Blame the Media" chants are ominous enough already, but are truly terrifying if you're the only media member present. Wondo had to eat shit at the Kelley concession party, saying actually I love the media like a man with a gun to his head, but that won't prevent the remarks from haunting him for years to come, nor from folks asking serious questions about the role and obligations of members of the Board of Elections.


Speaking of the media, the bearded and bespectacled Catholic behind the best political reporting of the year has been the belle of the ball for weeks, and deservedly so. "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," the weekly Ideastream podcast hosted and reported by Castele, was a real pro job. Each week, it masterfully recapped the latest campaign news while contextualizing the race's biggest issues. Clevelanders interested in this pivotal election got to know and understand the candidates and their platforms because of Castele's work. Ideastream's Mike McIntyre has said the podcast established Castele as one of the region's premiere journalists. The truth is, he's been among the region's premiere journalists for years. Now, a lot more people know it. And that includes — I'm terrified to report — hiring managers elsewhere. 


The arrival of young, smart, passionate Democrats on the Cleveland political scene should be an exhilarating development for the Ohio party, eager to stock the shelves and replenish the empty warehouse in anticipation of upcoming statewide elections. But voter turnout in Cleveland actually declined from 2017, when Frank Jackson mobilized his private machine to secure his fourth term without doing much personal campaigning of any kind. If Cleveland, the so-called Democratic stronghold of Ohio, can't turn out votes — and if local political figureheads like Frank Jackson, Marcia Fudge and Armond Budish (lol) can't be bothered to help with anything other than their own campaigns, the continued doom of Ohio, already among the nation's kookiest and politically barren states, will be assured.    

Winner: CLASH

Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing scored two huge symbolic victories in the defeats of both Kevin Kelley and Ward 12 City Councilman Anthony Brancatelli. Kelley sat atop council as, for years, it ignored the lead paint crisis, even after former councilman Jeff Johnson proposed legislation to do something about it in 2017. Kelley also lead the charge to invalidate the CLASH petitions on a legal technicality. Brancatelli, siding with the realtor and landlord lobby, was the only councilperson who voted NO on the lead safe ordinance that ultimately passed. Replacing these two will be Justin Bibb, a candidate who has at least gestured toward the urgency of properly funding and enforcing the lead law on the books, and who has mentioned the lead crisis as one of his targets for ARPA dollars; and Rebecca Maurer, the CLASH activist and attorney who drafted the CLASH legislation on which much of the city's ordinance was based.

Loser: "Defund the Police" 

The overwhelming passage of Issue 24 is wind in the sails of those who've been demanding police accountability for years — especially those who've lost family members to police violence — and a sharp rebuke to the inane "Defund the Police" narrative as deployed by Kelley and his goons. After the racial justice protests of May 30th, it was clear that some form of public safety policy intervention was required, beyond the symbolic "Racism as a Public Health Crisis" resolutions passed locally with much fanfare. Issue 24, which will fund and enhance the powers of a civilian review board in matters of police discipline, became that intervention in Cleveland. And voters said yes, please. 

A few other winners:
-Ward 4: At last, a Kenny Johnson replacement.

-Women Representation on City Council: Baby steps! The defeat of Delores Gray in Ward 5, however, means that Cleveland is the biggest loser of all, as the city won't have twin sisters on council. (Deborah Gray won in Ward 4.)

-The Cleveland Guardians: Cuyahoga County Council greenlit the Progressive Field Deal yesterday, and now two pro-deal pols, Blaine Griffin and Justin Bibb, lead the city of Cleveland's legislative and executive branches. Officially licensed Guardians merch should be arriving just in time for the holidays, and that means we can all tweet about that instead of the pillaging of the public coffers.

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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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