Cleveland mayoral candidate Ross DiBello tried to elevate principles of democracy-building and people power in a virtual conversation Wednesday with the City Club of Cleveland's Dan Moulthrop, in what has become a 2021 rite of passage for mayoral hopefuls.
But the 38-year-old DiBello struggled to effectively articulate his vision for the city and his qualifications for the job. Moulthrop often appeared exasperated with the West Park attorney's perceived lack of credentials.
DiBello stressed throughout the conversation that big changes were badly needed at City Hall. And while he agreed that specific quality of life issues were important, in his view they flowed from a suite of procedural reforms that should be implemented to amplify resident voices.
DiBello wants to institute term limits for both the mayor and city council, for example. He wants public comment at city council meetings. He wants to end city council's appointment tradition. And he wants to drastically reduce campaign contributions in order to dial back the influence of corporations and political action committees on the city's priorities.
Many of these reforms, which DiBello highlighted when he launched his campaign
back in October, have been advanced by candidates for city council. Moulthrop was interested to know why DiBello wasn't seeking office there. After all, the majority of these reforms were related to city council procedures, were they not?
DiBello gently dodged the question, saying that no one on city council, to his knowledge, was advocating for these changes. He said that while the mayor doesn't have the power to unilaterally make them — they would be amendments to the city charter — the mayor does have the power to lobby for them, and to support residents who introduce them via the initiative petition process.
As in the City Club conversation with candidate Justin Bibb, Moulthrop asked what in DiBello's background qualified him for the most important political office in Northeast Ohio.
DiBello's response was a good one, if tentatively delivered. He said that his campaign was about getting Cleveland to a point where nurses and teachers and firefighters and "people who work with their hands" are empowered to run for office; in short, that you shouldn't have to be a CEO or a veteran politician to represent your neighbors.
DiBello's candidacy is clearly fueled by personal passions. He said that while campaigning for Judge Cassandra Collier-Williams, for whom he worked for 7.5 years, he traveled to almost every ward in the city and saw Cleveland's diversity firsthand. He also saw its poverty, and witnessed the effects of poverty through the criminal justice system. His solution, he said, was not to complain about these problems but to take action.
But his enthusiasm for change is for the moment hamstrung by a lack of fluency on core issues, which scanned, under the Moulthrop microscope, as a lack of preparedness. DiBello is a first-time candidate, but he could certainly do with a campaign team helping him rehearse talking points for public appearances such as these. On topics from CMSD to defunding the police to downtown economic development, DiBello's views and proposed plans of action were ill-defined.
DiBello faltered, for example, when he explained that he thinks a solution to poverty is eliminating big corporate handouts, such as the Q Deal, the Sherwin-Williams incentive package and the 60-Year-TIF
for the Flats East Bank project.
This is a bold position — DiBello will likely be the only candidate, other than perhaps Dennis Kucinich, to make a direct link between subsidies for big business and the region's poverty — and he stuck to his guns when Moulthrop asked for more specific answers. But he was unprepared for the volley of follow-ups.
"How can you claim to support small businesses," Moulthrop asked, "if you don't support the Q?" (The premise of the question was that DiBello said he would have reallocated some of the money used for handouts to support small businesses and entrepreneurs. Moulthrop noted that activity from the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse generates business for restaurants on E. 4th Street.)
The segment devolved into a familiar philosophical debate, and DiBello tried to take a macro approach. He said that the city, in general, should be negotiating in residents' best interests, and that residents' tax dollars should not be used merely as handouts for businesses to try to generate additional taxes. He appealed vaguely to mathematics.
The logic behind DiBello's position is perfectly sound, though he's in for much more aggressive handling if he intends to continue critiquing the economic development status quo. This is sacrosanct ideology. Wednesday, Moulthrop instantly
pounced upon DiBello's mention of Sherwin-Williams, noting that the corporation could have moved elsewhere if not for the city's generous incentives, and that retaining the company in Cleveland meant a concentration of six-figure salaries
and the trickle-down economic benefits therefrom.
Arguing against economic development subsidies, as a political candidate, means risking being portrayed as anti-job, anti-sports (and by extension, anti-civic pride), anti-growth, anti-diversity, or other unsavory designations. DiBello's arguments will have to be water-tight and his responses meticulously prepared, or else he'll be made to look like a fool. (This is in keeping with the mainstream media's general principle of portraying candidates pushing for social justice as fanciful ideologues. Oh, you want to make health care free? How ya gonna pay for it?)
Moulthrop's questions were by no means unfair, but they did force DiBello into uncomfortable corners more than once. They likely communicated the range of material with which he will have to become more conversant if he intends to make a positive impression on voters in a debate setting.
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