A block or two in Hough may change your view of Basheer Jones.
To some in this near east side neighborhood, he’s the 36-year-old councilman of Cleveland’s Ward 7, who famously beat the unpopular T.J. Dow by a slim margin of 13 votes (and won the two recount attempts). To others, he’s the Morehouse Man in slick tennis shoes and grey blazer, the former radio deejay, the Def Jam-slam poet, the politically-hip YouTube rapper, the Black Muslim activist. To kids of his ward, he’s the bookbag guy, the ego-booster, the suited-up politician who’s close buddies with Heisman winner Troy Smith.
But at a campaign stop at the Ankor Restaurant on St. Clair Ave. in mid-August, he was the orator. Nearly a month before the primary election on September 14, Jones met a dozen who’s-who east-side pastors to ask for their support in exchange, he said, for more political power in City Hall come 2022. That is, if he’s elected.
“I know people talk about the separation of church and state,” Jones said to the sitting group of 13. “But we know our Black leaders. And there are no greater leaders than the Black church. You wanna hear the truth? You go to the church.”
“Yes, we hear you!” a pastor in the back said.
“Why?” Jones said, his volume rising. “Because you understand what goes on in the community like no one else does.”
Making a mark
In the multifaceted race to replace Cleveland’s status-quo mayor Frank Jackson, there may be no other candidate as passionate as Jones. The second youngest candidate after 34-year-old Justin Bibb, Jones has garnered a dedicated base of the majority African-American Ward 7 with fervent religiosity and a youthful ambition. Such energy has spurred numerous development badges just as it has doubts from his critics.
In Hough, a place familiar as both a place of pain (the Hough Riots of 1966) and a home to strong political voices (like councilwoman Fannie Lewis), Jones has left his political mark since taking office in 2018. He has demolished 261 vacant buildings, established three new parks, pumped $15 million into area recreation centers, and green-lit the construction of development projects such as the Hilton Tru Hotel, Cleveland Foundation headquarters, MAGNET headquarters, Addis View apartments and more.
Jones also resurrected excitement around the Hough Community Land Trust, an independent, nonprofit organization designed to buy and lease land to developers after negotiating community benefit agreements, after several years of sitting idle.
Comparisons to other councilmen, including east side rival Zack Reed, bear no weight, Jones said. “Just be fair and you’ll see that no other councilman has had more accomplishments in three-and-a-half years than we had,” he said in a typically rhetorical boast.
Some longtime residents agree. “He’s an excellent communicator,” said Mansfield Frazier, a Hough entrepreneur who created Chateau Hough winery on East 66th St. “He’s also done things in his ward no one else has. Food giveaways. Attracting large properties.”
Jones’ fiery oration and unwavering activism are a key part of his appeal, Frazier added. He recalled asking Jones, shortly after he beat Dow in 2017, if he ever thought about becoming an imam, or someone who leads prayers in a mosque. (Jones is a third-generation Muslim.) Jones declined. Instead, Frazier said, he became Ward 7’s most-celebrated political figure since Lewis herself.
“If he were to stay here and run?” Frazier added.“Oh, he’d win in a landslide. No doubt about that.”
A conservative controversy
Still, in the wake of a viral video in which he made conservative remarks about women, the question arises from some: Does a figure like Jones belong at City Hall?
Although Jones posted it on his own Instagram, the video quickly morphed into a self-inflicted political hit. The clip showed a 32-year-old Jones standing behind the pulpit of the First Cleveland Mosque, offering a congregation of mostly men a bold lesson in masculinity.
“I’m talking to the man!” Jones said from behind the pulpit, in the tone of a scolding pastor. “Where’s the man? Why are we not leading our women? They are not their leaders. We are their leaders… Men have to take on the responsibility that God has given them.”
This message may play well among conservative clergy—Jones claims to be a centrist Democrat—but it could cost him votes outside that base. Jones defended the quote by saying he was much younger at the time, and as the child of a single mother, the point he was trying to make was to encourage men to take responsibility, not denigrate women. Coupled with a report that Jones missed more than half of the scheduled city council meetings last year (only two absences were excused), however, the candidate is facing some credibility challenges.
Some, like Frazier, believe Jones will sort out his political growing pains and tone down his religious viewpoints as mayor. Others believe the attitudes towards women that he expressed in that video have no place in city hall leadership.
“I don’t care who he is, women ain’t gonna vote for that noise,” said Veronica Walton, 64, in reference to his pulpit speech, while selling fresh produce on Hough Ave.
“Black women are good, God-fearing, honest people,” added Ella Solis, 74, a Black resident of Hough. “And they’re not going to rally around that.”
Currently a resident of South Euclid, Walton said she admires Jones for his development victories, including bringing new multi-family and single-family homes to Hough. But she also believes that Jones’ controversial religious views will turn off the electorate if they haven’t already. Even if Jones does replace Frank Jackson, Walton is skeptical about Jones’ ability to change city hall, given his short political tenure and the extent of changes needed. “A lot of systems need to be impacted for any change to come about,” Walton said.
Over at the All In One Barbershop & Beauty Salon on Addison Road sat owner Derrick Watson, 71. For Watson, who left Ward 7 for Seven Hills in 2013 out of fear of increased gun violence, Jones is the go-getting savior of a ward dragged down by former councilman T.J. Dow. (Dow, a longtime rival of Jones, tried to keep $750,000 of ward funds from Jones before he took office, attempting to give it to Ken Johnson instead.)
But Jones’ very ubiquity is what has convinced Watson that his man-about-town character is fit for office, political hiccups notwithstanding. Indeed, Watson credits the new gravel parking lot across the street to Jones’ record-breaking home demolition streak.
“You know, you never even seen Dow” when he was in office, Watson said. “My whole thing with Basheer is: Action speaks. And that’s why I’ll vote for him.”
‘I’m in nobody’s box’
On August 17, less than a month before the primaries, Jones walked into a sound booth at the Ideastream Public Media studios at Playhouse Square to debate the six other mayoral candidates for the second time. By that point, early voting was near, and Jones and his team were posting constantly to his 30,400 Instagram followers, urging them to get to the polls.
Among the many reminders of support, there’s little note of backlash one might expect from women. “You’re the only person who is trying to speak to the people and trying to be heard,” wrote user kiiinnaa__.h on one of these posts. “Everybody else has their own agenda!!” “We love you and pray every day for you,” wrote Crystal Carter. “You are the New Hope.”
About a half hour into the debate, Jones, wearing a bright-colored suit, launched into a light tirade after being asked by Stockyards resident Rhonda Peoples how he’d raise the living wage in Cleveland. After detailing a short list of his major developments, mostly a Dave’s Supermarket and some 700 new jobs, he begged listeners to “pay attention to what we’ve done in Ward 7.” Jones then touched on what may be the ultimate trial for a Cleveland leader: bridging the chasm between its east and west sides.
“If you want to be successful in this city, we must be collaborators,” he said. “Not you versus me. It has to be we. That’s the only way we’re gonna take this city to the next level.”
Although his point is something Clevelanders have heard before, Jones’ authenticity may resonate with voters. Whether or not his “voice” resonates on both sides of town, it seems, will be the ultimate litmus test of his political brand. He admits that his presence on Cleveland’s majority white and Latinx west side has been rather light—which Jones said he’s making up for before September’s primary. Still, he’s dedicated to his east side ward. “Our focus is there, because that’s where our base is,” he said.
A recent poll by Change Research of 451 likely voters showed that only 11 percent planned to vote for Jones. That puts him in fifth. By contrast, candidate Dennis Kucinich, who Jones claims represents the political rear-guard, scored 20 percent.
When asked to self-reflect in an interview, Jones said he sees himself as both blessed with the ability to speak truth that resonates with a broad group of voters, but also says the answers are not simple. He’s a devout man with conservative leanings, including broad support for the police, but he’s also a progressive father-of-two enraged by police brutality.
“I’m in nobody’s box, even though I’m within all of it,” Jones says. “I fight for justice, even if it’s against myself.”
NOTE: Registered voters have three ways to vote in the primary. They can apply for mail ballots. They can vote early starting Aug. 17 at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, 2925 Euclid Ave. Or they can vote on Sept. 14 at their neighborhood polling places. For schedules and other details, see boe.cuyahogacounty.gov.
Mark Oprea is a Cleveland-based writer who has written for National Public Radio, Pacific Standard, and many others.