In traditional incumbent-versus-challenger fashion, Ward 5’s city council race is a battle between tradition and new ideas as a recently appointed council member will face off in the Nov. 2 general election against a returning challenger to represent Central, one of Cleveland’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
When longtime Ward 5 council member Phyllis Cleveland resigned in April, she nominated Gray as her replacement, and council obliged, as per tradition. That appointment process has long garnered criticism from concerned citizens who claim the practice undermines the democratic process of voting in council members.
Starr, who ran unsuccessfully for the council seat in 2017, said complacent leadership continues to hold down most of Ward 5, which includes all of Central and parts of Midtown, Kinsman, and downtown. Whoever leads Ward 5 will have to address Central’s 68.8 percent poverty rate, one of the highest in the region despite its proximity to downtown, one of Cleveland’s wealthiest areas.
“Ward 5 is unique because we have all the resources and have all these wonderful organizations that are doing work in Ward 5, but still we look up and see that we’re stuck struggling,” Starr said.
Systematically designed poverty
Central has historically served as a gateway community to Cleveland’s new residents, whether they were foreign immigrants in the late 19th century or African Americans in the 1920s. The neighborhood’s Black population grew quickly back then as newcomers faced harsh discrimination in the housing and job markets elsewhere in Cleveland.
Although Central, like many Cleveland neighborhoods, has lost population in the last several decades, the scars of that historic segregation and redlining remain. Central’s median household income is one-third that of Cleveland as a whole. In addition, half the neighborhood doesn’t have access to the internet, and one-third of Central’s households live in homes that cost them more than 30 percent of their income.
That’s the environment that shaped Starr as he grew up in Central’s King Kennedy public housing complex. From going through foster care at one point, to taking a break from college for a few years and working two jobs to help support his family, Starr has learned from his upbringing how to make the best of seemingly hopeless situations.
That’s a quality that’s been missing from Ward 5’s leadership, he said. Complacent leadership has not done enough to address the root causes of Ward 5’s issues like gun violence, food deserts, and dismal median income.
“We’re not addressing our main concerns, our problems,” he said. “It seems to us everything has been pacifiered up throughout the years, meaning doing something small and saying, ‘OK, we did this.’”
Working toward solutions
Gray and Starr, both longtime Central residents, say they have dedicated themselves to addressing those long standing issues, but they each take different approaches.
Gray has served on numerous nonprofit boards, including that of the Burten, Bell, Carr Community Development Corp. and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority’s Progressive Action Council. On Cleveland city council, she passed an ordinance granting no more than $20,000 of Ward 5’s casino revenue funds to a Central-based career development program for young girls.
Starr is a Democratic ward leader and he works as the sports and recreation director at the Boys and Girls Club of Northeast Ohio, where he channels his love for sports into helping young people find healthy outlets to express themselves. In fact, it’s that job that first got Starr interested in politics, he said. That experience helping to guide young people, Starr said, along with the challenges he faced growing up in the King Kennedy public housing complex attunes him to what his constituents need.
“I’ve been able to understand what it feels like to have to bury a loved one and the trauma you face due to gun violence,” Starr said. “I know what it takes to address the median income issue. I know what type of programs we need.”
Addressing that median income issue, he said, will come down to creating new education options for the ward’s youth that will prepare them to enter the workforce. While the ward’s median income is drastically lower than that of Cleveland, its labor force participation rate is about 56 percent, just shy of the citywide rate of 59 percent. That’s why the ward needs to focus on job training, so its labor force can earn higher wages, Starr said.
“This election is so important because this is going to determine where we’re going to shape our next generation at, and if we’re going to give them a kickstart on the future,” he said.
As far as housing, Starr said many of the ward’s residents too often find themselves living in public housing complexes for life. He said he would work on creating or modifying social service programs that focus on moving public housing residents toward home ownership.
“I’ll be helping them create a plan to make sure we get people on their feet,” he said. “We need to start living, not surviving.”
But Ward 5’s issues are complex and many, so Starr said that, although it may take time and hard work, he would research these issues and work with city leadership to formulate a more comprehensive plan for the community. Ward 5 does not need more stopgap solutions, he said. It all starts with assertive leadership.
“That’s why we’re struggling, because leadership has forgotten the people,” Starr said. “They’ve been focused on shutting up and not fighting for the people.”
For information about the Sept. 14 primary and Nov. 2 general election, including registering to vote, visit boe.cuyahogacounty.gov.
Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land.