On an early September evening, about a dozen neighbors gathered in the backyard of Phil and Christina Buck on Cleveland’s west side for a meet-and-greet with City Council president and mayoral candidate Kevin Kelley. The candidate, dressed casually in a short-sleeve shirt and leaning forward in his lawn chair, listened intently as an Ohio City resident complained about absentee landlords.
“I’m a landlord and I take care of my properties, but I see many slumlords who don’t,” he said, echoing a common theme on the campaign trail. “It’s so frustrating.”
Kelley, who has served as council member for Ward 13 for the past 16 years and council president for the last seven, responded with a pat but reassuring answer: “Change is coming.” Then he segued into an area where he’s undoubtedly the most comfortable: policy.
A few minutes later, Kelley, who has the chiseled good looks of a 1950s movie star and talks in the clipped, confident tones of a lawyer and lawmaker, was deep in the weeds, and the audience of block-club devotees were digging it.
They listened intently as Kelley talked about how best to use Cleveland’s $511 million of American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds. This seeming windfall is more than double what any other Ohio city will receive, based on the city’s dubious honor of being the poorest big city in America.
“That’s like double my salary,” Kelley joked before addressing how he’d spend this “once in a lifetime investment.” After paying off the $110 million in revenue the city lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, he’d work with council to address post-COVID food insecurity (Council already has allocated $5 million to expand the Greater Cleveland Food Bank in Collinwood).
He also would use the funds to pilot free public broadband, pay for new police equipment, tear down abandoned homes, clean up vacant lots, and help seniors repair their homes. (There was some banter about the wonkily-named “Age Friendly Home Investment Program.”)
It was classic Kelley. Instead of wooing voters with his soaring vision, as some other, more oratorically gifted candidates (think Dennis Kucinich, Justin Bibb, or Basheer Jones) would, Kelley soothed them with experience, gravitas, and dry wit.
Question is, will that be enough to convince voters? Or will residents prefer an outsider like Bibb, a change-oriented candidate like Jones, or someone who knows how to manipulate the media spotlight, like Kucinich? Given that Kelley has worked closely with Mayor Frank Jackson for seven years as council president, will voters believe that his mantra, “Change will come,” is more than just another political soundbite?
In the Bucks’ backyard, a resident asked Kelley about the scarcity of young political leaders and fresh voices in Cleveland. Most current council members were appointed by their predecessors, she noted. “The city of Cleveland has a reputation as a bit of an insiders’ club,” the resident said. “What would you do to encourage more political participation?”
Here, Kelley stumbled a bit. “The challenge I’ve seen isn’t that the government is locking people out,” he said. “It’s getting people involved. Unless something bad happens, it’s hard to get people involved. We struggle with this at Ward 13 Democratic Club meetings. What do we do, provide more beer, pizza, and wine? I’ll do whatever I can to get people involved, but it’s just tough.”
The moment was reminiscent of the recent mayoral debates hosted by Ideastream and the City Club, when Kelley struggled to defend himself against allegations from Jones, Bibb and others that he stymied efforts to allow public comment at city council meetings. Recently, Kelley backed a rules change allowing it.
As the event wound down, Kelley gave his closing argument, warning people to “look behind the resume” of other, perhaps superficially sexier candidates and pick the most experienced leader.
“I can’t stress enough the fragile state we’re in,” he said. “Every candidate will talk about change, and if they don’t, then it’s kind of like political malpractice. The challenge is, who knows how to make change, build coalitions, and get things done?”
An experienced leader
Kelley’s supporters back up this assertion. They say Kelley is a solid but under-appreciated manager who produces results but also declines to promote his achievements.
“He listens a lot, especially to his leadership team,” said Ward 6 council member Blaine Griffin, the majority leader on City Council who has worked closely with Kelley since 2017. “He’s not a go-it-alone person.”
“But once he does make a decision,” Griffin added, “you can take that to the bank.”
Kevin Conwell, who represents Ward 9 including much of Glenville and University Circle, waded into the race and endorsed Kelley earlier this year because he helped Conwell jumpstart development in Glenville and get things done for his residents, including repaving East 105th St.
Discoursing on Kelley’s political style, Conwell repeated a mantra he’s used before that there are two types of politicians: the salesman and the technician.
“The salesman goes out there and says, ‘Rah rah rah rah rah rah,’ but nothing gets done,” Conwell said. “Kevin is a technician. He looks at the situation and says, ‘OK, what can we get done?’ He analyzes the problem, looks at what can be learned from it, and sets desired goals and objectives. But he doesn’t go around saying what he did, and people don’t look at a technician and see what they do.”
At the same time, Conwell said, although Kelley has much in common with Jackson, he’s a distinctly different leader. Conwell said he believes Kelley will do a better job hiring directors who improve city services and hold any directors who don’t accountable.
“Not to beat up on Frank [Jackson], but I think [Kelley] will move forward more with a culture of execution and getting things done,” Conwell said.
Still, Ward 3 council member Kerry McCormack complained that Kelley and other council leaders are too cozy with Jackson and stymie efforts by younger, newer council members to challenge the administration.
“I’ve been frustrated with the lack of forceful support on key issues I’ve championed,” said McCormack, pointing to blockades on issues like “Complete and Green Streets” and the ongoing legacy problems at the West Side Market. “I’m not afraid to challenge the administration and I’m not sure why others don’t do it.”
“The times that I’ve sought support [from Kelley and other leaders],” McCormack added, “I didn’t get it.”
Griffin, however, who worked under Jackson as director of the city’s Community Relations board for 11 years and is an ally of the mayor, defended Kelley. “Sometimes you’ve got to make tough decisions,” he said. “That’s why you have leaders.”
Regarding McCormack’s complaint: “It wasn’t that he didn’t want to challenge the administration,” Griffin said. “It was that a majority of us agreed that there was no need to challenge them.”
His record of service
Sitting on his front porch on Parkridge Avenue in Old Brooklyn, Kelley is once again getting into the weeds – this time, literally. He talks about how “shrubbery” blocks the signal for Old Brooklyn Connected, the free but somewhat sluggish WiFi initiative he brought to his community a decade ago using ward allocation dollars. The network now helps over 30,000 unique users do their homework, check medical records, and complete other online tasks.
Kelley walks through the system, connecting his laptop and showing that he’s getting more than 5 mbps upload speed – more than enough to surf the web but likely not enough for Zoom calls every day. Basically, he says, it’s good basic service for those who need it and can’t afford to pay for private service.
Still, John Gearo, an Old Brooklyn resident who has lived on Hood Avenue for more than 20 years, said the much-touted system is a farce. “It doesn’t work,” Gearo said. “Maybe if you’re standing outside under the antenna, it works, but I can’t even get it to come up at my house.”
Sure enough, a visit to Gearo’s address on Hood Avenue revealed that the so-called publicly accessible wi-fi network in Old Brooklyn isn’t truly available on Gearo’s street. Many other Old Brooklyn residents say they’ve experienced the same problem.
“I’ve called his [Kelley’s] office 3-4 times and never gotten a call back,” said Gearo.
Jeff Verespej, executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, said that Old Brooklyn Connected is imperfect but does work and could offer lessons for Cleveland if it chooses to try to provide public broadband.
He said Kelley has racked up his share of political detractors in his time on council but that the candidate has an impressive track record in Old Brooklyn. Indeed, he said, Kelley’s supporters wish he’d brag a little more about his successes including a new $10 million streetscape for West 25th St. and Pearl Road and attracting new businesses such as cycle shops, restaurants, and coffee shops to Old Brooklyn.
Verespej said he also admires Kelley’s grasp of public policy and his lawyerly approach to details and mastery of municipal law and finance. “For some folks, that’s like watching paint dry,” he said. “For Kevin, I think he really enjoys it.”
One common observation by residents is that Kelley is thin-skinned, can be arrogant or stubborn, and doesn’t always take criticism well. Some of these points were on display in the debate over adding public comment to City Council meetings. In response to his detractors, Kelley said he didn’t like how the issue was politicized.
“You can’t point a finger at one thing for lack of voter turnout,” he said. “A lot of distrust of the government comes from irresponsible social media use.”
Another way Kelley expresses frustration is by calling out journalists, who he says are letting other candidates slide. “No one is fact checking,” he has said. “No one is calling BS on things that are happening.”
What’s happening that ought to be called out? Kelley says it’s Kucinich’s repeated but unsupported assertions that he would hire 400 police officers and cut Cleveland Public Power bills by ten percent. Additionally, he said that some candidates are over-hyped. “If you’re considering hiring a person to run a $1.8 billion company with 7,500 employees, you might want to look behind the resume, ask a couple questions, and make sure they’re ready to run the city on day one,” he said.
But it isn’t just his quiet, pragmatic style that has as times kept Kelley from breaking through to voters. It’s also his need to differentiate himself from Jackson.
When asked how he has brought change to Cleveland in ways that resonate with voters and are indicative of how he’d lead as mayor, Kelley cites First Year Cleveland’s efforts to reduce infant mortality, especially among African-Americans, Cleveland’s new Right to Counsel program that guarantees a lawyer for some families facing eviction in Cleveland, and the newly activated Lead Safe Cleveland initiative to end childhood lead poisoning.
He also promises to be a transparent and communicative mayor and points to Old Brooklyn as a possible model for redevelopment under him citywide, noting its business and housing growth and increasingly diverse population. He says he won’t communicate — or rather, fail to communicate — like Jackson, whose press office frequently responds slowly to inquiries and public information requests, if it responds at all.
Replying to criticism that he’s too close to Jackson and doesn’t offer a check on the administration, Kelley says that’s his style: He prefers to resolve issues and problems privately rather than to create nasty public fights that devolve into media spectacles.
“Am I too close to Frank Jackson?,” he asked. “No. We meet in his office and resolve whatever issues there are before it becomes a show pony.”
Ultimately, Kelley said voters should choose him because of — not despite — who he is.
“I’m not a microphone hound,” he said, referring to Kucinich and other politicians seeking the city’s top office. “I don’t pound the tables and seek attention. I don’t enjoy the dog and pony show. I just get the work done.”
For information about the Sept. 14 primary and Nov. 2 general election, including registering to vote, visit boe.cuyahogacounty.gov.
Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.
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