In an unusual open Cleveland City Council race, two progressive candidates hailing from the nonprofit sector are vying to replace Council President Kevin Kelley, offering both Ward 13 and the city as a whole dueling approaches to the council seat and different scopes of priorities.
Both Kate Warren, 32, and Kris Harsh, 44, will face off in the Nov. 2 general election to fill the Ward 13 seat, which represents Old Brooklyn and a sliver of the Stockyards, that Kelley vacated in favor of a mayoral bid. Warren seeks to build on her policy expertise to drive legislative change not only in Old Brooklyn, but citywide. Harsh, informed by years of activism and organizing, advocates for hands-on strategies focused on hyper-local issues.
The council race in Ward 13 isn’t about challenger versus incumbent. It’s about two different approaches to the role of city council member, each informed by different experiences.
Warren is focused on streamlining and modernizing city services. Doing so would free up time for council members to focus on pushing legislation to solve era-defining issues the city hasn’t yet had the capacity to address. She acknowledges Old Brooklyn’s need for ward-level action, but also keeps an eye on how the ward’s issues overlap with those of the whole city.
“If we can make those city services systems work better for residents, then they won’t need to be calling their council office every week,” Warren said.
“Then city council can be more thoughtful about the big picture because…the reality is that there are other big issues in Cleveland, like poverty and public health issues, that if we don’t get our heads around them and start strategically addressing them through public policy, they’re going to really hold our city back.”
To make those services work better, she proposes a more robust non-emergency phone line at city hall. Residents who don’t know where to report issues could call this universal line and get directed to the proper channels. Further, she proposes a smartphone app through which residents can log reports and check the status of service requests.
Harsh, on the other hand, acknowledges the limitations of a city council seat. He tells his constituents upfront that he doesn’t run on promises he isn’t confident he can keep.
Rather, he focuses on the actionable steps he’d take to maintain and improve upon the working-class character of Old Brooklyn at a time when many residents feel like the neighborhood is in decline, he said. He has his sights set on defending the community’s housing stock, which he identifies as a core pillar of Old Brooklyn, from absentee investors with little interest in the community. For Harsh, it’s about doing right by his people.
“I want to be able to use my experience in life to help the neighborhood maintain and build as the people that live here see fit and make sure that nobody steps on them.” Harsh said.
“There are large, wealthy, monied interests in this city, and the residents of Old Brooklyn need somebody that’s gonna stand up for them even when they don’t have the organized effort — because organizing is really hard.”
Working as the housing director at the Metro West Community Development Corporation, Harsh has developed a strategy to identify absentee landlords and hold them accountable with strict housing code enforcement. He takes a light stance on owner-occupied homes with housing code violations, he said, instead offering resources to help owners get their homes up to code. With outside investor-owned properties, however, he threatens fines and litigation if they don’t correct violations quickly.
Old Brooklyn’s challenges
A lot of the concerns Harsh said his constituents regularly voice amount to questions about Old Brooklyn’s future. They don’t want to see the neighborhood decline.
Old Brooklyn has history as a working-class bastion. The law requiring Cleveland employees to live within the city bolstered that identity back in the 1980s and ‘90s as residential development surged.
The residency requirement was lifted in 2009, and Old Brooklyn has maintained its character as a diverse, working-class neighborhood with mixed-income residents. But with two brief crime sprees hitting the neighborhood in recent years, both Harsh and Warren said some residents worry that status might change.
“Crime is a statistic,” Harsh said, “safety is an emotion.”
When he hears safety concerns at doors, Harsh tells residents that the Cleveland Division of Police is understaffed. However, in his upfront style, he doesn’t try to woo residents with promises of more officers. He instead talks about what he knows he can do: get rid of slum lords and bring in homeowners who care about the community.
In her big-picture style, by contrast, Warren approaches public safety with ideas to address the root causes of crime. She wants to bolster Old Brooklyn’s youth and recreation programs to offer young people more outlets. To address drugs in Old Brooklyn, Warren proposes creating a local drug task force made up of first responders, addiction recovery treatment providers, and faith-based recovery groups, as well as residents.
“The reality is that we can’t have a cop on every corner,” Warren said. “Often, these crimes that are happening in the neighborhood are young people that don’t have other productive things to do and also that are in poor economic circumstances.”
Endorsements and experience
Warren has enjoyed support from Cleveland’s progressive community as well as the democratic establishment, including the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus’ political action committee. Harsh won the endorsement of Kelley, who has represented Ward 13 for 16 years, along with former council president Jay Westbrook, Cleveland.com, and others.
“I was kind of surprised that I was gonna get so little traction in the progressive lane because I’ve clearly been a member of the progressive community in Cleveland for many, many years,” Harsh said. “I’ve got a resume full of victories on behalf of progressive causes.”
Although he’s been the housing director at Metro West since 2014, Harsh spent years as an activist, and many more in community organizing, leading efforts to raise minimum wage and oppose attacks on unions.
The doorstep is Harsh’s happy place. He’s knocked on more than 7,000 doors in Old Brooklyn, he said. He laments that his campaign has pushed him onto social media, instead billing himself as an on-the-ground candidate who gets the bulk of his work done offline.
Warren enters the race with both degrees and policy expertise. Having occupied various research-related positions over seven years at the Center for Community Solutions, she’s well-versed, she said, in the issues facing everyday Clevelanders, and how city government has, at times, failed to address them.
One place where Cleveland services failed families was at The City Mission, where Warren worked for two-and-a-half years. “The more that I did that work, the more that I got interested in, what could we do to address the root causes of those issues,” she said.
Regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, both candidates emphasize a need for collaboration on Cleveland City Council. Even though Ward 8’s incumbent council member Mike Polensek roped Warren into a false narrative about a progressive takeover last week, much of that political mudslinging has stayed out of the race for Old Brooklyn.
Warren herself said that, although city council can, at times, seem “entrenched in the ways that things have always been done,” pitting younger, progressive candidates against their older, more traditional counterparts doesn’t serve Clevelanders.
“I have found friendship and support in candidates all over the city, both challengers and incumbents,” she wrote on Twitter in response to Polensek’s attack.
Harsh, too, has friends on council, he said. He’s known some council members for years, even decades. Amid the status quo, there have been accomplishments, he said, such as lead-safe certification legislation and the First Year Cleveland private-public partnership to address infant mortality.
Harsh said accomplishments like that inspire him, but he also emphasized his dedication to the common-sense needs of Old Brooklyn.
“I understand the high level issues, but I also understand the very, very real issues in the lives of people in the neighborhood and the things they care about,” Harsh said.
“When I started organizing, my first big shock was that people don’t care about the things I care about. … I understand that people want a clean, safe and quiet neighborhood.”
Warren sees those needs, too, but she sees them as an opportunity to address broader issues and formulate what a more functional Cleveland government looks like.
“I have a lot of optimism about other folks, both council members and other folks who are running for the first time around the city, who I think are very earnestly wanting to change the way that we do business at City Hall,” Warren said.
“It’s a big bureaucracy, and there’s a lot that needs to happen for that change to take place, but we’re ready to sort of roll up our sleeves and ask the hard questions and think differently about how we provide that local government.”
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.
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