While Ward 4 faces much the same issues as the rest of Cleveland, one specific problem seems more raw in there than in the rest of the city: public trust in government, and the damage dealt to it by the recent corruption scandal surrounding the community’s longtime council representative, Ken Johnson.
Among other issues, that’s what Ward 4’s city council candidates discussed at a forum last Wednesday hosted by Shaker Square Alliance and Shaker Square Area Development Corporation. In the general election, Erick Walker will face off against Deborah Gray for the ward’s council seat, along with write-in candidates Antoine Tolbert and Dontez Taylor.
Walker, 52, works as the senior clerk for government documents at the Cleveland Public Library and serves as an executive board member at SEIU 1199, the local healthcare and social services union. Walker’s opponent, Gray, 66, is a Democratic precinct committeewoman.
Tolbert, 30, one of the write-in candidates, joined the forum as well. He founded New Era Cleveland, a local, Buckeye-centered branch of a national activist organization that aims to unite and empower communities underserved by government.
Scapegoating the “minority monied elite’
Comprising neighborhoods like Buckeye-Shaker and Mt. Pleasant, and the landmark Shaker Square, which is facing foreclosure, Ward 4 contains areas significant to Cleveland’s history, racial identity and wallet. The scars left by former council member Johnson’s years of corruption and inaction won’t be easy for the ward’s next council member to heal. Mark Naymik, a Cleveland.com columnist, first reported that Johnson had been, for years, falsifying city council expense forms, stating he was paying a recreation worker $1,200 each month for “ward services.”
The city reimbursed Johnson for those charges, giving him more than $120,000, but investigators found no evidence that Johnson ever paid that worker. Johnson also directed federal grant money given to the Buckeye-Shaker Development Corporation to his relatives, who worked for the nonprofit, and partly to his own bank account.
He was found guilty on 15 corruption-related charges, sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to pay more than $740,000 in restitution.
Along with the money he siphoned from the community, Johnson dealt damage to community trust and unity, said Michelle Jackson, cofounder of the political action committee Reclaim Ward 4, which has endorsed Walker.
Johnson often stoked racial and class divides to distract from his own corruption, she said.
“That was always his go-to: to keep the 90 percent of the ward that’s Black, 95 percent, focused on the handful of white people at Shaker Square,” Jackson said. “Which means, ‘Don’t look at me, the real story is over there in Shaker Square with a handful of white people.’”
That brand of politicking hurt the ward by pitting its residents against each other, Jackson said. She was shocked, therefore, when it came up again in her community so soon after Johnson’s conviction. During the forum, she asked Gray to explain a mailer that Friends of Deborah Gray, a PAC supporting her, recently sent out.
“Our general election opponent is being financed by the minority monied elite in the shadows through third party groups and is coming for our campaign,” the mailer reads.
The mailer is written in first person, as if by Gray herself. It features her logo at the top, and what appears to be her signature, hand signed in ink, at the bottom.
But during the forum, Gray said she wasn’t aware of the mailer. She did not respond to an emailed request for comment in time for this article’s publication.
“I’m not naive,” Jackson said. “Politicians lie. They lie every day. That’s not what is shocking to me. What is shocking is that we just got Ken Johnson out of office after 40 years, using those same tactics that were very destructive to this community.”
Walker, Gray’s opponent, is backed by the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus’ PAC called A Better Cleveland for All, which was characterized as outsiders seeking to influence ward-level politics in another attack against a Ward 8 candidate backed by the PAC. A Better Cleveland for All consists of Cleveland residents who have organized to help progressive council candidates. Gray has some progressive support as well, winning endorsements from the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats and Our Revolution.
Building back community
Those questions of mending trust and local civic engagement were posed to the candidates during the forum. Walker, multiple times, emphasized transparency, honesty, and integrity. With all eyes on Ward 4 now, he said, whoever gets elected has to work to gain the community’s trust back.
He cited a phrase he heard from current Ward 4 council member Marion Anita Gardner, who took over the seat in April after Johnson was suspended: “We’ve got to get back to putting the ‘neighbor’ back into our neighborhoods.”
Tolbert’s New Era Cleveland seems to be doing just that. The organization sends out patrols seeking to address root causes of violent crime in the neighborhood.
“We do community patrols,” he said. “We focus on community engagement, not arresting people, not antagonizing people, and not harassing the community…If we want safer streets, it has to be on the residents. It’s all on us. This is our responsibility.”
And Gray, drawing on her experience as a precinct committeewoman, said her fellow precinct committee members could play a role in community building, too. It’s their responsibility to drive up voter turnout, but they also ought to listen to residents’ concerns, she said. And to keep residents aware, committee members should hold precinct meetings and develop hyperlocal agendas they can present during ward-wide meetings, she said.
“Civic participation is vital to our democracy as well as to every community, every ward around Cuyahoga County,” she said. “We need to get our residents involved in understanding the voting practices.”
Empowering the disengaged
Candidates also noted the importance of inclusive civic engagement.
Tolbert said the community needs a coalition consisting of representatives young and old from Ward 4’s different neighborhoods. Also, the ward could use automated phone systems to provide an open communication line for residents, he said, crediting primary candidate Mario Snowden for the idea. The ward’s council member should send out text messages to keep residents informed, and the community should start central social pages for open dialogue.
That dialogue has to include the ward’s marginalized populations like young people and the formerly incarcerated, Tolbert said. He’s been trying to educate those communities about the issues on the ballot this election and the power they wield to hold their elected officials accountable.
Walker said he reached out to young people, too.
“One thing that I have heard on my campaign, especially from young people, is they’re not voting because they can’t identify with things that affect them,” Walker said. “The things that I bring up, $15 minimum wage, affordable health care, these are things that matter to them.”
Truly involving those communities means developing plans for initiatives like participatory budgeting, which incorporates community input into how politicians should spend federal Community Development Block Grant funds that are allocated to the ward, Tolbert said.
“We need someone who’s going down to city hall that’s not going down there to make friends, but that’s going down there to make progress,” he said.
Given the financial nature of Johnson’s crimes, enhancing fiscal transparency seemed to be a priority for all the candidates.
“I will be transparent to the residents to understand that they are part of everything so they won’t have to be uncomfortable about corruption,” Gray said.
She noted that, if given a choice, she’d serve on the finance committee. She’s spent time working in the community, and with a seat on the finance committee, she’d be able to bring back to the community all that she learns about the city’s financial processes, she said.
But Jackson, the Reclaim Ward 4 cofounder who asked Gray about that mailer, called her commitment to transparency into question. Jackson had long trusted Gray, she said. She even sent out an email to the PAC’s mailing list saying that, even though the PAC endorsed Walker, both he and Gray would do good by Ward 4.
“It’s that old Democratic Party machine bullshit,” Jackson said of the mailer that was sent out under Gray’s name. “This is the same party that went to bat for Ken Johnson even after all of this information started coming out. We’re not going backwards in Ward 4. …Accountability means, anything that happens under your name and your letterhead, you’re responsible for.”
Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land.
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