When Ward 8 city council candidate Aisia Jones knocks on doors, it’s rare that residents don’t answer, she said.
Having canvassed for other campaigns both local and national as a community organizer and activist, this election season feels different, she said. It seems to her like the residents of her ward care about the upcoming elections for mayor and for city council more than they’ve cared about elections past.
“People are like, ‘Hey, I want to talk. What’s going on?’” Jones said.
Jones is one of a crop of political newcomers running grassroots campaigns who have appeared in city council races, and in Cleveland neighborhoods, since early this year. Some have canvassed their wards and engaged local activist groups, while incumbents challenged by them have stuck their noses to the grindstone and attended ward club meetings.
The question remains: Will these door-to-door community engagement efforts and the broader change-oriented initiative of many progressive council candidates translate to votes?
It’s certainly no direct indicator, but early turnout is up across Cleveland. As of Thursday, less than a week before the primary, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections had received requests for mail ballots from 13,468 Cleveland voters (5.85% of registered voters). Of those who requested ballots, 8,011 voters (3.41% of registered voters) have completed and returned them. Both those counts already surpass the total early voting counts in the 2017 primary: 10,452 ballots requested and 7,229 completed and returned.
Much of that could likely be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic and the open seat and tight competition in the mayoral race, but in some individual wards with heated races, mail ballot counts have sharply increased from where they lagged in 2017.
One such race takes place in Ward 8, which includes North and South Collinwood and the eastern section of Glenville. Voters have requested 865 mail ballots and returned 461 of them so far this election season, while they requested 487 and returned 356 total in 2017.
Ward 8’s city council primary race pits incumbent Mike Polensek, who has held fast to the ward’s council seat since 1978, against Jones, who is backed by a new progressive PAC called A Better Cleveland for All, and last election’s challenger Donald Boyd.
Jones, who has canvassed for other campaigns, said the people she’s encountered while knocking doors for her campaign seem more engaged this election season.
“I’m really loving how eager people are to talk, how eager people are to learn, how eager people are to share their stories,” she said. “I think that alone, how eager people are to get involved, that is a change in itself. And I’m hoping, I’m believing, that that particular change will kind of seep into them engaging and into voting.”
Same ballot count, different conclusions
In Ward 12 too, mail ballot counts have jumped this year to 813 requested and 511 returned compared to 463 requested and 330 returned in 2017. Rebecca Maurer, perhaps Ward 12’s most progressive candidate, said she felt proud about those numbers considering about 1,400 people total voted in Ward 12’s municipal primary in 2017 (that includes mail ballots, early in-person voting and election day voting).
“We were nowhere near that number by mail ballots [in 2017],” she said.” Obviously, that was pre-Covid, and things have changed, but I do think it’s indicative of some broader interest. … I’m out knocking doors pretty much every day. And I can tell you, I’ve talked with folks who are not regular voters who I know are excited to vote in this election.”
The primary race for Ward 12’s seat, representing Slavic Village and parts of Tremont, Brooklyn Center and Old Brooklyn, pits Maurer against newcomer Tawayne McGee, last election’s challenger Shalira Taylor and incumbent Tony Brancatelli, who has served since his council appointment in 2005. Brancatelli hasn’t faced a primary challenge in the last four election cycles.
Brancatelli, citing the same number of mail ballot requests as Maurer, said voter turnout doesn’t look good. With the aftershocks of the 2008 foreclosure crisis reverberating through Ward 12, families have been forced out of neighborhoods like Slavic Village, decreasing the population of eligible voters. Besides, municipal elections rarely attract much attention anyway, he said.
But with programs aimed at engaging citizens in both the east and west sides of his ward, civic engagement has been on an upswing, Brancatelli said. He’s seen “a much higher level” of communication and engagement firsthand at the block club meetings and civic group events he frequents.
“Residents are engaged with me on a pretty regular basis,” he said. “They have access to me. They have access to the government and on the local side. They’re there on a pretty regular basis, working with us.”
As far as why that civic engagement hasn’t translated to the voter turnout numbers Brancatelli would like to see, he said, “That’s probably a Kent State study or a CSU study to be had.”
But Maurer, riding the progressive wave sweeping through Cleveland, said any incumbent has their work cut out for them right now. She commended Brancatelli’s commitment attending meetings in Ward 12, but said that each candidate’s perception of civic engagement is likely skewed by the populations they most regularly interact with.
“The people who are engaged with, for instance, the block club system in Ward 12 are going to feel very heard and engaged with at city hall because they do often get the councilman or the councilman’s assistant at every single block club meeting,” she said. “But there’s a lot of folks who the block club system isn’t working for. They don’t feel welcome at the meetings. They don’t know when the meetings are happening. There isn’t an active block club in their area.”
Maurer said last year’s recycling scandal struck a nerve with many people she’s talked to on her near daily door-knocking routine. Many feel that city hall has stagnated, she said.
“They really get it that they were lied to for years,” she said. “And that, to me, is sort of emblematic of this feeling of, ‘I’m not happy with what’s happening right now.’ It’s not necessarily directed at a particular politician, but just the city hall in general right now.”
Political failure to serve communities, however, doesn’t always spur voters to action. Maurer, who has a background working as a lawyer on student debt issues, said she understands that, for those struggling to make ends meet, civic engagement isn’t always feasible. Brancatelli, too, said, “Voting has not been a priority for people who are trying to put a roof over their head and find where their next meal is coming from.”
“It’s a completely rational choice,” Maurer said. “Truly, if you are not seeing your city hall work for you, why would you participate? And so we’re stuck with a bit of a chicken and the egg problem, which is: City hall isn’t delivering for folks, and until they deliver, people won’t engage.”
Voters in Ward 8 have felt that. Polensek, Ward 8’s incumbent, said that factors like engagement from city leadership in the neighborhoods he represents plays into why he’s “never seen such a lack of excitement” as he’s seen during this election cycle. He said his ward’s relationship both with the Jackson Administration and with city council leadership has been strained as many feel left out.
“We feel that this administration doesn’t have a gameplan for central neighborhoods,” he said. a
Residents at the ward club meetings he attends have been frustrated, Polensek said, and he doesn’t blame them. Residents often turn in the same complaints to him, and many times, as was the case with a fire-damaged home in his ward that had long needed to be demolished, his only option is to pass complaints up the ladder.
Stephanie Howse, running against 10 other candidates in the open race for the Ward 7 city council seat that Basheer Jones vacated for his mayoral bid, put it bluntly.
“We are probably at rock bottom of true engagement and partnership with people,” she said.
Ward 7 voters, who live in the Hough district as well as neighborhoods in St. Clair-Superior, Midtown and Asia Town, have so far requested 588 ballots and returned 322 this election, both down from 2017 when voters requested 640 and returned 408. Howse wasn’t thrilled about this.
“Look around,” she said. “ When you go walking on the streets, you see brokenness. You see forgottenness. You hear screams. You hear cries. You hear gunshots. That’s why we’re going to have an abysmal voter turnout. And I understand totally why people don’t believe us, why they are disengaged. Because as a system, we have let them down and left them behind.”
But in Ward 4, which encompasses Shaker Square and portions of Buckeye-Shaker, Woodland Hills, and Mount Pleasant, civic disengagement has more specific drivers. The former 40-year veteran council member Ken Johnson vacated his seat after he was indicted on charges of tax violation, theft from a federal program and more. He was found guilty, but because his sentencing won’t be decided until Oct. 8, he’s still eligible to run in the primary for his long-held seat.
That’s been confusing and dividing voters, who have so far requested 864 mail ballots and returned 476 of them, whereas they requested 685 and returned 523 in 2017. Ward 4 newcomer Mario Snowden, who’s vying for office against 10 other candidates, said many Ward 4 residents have voted for Johnson throughout their entire adult lives. The whole controversy has driven many ardent Johnson supporters, those who’ve seen him as a materially positive force in their neighborhoods, to question and further mistrust the political establishment in Cleveland.
“For them [Johnson] was the end all be all,” Snowden said. “[He] was everything when they needed someone to have their back.”
Johnson took care of his ward’s senior citizens, he said, but he left out middle aged homeowners who, on the east side, struggle to get loans for much-needed home repairs.
“What about those people who are just making ends meet, they may not have a lot of money, but they’re not senior citizens, they’re not AARP age or anything like that? Snowden said. “What about the programs to get their roof fixed? … Politics is not doing anything tangible for them. They can’t feel it in their everyday lives, so they think the value of it is not meaningful.”
That focus on older generations in Ward 4 has driven voter turnout to a “pretty dismal” level, said returning challenger Cecil Ekechukwu. But due to the congressional race earlier this year and the upcoming mayoral election, he’s seen younger people become more involved. Yet, in 2021, Johnson’s base hasn’t disappeared overnight.
“We have to accept this, and also accept that [Johnson] will have some loyal pockets still in Ward 4,” he said. “If I’m lucky enough to become a council person, it’s my job to also understand this and try to reach these pockets to help them become part of the solution to move forward.”
Snowden said any effort to drive engagement must include a focus on communication. He wants to create a stronger information network of newsletters and forums through which he could directly talk with residents about how politics could help them.
Polensek, Ward 8’s incumbent, brought up communication too, albeit among the city’s leaders. He said council members, whoever they may be next year, will have to build strong working relationships with each other and with the new mayor to reevaluate the city’s needs and priorities.
“I caution these people running who want to rip the place apart,” he said. “This city is fragile.”
Jones, his newcomer opponent, suggested a bolder approach to engaging her community.
“Why don’t we bring city hall meetings to neighborhoods on a monthly or bimonthly basis?” she said. “[It would generate] more engagement not just with active voters, but voters who are not active. They’ll become stakeholders in their own communities just by being more civically engaged.”
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.