Cleveland mayoral candidate Sandra Williams was well into her campaign when she and her fundraisers hopped on a phone call with a prominent businessman.
“How much money would it take for you to go away?” Williams said the caller asked. “What job do you want? And how much do you need? Name your price.”
“Was that just a bribe?,” her fundraisers asked her afterwards. She declined to name the businessman, saying it would be “a shock to the city.”
But it wasn’t the only time the Democratic Ohio Senator received such an offer. On another clandestine call, a different businessman advised her to take her talents elsewhere. He even offered to help her find another job, she said.
That first businessman pressed, and after several follow up calls, Williams gave him her answer: “I said, ‘I’m running in this race. I’m not going anywhere.’”
Despite her identity as a traditional politician, one with a long tenure in state politics and apparent support from Ohio’s Democratic establishment, Williams, with her relatively quiet presence and by-the-book campaigning, has flown under the radar throughout Cleveland’s mayoral race.
But she’s no outlier. From her sponsorship of the Cleveland Plan to revitalize local schools to her support for the Irishtown Bend redesign and the phone tag she plays on behalf of constituents trying to reach city officials, Williams said she believes her track record of delivering “real results” makes her the most qualified candidate to lead Cleveland.
Also on her list of credentials are the misogyny she’s faced and the legislative work she’s done to fund large-scale Cleveland projects. Both, she said, have heightened her awareness of local issues.
“I have faced a lot of hurdles for my entire life,” Williams said. “As a matter of fact, everything that I’ve done, people have told me I wasn’t qualified to do in part because I was a woman.”
But there’s more to Williams than the resume she often cites during campaign speeches. Ohio Rep. Stephanie Howse, who’s known Williams since she worked as an aide to Howse’s mother in the statehouse more than 20 years ago, said Williams is down-to-earth and friendly.
“What people don’t know is Sandra is a lot of fun, like oh my goodness,” Howse said with a laugh. “She loves to dance and just have a good time. That’s one of the things that, unfortunately, sometimes people don’t get to see in elected officials.”
Ohio Sen. Nickie Antonio, who also has endorsed Williams, spoke of the candidate’s compassion as well. She recalled a moment about two weeks out from this mayoral primary when she spotted Williams helping a guest resolve an issue with their meal at a Women for Williams brunch hosted by the Cuyahoga Women’s Democratic Caucus.
“She’s the guest of honor, if you will, but she was making sure that everybody had what they needed,” Antonio recalled. “I think that’s a good illustration of who Sandra is…She goes that extra mile for her family, for her friends. And she’s always working and thinking.”
Not giving up
That personality remained largely hidden until her witty and energetic performance at the first mayoral debate earlier this year. Although she’s the only woman in the race and would be the first Black woman to hold the job, Williams hasn’t made herself as visible as some of her competitors.
Not that Williams has any intention of giving up. After 14 years in elected office — eight as a state representative and six as a state senator — she’s got her eye fixed on Frank Jackson’s long-held mayoral seat. Indeed, she’s been planning a bid since 2019.
But the race has changed. When Williams announced her campaign in May, her only official rivals were Kevin Kelley and Zack Reed. Now she’s also facing Basheer Jones, Justin Bibb, Dennis Kucinich, and others.
“I did homework all of 2020 talking to the different groups of people they tell you you need to talk to, and it was going really great,” Williams said. “Then all of a sudden, [I] had all these new people jumping into the race.”
As her competitors gathered momentum in the months that followed, Williams faced those prominent Cleveland businessmen offering her payoffs and political favors to drop out. She also encountered rejection by typically reliable private-sector donors as well as doubts about her ability to lead Cleveland as a woman.
That reluctance from the private sector was fueled by antipathy for Kucinich, Williams said. She said donors declined to fund her campaign after being ordered by unnamed sources to support candidates regarded as more likely to edge out the former mayor.
“There are some very powerful people in this city,” Williams said. “They have been telling people not to give me money, to give all of their money to Kevin Kelley and other people, in part because they’re afraid of Dennis Kucinich.”
They didn’t believe she could pull off a win, she said.
“They’re like, ‘Sandra, you can’t win this race. You don’t have any money, and no Black person will ever raise enough money on the East Side to win,’” she said.
But after a career in male-dominated fields, Williams is used to such opposition. She’s been facing discrimination, microaggressions, and openly misogynistic comments for as long as she can remember: while earning a master’s degree in criminal justice, during her stint in the U.S. Army Reserve, and throughout her 14-year career in Ohio politics.
In conversations as she prepared her bid for mayor, Williams recalled that several men brought up Jane Campbell’s controversial mayoral term, insinuating it was a “disaster” because she was a woman.
Comfort in unwelcoming environments
That experience is one of the key reasons Sen. Antonio has endorsed Williams for mayor. Antonio said the candidate’s comfort in unwelcoming environments and demonstrated strength fighting powerful business interests and social pressures have prepared her for the spats she would face in office.
Even before her run for mayor, Williams stood out. She’s the only Black woman in the state senate and one of only a handful of women at the Ohio statehouse, period. Locally, only three women of color, out of four women total, sit on Cleveland’s 17-member City Council.
“Most people, they hear about it, but they have never gone through an experience of what it means to be the only person,” said Howse, who also has endorsed Williams.
“Many times, you are ostracized, you are underestimated, you are undervalued. And I absolutely know that has been the case with Sen. Williams. Each and every time though, she has shown up, she has shone out, and she has delivered. … I know she will take that experience, having a true understanding of being the lone person out there, what it feels like and how you create environments so that people can be set up for success. That’s what many Clevelanders are dealing with: being left out.”
Certainly, Williams would have her work cut out for her. According to recent U.S. Census data analyzed by the National Women’s Law Center, women in Ohio make roughly 79 cents for every dollar earned by men.
Past bills attempting to address the problem have largely flopped, and a new pitch for a law on the issue is creative but toothless. Williams said she would try to close Cleveland’s wage gap if elected mayor by working with the city’s human resources department to review wages and push other department heads to pay employees fairly.
“I know a couple of people who have been working at the city for a while,” she said. “Their supervisors were giving raises to the men and not giving them to the women. And when they questioned why that was happening, they said, ‘Well, the men have families to take care of.’”
More broadly, Williams said she’d like to see Ohio’s Democratic Party create a program that offers young women opportunities and training in politics.
There’s room for improvement in the Ohio Democratic party’s internal support of women, too, Williams said. When Betty Sutton ran for Ohio Governor in 2017, the powers-that-be backed her, but only for lieutenant.
“When women run in this state, they just don’t get the same support that men get,” Williams said. “On the legislative level, they might give you a little bit, but on the executive level, that support for women has just not been there.”
Howse said she’s seen similar patterns play out in Cleveland. Here in Northeast Ohio, she said, there’s “absolutely a problem” with the way success for Black women is limited. Even those who’ve broken through have struggled to tap into the networks and resources needed to make significant transformations, she said.
“If you specifically take care of Black women in Cleveland, we will change the trajectory of our city,” she said.
On her merit
All the same, Williams has said repeatedly that she doesn’t want votes solely on account of her gender or race. She instead wants to win the mayoral race on her merit.
Although she’s running against candidates with long experience in Cleveland politics, Williams said the relationships she’s fostered with state legislators and her familiarity with the state’s law-making process give her a leg up in advocating for Cleveland’s financial needs.
“Almost everything that happens in the legislature has an impact on the city,” Williams said. “Whether it be for the Clean Ohio Fund, whether it’s working with JobsOhio, or whether it’s getting things out of the budget that we need, they always come to the legislature, they always come to me, to try to get some funding and support for the projects that they’re doing.”
On behalf of Cleveland, Williams pointed to her advocacy for the Opportunity Corridor in 2015. She also touted her recent support for the state’s $75 billion operating budget that passed over the summer.
Within that budget, Williams also noted that she supported allocating $350 million for the new Brownfield Remediation Program, a fund that would give each county at least $1 million to clean up environmentally contaminated former industrial sites. Finally, she claimed as her own the inclusion of $150 million for the Demolition and Site Revitalization Program, a fund that reserves at least $500,000 to help each county demolish and revitalize neglected commercial and residential properties.
“Half a billion dollars I brought in, just in this last operating budget,” Williams said. “That has never been heard of.”
That half a billion isn’t Cleveland’s alone, of course. The Ohio EPA’s Brownfield Inventory lists 19 brownfield sites in Cleveland and 28 in Cuyahoga County, but 305 are listed statewide. Then again, listing in the inventory is voluntary, and many of the sites listed already have received cleanup funding.
Williams herself acknowledged the difficulty she’s likely to face in the transition from a statewide legislative office to the mayor’s seat. Accustomed to working with a team of three in the Ohio Senate, she’d suddenly be working with any number of municipal department heads.
“It’s going to be making sure that I hire the best and the brightest management team,” Williams said. “That’s key.”
Regardless, Williams said she’s confident she knows what most Clevelanders need. She said she regularly talks with workers and directors of city departments on behalf of constituents who call her looking for answers.
“I get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of calls that I should not be getting from people who have problems with the city but just can’t find their city council person,” Williams said.
Knocking on doors
Less than two weeks out from the all-important Cleveland primary on Sept. 14, from which only two Democratic candidates will emerge, Williams and about 20 volunteers met in a parking lot near Euclid Beach for a day of canvassing. They scattered around the area while Williams went out to knock on the doors of lakeside homes on Manhattan Beach in the northeast corner of Cleveland.
Williams spent nearly 30 minutes in the backyard of Manhattan Beach resident Evelyn Bute addressing her and her neighbor Lillian Grand’s concerns, one of which was the Senator’s involvement in the House Bill 6 bribery scandal.
Williams was the bill’s sole Democratic sponsor, but she cited this fact as evidence of her willingness to work with ideological opponents. She also defended her support of the bill by saying that after a visit to a coal mine in Ohio, she came to see the bill as a way to save jobs. Bute and Grand conceded the point, agreeing with Williams that workers in the fossil fuel industry will need legislative help to find work in a greener economy.
To the question of who would replace her in the Ohio Senate, Williams had no firm answer. She cited Shaker Heights City Council member Tres Roeder as one who could be nominated by the senate to finish out her term. Meanwhile, if Williams fails in her bid for mayor, she won’t be able to run for re-election, as state law limits senators to two four-year terms.
One last success awaited Williams in the neighborhood. Just as Williams was preparing to leave Manhattan Beach, after conversations with several other residents, Williams spotted and called out to one Pamela Webb, who had a Bibb sign resting on her porch.
Having worked in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Webb took a liking to Williams’ views on education. Indeed, Williams seemed to win Webb over in part with a story about a time she helped two students and their parents find stable housing after living in a car. It’s these sorts of domestic problems Cleveland schools ought to concentrate on resolving, Williams said.
That was enough for Webb. Moments later, there was a Williams sign in her front yard. Her Bibb sign stayed on the porch.
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.