Monday, October 28, 2013

Conversations with a candid candidate: RIchmond Heights mayor's race

David Ali, following LWV forum
Dave Ali would make a great neighbor and friend. He cares about his community, whether that is defined as his Richmond Heights neighborhood around Chardon Road, or the Glenville area where he grew up, worked for nearly half a century, and became a successful business owner and financially secure private citizen. He starts most every morning by walking his neighborhood and picking up the litter he attributes to those who hell-bent on turning his town into a ghetto. If you were sick, he would probably come over and cut your grass. If you were broke, he’d probably lend you some money and help you get back on your feet. And his loquacity makes him a fascinating conversational companion. Martin Luther King Jr. stopped by his family store in 1963, and after he sold his business two years ago for several million dollars, he traveled to Saudi Arabia for 23 days in 2012. At age 62, he appears healthy, and radiates physical energy, great pride and a strong work ethic.

Ali announced his candidacy this past spring with no political experience beyond photo opportunities with Cleveland public officials. On the basis of a few random phone calls before the mayoral field was fully formed, he has pronounced himself the frontrunner with a buoyant naïveté that exceeds that of even the most optimistic political novice. With absentee voting already begun, and after several months on the campaign trail, Mr. Ali told us he has no idea of the size of the city budget and no idea how many municipal employees he would be responsible for managing.[1]

Ali sought us out for an interview on October 20, 2013. We spoke on the phone for about an hour and met that afternoon and talked for another two hours or so. He was forthright in all of his assertions, often speaking with intensity, never more so than when disparaging councilwoman at large Miesha Headen, one of his opponents in the race. Headen has called for an investigation [see here and here] into a land deal that Ali has been negotiating with Richmond Heights and county officials to acquire valuable commercial property at Chardon and Richmond roads.

It’s easy to understand Ali’s upset with Headen. She is essentially alleging that Ali is pursuing what would be an unlawful interest in a public contract were he to become mayor. She has further suggested that Ali and mayor Dan Ursu — who is running for reelection against both Ali and Headen, along with Councilwoman Eloise Henry — reached a secret agreement for Ali to enter the race in the expectation that he would attract votes that would likely otherwise go to Henry. Henry, Ali, and Headen are all African American; Ursu is the lone white candidate in the race.

Unsurprisingly, Ali views this as preposterous on several counts. He asserts that he was the first candidate to file officially, discounting that both Henry and Ursu had declared months before Ali expressed interest in the race. [See here and here.] In fact, he says Headen is the one playing racial politics, citing her attendance at a meeting in July with most of the city’s black elected officials, including three school board members and councilman Russell Johnson. [Henry was not invited] Ali says the purpose of the meeting was to drum him out of the race, and that his rejection of the idea was emphatic.

While Ali clearly has little respect for either Ursu or Henry as answers to the city’s crying need for leadership, he reserves his deepest contempt for Headen. And he makes it personal. He repeatedly said, “her husband doesn’t have a job” and would not retreat from this position even when it was pointed out that her husband, Raymond C. Headen, is an attorney in private practice, and former counsel to former Ohio Treasurer Kenneth C. Blackwell. He twice asserted that Headen was running for mayor with the intent to fire the city’s law director and replace him with her husband, though he could cite no evidence for this claim.

Ali leveled other charges against Headen, among the kinder of which was that she is “bipolar and power-hungry”.

Ali described himself to us as “a decent guy who wants to give something back” to his community. He would argue that acquiring and developing the property at Chardon and Richmond roads is a manifestation of that desire. In fact, he is hyper-focused on the redevelopment of Chardon Road, citing the deterioration of the thoroughfare [he lives on Chardon Road], as evidenced by its many abandoned storefronts and the trash he picks up daily. He cites the many commercial vacancies as evidence of how the current mayor and council are “destroying the city” and turning it into “a joke” because, he says, “none of them have any business background.”

Ali, who says that he will be “the people’s mayor”, also distanced himself from Ursu and current council members David Roche, Donald O’Toole, Mark Alexander, and Marcia Starkey Morgan, who he said had mutually resolved “we gotta stick together.”

Ali claims not to see race as a factor in his campaign while simultaneously saying, “America’s biggest problem is race.”

Following the League of Women Voters’ candidate forum on October 16, [see here, here, and here], Ali approached us to denounce Headen’s accusations against him. He had said during the forum that he was planning to invest $500,000 of his own money into the Chardon-Richmond project. When I suggested that would likely be a conflict of interest if he won the election, his immediate response was that his 29 year-old son would buy and renovate the property with his own money. It was that statement, coupled with his insistence that he was misrepresented by his critics, that led us to offer him the opportunity to speak directly to the voters. He did so in this video, recorded October 16, 2013 at the Richmond Heights Middle School.

We made the same offer to each of the mayoral candidates after Ali recorded his message, setting a deadline of last Friday at 5PM. Ursu did not respond; neither did Henry. Headen accepted our offer; we expect to publish her video later this week.

[1] For the record, the current General Fund budget for Richmond Heights is $7.359 million. The current Total Budget, including all dedicated, special, and other funds, is $14,754 million. The city presently has 54 fulltime employees, including 22 in the police department, and 17 [fire], eight [service], four [building] and three [finance]. Additionally, there are 39 part-time employees. Source: telephone conversation this afternoon with city finance director Paul Ellis.

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