Friday, February 03, 2017

Fasten Seatbelt, prepare for Lyft off and Uber-fascinating trip this year

There is so much going on in the civic space right now that it’s hard to know where to focus. Nearly two weeks in, Donald Trump is settling into a pattern of being Donald Trump: he is mercurial to the point of manic, self-referential to the point of obsession. He favors keeping everyone off guard not simply as a way of maintaining a negotiating advantage, but because he is untethered to any deep principles other than “winning”, which he defines as “Heads I win, tails you lose”.

Can his administration, Congress, the American public, the world, any of us, survive four years of being inside the Donald Trump pinball machine? Can we survive four months? That’s not purely a rhetorical question, given that he is rattling sabers in Iran’s direction. It’s hard to think that a Trump administration will ever be normal, but Americans must learn to react to the impulses of this President in a way that does not have us bouncing off the walls every time he pushes our buttons. And eventually we will find a way, first to coexist with the madness, then to contain it, and finally to sequester it, ideally somewhere outside the White House.

Meanwhile, stuff is happening here in Cleveland that demands our attention. Let us remember that the Chief Narcissist won the election not simply because of one campaign, but as a culmination of a series of campaigns and decisions made by ordinary people who at one time felt powerless. They organized themselves and got involved in the political process. After a while they became known as the Tea Party, evoking a call to the American revolutionary spirit. Perhaps we who aspire to a more progressive politics might also find a spark in another proud American tradition, and harness the spirit of the Abolitionists and become champions of freedom and equality.

Locally, a discussion focusing on possibilities of merger and acquisition between Cleveland and its original suburb, East Cleveland, took place Tuesday night on the Case campus. The panelists included Cleveland city councilmen Kevin Kelley and Jeff Johnson, along with East Cleveland councilman Nathaniel Martin. Kelley is president of Cleveland’s council, while Johnson’s heavily gerrymandered ward — which extends from near downtown almost to the city’s far eastern border with Euclid — bumps up against the East Cleveland municipal border in several places. Johnson announced two weeks ago that he is running this year for Cleveland mayor, so it was hard not to consider his every utterance against that backdrop. For the most part he came across as statesmanlike, although there were exchanges with Kelley that were unexpectedly heated. Johnson was honest enough to admit that there are tensions in Cleveland City Hall over the idea of the two cities becoming one. Both he and Kelley tried to be respectful of East Cleveland’s current, if tenuous, autonomy, but Johnson lapsed more than once into an attitude that seemed to say East Cleveland was an out-of-control neighbor whose problems did not stop at the border. He didn’t say East Cleveland had “some bad hombres” but you knew what he meant.

Interestingly, Johnson blamed some of East Cleveland’s distress on Cleveland’s leaders, saying that they had offered no help until acquisition became a topic of discussion. But he himself said there was little that Ohio law permits one municipality to offer in concrete assistance to a neighbor.

For the record, East Cleveland has been in a state of fiscal emergency for about 22 of the past 30 years, including roughly the past six. Most observers see this as largely the result of structural forces that have walloped the suburb, eviscerating its tax base, attended by a drop in its population from a high of over 40,000 to its current roughly 17,000 inhabitants. The problems are daunting on every level, but the City has been able to address none of them successfully because its toxic political culture keeps its public officials at each other’s throats all day long. Unhappy East Cleveland residents have forced the city to hold three recall elections since 2015; two months ago, the recall effort finally bore fruit when both the mayor and the council president were voted from office.

The leadership struggle continues however, and there is presently pending in the Eighth District appellate court a writ of mandamus that contests the legitimacy of the two newest council members.

At present the push to merge has no public champion in either city, so it’s a dead issue unless effective leadership arises, and that must happen, as both Kelley and Johnson noted, in East Cleveland first. Don’t hold your breath, but if you like the nitty gritty of seeing your local public debate from the warmth of your home, or the convenience of your mobile device, you can watch the proceedings in their entirety here or right here, in our previous post.

Meanwhile, the casual announcement on Monday night that Frank Jackson has decided to seek a fourth term has unleashed a flurry of responses that will make this year’s mayoral campaign the most fascinating one since at least the 1989 race that elevated Mike White into the mayor’s seat for the first of his unprecedented twelve years in office over three terms. Jackson, elected in 2005, has equaled that mark and now wants to break it.

He likely won’t have the cakewalk of his prior reelection campaigns. Johnson knows city politics at least as well as Jackson and has the ability to challenge the mayor on a number of issues where the latter has some vulnerability, including for starters, the police department, the minimum wage campaign, neighborhood stagnation, and public transportation policy.

If it were merely a contest between those two, the race might be interesting, assuming Johnson can raise the requisite funds to be competitive. He puts that amount at around $500,000 and thinks he can get it. Frank will have at least twice that much.

But what has suddenly made this race fascinating are two other candidates who announced mid-week. One is former East Cleveland mayor Eric Brewer, who announced his candidacy on Facebook. You can read his opening salvo against Frank Jackson here, but if you eschew vulgarity, you may want to wait a few days until I can summarize it for you.

Brewer’s entry into the race had been bruited about for some time, with many wondering whether he would actually get in the race.  This week’s second announcement was a total surprise to most people. Brandon Chrostowski is running for mayor. His is certainly not a household name. He is a political newcomer better known in philanthropic circles than political ones. He founded and has run a growing operation in the Shaker Square area that provides opportunities for formerly incarcerated persons to re-enter society in a meaningful, healthy ways. In brief, he runs a training center that teaches people all levels from wait staff to top chef, the ins and outs of restaurant industry. They get practical experience working at a top-notch restaurant, EDWINS, tied to the training institute, and typically move on to other top restaurants in Cleveland.

The practical approach to problem-solving evidenced by Chrostowski’s enterprise has extended over just the last two years to establishing nearby residential centers for workers as well as a retail establishment. Chrostowski told me in a brief get-acquainted interview that he has thought long and hard about Cleveland’s issues and thinks his practical approach could work wonders for the city. He would also make neighborhood development a key part of his campaign.

Some other well-known politicians are known to be mulling entry into the race. Ward 2 councilman Zack Reed has promised a decision in the next several weeks. Term-limited state representative Bill Patmon is already in the race according to some reports; he had success eight years as a last-second filer in his state race, but that will approach will likely confer him no advantage if this race.

Whether Reed, Patmon or anybody else tosses a hat into the ring, it seems certain that the quartet of Jackson, Johnson, Brewer and Chrostowski guarantees the most exciting race in at least a generation. More importantly, the peculiar makeup of the race holds the promise that this will be a race about issues and ideas, of performance records as well as personalities. If that’s the case, the election may prove transformative.

How surprising after what we endured the past two years on the national scene! How appropriate this of all years, when the community is celebrating all year the careers of the Stokes brothers. It was 50 years ago, in 1967, when Carl Stokes became the first black person to be elected mayor of a major American city. The following year, older brother Louis was elected Ohio’s first black Congressman. 

Those two elections changed Cleveland a far better place politically and civically in countless ways. But the city has not enjoyed a robust political culture in many decades. The unique blend of veteran politicians, transplants, and newcomers among those already in this year’s race will make, we are certain, this year’s contest exciting on many levels from start to finish.

• • • # • • •

No comments: