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Leading the Land: Cleveland mayoral candidates chasing votes in final hours before election

Expected low-voter turnout has Justin Bibb and Kevin Kelley working for every vote.

CLEVELAND — In just a few hours, Election Day gets underway. And in Cleveland, voters will finally have their say on who succeeds Frank Jackson, the retiring, four-term mayor.

On the road to Cleveland City Hall, which began nearly a year ago for some, Kevin Kelley and Justin Bibb bested five other candidates.

Combined, they raised and spent more than $2 million, each benefiting from financial support from labor unions.

And they collected dozens of big endorsements along the way. Jackson is with Kelley; former mayors Jane Campbell and Michael R. White back Bibb.

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In the final days of the campaign, Bibb and Kelley have been playing to their respective strengths.

Kelley, the City Council president with established ties in and out of City Hall, is courting voters in the city’s far West Side neighborhoods known for strong voter turnout. Home to many members of the safety forces, these neighborhoods tend to support candidates friendly to police officers and their issues.

That’s one reason Kelley is blanketing voters with mailers about Issue 24, the proposed charter amendment that would shift police oversight – including discipline and policy -- to a civilian-led board and commission. Kelley and police oppose the issue, arguing it gives too much authority to people untrained in policing. They say proposal's provision that guarantees millions of dollars for the board and commission amounts to “defunding the police.”

On the East Side, Kelley is leaning on several council members, including primary opponent Basheer Jones, to blunt Bibb’s support among black voters.

“It’s got to be a citywide campaign,” he said. “No campaign or candidate can win without showing up on both sides of town.”

Kelley denies that he’s refocused his campaign to exploit his position on Issue 24.

“Crime and safety have always been part of campaign since day one,” he said. “Issue 24 fits into the campaign because it is a threat to crime and safety.”

Bibb, a business and nonprofit executive, has campaigned as the outsider with a vision not tainted by Jackson and Kelley’s leadership.

And with his support for more progressive policies – including police reform -- he’s attracted younger voters and new voters who moved to the city’s trendy downtown and near West Side neighborhoods.

Those voters helped propel him to top spot in the primary.

“I think we have been able to inspire new people in the mayor’s race by the way we have run this campaign speaks to that,” he said.  “When I started back in January, I was doing meet and greets on Zoom calls with ten people, then 15. We have done over 300 meetings. Anywhere voters were, I went.”

Raised on the city’s East Side, Bibb is benefiting from support there for Issue 24. He also has the backing of rival and former Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed, who is helping him shore up support in key East Side neighborhoods.

Bibb remains a vocal backer of Issue 24, even as Jackson, Kelley and others have raised their voices against it. Bibb says he's willing to share power and that civilian oversight is needed to advance reforms.

“I said in a town hall a few days ago we can’t keep making a this a false choice between good and effective law enforcement and police accountability,” he said. “We can do both. I believe thrust is the biggest thing to do to make sure we have safety and security and residents trust police. Without it, you don’t get safety.”

Voter turnout in the city has been abysmal in recent city elections, something that worries both candidates because it gives great power to fewer people. With turnout expected to be less than 30 percent Tuesday, Bibb and Kelley are chasing every vote possible.

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