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Kevin Kelley’s bid for mayor of Cleveland tied to his resume as council president

Kelley defends his time at City Hall, though the next mayor inherits problems created or left unfixed during his and Frank Jackson’s tenure.

CLEVELAND — Behind his back, some of Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley’s critics – including colleagues -- mock him as Mayor Frank Jackson’s wingman.

“I'm my own worst critic,” Kelley said in a recent 3News interview, while acknowledging the derisive moniker. “I am harder on myself than any of these people that are snarking from Twitter or something else.”

The dig is meant to tie the 53-year-old West Side councilman to City Hall problems created or left unfixed during Jackson’s 16-year tenure.

34-year-old nonprofit executive Justin Bibb is standing in Kelley’s way of reaching the mayor’s office at 601 Lakeside Avenue. The thrust of Bibb’s campaign is that he represents the future, while Kelley represents the failed past.

“For whatever reason a lot of people think that they can be the mayor of the City of Cleveland and the coach of the Cleveland Browns,” Kelley said in an obvious reference to Bibb. “But it's just not that easy. It's complicated. It's hard.”

Working alongside the mayor for almost eight years as council president is at the heart of Kelley’s resume, which also includes social worker and private attorney.

“I think that if you look at me as Jackson's wingman, I'll say, ‘okay, what have we done?’” he said. “The people of Cleveland elected Frank Jackson four times, so I could have drawn more attention to myself by -- you know -- pounding on some tables, yelling and screaming.”

Kelley does not beat the bully pulpit. He has earned a reputation for working quietly behind on the scenes -- for better or worse. He maneuvered inside and outside of City Hall to head off plans to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15. (He has said it was necessary to protect Cleveland jobs that would be lost to other communities without a similar wage.)

Kelley also played hardball politics and ultimately won passage of legislation for the controversial renovation of Quicken Loans Arena, now Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The cost of the $185 million project was split between the team, Cleveland, and Cuyahoga County. (The team contributed about $115 million. The city and county are covering about $70 million plus interest. Council agreed to redirect admission taxes at the arena to help cover its $8 million yearly contribution.)

Kelley said he’s doesn’t get credit for pushing progressive initiatives in a campaign where progressive politics are in play.

“This word has kind of been hijacked,” Kelley said. “But if you name the most progressive, innovative things that have come out of the city, I'll say most them came through me and Council.”

Kelley lists initiatives that he – and not Jackson – championed. These include the First Year initiative, the public-private partnership formed in 2015 to address the city's high infant mortality rate.

He also spearheaded an initiative to provide legal counsel to impoverished families facing eviction. Backed by Cleveland City Council, the program’s partners include the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association and the United Way of Greater Cleveland.

He also talks about his efforts to tackle lead paint and racism as public health crises.

“The progress that has happened is built on years of relationships, knowing where dollars are, knowing where people are understanding how people are going to respond to different things,” he said.

But Jackson and Kelley leave to the next mayor and council president a list of problems to be solved: An outdated bureaucracy, particularly related to business and development permitting; a troubled Cleveland Public Power, the city-owned utility that’s unreliable and in financial crisis; an understaffed police department; a poorly managed health department that went through a makeover at the start of the pandemic.

Outside City Hall, high poverty and violent crime continue despite numerous efforts by Jackson to combat the problems.

And the city’s digital divide remains wide -- its impact highlighted for Cleveland school kids during the pandemic.

“All those things that you mentioned, they didn't struggle because council didn't allocate enough money,” he said. “They didn't struggle because council didn't do our part. Now, as an elected official, we all end up kind of being the city and people will conflate the two roles. But I can tell you that as mayor, that's going to change because now I'll have the authority.” 

Pressed on whether he and council bear some responsibility for the city’s failures, he said: “I don't have the authority to change the things that you just mentioned and the departmental challenges or something that the council president cannot change.”

He described the city’s problems as management issues.

“That's going to fall to me in January of next year,” he said. “And I'm ready for that challenge.”

Kelley often talks about the public broadband network he brought to his Old Brooklyn neighborhood as an example of his management and awareness of the city’s digital divide.

He also recently backed legislation to set aside $20 million of the city’s $511 million in American Rescue Plan stimulus funds for improving broadband access. Bibb and other Kelley critics described the plan as ambiguous and a campaign ploy.

Kelley bristled at the notion during his interview with 3News.

“We all talk about how important broadband is,” he said. “We know it. It's a specific line item in the [American Rescue Plan] dollars. The City of Cleveland puts forward $20 million to leverage other dollars, and my opponent says that was done without a plan. Well, you can't say that when you're paying attention.”

Kelley has had the power to call Jackson’s administration to public hearings to answer for its failures – in the utilities department, health department, police department and public works department. At times, Kelley said he did just that.

“I don't know if people weren't watching, but if you say we didn't have hearings, for example, we lost that AIDS grant in the health department,” he said. “You weren't watching because those were not comfortable hearings. And those are something we took very seriously.”

Kelley also has had the ear of the mayor – and has his endorsement in this race. 3News asked him if Kelley if he pressed Jackson during private conversation to pay more attention to troubled city departments.

“Of course, we've had this conversation about multiple things, multiple departments, and there has been improvement,” Kelley said. “It just hasn't been fast enough for me. It just hasn't gotten to the level where I want it to be.”

But at times Jackson didn’t even share public records with Kelley, including a critical report on the city’s power company. Or when the city fired the health director.

“Trust me when I say those conversations have been had,” he insisted. “I never want to be caught off guard. And neither do my colleagues and somehow, they believe that I'm the person to make sure that that doesn't happen. So yes, those conversations have been had on many occasions.”

Kelley says voters should hire him for his insider experience.

“Government is a means to deliver services to people. It's a way to reach out to people,” he said. “That's why it is so important that we do not have a showman and that we do have somebody that actually knows the job going in. Cleveland can't wait twelve months for somebody to figure out how this job operates.”

Mark Naymik also took a look at the resume of mayoral hopeful Justin Bibb. You can watch his report below:

More on the Cleveland mayoral race: