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Business as usual won’t cut it in Cleveland mayoral battle: Brent Larkin

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CLEVELAND — Experience might help make Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley a good mayor. But it won’t help him become mayor.

It will take a whole lot more than all those years in elected office for Kelley to beat surging newcomer Justin Bibb in the city’s Nov. 2 mayoral election. As evidenced by Bibb’s first-place finish in the seven-candidate mayoral primary, the tiny minority of voters paying attention want change. And Bibb and his campaign team have shrewdly positioned the candidate as the shiny new object voters have been looking for.

To these voters, picking a candidate who knows his way around City Hall might just mean another four years of unsafe streets, more crumbling neighborhoods than thriving ones, and catastrophic student test scores.

Kelley’s “ready on day one” message probably helped him squeeze into the mayoral runoff, besting former Mayor Dennis Kucinich by about 1,000 votes. It might be a liability against Bibb, a smart and polished 34-year-old Black man who won more white votes in the primary than most thought imaginable, besting Kelley citywide by more than 3,000 votes.

Running against Bibb puts Kelley in a tough spot, requiring him to raise doubts about Bibb’s background and readiness in ways that don’t expose him to allegations of exploiting racial stereotypes.

Indeed, there may be holes in Bibb’s resume, which seems shorter on accomplishments than on fancy titles and appointments to civic boards. Both Bibb’s resume and Kelley’s 16-year record in elected life are worthy of deep media dives.

But unless Kelley — as well as those expected to fund an independent expenditure campaign on his behalf — can show Bibb’s background includes examples of either dishonesty or incompetence, they run the risk of overreach that could inflame racial tensions and earn vocal pushback from an impressive list of Black clergy preparing to embrace Bibb’s candidacy.

The most surprising, perhaps historic, aspect of Bibb’s primary election showing was his big vote total in many predominantly white neighborhoods. But for Bibb exceeding expectations in places like Kamm’s Corners and Detroit Shoreway, Cleveland might be hosting a Kelley-Kucinich runoff.

Bibb also benefited from a breathtaking lack of Black political leadership. Outgoing Mayor Frank Jackson never showed any desire to wield political power and former Rep. Marcia Fudge wasn’t all that good at it. Many of Fudge’s trusted supporters backed Cleveland City Council member Basheer Jones in the mayoral primary. Jones finished fifth.

The absence of powerful Black political leadership resulted in four Black candidates splitting the Black vote. Former Council member Zack Reed got the most, but had to share them with Bibb, state Sen. Sandra Williams and Jones.

Black politics has been a leadership-free zone in Cleveland since the death of Arnold Pinkney in 2014. This dilution of Black political power would have never happened in the eras of Carl and Lou Stokes, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, George Forbes, Pinkney and Mike White. In fact, White, the city’s second Black mayor and nearly 20 years removed from any overt involvement in city politics, shrewdly took advantage of this leadership vacuum with his well-timed endorsement of Bibb’s candidacy.

Five weeks out, declaring Bibb unbeatable is wildly premature. But in the area most important to Cleveland’s future, both candidates are failing.

Despite the extraordinary amount of time and money dedicated Greater Clevelanders have spent trying to improve performance in Cleveland’s public schools, student performance in Cleveland, made even worse by pandemic handicaps, remains the biggest single threat to the region’s future.

From Bibb and Kelley, voters have heard little more than predictable platitudes. Yet two reports, one from the Ohio Department of Education and the other from the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, found that declines in student achievement during the pandemic were especially large in urban and other economically disadvantaged districts. In Cleveland, some of the declines were jaw-dropping.

Consider some test score results for the Cleveland Municipal School District from the 2018/2019 school year compared to the spring of 2021. The percentages are a measurement of Cleveland students deemed proficient by the state.

Third-grade math: 35.3% proficient in 2018, 10.3% in 2021. Fifth-grade science: 28.4% proficient in 2018, 12% in 2021.

In the eighth-grade tests, widely considered the most significant predictor of future academic success,18.5% of Cleveland students were English-proficient in 2018, compared with 14% in 2021. The statewide average last spring was 52.8%.

Eighth-grade math was much worse. In 2018, 20.6% of Cleveland students were proficient, compared with 7.7% in 2021. The statewide math proficiency was 42.7%.

Nothing matters more than fixing these dismal and depressing numbers — not building a bridge over the Shoreway, expanding one airport and closing another, building bike lanes in gentrified neighborhoods or finding funds for a new jail.

No one expects the next mayor to fix the schools in four years. But Bibb and Kelley should at least tell the people of Cleveland how they’d try.

Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.

To reach Brent Larkin: blarkin@cleveland.com

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