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Cleveland City Council’s three women share their reflections on politics and public policy

by Jack Barnes

Plain Press, March 2021      On January 26th the Cuyahoga Democratic Women’s Caucus organized a “Conversation with Cleveland City Councilwomen” via Zoom hosted by its Chair, Cynthia Demsey. The hour-long event featured all three of the women on the 17-person Cleveland City Council reflecting on their paths to public service; on being women in a male dominated council; and on the work of politics during the pandemic.

   Phyllis Cleveland, by far the longest-tenured Councilwoman who represents Ward 5, spoke first about her journey from Tri-C to an “accidental politician” seeking a fifth term in Cleveland City Council. After earning a law degree from Case Western Reserve University, she eventually worked for then Ward 5 Councilman Frank Jackson who, when running for mayor in 2005, convinced Ms. Cleveland to succeed him.

   Following Cleveland was the freshest face in Council, Jenny Spencer of Ward 15. She was recently sworn into City Council upon Matt Zone’s resignation. Spencer got her masters’ degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy school and subsequently served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay for two years, where she learned that “you have to continually reinvest” in communities. Upon returning to Cleveland, she got a job at Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization where she worked for ten years, frequently collaborating with Matt Zone. When Zone decided to retire from Council in November, he recommended Spencer to replace him, and the Council voted her in.

   The last to introduce herself was Jasmine Santana, who represents Ward 14. Santana described a tough upbringing; living in a blighted Detroit-Shoreway (then Bridge-54th) with a single mother who didn’t speak English, relying on food banks and having to transfer high schools when West Tech closed. “Discussions at the dinner table were about survival, not education or politics,” she said. Santana wanted to give back to her community and embarked on a career that saw her work on a program that helped Latina women with breast cancer treatment while working at Metro Health before becoming a private social worker of sorts. While at her practice she worked closely with the Hispanic Alliance, who eventually sent her to D.C. to represent the Latinx community with regards to voter purging. Representative Marcia L. Fudge was very impactful for Santana on this trip, and it turned out to be a big reason that Santana later ran for City Council.

   Being a Women’s Caucus, Demsey was sure to question the Council Members on the unique experience of gender dynamics in a heavily male cohort. Of the women, Councilwoman Cleveland answered the most directly. When she started on Council there were six women, and over the years she has “felt the void of female companionship.” City Council has “a whole lot of testosterone,” she says, “too much.” Cleveland described that she often has to be more assertive in the workplace even though that’s not really how she likes to work. “Women and men interact differently, that’s just a fact. Sometimes men can dominate conversation.”

   Spencer, whose entire time on Council thus far has been over Zoom, connects this disadvantage to gender. She feels that not having any in-person experience has been a detriment, especially as a woman who is good at relationship building.

   Much of the focus of the night’s discussion was on politics during the pandemic. “In Cleveland its government is the eyeball level… COVID has taken a lot of that away,” according to Councilwoman Cleveland. She described feeding off the energy of in-person politics like Ward meetings. Both Santana and Spencer agreed.

   The conversation closed with the subtext of the meeting coming closer to the forefront: all three women are running for reelection. Each candidate agreed that fundraising is the toughest part of the job, but Santana had a particularly healthy perspective on the political necessity. At one point in her career, she said she started to frame it as calling to ask for money to serve the donor’s community, not money for Santana herself.

   Demsey’s closing question of the evening for each of the featured women was succinct: What is your issue?

   Councilwoman Cleveland quoted an African proverb to answer: “To destroy a nation, start with the family.” For her, the work and the ends of politics should keep the focus on the family unit as it is the fabric of community.

   For the Ward 15 representative, it was housing and all the sub-issues that fall under that umbrella. The impending housing crisis that will take place once Biden’s eviction moratorium is at the top of Spencer’s mind. She also mentioned lead-safe housing and the acute risk Detroit-Shoreway is at of losing its diversity as a trendy and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Lastly, she informally announced that she was interested in reforming Cleveland tax abatement policy.

   Jasmine Santana could not resist the understandable urge to list more than one issue. Housing, the prevention of displacement, women development, and beautifying the parts of her neighborhood that are victim to illegal dumping were core to her agenda.

   Before everyone logged off of Zoom for the night, Chair Demsey noted a big reason for optimism for the Democrats’ housing plans — having a direct line to the Federal HUD Secretary in Marcia L. Fudge (if confirmed) will be especially beneficial.

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