If elected mayor, State Senator Sandra Williams promises to rebuild Cleveland
by Bruce Checefsky
State Senator Sandra Williams was greeted by supporters as she entered the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on June 8 where she filed petitions to run for Mayor of Cleveland. She pledged a campaign focused on a new, better Cleveland. Williams, who has held positions in both the state House of Representatives and Senate since 2007, would be only the second woman mayor in Cleveland history, following former Mayor Jane Campbell, and the first Black woman elected to the post. The Cleveland mayoral election is officially nonpartisan, with the top two candidates from the September 14 primary election advancing to the general election on November 2. Her current term as state senator ends on December 31, 2022.
If elected mayor, Williams promises to rebuild Southeast Cleveland including Woodland Hills, Mt. Pleasant, Buckeye, and Union Miles by removing abandoned and dilapidated housing, providing affordable housing, and bringing job hubs into the community.
“I’ll be working directly with the state of Ohio to raise the necessary financial capital for development using funds available from local government and money from the American Rescue Plan Act,” Williams said in a phone interview. “I’ll entertain public/private partnerships and take advantage of the many grant and loan opportunities through the state of Ohio Department of Development as well as Jobs Ohio.”
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is a $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package designed to facilitate the United States’ recovery from the devastating economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cleveland is expected to receive almost $521 million.
Cleveland’s population continues to decline despite the surge of new development. Neighborhoods with the lowest housing prices experienced the steepest declines in population. For every 100 people who left Cleveland, only 82 people arrived in 2019.
“I know many people who have left Cleveland including family members. Most people are leaving for job opportunities and safety. The majority are leaving because of our school system,” Williams said. “People don’t believe there are opportunities in the city but once we have good paying jobs, safe streets, and affordable housing, people will change their minds.”
As mayor, Williams plans to work with developers to encourage investment beyond the Ohio Opportunity Zones Tax Credit Program, a federal program enacted to encourage economic development and job creation in economically distressed communities. The challenge of finding new investments is also an opportunity to promote the benefits of Cleveland’s diverse community, according to her.
In areas of the city where development has grown as a result of tax abatements, including downtown, Tremont, and Ohio City, property taxes have more than doubled for some residents. People on fixed incomes, especially the elderly, have been forced to sell their homes and leave the city.
“I believe tax abatement should be directed towards areas of the city where we need investments and used more effectively and efficiently,” said Williams. “I have a bill in the legislature that will cap property taxes at no more than 10% in any given year so people who have lived in the city for many years won’t get priced out.”
More than 59% of Cleveland residents live in food deserts, where the availability of affordable, nutritious foods is limited and people experience inequalities in economic opportunity and quality of health. African Americans represent nearly 60% of the food desert population. Neighborhoods including St. Clair Superior, Fairfax, Buckeye-Woodhill, and Stockyards have the highest percentage of food deserts where residents have to travel between one and two miles to a grocery store. In some areas, residents must travel two or more miles to find fresh nutritious food.
“One of the first calls I ever received as a legislative aide was from a man living near E. 55 St. ‘I have no place to buy milk in this city’, he said. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I reached out to community leaders, owners of grocery stores, and encouraged them to move into the community,” said Williams. “We need smaller stores, not just the larger chains, to open businesses in our neighborhoods. I will work with the City Council and CDC’s (Community Development Corporations) as well as encourage farmers markets throughout the city so people have access to fresh food.”
Williams pledged to address violent crime with a targeted approach to finding solutions by adding more police presence on the streets. Williams would like to see the demographics of the police force reflect the diverse population of Cleveland.
“We need to provide more training opportunities for our police,” she said.
Lakefront development has been a part of every Cleveland mayoral campaign for decades. Burke Lakefront Airport is owned and operated by the City of Cleveland, which also operates Hopkins International Airport. Burke covers an area of 450 acres built on landfill, with 3.1 miles of Lake Erie shoreline. Flight operations at Burke have declined 69% since 2000.
Williams wants to see more residential and commercial development along the lakefront. Whether the airport remains open is up to the Federal government. Regional airports can support flights to the area, in her view. When asked if closing the airport was a possibility, she said, “I promise it will get done under my administration.”
Cleveland’s arts and culture sector is one of the most undervalued industries in the region. The creative sector in Cleveland is estimated to contribute $9.1 billion to the local economy, according to Crain’s Cleveland. Dozens of small towns and cities across the country have instituted artist relocation programs to encourage professional artists to move and open businesses. Many towns and cities offer low-interest loans, grants, reasonably priced mixed-use properties, tax benefits for working artists. Williams plans to open a department for the arts at City Hall to attract more artists and art related businesses.
“We will look at what artists need in order to expand and grow, and incentivize art businesses,” she said.
Williams has been publicly criticized for her support of House Bill 6 (HB 6), passed by the Republican-controlled State legislature, and signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in the summer of 2019. HB 6 was packaged as a “Clean Air Program” for a bailout of FirstEnergy Solutions economically failing nuclear power plants Davis-Besse and Perry.
Considered a “massive handout to old, dirty coal plants” by Neil Waggoner, head of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Ohio, FirstEnergy Solutions said it would close its two nuclear plants if it didn’t get a government bailout. The Akron-based energy company spent years working towards legislation which led to a federal investigation and arrest of Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder, and four associates, accused of organizing a bribery scheme to accept $61 million from FirstEnergy in return for passing HB 6.
Williams voted for the bailout along with two other Democratic State Senators and nine Democratic State Representatives. She reportedly received campaign donations from FirstEnergy Solutions for years including more than $12,000 in 2020.
She has not been accused or implicated in any wrongdoing.
Williams joins a crowded field of candidates including Zack Reed, Kevin Kelley, Basheer Jones, Dennis Kucinich, Justin Bibb, Ross DiBello, and Landry M. Simmons.