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Mayoral candidates share thoughts on tackling poverty in Cleveland

Mayoral candidates share thoughts on tackling poverty in Cleveland

     The End Poverty Now Coalition, a coalition of 26 community groups working to address issues of poverty in Cleveland, hosted a Mayoral Forum via Zoom on August 25th.

     Organize Ohio Executive Director Larry Bresler said the End Poverty Now Coalition was formed in 2015-16 when local organizations joined in coalition in a March to End Poverty Now when the Republican National Convention was being held in downtown Cleveland. Speaking to the reason for hosting the Mayoral Forum, Bresler said, “In a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the country, we thought it was important to hear what the mayoral candidates would be doing to address issues of poverty here in Cleveland if they were elected mayor.”

     After Bresler’s remarks the forum began with Deb Kline of Cleveland Jobs with Justice serving as the timekeeper and Brian Mallory of the Ohio Poor Peoples’ Campaign served as Master of Ceremonies introducing the candidates and asking the questions.

     The candidates participating in the forum were: Justin Bibb, Ross DiBello, Basheer Jones, Dennis Kucinich, Zack Reed, Sandra Williams, and Dr. Terry Eckols representing Kevin Kelley.

     Each candidate was asked to start with a two-minute opening statement.

Justin Bibb

     Candidate Justin Bibb, a nonprofit executive, was first in line to speak. Bibb opened with a thank you to the organizers for hosting this “important conversation on one of the most important issues in our city and really our nation, as we have so much work to do to tackle income-inequality and poverty in the city of Cleveland and across the country. Look — this issue is personal to me. I’m a native son of the Southeast Side of Cleveland. I grew up on one of the hardest blocks in the City on E 121st and Dove. And I have vivid stark memories seeing my Mom, who barely graduated from John Adams and could barely read or write when she graduated, struggle day in and day out to make ends meet. I saw her clean toilets to make sure we could have good food on the table. Times got so bad that we had a car that … she had to start with a screwdriver. If it wasn’t for Grandma Sarah, who opened up her home, we could have been on the street and homeless. Thank God, my Mom was able to get a good quality education and became a social worker and that was our pathway out of poverty.

     “As mayor, I want to bring a sense of urgency to this issue. Because poverty is an issue that requires nuanced solutions. There is not one singular solution. We have to do everything in our power to better invest in public education. We have to tackle structural racism in our criminal justice system. And, we have to make sure all of our resources inside the city of Cleveland are focused on putting people and neighborhoods first, bringing back many of our forgotten parts of our city which requires higher wages and creating good quality jobs. So, I’m looking forward to this discussion because so much is at stake in this election, particularly as we do the hard work of uplifting people out of poverty.”

Ross DiBello

     Ross DiBello, a community activist and attorney, spoke next. “Thank you for this forum and this debate. This is the most important issue for me. For those of you that know me… 

     “When we hit number one in the nation in child poverty, that is when I first started thinking about running, because how can we look ourselves in the mirror? Right? — when you hit 50% of our kids living in poverty which is under $22,000 for a family of three? Then we hit 33% in overall poverty. Again, this is such a low amount of money. Right?

     “My argument is poverty is the leading root cause of crime and some of our other problems – our sicknesses.”

     “My other argument, my proposition, is that the way the City of Cleveland does business leads to this poverty — our corporate handouts, fighting against the minimum wage, and the way we fund sports teams.

     “So, I want to recast the budget as a moral document. I have since done the research. Academics and economists have said that there is one statistically significant relationship with corporate handouts, and that is an area’s poverty rate.

     “So, my platform is aimed at decreasing the giving away of our tax dollars to very wealthy individuals. Right?

     “We want to negotiate on residents’ behalf. We don’t want to give away our money toward people who are just adding it to their wealth. They are basically wealth hoarding.”

     “I don’t want to govern with re-election in mind. Term limits, campaign finance reform – these are the things that will allow us to negotiate on behalf of residents and attack this rape.”

Basheer Jones

     Basheer Jones, a Ward 7 City Council representative, was up next. 

“Thank you so for the opportunity to be here. This topic of poverty is one that unfortunately I’ve been fluent in. Growing up in the neighborhood I grew up in, me and my family experienced poverty in ways that many people can understand growing up in the homeless shelters here in Cleveland. 

     “You know the reason why I’m running for mayor is because it is time for a generational change, a generational shift in our city. The fact is we are at a crossroads. We truly are. And we can’t continue to make the same mistakes, over and over again, expecting different results.

     “As councilman in Ward 7, having the largest homeless population within my district, and some of the largest in the state of Ohio, we recognize that we can’t continue not paying attention to the least of us. If our city is going to be great, and be the greatest location in the nation, everyone must be included.”

Dennis Kucinich

     Dennis Kucinich, a former Congressional Representative, Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio State Senator, Clerk of Municipal Court and Cleveland City Council Member, was next to offer his comments on the issue of poverty.

     “It is really interesting to look at American cities and to see how poverty has not changed that much over the years. It is just the places where it exists, it has become worse.

     “I’ll give you an example. The 1968 Kerner Commission Report identified what was going on with the social and economic conditions in America’s African American communities in 1968.

     “Some of the conditions are objectively worse right now. And Cleveland in particular has been hit hard because of national policies, of trade, of de-industrialization, of good paying jobs that have left this area.

     “And, as Mr. DiBello said, let’s face it, a lot of our resources ,that the city had, have been going to billionaires and multibillionaires instead of being distributed to the people of the community.

     “So, we have a lack of jobs, obviously. And, we have a lack of decent wages. There is no excuse for the fact that the city of Cleveland, and other cities, were cut off from being able to pursue an increase in the minimum wage. That really was immoral.

     “I want to say, as mayor, what I intend to do, is this: I am certainly going to create a pilot project to hire people who are in that bracket of the 20% of households making less than $10,000 a year. We have got to get people back to work that are able to work. And there is plenty of work to be done in Cleveland in many different areas.

     “But in addition to that, Cleveland, and at least another 10 cities, needs extraordinary help because the level of poverty and crime is such that it is beyond the resources of the city in and of itself to be able to handle. So, I intend to use my connections and my life work in Washington D.C. to go to President Biden and to the Congress…”

Zack Reed

     Former City Council Representative Zack Reed was the next to weigh in with his opening remarks on the issue of poverty.

     “I look forward to this robust discussion on a very, very, important issue. It is probably the second most important issue we are going to be talking about throughout the duration of this campaign in the next 20 days.

     “You know crime is first. Poverty is second. And, the lack of city services, in my opinion, is third.

     “We can continue to talk about the problem. We can continue to talk about the statistics. We all know the problem. We all know the statistics. We can all talk about our family background. I can tell how I was raised by a single mom and how she struggled to put food on the table and things like that.

     “But we are in a city where we have millions upon millions of dollars that continue to flow through this city and clearly are not utilizing that funding and those resources in those communities, and in those wards that need it the most. We are not investing. So as mayor of the City of Cleveland I’m going to solve this problem by investing in those communities.

     “We know what the problem is. And we clearly know what the solutions are. And we just are not attaching the solutions to the problem.

     “We know that if we reduce violence in the city of Cleveland – the poverty level goes down. We know that.

     “We know with being the fifth most dangerous city in America, we become one of the poorest cities in America.

     “We know when individuals don’t make a good wage – like they are not making a good wage in the city of Cleveland — the poverty level continues to go up.

     “Look at us. We were one of the cities that Congressman Louis Stokes and Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar worked together to get the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program for. We were one of the first cities to receive it. We have been receiving millions upon millions of dollars for years since the inception of the CDBG program, yet we’ve only become poorer and poorer.

     “So, we’ve got to start investing in these communities, investing in these wards, investing in people. And that is what I’m going to do as mayor of the City of Cleveland.”

Sandra Williams

     State Senator Sandra Williams was the next candidate to offer opening remarks.

     “Thank you for having this forum tonight, it is my honor to participate in it. My name is Sandra Williams. I’m the State Senator from the 21st District. Born and raised in the City of Cleveland. Graduated from the Cleveland Municipal School District.

     “You heard all the issues that we are facing in our city of Cleveland. And these issues have been here for a very long time.

     “No matter what I have delivered to the city of Cleveland, the issue of poverty still remains the same, which is why I am running for mayor of the city of Cleveland.

     “Listen, I have been in Columbus for a very long time fighting for education, fighting for affordable housing, fighting to end the benefit cliff (benefits get cut off as wages rise), fighting to raise the living wage, fighting for so many things. And, even when these things have been delivered back to the city of Cleveland, they have not changed the lives of people of Cleveland in the way I think they should have been changed. I look forward to this conversation.”

Kevin Kelley

Dr. Terry Eckols represented Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley.

Dr. Terry Eckols related some of his background and his communication with Councilman Kelley on the subject of poverty.

     “Thank you again for inviting the Councilman here. He is working his hardest to get here. In the interim I just want to thank you guys for having this. My name is Dr. Terry Eckols. Currently I serve as a Commissioner for the Cleveland Police Commission (CPC) on the Consent Decree – so I’ve been working with the councilman.

     “I won’t begin to speak on his behalf on poverty, because our stories are very different. Like many of us have talked about, I grew up in the hardest hit area called E. 30th and Cedar in the old Cedar Housing project.

     “So, I understand fully what poverty is. When we talk about poverty, the Councilman doesn’t just want to talk about it as a talking point. We made these modest, modest efforts, but we know there are some deep-rooted challenges. 

     “What we do know is what in the city we call facts. That’s what we talk, we say facts. We know one out of four African Americans are in poverty; one out of six Hispanics are in poverty, but one out of thirteen white Americans live in poverty.

     “We understand there are some challenges we have to face there. I grew up to get a PhD in Education. We know that poverty and education are linked. And the Councilman had a background in Social Work, as did I. So that made it a fit for us to be able to talk about: how do we tackle these problems from a lens of a social worker to begin to roll out those services? Again, I expect the councilman at some point. I look forward to the rest of the conversation with the candidates.”

Question to Candidates

Following the opening statements, the candidates were each given ninety seconds to respond to questions asked by the Master of Ceremonies Brian Mallory.

Question 1:  What do you believe is the #1 issue facing poor people in Cleveland? What is your plan to address that issue?

Dr. Terry Eckols speaking on behalf of Kevin Kelley: 

     “Speaking on behalf of the Councilman, what I can attest is that the number one issue, number one without a doubt, is education. We talk about our city as overall having about an eleventh-grade education for the majority of our residents. We know that we have a lot of skilled jobs out there that require a high school diploma. But not everyone is geared to go to college. We understand that.

     “We can get stackable credentials. We can get State Tested Nursing Assistant’s (STNA’s), Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDLs),  Information Technology (IT) and health care credentials. So, if we can understand that we can link education to poverty, we can pull people up out of poverty and give them a better standing. 

     “So, I think the councilman is going to work diligently to help connect folks with training opportunities. Because that is what it is – when people don’t have hope, they have despair. When they have despair, they don’t want to be involved in the process. When we bring people to the table, give them training opportunities; we got to lift them up out of poverty, get them off the rolls and get them into the workforce. So, I think that education is the key to lifting folks up out of poverty.

Justin Bibb:

     “I would say this, we have a sense of complacency in this community that has plagued Cleveland for far too long. As I said before, in my opening comments, poverty needs to be attacked through a multi-pronged approach.

     “For me, as mayor, I believe that it is going to be up to me to figure out how do we eradicate structural racism and systems that exasperate poverty.

     “I believe it starts with creating good economic inclusive development all across our city. Because when you have a job, you are less likely to commit a crime; you are more likely to have hope and dignity day in and day out.

     “And for far too long we have had a one size fits all approach to economic development. As mayor, I want to lead the charge to having a hyper-local approach around inclusive economic development that’s focused on giving residents the tools to buy back the block, and really build community wealth. It creates more investments in job hubs, more investments in building community land trusts, etc. And, also more investments in ensuring we have good quality education in every part of our community.

Ross DiBello

“The first thing is reprioritizing budgeting. So, I answer the second part of that first. We have this $511 million.  Are we going to make wealthy people more wealthy? Or are we going to lift-up the social safety net in very numerous ways?

     “To answer your question, what is the number one issue facing poor people? I think it is budgeting for survival. You know – choosing your necessities. Choosing — which necessity you are going to forego. People are spending too much on housing – if they have housing — homelessness is a huge problem.

     “Food deserts? But I think the answer to the question – the number one issue facing poor people is, what are you going to sacrifice? You got to eat, right? You need a roof over your head. You need clothes. You need transportation. 25% of Clevelanders don’t have a vehicle. So, I think it is budgeting, sacrificing. 

     “And to answer your question, we are going to look at that $511 million. We want to lift-up that social safety net. Give people more shelters, more affordable housing, and financing for those that need it.”

Basheer Jones

     “My friend Zack Reed said something I have to disagree with. I don’t believe safety is the number one issue in the City of Cleveland. Poverty is the number one issue in the City of Cleveland. We understand that crime is only the symptom of poverty. This is something, that is really important, that we have to deal with, as Mr. Bibb said: structural racism. It is a serious thing.

     “You know as me and my Mom and my siblings were dealing with living in a poverty situation, you know it is almost like you are drowning sometimes, man, and you really need help to get out of it.

     “Access to transportation is really important. Access to better day care is really important. Education – as the mayor, we really have to push organizations, institutions like the colleges we have here. We have to make sure they are reaching into their backyard. Less than one percent of the people who attend these institutions are in the surrounding neighborhoods. So, education is really important.

     “What I have done in Ward 7—we promote ASPIRE, which is a GED program. Many of our people are getting their GEDs. We also promote MAGNET, which is a manufacturing program. Not everybody is going to go off to college, but we have to make sure everyone is ready for the 21st century in regard to jobs.”

Dennis Kucinich

     “What I want to say is this: Anytime I’m going through various neighborhoods of Cleveland, groups will come up to me, and they’ll say, ‘Dennis, I want a job. Help me get a job.’ People want to work. And they want a decent wage for that work.

     “So, I think the first thing we need to do is, the city needs to create at least a pilot project for those that are making $10,000 or less a year – the 20% of the people. In addition to that we need to show the pilot project can work and then go to the federal government and say, hey, we want to spread this across the city to at least the third of the city that is living at or under the poverty line.

     “That is where you start, but you don’t end there. Utility rates are a form of a tax that hits those hardest that are least able to pay. This is why I want to reduce Cleveland Public Power’s (CPP’s) residential rates by 10%, all water rates by 10%, and the sewer rates by 10%.

     “Water and sewer are sitting on a pile of money that could easily go to reducing rates and making it a little more livable for poor people.

     “In addition to that, we have to start tracking very carefully the situation with rents and with evictions. There are some people who are not covered by the moratorium that are getting evicted right now, who are under tax liens, who are finding they are losing their homes. Those are some of the areas we need to work in.”

Zack Reed

“Well, first-of-all, I’ll go along with my brother Basheer Jones. He wants to make poverty first. I have no problem with making poverty first as the biggest issue in the City of Cleveland. I have no problem with that. Safety can be second. I have no problem with that.

     “Before I go any further, I neglected to say that my good friend and one of the biggest supporters of people fighting poverty for generations has been Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar – and I see she is on the line (on the Zoom call) tonight. I just want to say, thank you for all the years you fought – Congresswoman. I know you fought for a long time to eradicate this poverty, not only here in Cleveland, but across the nation. I just want to do a big shout-out to you. Thank you for your very long time of service here and in our nation.

     “If we want to say the #1 one issue facing poor people, facing rich people, people making middle wages – -it is crime. I mean, just think about it. The poorer you are, the more dangerous is the neighborhood you live in. You can’t seem to move out of that neighborhood into another neighborhood. So, when you talk about the biggest issue facing poor people, it is the same issue facing people across the city of Cleveland. I understand that we are the fifth most dangerous city in America. That is why if you go to zackreed.com you will see I am the only candidate that has their safety plan in black and white.”

Sandra Williams

“For me, the biggest issue facing poor people in the city of Cleveland is a job that pays more than a living wage. If you make enough in your salary or you hourly wage you can provide for yourself and your family.

                  “I have been fighting for these issues for a very long time in the state legislature. As the mayor of the City of Cleveland, what do I plan to do about people not having a living wage, or more than a living wage?

                  “It would be number one to improve our educational system. As you know, I was the sponsor of the Cleveland Plan which changed the way we educate children in the City of Cleveland. The school systems have gotten better, but we still have a lot of work to do. Also, job training – I’ve brought hundreds of millions of dollars back to the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County for job training not only for young people, but for older residents as well, who want to find themselves in a better position—a higher paying job.

                  “We can do that by working with our state legislature as well as with the federal government to make sure resources are here.

                  “Another thing I would like to do is to make sure we are providing the necessary resources to people who need additional educational training. Training before school, educational training during lunch periods, or even after school and on the weekends.”

Editor’s Note: The End Poverty Now Coalition Mayoral Forum consisted of three additional questions asked of the mayoral candidates as well as their closing statements.  In closing Larry Bresler said the End Poverty Now Coalition will be monitoring and pressuring whoever is elected mayor to address issues related to poverty.

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