Mayoral candidate Kevin Kelley promises stability
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, November 2021) Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley placed second in the mayoral primary with 19 percent of the votes in an election the majority of city residents decided to sit out. Only 15 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Justin Bibb placed first with 27 percent of the votes.
Kelley was elected to Ward 13 Cleveland City Council in 2005. In 2014, he was elected to serve as President of Council where he serves as chairman of the Finance Committee and Rules Committee. He’s also on the Operations and Mayor’s Appointment committees.
Kelley earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Marquette University and a master’s degree in social work from Case Western Reserve University. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Cleveland Marshall College of Law.
Mayor Frank Jackson endorsed Kelley as his successor in a released statement last August.
“I have worked with Kevin for more than 20 years and during this time, he has made hard decisions. Those decisions weren’t always in his own political interest, but they were the right decisions for the people of Cleveland,” Jackson said. “His decisions have helped position Cleveland for the future and are motivated by the need to continue to make our neighborhoods stronger and safer.”
Kelley was born in Lorain, Ohio. His father, from the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland, was a teacher at St. Mary’s High School in Lorain when he met his mother, eventually leaving teaching to pursue a career in labor relations in Chicago. After his father died, he moved to Cleveland with the help of relatives. Kelley remembers those days as dark and challenging.
“My father lost his job, and we lost our family home,” he said in a recent phone interview with the Plain Press. “Then he died. Our Cleveland relatives came to Chicago to move us here.”
As a result of the experience, he found a career in social work. Social service led him into politics. Kelley recalls working with the justice system to help people in need of food and housing, and health care. He quickly learned that most of the programs were funded by politics. It changed his life. From then on, politics became a higher level of advocacy for people in need.
Prior to holding public office, Kelley was a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, helping people afflicted with poverty and mental illness. He later worked at Recovery Resources, Inc. assisting mentally ill adults. As a member of the volunteer corps, Kelley requested an assignment in Cleveland to take care of a brother with special needs. He met his wife Elizabeth in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He currently lives in Cleveland with his wife and five daughters.
Asked whether faith had an important impact on his politics, Kelley said most politicians would use the question as an opportunity to promote their agenda, but not him.
“Justice for people is something I grew up with,” he said. “We’re on the earth for each other. I was brought up to help the community whenever I can.”
“I was also raised to downplay your accomplishments,” he added. “Let the work speak for itself. It’s a good life philosophy.”
As for decision making, Kelley believes the mayor should hear from everyone involved with the issue before deciding what to do. Consensus building is important. Some decisions have to be made against the interest of politics, in favor of city residents, he said. He cited his seven years as City Council president as an example of consensus building and decision making.
“You have to hear everybody’s opinion and do what’s best for the residents of Cleveland,” he said. “I’ve acted against my personal political interests again and again to support people in our community when they needed our help. I will continue to act in their best interests.”
Kelley believes his accomplishments speak for themselves. He launched First Year Cleveland (FYC), a collective impact organization committed to reducing infant deaths with a community-wide network of more than 500 partners, across all sectors and including expectant parents, new parents, and parents and individuals who have experienced infant loss.
He passed legislation for The Declaration of Counsel for Indigent Defendants Facing Evictions, and the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition legislation.
Under his leadership, The Declaration of Racism as a Public Health Crisis unanimously passed the 17-member council in 2020 in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The declaration is intended to help address systemic racism that results in shorter life expectancies, poorer health conditions, lower incomes and other adverse effects that disproportionately affects Black people.
“There’s always more work to do in this business,” he said. “I wish we were further along with lead paint screening, but we weren’t able to go into people’s homes because of the pandemic. We’re back on track now.”
If elected, Kelley acknowledges that his first cabinet hires will send a message to the public. Experience is critical. Trusted advisors and key appointments are essential to running a government without which there’s little chance of success, according to him. When it comes to negotiating on behalf of Cleveland residents, Kelley, as council president, describes his style of leadership as establishing a hierarchy of priorities first, then take on the tough issues through collaboration, and finally coming to a decision in support of residents.
He used the city income tax as an example of the difficulty of imposing unpopular taxes. “Over the years, we’ve had to make tough decisions including raising the city income tax. No elected official wants to raise taxes,” he stressed. “But when you do, you have to consider the effect on residents. Many people are in a tough financial situation. It was a tough decision to make.”
Kelley supports school levies, despite the fact they almost always fail in his ward. For a politician seeking re-election, he suggested, they might want to oppose the levy, but for him, that isn’t the right thing to do.
As mayor, Kelley would have control over the Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD). As a CMSD dad, his daughters attended Cleveland public schools. The experience gave him time to consider ways to improve the quality of public education. He believes a modernized curriculum will help identify the skills students need to compete in the workforce to find good paying jobs. Schools need to have up-to-date technology. It’s a basic requirement for a good education, he said.
“We have to stop thinking we can fail our students and feel okay about it.”
Kelley blames political toxicity in print and social media for a low voter turnout in the primary. Clevelanders are struggling to put food on their table and stay safe, he said. They’re working two or three jobs just to pay the rent. They don’t have time for politics.
“There are tremendous challenges facing our city today. I’m painfully aware of our problems. I read about them every day in the reports to the City Council,” he said.