by Bruce Checefsky
Ward 8 Councilman Michael Polensek speaks his mind. He has no plans to stop anytime soon. He has served the neighborhoods of northeast Cleveland since 1978, making him the longest-serving City Council member in the history of Cleveland. For nearly four decades, Councilman Polensek has represented the Collinwood Neighborhood.
Polensek, a Slovene American, grew up in the Slovenian section of Collinwood, attended the Nottingham and Hannah Gibbons Elementary Schools, and eventually graduated from Collinwood High School in January 1969. He studied industrial supervision management at Tri-C and was first elected to council in 1977, representing Ward 26 until 1982, then representing Ward 11 for ten terms, and is now in his second term representing Ward 8.
He lost the first two campaigns, one at the age of twenty-two and the second campaign four years later. On his third attempt, he won. He credits his mother with his success. As a single parent with four children, she participated in local politics and stressed engagement with the community. She was an active street captain at the time with the historic Nottingham Civic Club, one of the oldest civic organizations in Cleveland. Raised in Glenville, with a racially diverse community of Glenville and Collinwood, she was an early supporter of former Mayor of Cleveland Carl Stokes.
Polensek was a teenager in high school and found himself passing around political fliers for the Stokes campaign. The experience changed his life. After his mother remarried and moved to Michigan, he took her position as street captain. He was president of the Nottingham Civic Club at age twenty-three, representing over 1200 families and working at White Motors Corporation on St. Clair Avenue, which built trucks. As a United Auto Workers (UAW) member, he began organizing for the labor movement.
He made friends with four or five fellow linemen of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds while working drill press machinery at White Motors. During coffee breaks, they would complain about politics and the economy. It was during the Vietnam War, with social tensions high and riots sweeping throughout the country, including Cleveland. The president of the Cosmopolitan Democratic League of Cuyahoga County, who was working at White Motors and heard them, said they should stop complaining and do something about it. Four of them decided to run for the city council. Polensek was the only one to get elected.
“No one thought I could win,” he said. “I spent five hundred dollars on my second campaign, which was a lot of money back then. I did well, but lost. I learned to put more money into my campaign and won.”
He defeated the last seated Republican in 1977. No republicans have won since.
“There was little difference between political parties back then. In fact, with Mayor Ralph Perk (1972-77), you had to be a Republican to work for him. A lot of Democrats became Republicans and vice versa.”
Polensek was elected the same year as former mayor Dennis Kucinich, and Cleveland Municipal Light, now Cleveland Public Power (CPP), was the central issue of his campaign. He supported keeping the municipal lighting system to prevent the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) from becoming a monopoly.
“It was a big issue with working families,” said Polensek. “There was a 33% differential between CEI and CPP. It was a hell of a lot of money for people.”
Another major issue in his campaign was tax abatement. Polensek favored responsible use of tax abatement but knows large corporations and developers have misused the privilege, promising to give back to the community and never doing it.
“We deal with billionaires like the owners of the Browns, Guardians, and Cavaliers, who keep asking us for stuff. We have to stop giving in to them. We deal with poverty and despair in our neighborhoods while they want new stadiums.”
Polensek said tax abatement has worked on the Near West Side to develop areas like Tremont, Ohio City, and Detroit Shoreway. Glenville and Collinwood, southeast Cleveland, have not fared as well. Tax abatement benefits the developers while missing an opportunity to spur single-family housing construction.
“If people can afford to buy a $450,000 or $500,000 condominium, do they need tax abatement? And it should be clear to everybody,” he said. “Over 60% of Clevelanders are renters. We have to do more to encourage single-family home ownership.”
Polensek ran against Asia Jones, a community organizer affiliated with Black Lives Matter Cleveland, in the 2021 general election. He won with over 77% of the vote. His opponent was part of a progressive caucus to overturn the City Council, and she did not live in Ward 8, according to Polensek, a fact disputed by Jones and Ward 12 Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer. Maurer unseated 16-year incumbent Councilman Anthony Brancatelli in an upset representing Slavic Village and parts of Old Brooklyn, Tremont, and Brooklyn Centre.
In an email posted on Twitter a few weeks before the election, Polensek claimed that Maurer was running a slate of extreme left-wing candidates citywide in an attempt to turn Cleveland City Council into Portland, Oregon.
“God help us!” he posted in October 2021. “She is not about good governance. It is about control. And she supports candidates she believes she can direct for her agenda!”
Maurer was attempting to defund the police, he continued, warning Clevelanders to take notice of a dangerous group who do not have the best interest of residents at heart. The Cleveland Plain Dealer and cleveland.com, and Scene Magazine covered the story.
Polensek still believes a group of left-wing radicals is trying to take over the City Council.
“I have no use for anyone that plays the race or religious card,” he said about claims that his email on Twitter was about race. “I saw very troubling stuff in the last election about gender identity and race. I am concerned about an extreme left-wing agenda that want to take control of the wards. Some are not from those wards or engaged with the people in the neighborhoods, but they raised money outside the greater Cleveland area. They want to defund the police and take Cleveland down the wrong path.”
He wants the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), totaling $512 million over two years, to be spent on programs and initiatives with long-lasting implications. Refurbishing the police and fire fleet is costly, and Polensek supports the idea and wants to make sure not to spend the money on programs that last three years or less. Mayor Bibb’s Rescue & Transformation Plan identified ten priorities for federal funding for Stabilizing the Budget, Inclusive Economic Recovery and Housing for All, Closing the Digital Divide, and Arts & Neighborhood Amenities, among others.
A self-described old-school Louis Stokes democrat, Polensek has no plans to retire anytime soon. He has worked under five Cleveland mayors since 1978, calling Michael R. White a disappointment, and touting George V. Voinovich as able to cross party lines and get things done. Mayor Bibb is his sixth. He did not endorse his campaign or vote for him.
“We have a tremendous opportunity in Cleveland. We need people to come together and not be divisive. I hope Mayor Bibb can get the corporate and business leaders to step up. Otherwise, I am not voting for that shit.”
This article first appeared in the East Side Daily News.
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