CLEVELAND, Ohio — The race for Cleveland’s Ward 14 City Council seat is shaping up to be among the city’s most contentious.
Through the course of the race, candidates or their supporters have filed a criminal complaint, challenged the voter eligibility of a candidate’s family members, publicized past legal issues, successfully pressured one candidate to step down from her job and alleged that another candidate — with the help of his uncle, a sitting councilman from another ward — is a “ghost candidate” meant to split off votes. The race is tinged with old score settling of past political grudges.
The five-candidate primary is Sept. 12, though early voting started Aug. 15.
Incumbent Councilman Brian Cummins, who has represented the diverse West Side ward since 2006, is trying to hang on to his seat. He won his 2013 re-election bid by only 19 votes. But since then, he has left the Green Party and declared himself a Democrat while working recently to align himself more closely with Council President Kevin Kelley and Mayor Frank Jackson, both of whom have endorsed him this time around.
It was Cummins who cast the swing vote to try to fast-track a taxpayer-funded overhaul of Quicken Loans Arena, favored by Jackson, Kelley and other civic leaders, but canceled this week following activist opposition. He said his vote was part of an ongoing effort to make himself more politically relevant, which he said will allow him to better represent his ward. He points to the Clark-Fulton neighborhood subsequently being chosen as one of the three city neighborhoods targeted under Jackson’s recently approved $65 million neighborhood investment plan. He hopes the investment will direct money to the Villa Hispana area near West 25th St. and Clarke Ave. and help it become the vibrant commercial and culture hub the community has long discussed.
“There would never be any quid pro quo, per se,” Cummins said. “But clearly my willingness to be open and not be a single-issue elected official I think helps.”
Cummins is facing a spirited challenge from Jasmin Santana, a longtime ward resident who has been endorsed by the ward’s Democratic club and its influential leader, Rick Nagin, who finished second to Cummins in the 2009 election.
Santana, 38, earlier this month resigned her job as a community-engagement coordinator for the Hispanic Alliance, an umbrella group for other Hispanic nonprofits. She said she was stepping down to focus on the “campaign and the family,” but her opponents had grumbled that her position with the organization had given her unfair access to potential voters. Before the Hispanic Alliance, Santana worked for MetroHealth to recruit minority women to participate in a breast-cancer education, early-detection program there.
Santana was born and raised in Ward 14, and lives in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. She said Cummins has not been responsive to the concerns of residents in the ward, which is one of the city’s poorest.
“They’re frustrated. They’re tired with how things are going, and just want something new,” she said.
Other challengers are Nelson Cintron, the former Ward 14 councilman turned perennial losing candidate and Omar Medina, a pastor and community organizer.
Cintron, a businessman, has run for his old seat every election since he was voted out of office in 2005, but has failed to place higher than third. Santana’s supporters complain that he is serving as a spoiler in the race, splitting off Hispanic votes, and that he only is seen in the ward when he is running for office. Earlier this month, Santana’s campaign manager, Diane Morgan, filed a complaint with the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections that seven suspected relatives of Cintron’s had registered to vote in a single house and filed for early ballots. The elections board dismissed the complaint.
Cintron posted a live video on Facebook, filming himself with a woman he said was his aunt, in front of Morgan’s house.
“Thank God the board of election [ruled] on our side when we were able to show proof,” Cintron posted. “Shame on Jasmin Santana for allowing her team of people to go after our seniors. dirty politics.”
On the Ward 14 Democratic Club Facebook page, Morgan last week wrote about Cintron’s past legal issues, and published a 2016 document showing how much child support he owed at that time. She also posted an affidavit from a precinct committeeman who said Cummins told him he expected Cintron to lose in the Sept. 12 primary, and throw Cummins his support for the general election in November.
Medina has backing from the Service Employees International Union, which was campaigning against the council blocking a $15 minimum wage issue and the now-defunct Quicken Loans Arena deal. He said Santana doesn’t have his breadth of professional experience in community organizing in Ward 14, but agreed that residents in the ward don’t feel their voices are being heard.
“Their feedback is that we don’t want politicians, because politicians make a lot of promises and don’t fulfill them,” he said. “People are tired of politics as usual. They want to see genuine change.”
But it’s Ward 14’s lowest-profile candidate who’s injected a disproportionate amount of intrigue into the race: Kyle Cassidy, the 27-year-old nephew of Councilman Brian Kazy, who himself lost to Cummins by 19 votes in 2013 before subsequently being appointed to a vacant seat in another ward. Since filing to run near the June filing deadline, Cassidy has reported raising no money, has not set up a social-media campaign page or a website, and the other candidates say they have not seen him campaigning. Cassidy has not responded to messages from cleveland.com, and unlike the other candidates, did not seek an endorsement from the editorial board for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer last week.
Cummins, who is white, believes Cassidy, who has not previously sought elected office, was recruited to run as nothing more than a name on the ballot, to split the white vote in the majority-minority ward. The other three candidates are Hispanic, as are 37 percent of ward residents.
Santana’s campaign says Cassidy was not recruited to run by anyone within Ward 14.
Cummins has taken action against Cassidy, filing a complaint with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutors’ Office over the petitions Cassidy filed with the Board of Elections. Some of Cassidy’s petitions were signed by Ernest Field, a friend of Nagin’s, but witnesses signed affidavits stating that a woman actually circulated them.
“This is the dirtiest race I’ve ever been in,” Cummins said.
Kazy, who is running as a Democrat for re-election in Ward 16, told cleveland.com that his nephew, who pulled a Republican ballot in the 2016 primary, approached him and expressed an interest in running for City Council. He said he connected Cassidy with Nagin, who then enlisted help from local activists, including his wife, to circulate petitions so Cassidy could make it on the ballot.
Kazy, who is angry that Cummins got the prosecutor’s office involved, denied recruiting his nephew to run for the race.
“I guided him how to get on the ballot, which anybody would do for any of their family members,” Kazy said.
Nagin told cleveland.com he helped Cassidy as a favor to Kazy. He also said Cummins should worry more about winning his race, and less about other candidates.
“He said his nephew wanted to run, and asked would I help him get on the ballot,” Nagin said. “I’ve worked closely with Brian a long time. I worked on his campaign four years ago, and he’s a good friend of mine. And I said sure. And he told me this was not going to be a serious campaign, so it wouldn’t affect… I mean, I’m supporting Jasmin Santana, and he said it wouldn’t affect her.”
Nagin previously worked for Cintron for years at City Hall while Cintron was on council. But the two since have had a falling out.
Nagin said he thinks Cummins is politically vulnerable because of discontent with his leadership within the ward. He said Santana presents an opportunity for the community to have “serious Hispanic representation.”
City Council customs frown on, to say the least, council members interfering in other council members’ races. After Cummins complained, Kelley told cleveland.com he spoke with Kazy about his nephew’s candidacy.
“I’ve spoken with Councilman Kazy, and he told me he was not involved. And I have to take him at his word,” Kelley said.
Kelley added: “These kinds of tricks aren’t new. But I have to believe that no member of our body would involve themselves in cynical, political games.”
Although her supporters helped Cassidy get on the ballot, Santana said she has nothing to do with Cassidy’s below-the-radar campaign.
“I’m not a puppet,” she said. “I’m someone who loves my community, who’s very invested in my community. I’m not here to put on a show. I’m here because the state of our community is very critical.”