Amid Divisions Big and Small, Real and Exaggerated, the Battle for Control of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Rages
By Sam Allard
This year, Shaker Heights nurse Lisa Nguyen was one of many first-time candidates who sought a seat on the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party's central committee. Members of the central committee, in theory, are neighborhood-based party loyalists who rustle up votes in their precincts during election season. At full capacity, the central committee would include roughly 900 representatives countywide. But only about 600 of the seats are currently occupied.
Nguyen didn't become active in politics until recently, and her political motivations grew out of her professional ones: She wanted to become a more effective patient advocate. Through her union, National Nurses United, Nguyen worked on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in 2016 and has since lobbied for major reforms in the national healthcare system — Medicare for All, notably.
When Scene contacted Nguyen to ask about what we'd been told prematurely was her victory in the May 8 primary, Nguyen was stunned.
"Wait, for reals?" she responded in a text. "I won? The last time I checked, I thought it was tied."
Nguyen was correct. In her race for a central committee seat in Shaker Heights Precinct A, the unofficial results had her in a dead heat with her competitor, Mary O. Boyle: 80 to 80.
In Cleveland's Ward 15 (councilman Matt Zone's ward, which includes Detroit-Shoreway, Edgewater, and parts of Cudell), activist Christopher Stocking ran for a central committee seat as well. He's an organizer with Clevelanders for Public Transit and a member of the Cleveland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
He told Scene that he ran for a central committee seat with the goal of organizing his neighborhood and pushing the county party "further left," or at least making the party more democratic in its procedures.
Like Nguyen, Stocking wasn't the only candidate running for his precinct's committee seat. And like Nguyen, his race was tight. After the unofficial count, he was leading his competitor, Adam Rosen, by only a single vote: 57 to 56.
In Fairview Park, Kim Mann ran for the central committee too. She told Scene she decided to run to "motivate Democrats to vote, and to help [the party] become more engaged."
She defeated the incumbent committee member, Ms. Troy Greenfield, by an unofficial tally of 60 to 50. Though Greenfield had encouraged Mann to run — and Mann said the race was amicable — Greenfield was the president of the Fairview Park Democratic Club and a vice chair of the party's executive committee, having been appointed to that post by the county party's interim chairwoman, Shontel Brown. In that regard, Mann's victory was an upset.
These hyperlocal races for central committee seats were of course much lower profile than others on May 8: the governor's race, for example, in which Richard Cordray defeated Dennis Kucinich; or the assorted statehouse contests, in which Sandra Williams, Nickie Antonio and Kenny Yuko all won their races for Ohio Senate seats and Kent Smith, Terrence Upchurch, Juanita Brent, Michael Skindell, and Bride Sweeney won contested races for state representative. Some of them will face Republican or write-in candidates in November.
But the central committee races tell an important, emerging story in county politics. It's proof, some say, of a strategic insurgency by Newburgh Heights mayor Trevor Elkins and the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus. It's a "power grab."
Elkins recently announced that he would be running once again for party chair. Last week, he posted a video featuring him alongside former judge and Cuyahoga County councilwoman C. Ellen Connally, who was announced as his vice-chair. Then Friday, Elkins and Connally announced that Connally,not Elkins, would be leading the ticket and Elkins would be running as vice-chair. The move was reportedly made with the blessing of the Progressive Caucus, and Elkins told Scene that he and Connally would be treating their roles as co-chairs.
"This was never about Trevor Elkins being king," he said. "And this isn't about Ellen Connally being queen. This is about making the party stronger."
Elkins was defeated by Shontel Brown last summer when outgoing chair Stuart Garson voluntarily vacated the seat a year early to make way for new leadership. Garson had served as chair since 2010, after Jimmy Dimora's ignominious departure, and had quietly, effectively restored an air of professionalism to the fractious party. His stated reason for stepping down — to provide a longer runway for a new chair and to prevent internal feuds — seemed invalidated by the contentious race between Elkins, Brown and Sandra Williams. Garson endorsed either Elkins or Williams in a strongly worded letter last summer.
"Any prospective Chair who attempts to pick between candidates before endorsement or engineer a predetermined result will be moving the party back to a dysfunctional past instead of building on the fragile progress we have achieved up to this point," he wrote.
But Brown had the backing of powerful politicians —congresswoman Marcia Fudge chief among them, but also county executive Armond Budish and the majority of Cleveland City Council — and she cruised to victory. The upcoming vote on June 9 will be for a full four-year term. Elkins, under the Ellen Connally banner, is now counting on new progressive members of the central committee to push their ticket over the edge.
It's a bold strategy, one in keeping with the bottom-up leadership philosophy of the Progressive Caucus. But it's also a long shot, some insiders say.
In any case, Connally and Elkins will have to wrest control from Brown and the powerful factions backing her: Marcia Fudge in one corner; and in the other, the back-slapping old guard known colloquially as the "Parma Boys" —former county prosecutor Bill Mason, Bedford clerk of courts Tom Day, former Parma mayor Dean DePiero, and Cleveland City Council president and party vice chair Kevin Kelley.
The Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus' political director, Steve Holecko (who also ran for a statehouse seat, losing to Bride Sweeney in District 14), told Scene that Trevor Elkins was active in recruiting candidates to run for the central committee. He said that the progressive coalition was now about 250 strong.
"We have to get as many of our people to show up [on June 9] as possible," Holecko said.
But Nguyen, Stocking and Mann, who are all Progressive Caucus members, said that if indeed they are elected after official results are tabulated, they wouldn't automatically vote for Elkins for chair. Presumably, they'd feel similarly about Connally.
"I like a lot of what Shontel Brown has to say," Nguyen told Scene. "I remember attending a meeting, and she was talking about reaching out to independent voters. She said a lot of their values are Democratic, and we should be getting them to vote Democrat. That said a lot to me."
"You have to earn my vote," Stocking said. "I'll have a series of questions for the candidates, and I'll vote based on their responses."
Mann said that she was in the dark about the whole process. She'd received no word from anybody about what comes next, but she knew there would be a vote on June 9. She said she likes Elkins' platform (which Connally has committed to), particularly his recommendation that the party stop endorsing candidates in primary races with open seats. But she said she thought it was a mistake to exaggerate the Progressive Caucus insurgency.
"I think certain factions, they see us coming and call it a 'power grab,'" she said. "In a sense, it is, but only if you're holding onto power so tightly that there's no room for more voices. Until the two-party system is fixed, the Democrats need to move over a little bit. 'Progressive' shouldn't be the dirty word that it has become."
Nguyen also felt stories about a "rift" in the party, which are often conveyed as a carbon copy of the Hillary vs. Bernie / Establishment vs. Progressive rift in 2016, are too readily imposed upon local politics.
"Honestly, I think it's a bit overblown," Nguyen said. "I don't think there's much of a rift. But times are changing, and there are a lot of people in the party who haven't been used to change. If you really want the party to stay strong, you have to take note of that change and ride with it."
Trevor Elkins, the insurgent himself, has the flavor of a blue-collar populist. His political ambitions, which encompass anything up to and including the President of the United States of America, are outsized, if you ask his opponents. After all, he's the mayor of Newburgh Heights, a village with a population, (approximately 2,100), less than one-tenth the size of an average Cleveland ward, and only slightly larger than the student body of Euclid High School, where the Democratic Party holds its meetings.
Elkins' electoral success is a mixed bag, too. While he ascended the ranks of Newburgh Heights quickly, and has served as mayor there since 2011, he also lost his primary bid for state representative in 2004. And this year, he was creamed in his bid for the state of Ohio's Democratic Central Committee. Each state senate district is represented by one man and one woman. Elkins earned only seven percent of the vote in that race, which former Cleveland City councilman Jeff Johnson won handily, with 53 percent of the vote. Current councilman Blaine Griffin came in second, with 22 percent.
In a conversation with Scene a few days after the primaries, Elkins said that he thought the media portrayal of a centrist vs. progressive fight within the party ought to be recalibrated.
"That's just not an accurate assessment of what's going on," he said. "The fight that's occurring today is a generational fight. It's a fight between a new generation of leaders that are ready to take a different approach to authority and power and the very transactional leadership that exists."
Elkins' campaign for party chair consisted of a series of procedural recommendations. He called them "a set of essential rule changes designed to eliminate backroom horse trading" in a press statement announcing his candidacy. Elkins said Connally was committed to the same measures.
But his campaign was positioned more fundamentally as a rebuke to the powerful factions that, according to Elkins, believe they are entitled to control in perpetuity. He believes that the old-guard style of machine politics is not only outdated, but ineffective. And he thinks Shontel Brown is a puppet for the machine.
"The big takeaway from the primaries is that the county Democratic Party has to do better," he said. "It only delivered in three of the eight competitive races it endorsed in, which is an abysmal record. We have to be better if we're going to have any credibility with voters. I think the primaries tell us that this current interim leadership [Shontel Brown] just doesn't deliver for candidates. And that doesn't bode well for November."
The Democrats endorsed in 34 primary races, including seats at the Ohio Statehouse, on the county bench and on county council. Ten of those races were contested, meaning more than one candidate ran for the seat.
In Elkins' analysis, incumbent Ward 3 county councilman Dan Brady and statehouse candidate Kent Smith were such prohibitive favorites that their races couldn't be considered "competitive." He also thinks that the party's successful backing of Sandra Williams in State Senate District 21 deserves an asterisk, because congresswoman Marcia Fudge supported challenger Jeff Johnson in that race, a maneuver thought to be retaliatory after Williams challenged Shontel Brown for party chair last year.
"How can the county party take credit for a win that they tried to prevent?" Elkins asked. "They tried to knock Sandra out of the box."
The only other two races in which the party backed winning candidates were for state rep seats on Cleveland's east side: Terrence Upchurch defeated a crowded field, including former city councilman TJ Dow, in the 10th District; and Juanita Brent bested her challengers in District 12, which includes a handful of southeastern suburbs stretching from Bedford to Mayfield Heights. (Yvonka Hall, the Progressive Caucus candidate in District 12, told Scene that she never received an application for the county party's endorsement, and that Juanita Brent's credentials remain as unclear as they were in the Plain Dealer endorsement interview.)
But in other races, the party endorsement failed to be the golden ticket that it has long been considered. On the west side, party-endorsed candidate Marty Sweeney fell to Nickie Antonio in Senate District 23. Party-endorsed candidate Tom Bullock fell to Michael Skindell in House District 13. Both Antonio and Skindell were backed by the Progressive Caucus, and their victories testified to the group's organizing power, especially on the west side. The Progressive Caucus is headquartered in Lakewood.
All of the statehouse races mentioned above were for open seats, meaning there was no incumbent. And one of Elkins' four "essential rule changes" is a proposal that the party stop endorsing candidates in those races.
"Why is the county party picking sides amongst Democrats?" He said. "Let them all run, and whoever wins, that's our candidate. Then we all get around that person. The reason that the structure exists the way it does is because it allows a few power brokers the opportunity to preserve their fiefdoms. A divided party is what some of these folks actually want. That's the environment they thrive in."
Moreover, Elkins said, non-endorsement for open seats would allow constituent groups — the Progressive Caucus, Stonewall Democrats, Young Dems, Northeast Ohio Young Black Democrats, labor groups — to participate in races without being in conflict with the party at large. Elected officials who are also ward or city leaders would be able to publicly support the candidate of their choice as well (Nickie Antonio, for example). They are technically prohibited from doing so by the party's "unity rule," which forbids members from publicly supporting non-endorsed candidates.
For races without open seats, incumbents in good standing are generally expected to win the party endorsement. And when state senator Kenny Yuko failed to earn the party's backing, in February, for his seat in District 25, it was portrayed as yet another example of the widening rift. Yuko had backed Elkins for party chair last year, and Shontel Brown's abstention from the Yuko endorsement vote was seen as payback. Committee members from Warrensville Heights (home of Marcia Fudge and Shontel Brown) voted unanimously for Yuko's challenger, John Barnes.
At the time, Yuko called his non-endorsement "politics at its ugliest." He defeated John Barnes by 10 points.
One important issue for bushy-tailed new central committee members to understand is that the central committee does not make endorsements on behalf of the party.
Scene heard anecdotally that several candidates for the central committee were inspired to run specifically because of the party's endorsement of Marty Sweeney over Nickie Antonio. Feelings that the party's endorsement was a grave mistake — a betrayal, even, given that the endorsement vote was held on the same day as the Women's March, and Sweeney settled a sexual misconduct suit in 2005 — were amplified when reporting by Scene revealed that Sweeney had paid multiple people, for "consulting," who then shifted their allegiance from Antonio to Sweeney, leading to pivotal endorsements.
But the endorsement duty falls to the party's executive committee, which is composed of up to 400 elected representatives from the ranks of the central committee and up to 350 additional members appointed by the county chair. (The appointed members are essentially "super delegates," according to Steve Holecko, and they allow the party chair and appointed cronies to tip the scales.)
That's why another one of Elkins' four "essential rule changes" is making the entire executive committee elected. The goal is to endorse candidates representative of the party membership, not its leadership.
"My position, overall, is that we have to change from being this top-down hierarchy that is designed around preservation [of power]," Elkins said, "and move to really being about creating a political organization, a political apparatus, that will be able to go out and deliver for voters to win elections."
THE CALL, AND POST
The bigger and more calamitous endorsement story, arguably, concerns the judicial races, and the "chaotic pushback" that congresswoman Marcia Fudge generated when she inserted herself into the party endorsement process in an attempt to win support for her preferred candidates.
Local journalist Richard Andrews, writing for his solo outlet the Real Deal Press, penned a series of scorching articles about Fudge's meddling in January.
"It would be hard to imagine a more ill-conceived and ineptly concealed private maneuver," Andrews wrote on Jan. 20, "than what [Fudge] unveiled last night during a telephone conference that was leaked before it was over."
During the conference call, which Scene independently confirmed, Marcia Fudge sought to convince the conferees — almost all of whom were current black elected leaders on Cleveland's east side and in the eastern suburbs — that if the party executive committee failed to endorse Fudge's favored judicial candidates, Andrea Nelson Moore and Deborah Turner, Fudge's allies should advance a "scorched-earth" policy, i.e., no endorsements at all. Shontel Brown was reportedly an active participant in the discussion and continually asked Fudge how best she could accomplish the congresswoman's desired outcomes procedurally.
"Shontel's job is to do what Marcia needs done," one conferee told Andrews.
Long before the call, a deal had been cut — rumored to have been brokered by Parma Boy Tom Day — between the Fudge coalition and Bill Mason's bloc. According to the agreement, Mason's Parma faction and the committee members they controlled would not interfere with the endorsement of Andrea Nelson Moore and Deborah Turner if Fudge and her allies would not interfere with two of the Parma Boys' preferred judicial candidates: Andrew Santoli and Emily Hagan.
Of the above four candidates, the two that were endorsed by the party — Andrew Santoli for Mason and Andrea Nelson Moore for Fudge — lost their races, to William McGinty and Ashley Kilbane, respectively. The two that failed to receive a party endorsement — Emily Hagan for Mason and Deborah Turner for Fudge — prevailed.
Before the filing deadline, the relevant power brokers had approached competitors, including Ashley Kilbane (in the Andrea Nelson Moore race) and Karrie Howard (in the Deborah Turner race), asking them to switch races or wait their turn, to "fall in line like good soldiers," one source with knowledge of the deal told Scene.
"They decided to throw Ashley Kilbane overboard, believing that she couldn't win without them. They thought she'd follow orders like so many candidates had done before her."
Kilbane declined an interview, saying she learned a lot as a candidate but was "not an analyst" and had no special insight about the state of the party or how others ran their campaigns.
When Scene spoke with Karrie Howard, he confirmed that he'd been approached about waiting his turn.
"My view is that there is a new wave of people who have been told to sit down and wait their turn who are just tired of that," Howard said. "I'm 41 years old. If I wait six years for a seat, I'm 47. Why should we have to wait? I'm not just talking about on the bench. I mean city council, municipal seats. They all benefit from innovative ideas. If we wait, the ideas may still be innovative, but they'll be coming from old people. There has to be some kind of pipeline."
Howard, who began his judicial campaign a year-and-a-half out, and who canvassed the entire county, managed to obtain the endorsement of the Plain Dealer, the Stonewall Dems and even Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson, who broke with Marcia Fudge to back Howard.
Howard would have been the only black man in the Court of Common Pleas general division, and journalist Richard Andrews, for one, blamed Howard's failure to win the endorsement of the party on Marcia Fudge's intervention.
"He was a Fudge casualty," Andrews wrote, "deprived of a significant advantage he had labored to win for more than a year."
And later, in one of Andrews' most incisive observations: "[Howard] needed 60 percent approval [for the party endorsement] but was held to 59.3 percent by Fudge allies. Consider the irony: a black man wins support from white people on the content of his character and his accomplishments; meanwhile, some black people fail to support him based on an agenda that has those same black people calling out white people for bias."
Howard was incredulous when Scene spoke with him about his failed endorsement, too.
"I got zero votes from Warrensville Heights, and zero from Cleveland Ward 10," Howard said. "This was after I'd been assured by ward leaders in Warrensville that I had their support. I came in with votes from Parma, Lakewood and North Royalton, but I get nothing in Warrensville and Ward 10?"
On the Marcia Fudge conference call, Euclid ward leader Kent Smith (who won his race for state rep in District 8) reportedly acknowledged that Howard had substantial support in Euclid and would work to sway committee members to Turner. Howard said he only received two votes from Euclid.
Turner was not endorsed, but she nevertheless defeated the largest judicial field in the primary elections, including Karrie Howard, John J. Gallagher, and William Vodrey.
"It's the #MeToo effect," said a party insider, speaking on background. "Look at that race. It was five males and one female. That's why Turner won."
Even in the face of what some called a poor primary showing, and after the endorsement circus, Shontel Brown is still winning enthusiastic support from the party's leaders and constituent groups before the vote on June 9.
In a press release issued before Brown even publicly announced her candidacy, the Cuyahoga County Young Democrats unanimously endorsed her for chair.
"Shontel earned the support of the Young Dems," said that group's president Ryan Puente, "because she is delivering results and proving to be a strong voice for our local party."
Rick Raley, the Young Dems' events and programming director (who also lost to Bride Sweeney in the District 14 state rep race), said that Brown shouldn't be dinged for the performance of endorsed candidates in the primaries. He said he thinks the value of a party endorsement is diminishing anyway, and felt that Trevor Elkins was using the endorsement debate as a wedge issue. He questioned Elkins' commitment to doing away with endorsements in open-seat primaries.
For her part, Brown told Scene that she intends to continue to move the party forward. And she was not interested in dissing Elkins.
"I have consistently run on my past performance, professionalism and perspective on policies, and I don't intend to change," she wrote in response to a series of questions. "I have been and will continue to be open to recommendations of my fellow democrats, because I fully understand this is a democracy, not a dictatorship. My philosophy has always been rooted in consensus building and collaboration because I know we yield better outcomes when we work together."
In response to a question about the performance of party-endorsed candidates in the primary, Brown said that the party's outreach — via mailers, primarily — had a strong impact on them. She said that nearly 20,000 more Democrats voted this year than in the 2014 primary, an increase of 13 percent.
As for the "unholy alliance" between Marcia Fudge and Bill Mason's crew, and the subsequent endorsement embarrassments, Brown referred to them as rumors.
"I will continue to work hard to dispel rumors relative to my leadership ability and capacity," she wrote, "especially those that are counterproductive to unifying the party."
On that note, she said that it's exciting to see so much energy at the precinct level and a good sign for the party's overall health. Like Connally and Elkins, Brown felt that building unity will build electoral strength.
"The state of the party is energized," she wrote. "Whether it's the 'progressive' or 'establishment' wing, I think you need both in order to fly and that is the thing I appreciate most about the Democratic Party. It is diverse, so rather than focus on things that divide, I will continue to focus on the things that we can agree on, because that is what we will need in order to win in November."