Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Patmon challenges Jackson at City Club
Today was Bill Patmon’s one big chance. For an hour, his lack of money, ads, and campaign staff didn’t matter. At the City Club debate, he challenged Mayor Frank Jackson as an equal. Criticizing Jackson's record and quiet persona, Patmon argued that Cleveland can only succeed with a more forceful mayor.
"I ran because there is a decade of decline going on in this city," Patmon said, noting that Jackson has been mayor or city council president for most of that time. "During that decade, we've lost hundreds of jobs, 22,000 students have left the Cleveland Municipal School District, and our neighborhoods has become ground zero for foreclosure." Only one U.S. city has lost population faster than Cleveland, he said: "That's New Orleans. And I haven't seen a tsunami or hurricane or anything else blow through Cleveland."
Patmon charged Jackson hadn't fulfilled the vision he articulated when he first ran for mayor. "I remember 2005. There was someone who said, 'Expect great things.' I'm still waiting. There was somebody who said, 'Make the city a city of choice.' We're losing 6,000 [residents] a year."
"You should expect great things," Jackson replied. "And you know what? There's no promises I haven't made -- just check my 2005 campaign -- that I have not either fulfilled, or worked on and made substantial progress on.
"There is no distinction between campaigning and governing," Jackson added, then jabbed at Patmon's political ambition: "Some of us like the game, and I do the work."
The mayor, calm as ever, reiterated the themes that gave him a runaway lead in September's primary: a balanced budget with no layoffs and increased services in his four years as mayor, 3,600 vacant buildings demolished, overseas travels to bring business to town, support for the Medical Mart and the new port.
"If you look at Cleveland, and compare us to other urban centers, I don't think we're that bad off," the mayor said. "I really don’t."
Patmon dented Jackson's incumbent's armor on the issue of the Cleveland public schools, citing their low graduation rate and saying he would replace Cleveland schools CEO Eugene Sanders: "If the superintendent can't do the job, he should find another job."
The challenger used the Monday assaults against two Cleveland School of the Arts students against Sanders and Jackson: "Our most talented children can't walk down the streets of Glenville, can't walk down the street with an iPod, because of a poor decision on where to locate them." A CSA student in the audience seconded Patmon's complaint during the Q&A, telling the candidates he was afraid to go to school. Patmon said he hoped CSA will be moved from its temporary location near E. 107th and Superior.
Jackson told the student the police are now on top of the problem. Prompted by moderator Dan Moulthrop, Jackson said the school won't be moved. "Regardless of where children go to school, they have a right to be safe in school and out," he said.
The mayor said he still has confidence in Sanders. "Even though graduation is low, which is unacceptable, the same report card said there was value added" -- which means that Cleveland students outperformed the state's expectations. Between successes with magnet schools, conversations about bringing well-performing charter schools into the school system, and a pending report about how to "right-size" the district (close schools because of declining enrollment), Jackson said, "I think Dr. Sanders has done a very good job positioning us going forward, and 2010 will be the proof."
Patmon offered some new economic development ideas: creating a series of business incubators and a business center to make it easier for companies to interact with City Hall. He wants to use the city's public utilities, which spend almost a half-billion dollars a year, to stimulate a greener energy economy. Federal stimulus money could bring solar energy facilities to town, and the schools should teach eco-friendly LEED certification, he said to applause.
But the challenger's assertion that he would have tried to buy National City when it faltered and made it a city-owned bank (using federal bank bailout money, I think) drew no response from the crowd. When he said he would triple city spending on economic development to $4 million a year, Moulthrop cut him off.
"Where would you cut?" the moderator asked.
Patmon gave the eternal response of all political challengers. "There's enough waste, you don't have to cut anything," he said. "You also have to grow the pie."
That gave Jackson an opening. "Can I respond? First of all, I do not waste anything," the mayor asserted. He made the case for himself as a financial steward, saying he talked weekly with a group called Operation Efficiency, which has spent his first term looking for cost savings in City Hall. Now, with the budget still tightening, another consultant is digging deeper, he said. Jackson's answer partially blunted Patmon's prediction that big holes will appear in the city budget in 2010.
The debate ended with Jackson and Patmon pitching themselves as optimists who refused to accept Cleveland's decline. Moulthrop asked them about a recent think tank report that says Cleveland should accept its shrinking population as inevitable and focus its resources on certain vital neighborhoods.
"I absolutely disagree, categorically, with every fiber in my body," Patmon said. "If other cities can grow themselves, what's wrong with us?"
"We should not be dealing with a shrinking city," Jackson said. "I come from a neighborhood, if you we were to follow that pattern, it would never exist. We turned that neighborhood around. And there are good people there."
Patmon suggested Cleveland needs a stronger mayor. "The difference between good cities and great cities is leadership," he said, then added that leadership is also "the difference between good cities and failed cities."
Jackson's closing statement rose to a peculiar crescendo: a play on the phrase "It is what it is," which Patmon and others attack him for saying. "No layoffs, no reduction in service! It is what it is!" the mayor said. His supporters cheered. Councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott shook with excitement, almost dancing in her seat, then high-fived the woman next to her -- a surprising amount of enthusiasm for a steady performance from a soft-spoken, workmanlike mayor.
If you'd like to watch the debate, the City Club is posting it on YouTube.