With no incumbent on the ballot, voters in Cleveland will choose a new mayor Tuesday for the first time since 1989. Both candidates are liberal democrats in their forties. Both say if elected they'll improve education and access to healthcare. But with an electorate distracted by terrorist attacks and no clear distinctions between the candidates, for some racial differences may be a deciding factor. From member station 90.3 WCPN, Janet Babin reports.
Janet Babin- While the Cuyahoga River is perhaps best known for catching fire in the 1960s, many Clevelanders see it as a stubborn dividing line: most African Americans live east of the river. The city's west side is overwhelmingly white. Although the mayoral candidates don't campaign on it, and don't want to talk about it, they're finding support largely split along the old River lines. For Urban radio talk show host Maraafu Ojo, the electoral choice for his east side neighbors is clear.
Maraafu Ojo- We can't allow city hall going back to white folks, that's how this thing is gonna be sold.
JB- The city's political landscape changed dramatically this summer when Cleveland's second black Mayor, Michael White announced he wouldn't seek a fourth term. Serving the longest of any Cleveland Mayor, White facilitated the city's partial comeback. What he failed to do was groom a successor.
To fill that open slot, 10 mayoral hopefuls flooded last month's primary election, but the city's black political insiders didn't see a clear frontrunner. They appealed to a number of prominent African-American politicians to run, including Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones. All declined.
Tubbs Jones and other black leaders ended up endorsing a newcomer, Raymond Pierce; a former Clinton Administration appointee who's never held elective office. Congresswoman Tubbs Jones downplayed the fact that Pierce is political neophyte:
Stephanie Tubbs Jones- Holding a prior elected office is not a prerequisite to becoming Mayor of the city of Cleveland. Hillary Clinton never held public office and she's the Senator of the state of New York.
JB- But Cleveland State University Professor Ron Bush says Raymond Pierce's lack of political experience points to a sense of desperation among members of Cleveland's political machine.
Ron Bush- The black population in the city, like the black population in the U.S., is the most homogenous group of Democratic Party supporters. The fact that we have a candidate running today as a mayoral candidate - Mr. Pierce - who has virtually no elected experience, suggest that somebody wanted a black candidate.
JB- In contrast, Pierce opponent Jane Campbell is a veteran politician. She shrewdly held off on a decision to run for Mayor until finding out who she'd be running against.
Campbell's campaign has risen more than three times as much as her opponent's. She carries the support of Cleveland's business interests, and most of its labor unions.
Campbell, who is white, avoids discussions of race and ethnicity, but after her victory in the primary, she made sure the stage was filled with prominent African American ministers, a gamut for support east of the river. "J", a well-known gospel radio host led her winning chant.
"J"- When I say Jane, you say Campbell... Jane... Campbell... Jane... when I say mayor...
Jane Campbell- My commitment to the African-American community is unwavering, it is part of who I am.
JB- But Pierce paints Campbell as a suburban socialite who wants to use the Mayor's office as a steppingstone to the Governor's Mansion. He says he's working hard to assure west side voters that he'll represent them fairly.
Raymond Pierce- That's never an issue for African Americans; it always seems to be an issue for non-African Americans. My administration will be diverse.
JB- Cleveland's current Mayor was successful in part because he was able to represent interests on both sides of the river. While the candidates try hard to avoid discussing the racial divide, their advisors can't, and they say neither candidate will be able to win without crossover votes from the other's political base. For NPR news, I'm Janet Babin in Cleveland.