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A fifth term for Cleveland Mayor Jackson is unlikely but he’s holding his cards close

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 6/27/2020 By Brent Larkin, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND -- Mayor Frank Jackson’s recent suggestion he may run for mayor next year is no cause for concern. Not because there’s a case to be made for Jackson’s fifth term being a good idea. There isn’t one. There won’t be one.

For Cleveland’s longest-serving mayor, running for a fourth term in 2017 was arguably a mistake. Hanging on for a fifth would be a blunder that might just wreck Jackson’s legacy and harm the city he genuinely loves.

Jackson’s no phony. Authenticity might be his greatest strength. And in a troubled fourth term that has been visited by family illness and controversy, a talent drain at City Hall, listlessness and lack of creativity, my guess is this mayor already knows it’s time to step aside.

Many, perhaps most, of Jackson’s longtime supporters believe he should not run again in 2021. But they tread gingerly around the mayor, fearful of arousing that notorious stubborn streak.

But Jackson’s acknowledgement he may run, made during a June 16 event hosted by the Press Club of Cleveland, should be taken in the context of a mayor who understandably doesn’t want to be viewed as a lame duck with more than 18 months remaining on his four-year term.

In fact, don’t be surprised if Jackson waits until sometime next year before announcing his decision. History agrees there’s no need to hurry.

Three mayors in the past 50 years have not sought re-election – Carl Stokes in 1971; George Voinovich in 1989; and Michael White in 2001. All three delayed announcing their decision until spring of that year’s fall election.

With those precedents as his ally, Jackson can avoid lame-duck status until at least early next year. Again, I think it is highly unlikely Jackson will run again.

Should he prove me wrong, Jackson would have a difficult time convincing voters he deserves to be mayor for 20 years.

The mayor would have trouble raising money from those he has relied on in the past to fund his campaigns. And he couldn’t use the manufactured excuse used to run in 2017 – that the lack of a qualified alternative necessitated it.

Either way, Jackson is entitled to keep secret his plans a while longer.

What’s no secret is that the next mayor will inherit enormous problems caused by the unprecedented confluence of a pandemic, a cratered economy, record-setting unemployment, evaporation of once-reliable tax revenues, historic social unrest and legitimate racial grievances that can’t be brushed aside.

Election 2021 in Cleveland must be about ideas, about innovation. Tinkering on the margins of change won’t work.

Quality-of-life issues like keeping neighborhoods safe, maintaining streets, sidewalks and parks will always be important. But the pandemic and economic devastation might also put at risk downtown and the handful of other neighborhoods enjoying the benefits of urban gentrification.

Absent regionalization, Cleveland will never again be a large city. It can again be a great city, but only by dealing effectively with the soul-crushing issues posed by child poverty.

A Center for Community Solutions analysis last year found Cleveland’s 50.5 percent child poverty rate in 2018 the highest of any big city in the country. The same report ranked Cleveland’s overall poverty rate, at 33.1 percent, as the nation’s second highest after Detroit.

In 1970, the city’s poverty rate was 17 percent. It was 21.8 percent in 1980 and 28 percent in 1990.

The city’s next mayor can’t make poverty disappear. But it’s not asking too much for a detailed plan to reduce it. A good place to start would be to become an indefatigable champion of universal quality preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old in the city.

Greater Cleveland today is a leadership-free zone. Not since the 1990s, during Mike White’s first and second terms, has Cleveland had a mayor widely viewed as the region’s undisputed political leader.

If that doesn’t change, Cleveland can’t change. What’s needed is vision, innovation, and an ability to attract first-rate talent.

More of the same won’t work. And no candidate who shows an ability and willingness to find new solutions to old problems should be written off with nonsense arguments about the importance of having a mayor who has paid his or her dues, one who has been willing to wait their turn.

Finding a mayor with vision, ideas and a plan for the city’s future is what all of Greater Cleveland deserves. It’s what residents of Cleveland should demand.

This is the first of two parts. Next week: Who might run for mayor of Cleveland next year? Who can win?

Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.

To reach Brent Larkin: blarkin@cleveland.com

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