News Analysis

CLEVELAND — Rick Nagin’s campaign in the Cleveland City Council primary this October, while not successful, broke new ground for labor and its allies and contributed decisively to a progressive victory in the final election.

Nagin was one of three major contenders in a seven-person race in Ward 15 and gained 21 percent of the vote. The two winners in the nonpartisan preliminary were incumbent Emily Lipovan Holan with 33 percent and Brian Cummins with 25 percent. The four remaining candidates each received 4-6 percent.

In the runoff Nagin joined forces with Cummins, an independent associated with the Green Party, to upset Holan, the candidate of the Democratic Party machine, the Council leadership, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and downtown developers. Despite the establishment’s overwhelming resources, Cummins won 2,595 to 2,313.

Nagin was continuously targeted as a member and former chairman of the Ohio Communist Party, yet his strong showing was impressive and stemmed from a number of factors. He had lived in the ward for 30 years and raised his family there. By contrast, Holan, for example, had moved recently into the ward to get appointed when the previous councilperson resigned.

Nagin also had seven and a half years of experience as executive assistant to Nelson Cintron Jr., the first Latino in City Council, who represented an adjacent ward. Furthermore, he had been a key organizer for Dennis Kucinich’s campaigns for Congress and president and for the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign.

Especially significant was the strong support by organized labor. The Cleveland AFL-CIO, which had never previously endorsed in a Council primary, unanimously endorsed Nagin at its May delegates meeting. This was due to Nagin’s long record of working closely with unions on strikes, organizing drives, voter registration, and electoral and legislative campaigns.

With the backing of the labor federation, a number of regional affiliates and locals also gave him their endorsement, and in some cases sent letters to their members living in the ward urging them to support the campaign. These included the Steelworkers, Teachers, Communications Workers, Painters, Asbestos Workers, Unite Here as well as locals of AFSCME and the Laborers. The unaffiliated Ohio Teamsters also gave him their endorsement.

The support from labor also included volunteer staff, mailings, a phone bank and funds. Especially important was the involvement of Working America, the AFL-CIO community affiliate, which did door-to-door and telephone canvassing in the last two weeks and on Election Day phoned or visited the homes of nearly 1,000 voters identified as Nagin supporters.

Nagin ran a vigorous campaign. The ward has 23,000 residents and 14,000 registered voters. Nagin personally visited the home of every regular voter and registered several hundred new voters. Out of these discussions with residents, Nagin took care of scores of neighborhood problems and put together a comprehensive program covering issues of economic development, safety, housing, schools, recreation and green space improvement.

Over 1,000 yard signs were placed. More than 100 people volunteered time doing mailings, phoning, canvassing, literature drops and data entry, putting up yard signs and marching in parades with Nagin T-shirts.

The campaign out-worked and out-organized the opposition, the candidate was highly qualified and experienced and had the active support of organized labor, but nonetheless fell short and was unable to overcome the scare tactics and red-baiting from other candidates, the Democratic Party and the media.

While most of this came directly or indirectly from the Holan campaign, flyers from one of the minor candidates proclaimed that America was “under siege” due to Nagin’s campaign and demanded to know why the AFL-CIO was supporting a Communist. In response, John Ryan, the federation’s executive secretary, issued a letter titled “Why Don’t They Address the Real Issues?” stating that labor was backing Nagin because he was “the most qualified candidate” and “will make a superior councilman.”

Unfortunately the letter came out late and was not widely distributed and, while the campaign responded to specific instances of red-baiting, it did not address the issue in a bolder and more systematic way to the entire ward. The campaign feared shooting itself in the foot, but the fact was many voters were offended by the scare tactics.

Retired U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Larry Degley, a self-described Republican whose house was decked with military flags above a Nagin yard sign, said he considered the red-baiting “un-American.”

“I may not agree with Nagin’s philosophy,” he said, “but he was the best candidate and I resent people trying to scare me from doing what is right.” Seven hundred other voters agreed with Degley and backed Nagin in the primary.