Rocking the vote: CLE's mayoral candidates are working hard to win over young professionals

Marking one of their first times sharing the stage since September’s mayoral primary, nonprofit leader Justin Bibb and current Cleveland City Council president Kevin Kelley competed toe-to-toe at Friday’s Mayoral Town Hall. The event was hosted at Cleveland Metropolitan Conference Center and presented by Engage! Cleveland as part of its eighth annual Young Professionals Week.

<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland Mayoral Town Hall event hosted at Cleveland Metropolitan Conference Center</span>Cleveland Mayoral Town Hall event hosted at Cleveland Metropolitan Conference CenterMore than 40 audience members attended the event, with an additional 100+ viewing via livestream. The topic around job opportunity in Cleveland surfaced frequently during the discussion, which was moderated by WKYC-TV reporter Mark Naymik. 41% of young professionals said in a survey that not having jobs is something that concerns them, according to Engage! Cleveland.   

Ohio City resident Priscila Rocha is among those who view the lack of job opportunities in Cleveland as a real issue. “That’s why we see a lot of young professionals moving to the suburbs, unfortunately, because they have the perception that they’re gonna have a better school system there—that they’re gonna have better city services and better job prospects,” Rocha said.

To that end, Bibb believes the next mayor needs to invest in workforce development. His goal is to expose CMSD students to paid internships, earning a minimum of $15 dollars hourly to increase their chances of acquiring a decent paying job after graduation. “College is not for everybody, and that’s okay,” Bibb said. “What we’ve learned during this pandemic is that the future of work is changing, and K-12 education must be better connected to our workforce development ecosystem long-term.”

Kelley agreed that conversations on job outlook should start in elementary school. “There is a lack of hope that this economy is going to be there for them,” he said. “We are not going to bring and build additional businesses if those that are here can’t expand.”

A question was asked about strategies both candidates have deployed to increase young voter turnout during elections. Bibb, 34, who is 19 years younger than his 53-year-opponent, has made it a point to get young people involved in his campaign by starting a coalition of nearly 100 high school and college students called Students for Bibb. Kelley has hosted house gatherings and yard parties to increase the turnout. “This city cannot thrive [or] develop without young professionals—young people determining the fate of this great city,” Kelley said.

Both candidates share similar views around tax abatements: building new homes and commercial space or better utilizing existing structures. As Kelley sees it, contributing to existing structures and meeting unique public housing needs is key. “Maybe every neighborhood doesn’t need a full 15-year tax abatement,” he said. “Maybe some neighborhoods where there is disinvestment need more.”

Bibb expressed that parts of Cleveland’s southeast side have not seen real investments in years and that those communities desire developments seen in neighborhoods such as Tremont, Ohio City, and Detroit Shoreway.

<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland Mayoral Town Hall event hosted at Cleveland Metropolitan Conference Center</span>Cleveland Mayoral Town Hall event hosted at Cleveland Metropolitan Conference Center“What we want to make sure is not happening is displacement,” Rocha said, “and we see some of that happening. We see some residents who are unable to afford their property tax bills and are going to Maple Heights or Cleveland Heights. We can support development but also support people staying in their homes, and this citywide abatement is just not working. It’s making some neighborhoods much more successful and displacing people on the West side primarily. On the East side, they’re getting no investment at all.”

Both Bibb and Kelley also believe that Cleveland’s young professional community deserves to feel seen and heard, with each expressing a strong interest in hiring young professionals to serve on the Board of Commissioners following the November 2 general election.

Engage! Cleveland president Ashley Basile Oeken believes that precedent was set by Friday’s event: “My biggest goal [was] that people leave this event feeling informed, feeling a connection to the candidates and feeling that they had an opportunity to have their voices heard.”

This article was contributed as part of the "Now That's Fresh" series in partnership with Literary Cleveland. This six-week class helps emerging journalists learn about the reporting process and get published for the first time.