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Santiago survives recall election
Opponents admit it was about politics, not his performance
Cleveland--The city’s first openly gay city council member has survived an attempted recall election and will finish his term.
It was the first time a member of council had been recalled under the 93 years of the city’s charter.
Ward 14 councilor Joe Santiago beat back an attempted recall led by the ward’s former councilor and leaders of the Clark Metro Development Corporation, a service agency operating within the ward.
In the December 18 special election, 749 voters opposed the recall and 498 voted for it.
There were 205 fewer “for” votes than the 703 valid signatures on the petitions that forced the recall.
Two years ago, Santiago defeated incumbent Nelson Cintron to take the seat by 106 votes. The ward is the most impoverished in the city and the most ethnically diverse, with significant Latino, Asian, African-American, and Italian populations.
Cintron filed the recall affidavit in September, and once the signatures were certified, Santiago had little more than 30 days to organize his campaign to defeat the attempt.
Flanked by members of council, Santiago and his supporters packed a restaurant in the ward to wait for the results.
Council members took the recall attempt as an attack on the institution and a misuse of the city’s charter.
Cintron did not accuse Santiago of violating a law, or doing anything unethical or immoral, which are generally understood to be the reasons to recall an official.
Rather, the reasons given for the recall were political in nature, and dealt with disagreements over decisions Santiago made.
“He’s a good councilman. He hasn’t done anything wrong or illegal,” said Ward 1 councilor Nina Turner. “This was a frivolous use of the charter, and [Santiago] deserves to finish the four-year term he was elected to.”
Other members of council waiting for results with Santiago included council president Martin Sweeney, majority leader Sabra Pierce Scott, majority whip Kevin Kelley, and members Mike Polensek, Brian Cummins, Matt Zone, Jay Westbrook, and Dona Brady.
“The institution is sacred,” said Sweeney. “An attack on one is an attack on all.”
According to Zone, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections put the cost of the recall election at around $47,000, which the city must pay. Had the recall been successful and led to a runoff election, the cost could have reached $150,000.
Santiago’s colleagues went door-to-door with him, paid for mailings, and made calls to residents.
According to Sweeney, $8,000 was spent from the council leadership fund to fight the recall, and Sweeney contributed another $7,000 from his campaign funds.
The campaign to defeat the recall cost $40,000 to $45,000, according to its chair Marcia McGee. The Cleveland Stonewall Democrats contributed about $2,000 of that, and members also walked the ward on Santiago’s behalf.
Election day issues
Cintron characterized the recall attempt as “a platoon of people from Ward 14 against the forces of city council.”
His group, People for Democracy in Ward 14, was composed of 15 to 18 volunteers and spent around $4,000, from mostly in-kind contributions.
“There are issues still up in the air,” Cintron said. “There are other issues the committee will be looking at.”
Cintron is referring to objections raised about how the election was conducted.
According to Rebecca Kempton, who is the secretary of Clark Metro and acted as spokesperson for the recall group, they will be asking the board of elections to look into the election day conduct of Sweeney and Santiago.
Sweeney, according to Kempton, looked at the polling book at one of the voting locations to see who had not yet voted, and Santiago, who was a poll observer, was campaigning inside a voting area.
Kempton said she doesn’t expect that the election will be overturned, but the group will be demanding an investigation.
“I don’t think Joe is that strong,” said Cintron. “He could be strong if he mended fences with people in the area.”
Cintron again said he does not want the council seat back, and he has taken out a petition to run for Cuyahoga County recorder in the March 4 primary.
After losing the seat to Santiago, Cintron worked in the recorder’s office for a few months before losing the job. He also unsuccessfully ran for state representative.
Cintron, a Clark Metro board member, refuses to say whether or not he is currently employed, but no one else, asked independently, knows of any employment.
“It’s nobody’s business what I do in my life,” Cintron said. “I have no need for a paid position. I don’t need the money. I’m happy living as a poor man.”
Cintron also distances himself from the notion that he led the recall effort. But his is the only signature on the initial affidavit, he personally collected signatures, he contributed $900, and his children appeared on the campaign’s mailing.
Cintron describes himself as a “consultant pro bono” to the recall effort.
“I’m only here educating the public,” Cintron said.
He added that if the public wants to attempt another recall, “I will continue advocating for Ward 14. I will be there for them if they want to do anything else.”
Cintron formerly owned Hoyas Sports Place in the Tremont neighborhood, which makes up part of the ward. The bar became a nuisance, and was raided by police in 1998, netting arrests for drug possession and underage drinking.
He has also faced charges of domestic violence and illegal possession of a handgun. He was acquitted of the domestic violence charges.
Idea began over Clark Metro money
Kempton is more specific about how the recall came about.
“When I found out Clark Metro was losing funding, I got concerned,” Kempton, who works in retail customer service, said.
Santiago, who controls some of the federal community development block grant money the agency is eligible for, cut the funding shortly after taking office because the organization was not meeting its performance objectives. The money was directed toward service agencies that were performing better.
In the affidavit, Cintron accused Santiago of punishing Clark Metro “for failing to fire the director and appoint two members suggested by him.”
But in 1999, Cintron took $47,000 away from Clark Metro and said it needed to merge with another agency, for the same reason.
Kempton said she was aware of that.
“But what they do is so important to so many people,” Kempton said.
Kempton recalled that the idea for the recall came about in March, after Santiago spoke to a gathering of residents and announced the cut to Clark Metro.
“Nelson, myself, and about five other people sat at my dining room table wondering what to do,” said Kempton.
“There was a dispute Cintron had with Santiago over a campaign sign, and Nelson said he could recall [Santiago],” said Kempton.
That’s when the idea became a serious proposition, according to Kempton.
“Others were so incited about La Copa and the Mutt Hutt,” said Kempton, “and the phone chain line started.”
La Copa is a bar that was looking for a zoning variance in order to have live entertainment and pool tables. The city board of zoning appeals denied the request. Santiago attended the hearing, but neither opposed nor supported the variance.
The Mutt Hutt is a dog day care that was granted a zoning variance by the city. Again, Santiago attended the hearing, but neither supported nor opposed the variance.
Cintron pointed to both businesses in the affidavit, though the actual nature of the grievance is unclear, and has never been explained.
Kempton said no one wanted to sign their name to the affidavit, and Cintron was reluctant to do it because it would look like “sour grapes.”
‘Political disputes’ sparked recall
Pressed, Kempton agreed that Santiago was never accused of breaking a law. Questioned further, Kempton said the recall was over “political disputes.”
“I just wanted [the affidavit] to say ‘failure to represent’ the people of the ward, but they said you couldn’t do that,” Kempton said.
Asked if she was considering running against Santiago in 2009, Kempton said, “I have been thinking about it, but I probably won’t.”
“The winners tonight are the residents of Ward 14,” Santiago said. “We’re going to move the ward forward.”
Santiago believes he came out of the recall stronger.
“I’m more knowledgeable,” he said, “I learned more about what the residents need.”