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August 28, 2009

 

Joe Santiago faces six opponents in council race

Cleveland--The city’s first openly gay elected official is fighting to hold on to the seat in his newly reconfigured ward.

Joe Santiago, who is one of the most embattled members of city council, was first elected in 2005 to represent Ward 14. He is fighting an uphill battle against six primary opponents, including another incumbent.

The top two in the September 8 primary will face off in the general election on November 3.

A voter-approved charter amendment last fall eliminated two wards, including Brian Cummins’ Ward 15 to the south of Santiago’s. Cummins is running against Santiago for the new Ward 14, which includes part of the old 15.

Also in the field is Santiago’s predecessor Nelson Cintron, whom he defeated in 2005.

Cintron, embittered by the defeat but still with a base of support, made what turned out to be unfounded allegations and led the city’s first-ever council recall against Santiago in 2007.

Cintron did not accuse Santiago of violating a law or doing anything unethical or immoral, the usual reasons to recall an official.

Rebecca Kempton, who acted as a spokesperson for the recall group, told the Chronicle on the night Santiago won the recall election that it was over “political disputes,” and that Cintron drummed up the other charges because filing the real reason on the recall petition would look like “sour grapes.”

Since then, however, Santiago’s battles have been with the daily Plain Dealer newspaper.

Shortly after the recall attempt, PD reporters Henry Gomez and Mark Puente began writing that Santiago was the subject of an FBI investigation.

The FBI rarely discloses the targets of its investigations to reporters or interviewees before an indictment. Questioned about this, Gomez wrote on his blog, “Mark Puente and I interviewed three individuals at the time who said they had been questioned by the FBI about Santiago.”

To date, the FBI has made no moves against Santiago, but the reports hurt.

“The PD stuff has done damage,” Santiago said. “A lot of people who read the PD believe the crap.”

Santiago said he has since stopped talking to the PD about anything, but the two reporters have not stopped pursuing him.

“The Plain Dealer stood outside the doors at my last two fundraisers taking pictures of people who went in,” Santiago said.

Santiago added that Gomez and Puente regularly stake out his home.

The effect, according to Santiago, is that he has not been able to raise much money--only about $5,000.

Santiago also faced some health issues that kept him hospitalized and away from the ward for an extended period of time.

Still, he has some accomplishments and retains a strong support base.

“I walk the ward every day,” Santiago said, adding that talking to people face to face has neutralized some of the damage done by the reporters.

Ask Santiago why he should be re-elected, and he rattles off eight reasons, including getting Clark Avenue designated a business revitalization district, reduced crime, his program to better enforce building codes in the ward which has led to graffiti abatement and safety concerns being addressed, and new senior housing projects on Fulton Road.

Santiago is endorsed by Mayor Frank Jackson, Teamsters Local 407, Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union local 19, and Plumbers local 55.

Santiago said that many of the Latino advocacy organizations in the community are charities and cannot make political endorsements, but he has support among the membership. He is the city’s only Latino councilor.

However, Santiago did not get the endorsement of the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats. That endorsement went to Cummins, who is not gay.

“I still believe in the Stonewall Democrats and in what they do,” Santiago said.

Santiago is the sponsor of an ordinance to add gender identity and expression to Cleveland’s non-discrimination laws, which already include sexual orientation.

He was also a co-sponsor of last year’s measure that created the domestic partner registry.

Santiago said having an openly gay member of council has opened doors for the LGBT community.

“People listen” on LGBT issues, Santiago said of other councilors. He also often speaks as a Latino.

Santiago said there have been people who have tried to disparage him because he’s gay, and as many who say, “So what?”

“That’s part of the education, too,” Santiago said. “It’s about how you do your job and the quality of work you do.”

Santiago’s campaign is on the web at www.keepjoesantiagoforward14.com.

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