Progressive Caucus Pushes For More Sway In Democratic Party

Signs for candidates and causes are posted on the windows of Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus' office in Lakewood. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
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This weekend, the leadership of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party is on the line. Party activists vote Saturday on whether to keep—or replace—their current chair.

Democrats control most major elected offices in the county, from Cleveland City Hall to the County Executive’s office. The party’s endorsements can carry some weight in races up and down the ballot. And the state Democratic Party needs a big turnout in Cuyahoga County and across Northeast Ohio this November. 

One group pushing for a new boss is the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, a newcomer to local politics that grew out of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Competing In Local Races

After the 2016 election, the progressive caucus backed candidates for city and suburban council races, along with other local offices—like Sara Continenza, a council member in South Euclid. The caucus claimed 11 such local wins in 2017.

“For me, the progressive bill, if you will, is all about making sure that the everyday people, the 99 percent, have adequate opportunities for basic resources, community safety, events,” Continenza said.

This year, in two state legislative primaries, veteran lawmakers backed by the caucus defeated opponents endorsed by the county Democratic Party. The caucus also picked up seats on the lesser-known Cuyahoga County Democratic Central Committee.

“The central committee, regardless of whether they know it or not, they have a lot of power,” newly elected committee member Yvonka Hall said.

The more than 700 county central committee members are responsible for electing the party chair. Hall said the party should do a better job listening to constituents.

“We’ve seen the party slowly, slowly go away from what its base is, as the Democratic Party, looking out for the community,” she said. “And so the progressives coming in is a way to awaken that.”

Political director Steve Holecko said the caucus holds about 150 central committee seats after picking up dozens in the primary. He called those races “invigorating.”

“Because we had our central committee candidates make Facebook pages, knock on the doors of Democrats in their precinct, mailings, yard signs, some of them even had yard signs,” he said.

The progressive caucus has a political action committee, but doesn’t appear to have much money. Financial reports have been coming in late, and its end-of-2017 disclosure reported a deficit of about $2,500. Caucus treasurer Donna Kolis said that negative balance is due to an accounting error.

The caucus reported about $4,700 in anonymous contributions in recent years, telling the state the money came from t-shirt and pin sales, for which it didn’t print receipts.

Party Leadership Vote

Now the caucus wants to unseat the current party chair and executive vice chair, County Councilwoman Shontel Brown and Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley.

The challengers are C. Ellen Connally, the former president of Cuyahoga County Council, and her running mate, Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins.

Connally and Elkins are proposing some changes to party rules, such as ending the practice of endorsing one Democrat against another in open-seat primaries.

Elkins doesn’t describe the conflict in the party as one between progressives and moderates. He said it’s between an old guard and younger voters.

“They have a very, very different approach to government,” Elkins said. “And we’re going to lose those people from being involved in their government if we don’t create a process that allows them to be involved in more open, in a more open fashion.”

Connally, on the other hand, emphasized her years as a judge and county council leader.

“I think I bring maturity and experience,” Connally said. “It’s great to get up and say, ‘Rah rah,’ you know, what we’re going to do. But this has got to be in the trenches.”

Shontel Brown won election as party chair last year and is now running for a full four-year term. She defended her time in office so far, saying the party boosted turnout in the May primary. About 20,000 more Democrats showed up than did four years ago.

“It’s no secret there are some challenges within the party, but I’ve always come from a place of trying to build unity and trying to establish collaboration,” Brown said.

Last year, Kevin Kelley and the caucus fought over using admission tax dollars to fund renovations at Quicken Loans Arena. As they gear up for a new contest, Kelley said he understands there’s voter discontent after the 2016 election.

“But it seems that instead of focusing on what the true enemy is or what the solution is, this has kind of been an attempt to turn in on each other, which is most unfortunate,” Kelley said.

Kelley said Democrats shouldn't let internal divisions get in the way of winning the November elections.

“If we squander 2018,” he said, “whether there’s going to be a blue wave, or whether it’s even just a little bit of momentum, if we squander this, if we fight amongst ourselves and we don’t get the vote out of Cuyahoga County that we should get, it would be a real shame.”

Caucus members say they want Democrats to win in the fall, too, but first, they want to have more say in the party.  

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