The Council Leadership Fund has become a minor character unto itself in Cleveland politics.
The fund is a political action committee controlled by the president of Cleveland City Council. Into the PAC go donations from law firms, businesses and labor unions. Out of the PAC have come yard signs, mailers, checks to candidates – the things that keep the council president’s caucus politically afloat.
Under Council President Blaine Griffin, the fund has taken on a new project in 2023. It pays the bill for his campaign against Issue 38, the participatory budgeting charter amendment.
The fund has paid for yard signs and billboards opposing the issue. In August, the fund wired $23,000 to Fallon Research and Communications, a polling firm with offices in Columbus and Washington, D.C., a financial disclosure with the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections shows.
Watch a quick explainer on the Council Leadership Fund:
The modern Council Leadership Fund owes its creation to Jay Westbrook, the 1990s-era council president. (An earlier PAC with a different name existed under George Forbes.) Donations from banks, lawyers and business leaders blew wind into incumbents’ sails in 1993, the Plain Dealer reported at the time.
A financial disclosure from last year offers a cross-section look at the leadership fund’s modern donors. The PAC raised $119,000 from a July fundraiser last year, the disclosure says.
The checks came from law firms like Squire Patton Boggs and Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. They came from the pipefitters and ironworkers unions. They came from developers and the Construction Employers Association. The fund received $13,700 — the maximum donation allowed in a single year — from a PAC connected to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s Rock Holdings.
How much money has passed through the PAC over the years? A newly launched anonymous website called Follow the Money CLE tallied the fund’s proceeds since 2004. Over the last 20 years, the fund has raised about $2 million, the group found.
Frankly, that’s not much. Consider this: In his quest to become mayor, Justin Bibb raised around $1.6 million in just 14 months.
Council members don’t typically face well-endowed opposition campaigns, however. So in a smaller-dollar council race, a few thousand dollars on the incumbent’s side can go a long way. In the eyes of critics, the Council Leadership Fund shields incumbents from challengers who could bring fresh eyes to the body.
But the fund is beatable. In 2021, two incumbents – freshly appointed Ward 5 member Delores Gray and veteran Ward 12 member Tony Brancatelli – lost their seats, despite backing from the PAC.
Their opponents were no slouches.
Rebecca Maurer, who eked out a win over Brancatelli, raised more than $70,000 in 2021, according to her campaign committee’s financial reports. Richard Starr, who beat Gray, is a Ward 5 local who came up through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland and is well known in the Central neighborhood.
After the vote that year, the Ohio Elections Commission slapped the Council Leadership Fund on the wrist with a $50 fine for a missing disclaimer on campaign literature, according to Cleveland.com.
The Council Leadership Fund will soon reveal how it has been raising and spending its money in the leadup to the Issue 38 vote. The next campaign finance disclosure deadline is Oct. 26.