It is strange to still hear about political “firsts” in 2017. The immediate reaction is often, “How did it take this long for [fill-in-the-blank] to happen?” Last month’s elections created about half-a-dozen significant political firsts in municipal and statewide elections that ranged from totally unexpected to “Wait, that just happened for the first time?”
A black mayor was elected in Montana for the first time in history. Unexpected. Virginia elected its first two Latina state representatives ever. That just happened? Seattle elected its first openly lesbian mayor. Unexpected. Minneapolis elected its first black transgender woman to City Council. Totally unexpected. Charlotte, N.C., elected its first black female mayor. That just happened?
However, in Cleveland, we’ll find out this week if its City Council joins the 2017 year of firsts. Two African-American men—challenger Basheer Jones, a local activist and businessman, and incumbent T.J. Dow, a longtime lawyer in the city—are awaiting a recount this week to see who will represent Ward 7, the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland. Nothing unexpected there. However, if Basheer Jones gets elected, he will be the first Muslim ever elected to City Council in the 200-year history of Cleveland, and just 13 votes will decide if that happens.
Basheer Jones is the kind of American Muslim who is seldom depicted on television or discussed by politicians despite the fact that 20 percent of Muslims in America are African American. Jones is a black millennial who grew up poor in the mostly impoverished Hough neighborhood. Through the help of teachers, family and community leaders, he managed to graduate from high school and attend Morehouse College. Upon graduation, he chose to come back and work to change his community; he got married, had some kids and got to work.
Every black-majority city in America has a few Basheer Joneses. He’s the guy marching down the street with a megaphone at every “Stop the Violence” rally. He’s the guy who was doing spoken word one weekend and volunteering with at-risk youths the next and putting down his prayer rug during commercial breaks while hosting the local black talk-radio show you listened to if you didn’t get Russ Parr.
When I first met Jones back in 2006, he was the passionate radical, believing that only revolutionary change would save the black community and, specifically, his old neighborhood. When he ran against Dow in 2013, the Cleveland Plain Dealer described Jones as having good ideas but eventually endorsed Dow, who went on to win by about 600 votes in a low-turnout race. This time around, things were different (the Plain Dealer refused to endorse either candidate), and Jones had a new perspective on politics.
“There are so many things I didn’t know last time, man,” Jones told me as we drove through Ward 7 a few days before November’s election. Jones’ impeccably sophisticated suit and long coat were in stark contrast with the dilapidated buildings and empty lots we passed as he took me on a tour through the neighborhood in a “Get out the vote” van.
Jones talked passionately about how he’d grown as a candidate and a strategist. “I realized you gotta concentrate on the people who actually vote,” he said. “You can’t just spend all this time trying to get new voters.”
This change from populism to practicality is both Jones’ maturation and that of many other radical black Gen Xers and millennials who are finally starting to step seriously into the world of electoral politics. In 2013 Jones was the crusading community hero, a black Muslim ready to take down Dow, who’d gotten too cozy with developers and lost touch with the community. In this election, it’s almost as if the candidates’ roles had reversed.
“I used to think these folks [gentrifiers/developers] were always trying to take advantage of us. Some of them are, some aren’t. We just gotta be smart about it. How we use the money, how we connect with people’s humanity,” Jones said.
According to Dow, Jones is now beholden to the very same political elites and developers he once railed against. “Since I sided with my community, they [Cleveland’s mayor] created a PAC that came after me, one being my opponent. They put $70-$80,000 behind him,” said Dow in explaining why Jones was more competitive in 2017 than he was in 2013.
The fact that the race focused primarily on who was more committed to the black community and equitable economic development was actually a sign of progress in the Ward 7 race. While Jones was excited to point out that he would be the first Muslim ever elected to Cleveland City Council, that fact was almost an afterthought to his passion about the community.
“I was out canvassing and I asked this lady why she was voting for T.J. Dow over me,” Jones told me while driving. “She said, ‘Better the devil you know.’ I’m thinking, ‘Why do we always have to deal with devils? Can’t it be better than that?’”
Dow was more focused on presenting his plan for community revitalization than in attacking Jones, and he didn’t make an issue about his opponent’s faith either. Given the almost normalization of anti-Muslim bigotry in America, even in the African-American community, this was an unexpected and welcome aspect of the campaign.
On Nov. 8, Jones managed to eke out a victory over Dow, 1,533 votes to 1,514, just a 19-vote margin in a district with more than 15,000 registered voters. When Cleveland’s election board went through provisional ballots to certify the election from Nov. 22-28, Jones’ margin dropped from 19 votes to 13 votes. Now, because the margin of victory is less than .5 percent, the law requires that an automatic recount occur in the first week of December.
Consequently, it will be a few more days before we know if Cleveland has joined the pantheon of cities that have a political first in 2017. It’s amazing to think that over 200 years, a Muslim in Cleveland City Council “hadn’t happened yet,” but if it does, it will be because of an unexpectedly civil race between two black men fighting to save their community.