CLEVELAND -- Cleveland has become a place where competitive campaigns for mayor come to die.
Of the six mayoral elections since 1989, none produced close results. Four weren't remotely competitive, with incumbent mayors Michael White and Frank Jackson twice each winning re-election by margins averaging an astonishing 44 percentage points.
Will that change in 2017? As Jackson reaches for history, will he be hard-pressed to win a record-setting fourth four-year term?
Here's the bold answer:
It's tough to get a good sense of any election until you know who's running. So far, the field includes Jackson, Councilman Jeff Johnson, probably former East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer and widely respected activist and restaurant owner Brandon Chrostowski.
Edwins restaurant CEO Brandon Chrostowski announces Cleveland mayoral bid
Others, like Councilman Zack Reed and state Rep. Bill Patmon, are still considering it. Reed, who could conceivably be a strong candidate, will decide by mid-April.
But of the announced candidates, Johnson is without question the favorite to finish second to Jackson in the primary election this fall and meet the mayor head-on in the Nov. 7 runoff.
The view from eight months out is that Jackson's job is probably safe. But as 2016 taught us, voters are hungry for change - even if that change represents a clear and present danger to their children's future.
Jackson is a good man. With a couple exceptions, he's been fiscally responsible. His plan to fix the school system remains a work in progress, but the reform he championed was an exercise in leadership.
And, perhaps above all, the millennial-driven renaissance downtown and in four or five other neighborhoods has slowed the population loss and positioned the city for bringing that progress into even more neighborhoods.
The flip side is that Jackson's way too stubborn, sometimes loyal to a fault, occasionally sees enemies where they don't exist, and his record of hiring first-rate talent is - at best - a mixed bag.
What's more, it is impossible to understate the importance of this political reality:
There is a direct relationship between any officeholder's longevity and the number of voters with grievances.
Who's running for mayor in Cleveland? Frank Jackson faces a crowded field for re-election
That's why a focused, organized, well-funded campaign against him might make a strong case for a new direction. That case would go something like this:
"The mayor is a nice fellow. But he's become a career politician who has stayed too long.
"City services are atrocious, yet the mayor supports taking money that could otherwise be used to fix our streets and hand it to billionaire owners of sports teams.
"Our water system and airport have been badly mismanaged and our schools are still among the worst in the state.
"Frank Jackson loves his city. He deserves our thanks. But Cleveland desperately needs new ideas."
Jackson's opponents will also be tempted to pit the city's troubled neighborhoods against downtown, claiming progress there has come at neighborhoods' expense.
It's an age-old tactic. It's also specious and dangerous. Absent a vibrant downtown, all Cleveland neighborhoods are likely to fail.
Voters and prospective campaign contributors, however, would be right to demand every candidate for mayor this year produce a 30-year plan to rebuild Cleveland's many troubled neighborhoods.
In a working draft of what should become a fine book, Tom Bier, senior fellow at Cleveland State University's Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, describes in detail how flight and abandonment created a crisis in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County that threaten the stability of all Northeast Ohio.
But Bier's manuscript is more than just a history lesson. He also argues convincingly - and with details - on how the state and county must partner with Cleveland on a long-term plan to build 1,500 new housing units annually.
Eventually, it's imperative Cleveland's housing boom spreads beyond downtown and adjoining neighborhoods - especially into the dying neighborhoods on the city's East Side. Otherwise, all this progress could become a house of cards.
2015: Neglect of older Ohio communities must end: Thomas Bier (Opinion)
Jackson's record as mayor is fair game, but a meaningful campaign for mayor must also focus on Cleveland's future.
This will be Cleveland's 15th campaign for mayor since 1971. I've paid close attention to every one of them.
But not since 1989 has Cleveland had a mayoral campaign that grabbed - and kept - the town's attention.
This year's campaign won't match 1989's drama, which produced one of the most stunning results in city history - the election of the least known of five contenders, Michael White.
Twelve years earlier, in another campaign featuring moments of high drama, Dennis Kucinich became Cleveland's youngest mayor by promising voters the moon.
When residents asked for specific goodies from City Hall, Kucinich would often respond, "You want it. You got it."
Kucinich got the job. But the city's coffers were empty, so voters got precious few of the goodies.
Forty years later, Clevelanders are far less demanding. What they want - and deserve - is reason to hope tomorrow will be better.
Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer's editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.
To reach Brent Larkin: firstname.lastname@example.org
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