In East Cleveland, the Presidential Race Takes a Backseat to a Mayor’s Salary

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Voters fill out paper ballots at Halloran Skating Rink during Election Day in Cleveland on Nov. 6, 2012

Within one of the most pivotal counties in one of the most important states in this election, there’s one issue that seems to be on voters’ minds — and it’s not the presidency.

Across the street from Chambers Elementary School in East Cleveland, Ohio, the houses are more likely to be boarded up than not. The local economy is bleak. The local government may be worse.

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“Did you know we’re in a fiscal emergency?” Bernice Ewing, a supporter of a referendum to lower the East Cleveland mayor’s salary, asks me outside of the Cuyahoga polling site. I didn’t.

Last month, the state’s auditor officially placed East Cleveland in a state of fiscal emergency. The city is running a deficit of almost $6 million. And it’s not the first time East Cleveland has seen hard times. The city has had low incomes and limited mobility for years and was in a state of fiscal emergency for 17 years until the state lifted the designation in 2006.

That’s why the arguments that erupt on voting lines here aren’t about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. East Cleveland, like much of populous Cuyahoga County, is heavily Democratic. If there are any Romney supporters around, they aren’t talking to me.

Instead, voters are worked up about their mayor and how much money he makes. As they walk into Chambers Elementary, representatives supporting and opposing Referendum 48 – a ballot initiative that would allow salary ranges for city employees to be adjusted – mob East Clevelanders with directives on how to vote.

“Vote No 48! He closed the hospital and took it down,” yells Ewing as she hands me a flyer with a crude drawing of Mayor Gary Norton wearing a pin that says “Back Stabber” near a hundred-dollar bill in flames. (It also includes a photo of President George W. Bush wearing a dunce cap and talking about WMD.) Ewing claims that Norton makes $130,000 annually if you include all the perks of the mayoral position like a car and an expense account.

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But the mayor’s chief of staff disagrees. How do I know? Because she was at the same polling site, wearing a shirt made of the stapled flyers she was distributing that defended the mayor’s salary.

“He makes $85,000 a year, and they’re trying to cut it down to $40,000,” says chief of staff Collette Clinksdale. “Nobody in the city makes $130,000.”

According to local news reports, Norton’s mayoral salary is $40,000, but he’s also taking in the salary normally paid to the safety director, which is $37,000. The mayor says he’s doing both jobs and is entitled to that money. When you add in the perks of the job, it’s unclear how much Norton is truly bringing in – but it’s certainly more than what it would be if Referendum 48 passes.

“We’re the poorest city probably in the United States,” says Ewing. “And don’t you think it’s strange that the chief of staff is out here?”

With a referendum on the mayor’s salary creating as much buzz as the presidential vote, it doesn’t seem so strange at all.

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