Why is everyone so mad about Cleveland City Council’s “unit rule?”

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By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell

Cleveland City Council incumbents and newly-elected members met on Friday, November 5 to select a new Council President by utilizing the “unit rule” to secure a unanimous Council vote for the chosen candidate.

This caused concern for Ward 12’s Council member-elect Rebecca Maurer as she stated on Twitter, the implementation of the unit rule is “not the vision of change Clevelanders just voted for.” Black Lives Matter Cleveland posted a call-to-action to prevent Griffin’s probable election from going forward. Citizens posted screenshots of private messages they received on social media from Cleveland City Council’s official account in response to the backlash, stating that the unit rule would not be enacted at this meeting.

So what is the “unit rule,” and why is everyone so angry about it? The rule is not a government process, it’s a tradition. The Council is made up of all Democrats. By invoking the rule, all Council members must vote for the Council President candidate selected by the majority. Voting for anyone else is punishable as you may lose your seat at Democratic Party caucuses where important electoral decisions are made.

Reasons for enacting the unit rule vary. It was initially developed in the 1800s when states needed to send designated individuals to vote on behalf of the whole state to ensure the majority winner was voted for. It became an important political tool to wrangle solidarity among Party members when the Party was looking to achieve, or prevent, certain results by suppressing dissent and making it impossible for a minority of Party members to upend wider Party goals. Democrats abolished the unit rule in national conventions over 50 years ago as a means for allowing a more prominent voice to minority party members like Blacks, women, and young people. The unit rule is now enacted as a tradition in Cleveland City Council when electing a new Council President, but has not always been supported.

With Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Interim Executive Director Helen Sheehan chairing the meeting, a motion to enact the unit rule was opened by Ward 2 Council member Kevin Bishop, seconded by Ward 7 Council member-elect Stephanie Howse, and approved without opposition.

Ward 8 Council member Mike Polensek explained the unit rule and answered questions about it from other Council members. He said it was a “historic process [that] has been going on as long as I have been in Council.” When asked by other members what would happen if they changed their mind between now and January when the actual vote occurs, Polensek stated repeatedly that the unit rule was “not mandatory,” then added, “but if you don’t vote for it, then you’re not a part of the Democratic caucus.”

Ward 13 Council member Brian Mooney stated the unit rule is enacted “just to give some clarity and direction so that whoever the caucus comes up with today [as President], they can move forward and ensure policies and staff are ready to go Day One.”

Ward 14 Council member Jenny Spencer stated, “I do not intend to vote against the unit rule today; however, the public does not fully understand the rule and I think that with new council leadership, I think it’s important that everything is on the table.”

Spencer, Howse and Maurer stressed the need for educating citizens about Council’s practices, and a willingness for new leadership to re-examine antiquated customs and traditions. Maurer said, “I think a lot about what I hear from my residents in Ward 12. They don’t feel engaged by the process, [they need to be] both educated about the process, and also the substance behind it.

After the unanimous passage of the unit rule, Ward 3 Council member Kerry McCormack nominated Ward 6 Council member Blaine Griffin for Council President. Sheehan asked for further nominations and there were none.

Griffin was selected unanimously and will be voted on in January. Patricia Britt was also selected unanimously to retain her position as Clerk of Council. Griffin ended the meeting with a speech accepting the nomination and committing to Council leadership. “This job can be overwhelming,” he said. “It can have a lot of responsibility because we have responsibility over people’s livelihoods […] ladies and gentlemen, we’re gonna get stuff done.

“There is no big me, little you. It is only us.”

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