By Daniel J. McGraw

From a practical political standpoint, opponents of Issue 7, the extension of a Cuyahoga County sin tax to fund sports facilities, faced a huge uphill battle. The Cleveland establishment put the issue on the ballot in May as opposed to November, leaving just a few months to organize any kind of opposition. There was the money factor; the sports teams ponied up big as expected, helping to fund a constant “Vote Yes” media message that played seemingly all day and all night for two straight months. Compounding the difficulty of opposing the sin tax, that non-stop message implied you are against a tax because you don’t like sports. Cleveland sports.

So yesterday’s vote was not a victory for sin tax opponents, by any means. But the tally was surprising in many ways. A group with no money and little time and a mix of many divergent views convinced as many as 80,000 voters in Cuyahoga County to say they didn’t want a small tax to stay in place as it has for about 25 years, based upon principle. But no one wants to hear about symbolic victories. When you put your heart and soul into a project, having someone pat you on the head and say you tried means little in the immediate aftermath.

But a fairly large group of citizens was willing to stand up and say that the status quo in Cleveland isn’t working very well these days. The message of this vote was that the political and business leaders in Cleveland were painting too rosy a picture of the region (complete with casinos, chandeliers, and fancy TV chefs), while perhaps ignoring high poverty rates, job loss, crappy schools and people moving elsewhere like they did in the 1970s.

No one I spoke with in the last few months told me they were voting for the sin tax because they thought it was a wonderful way to invest in the community. Instead, they all said this was a “hold your nose” vote. They figured what they knew – and they had been paying this since 1990 – was better than what they didn’t know. Under those circumstances, no one is going to sway the multitudes much by changing something that hasn’t harmed most voters very much. That was the challenge of this campaign against the sin tax.

[blocktext align=”left”]Resisting the sin task had the makings of an impossible task.[/blocktext]Reluctant yes voters would argue it wasn’t much of a tax and was a “choice,” meaning if you were against it, then don’t smoke and drink. And if you did, and this was pointed out over and over by those holding their nose and voting yes, is that it was $15 a year if you smoked a pack a day and drank a 12-pack of beer a week. That is 4 cents day. Sports owners can be fat cats and have lousy teams and charge so much for games that most can’t even afford to go, but don’t mess with them over a few pennies.

When the anti-sin-tax crowd proposed a ticket fee of about $3.25 – to spread the cost of the stadium maintenance among the users of the sport facilities – most of the voters in the middle figured wasn’t much better than what they had been paying for the past 25 years.

So the issue became more a philosophical one; namely, should we subsidize very profitable businesses with public funds while many see the region has problems that that same money might help to solve? But political campaigns do not lend themselves well to selling philosophical arguments to the masses. Add to that the notion that sports teams were involved – and the emotionally high pedestal they are put upon in Cleveland by a downtrodden public – resisting the sin task had the makings of an impossible task even in the best of circumstances.

Whether the Coalition Against the Sin Tax can gain any traction in the post-mortem political discussion will be interesting to watch. The opposition to the sin tax was able to meld the interests of the liberal Heights arts crowd with the anti-tax tea partiers from Strongsville and North Olmsted, a neat and odd trick. Whether this was a single-issue alliance remains to be seen. Pursuing a ballot item in November that will add a facility fee to event tickets makes far less sense now, but CAST still may go down that road.

It may be difficult to maintain the interest level of these volunteers. So many of the people working against the sin tax – especially those who vigorously poured out their feeling on social media – had little experience with local political campaigns and didn’t quite get the rules of the game. I heard over and over from the anti-sin tax crowd that we shouldn’t give the money to the billionaire sports owner but to the homeless instead. When I would tell them that is not a good message to send to the average sports fan voting on this issue, they would shake their head, as if I was a real-life Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

What Cleveland needs right now, and it might come from this group and it might not, is an active political resistance to a broken status quo. The city has to redefine itself, both in terms of economic but also political leadership and national identity. The political and business leadership’s approach in the region has been of the caretaker variety, a style that works only when things are going well. But when things aren’t going well, a more active leadership is needed.

[blocktext align=”right”]The difficult part is to keep pushing. It won’t be easy to do, but the experience of this vote is a lesson.[/blocktext]The old leadership’s approach to Issue 7 was very caretaker-ish, doing things the way they always have, without much thought of doing it better. Evidently, the general public thought that was a good approach. While the anti-sin-tax forces may point to how the teams and the government officials lied and deceived and all that, unfortunately the rules favor those in power and those who have the cash. It has always been that way, and always will.

Some of the discontented will use the excuse that the voter turnout was small to say that people don’t care. So why bother? That’s a very understandable reaction. This setback is a gut check for people interested in changing Cleveland, asking whether they will retain their enthusiasm, maintain this coalition of diverse interests, and use their influence in the future. Politics has always been about handling losing as well as winning, figuring out what hill to die on and what hill to pass by.

It’s hard to think about that stuff the day after a defeat. But what this election shows is that a group of concerned citizens has pushed the door open a bit. The difficult part is to keep pushing. It won’t be easy to do, but the experience of this vote is a lesson.

Progressive Field photo by Henryk Sadura /