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Government & Politics

Labor leader to resign from Cuyahoga County Board of Elections if confirmed to Port Authority board

Dave Wondolowski and Kevin Kelley
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council leader Dave Wondolowski, left, and then-Council President Kevin Kelley speak at a campaign event during the 2021 Cleveland mayoral race.

A member of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections has chosen to leave his position overseeing local voting in order to accept a reappointment to the Port of Cleveland’s board.

Dave Wondolowski, the head of the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council, told a Cuyahoga County Council member in an email Monday that he would resign from the elections board once council confirms his appointment to the port board.

“When Executive [Armond] Budish offered me the opportunity to serve on the Port Authority, he informed me that the county might see a potential conflict between my service on the Port and my service at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections,” Wondolowski wrote in the email, which was provided to Ideastream Public Media.

The appointment will be introduced and referred to committee at Tuesday night's county council meeting, according to council staff.

The port’s incorporation agreement prohibits board members from holding other public offices. Even though Wondolowski has held both positions simultaneously in the past, the county received legal opinions that doing so would violate port rules.

Faced with that decision, the building trades leader picked the port board, writing that “the Port’s mission is more in line with the needs of my membership.” In addition to overseeing Cleveland shipping, the port finances real estate development projects.

“Should the final opinion be that I must choose between the two posts, I would be doing my membership a disservice not to choose the seat on the Port,” he wrote.

A message seeking comment has been left with Wondolowski.

Musical chairs

The decision is the latest twist in a game of appointment musical chairs that began when Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb sought to replace Wondolowski on the board of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority.

An influential player in Cuyahoga County Democratic politics, Wondolowski was an outspoken supporter of Bibb’s general election opponent, Kevin Kelley. The labor leader drew criticism for telling members at a rally just before Election Day that they would “kick the sh—” out of Bibb and the media.

The remarks aired in an episode of Ideastream Public Media’s podcast on the mayoral election, "After Jackson: Cleveland’s Next Mayor."

Bibb this year opted not to rename Wondolowski, a Mayor Frank Jackson appointee, to another four years on the port board. But weeks later, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish nominated him to a different open seat on the board. The mayor and county executive share appointment powers to the nine-member board.

Appointment opposition

A coalition of activist groups, including some labor unions, protested Budish’s appointment in an open letter. They cited the labor leader’s comments at last year’s Kelley rally and a mailer, paid for by an anti-Dennis Kucinich super PAC, that attacked Bibb during the election. The building trades supported the super PAC financially.

“Just as elections have consequences, so should rhetoric which misleads and inflames – especially when the speaker is also in a position of immense responsibility,” the letter read.

In his own letter to council members, Wondolowski highlighted his backing of prevailing wages in port-financed projects and a workforce policy supporting minority- and women-owned contractors.

“Throughout the last 17 years in union leadership, I have helped countless men and women, who live in the city and county obtain careers in the building trades unions,” he wrote. “For many of them, it changed their lives dramatically as they were previously unemployed, underpaid, recently discharged from duty or recently incarcerated.”

Meanwhile, county council sought legal opinions from the county law director and Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office. Both concluded that port board members were unable to serve simultaneously on the board of elections.

The county Democratic and Republican parties each hold two seats on the board of elections. Should Wondolowski step down, Democratic executive committee members would recommend a replacement to Secretary of State Frank LaRose.