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Cleveland Hosted One Of The Worst Debates Of All Time. It's Just One More Weird Aspect Of This Year In Ohio.

You might have needed a drink when it was all over at 10:35 p.m., but the Ohio governor’s coronavirus restrictions include a 10 o’clock curfew for alcohol sales.

Posted on September 30, 2020, at 12:20 p.m. ET

Biden and Trump on the first debate stage
Olivier Douliery / Getty Images

CLEVELAND — The pandemic, like it has everywhere else, triggered an unraveling in Cleveland. Businesses are struggling through quarantines and work-from-home protocols. Chefs who put the city on the hip foodie map wonder if their more casual customers will return once social distancing guidelines ease — or if they’ll still be open when they’re ready.

And in an area historically segregated between the East Side (Black) and West Side (white), the recent anti-racism protests and Black Lives Matter movement have reignited tribal tensions. In late May, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, destructive demonstrations in downtown Cleveland divided those who felt a strong statement was needed to call attention to a crisis and those who felt broken storefront windows were too high a price to pay.

Into the cauldron this week came the first general election debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The unrest in May was very much on the minds of city leaders who were worried that protesters and agitators would see the event — which was moved here from the University of Notre Dame because of coronavirus concerns — as an opportunity to cause trouble, good or bad. Like with the debate itself, expectations were all over the place, but generally low.

“Cleveland’s gauge of a successful presidential debate: Enlightenment in the hall, peaceful protest outside,” read a headline this week on Cleveland.com, the Plain Dealer’s website.

During my drive into the city Monday, the day before the debate, I cruised along a slow procession of military vehicles creeping up the interstate toward the Cleveland Clinic’s main campus. On debate night, as Trump and Biden arrived, SWAT teams from suburban police departments and other law enforcement officers patrolled the streets and sidewalks outside as peaceful demonstrations popped up around the hospital and surrounding neighborhoods.

The perimeter was tightly controlled, to guard against outbursts of violence that never materialized and the spread of the coronavirus. All political events that attract presidents or vice presidents bring a high level of security. Most also typically have Big Event Energy, a carnival atmosphere for political junkies and curious locals who take their pictures in front of the C-SPAN bus and people-watch for cable news celebrities in bars and hotel lobbies. Not this time.

Cleveland’s awkward hosting duties began registering to me, a curious local for 15 years, when in the days and weeks before the debate I heard from friends and contacts who were wondering how to best get the attention of visiting reporters. These often are routine public relations inquiries: Would you consider writing about this company or that organization or including insight from the experts at the college or hospital? But social distancing guidelines and general cutbacks to travel in the middle of a pandemic meant fewer journalists came to town. Most of the tables and chairs in the media filing center near the debate hall were empty Tuesday night.

Those who did travel to Cleveland — I commuted from my home in a neighboring county — spent their day or two before the debate getting COVID-19 tests and self-isolating while they awaited results, then returning to the testing site to receive their all-clear paper wristbands. There wasn’t much time for them, or for the smaller contingent of campaign aides and political operatives here, to see the sights, write the human-interest stories, or repair to the local bars and restaurants that no doubt could use the business. Because of the debate road closures, the much-admired Cleveland Museum of Art didn’t open Tuesday or Wednesday.

And then there was the debate itself: gnarly and hard to follow. You might have needed a drink when it was all over at 10:35 p.m., but the Ohio governor’s coronavirus restrictions include a 10 o’clock curfew for alcohol sales.

It’s been a weird year in Cleveland, a town that always feels like it has something to prove.

The empty stadium in Cleveland for game one of the Yankees–Indians series
Jason Miller / Getty Images

The empty playoff game nearby.

The Major League Baseball team, responding to years of complaints about its name, announced it was studying a change without committing to one. As Tuesday’s debate began, the maybe-soon-to-be-renamed Indians were in the midst of badly losing a playoff opener to the New York Yankees about 4 miles down Carnegie Avenue at the empty Progressive Field. Cleveland’s longtime mayor, known for bland and uninspiring rhetoric like “it is what it is” long before Trump made it an unfortunate tagline, acknowledged in a national interview that his city is “perceived to be the butthole of the world.” After Floyd’s death in May — another instance of a white police officer killing a Black person — downtown Cleveland saw the kind of disruptive (and damaging) protests the city had largely dodged after its own high-profile police shootings in recent years, including the 2014 death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Politics, too, has been disorienting. A massive corruption scandal involving downstate Republicans hovers over the general election. Ohio entered this presidential cycle without the premier battleground status it usually enjoys. Trump won it in 2016 by a sizable enough margin to convince many national Democrats that it wasn’t worth much investment. But recent polls have shown a tight race and perhaps a path for Biden to deal Trump an electoral blowout by adding Ohio to a list of other industrial and Midwest states he’s well positioned to win. Trump has kept close tabs on the state; he rallied in Toledo last week, and his son Don Jr. was set to visit Tipp City on Wednesday. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Clevelander, had been eager for the Biden campaign to make a bigger play here, and this week he got his wish. The former vice president launched a train tour Wednesday morning in Cleveland and stopped briefly in Alliance, a conveniently named city in Stark County, a traditional bellwether that went decisively for Trump four years ago.

Tuesday’s debate was the type of event that can test the city’s fragile self-esteem — a real tree-falls-in-a-forest moment for people eager to demonstrate their can-do attitude. Notre Dame and South Bend, Indiana, the original hosts, backed out after the coronavirus made a hash of logistics. In swooped the leaders of the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University in a rescue effort so closely held that it excluded the mayor.

“Hosting the first presidential debate of 2020 was a unique opportunity for Cleveland in a unique time,” David Gilbert, the president and chief executive of the Destination Cleveland tourism bureau, responded via email when I asked, through a publicist, if there was any disappointment that the pandemic meant fewer people were here to impress. “While the traditional hosting benefits of welcoming thousands of visitors and journalists to the city to see and experience it firsthand weren’t in play, and that’s certainly not ideal, Cleveland made the most of the opportunity available. Just by stepping in and ultimately hosting a successful event, the city’s narrative received a boost and perceptions of the city were likely changed for the better.”

If you’ve spent enough time in and around Cleveland, this civic pride and boosterism — Destination Cleveland previously called itself "Positively Cleveland" — can, via the big public relations agencies and the local power brokers who use them, filter into your subconscious. Many Clevelanders care very much what people who don’t live here think about the region. We also sell a lot of Cleveland-themed T-shirts that bear generations’ worth of slogans.

In the 1940s it was the “Best Location in the Nation,” per an electric company’s marketing campaign that endured, without irony, over decades of job and population loss. After the particularly bleak 1970s, a bumper sticker campaign promoted by the daily newspaper betrayed an inferiority complex: “New York’s the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame built its museum near the waterfront, headlining a ’90s narrative of renaissance and ending a run of “Mistake on the Lake” takes. By the aughts, Clevelanders needed another pep talk, and the corporate sloganeers responded with “Believe in Cleveland.” Things got bad again, though. Foreclosures hollowed out neighborhoods. Big employers downsized or left town. The daily newspaper went mostly online. A literally banner 2016 — when Northeast Ohio native LeBron James led the Cavaliers to an NBA Championship, and the city hosted the Republican National Convention without a hitch — helped restore confidence. A more recent slogan is downright minimalist and modest by the city’s standards: "This Is Cleveland."

Gilbert, in his emailed statement, said the debate, which came and went without any violence or major disruptions in or around the city, could generate particularly good publicity for the Clinic, Case Western Reserve, and other healthcare institutions in the Cleveland area.

“Hundreds of journalists worked on the main campus of Cleveland Clinic leading up to the event — establishing or reinforcing for those journalists the vibrancy of Cleveland’s healthcare economy and health education expertise,” Gilbert said. “Finding ways to continue to tell the story of how Cleveland hosted a successful event during a global pandemic will help the city to further benefit from the opportunity.”

The Clinic, and Cleveland’s healthcare community at large, is no stranger to good PR. Cleveland’s economic despair is close by, though. Walk a few minutes off the Clinic’s main campus and you’ll be in neighborhoods that have long been struggling with drugs and joblessness.

I asked Chris Ronayne, who leads University Circle Inc., a development group situated in Case Western Reserve’s neighborhood just beyond the Clinic’s footprint, if the debate-hosting gig was thankless work, given the lack of instant economic impact. He flipped the question a bit, emphasizing how being pressed into service allowed Cleveland to showcase itself as multidimensional, even if concerns about the pandemic and civil unrest presented challenges.

“This is what we do,” Ronayne told me by telephone as he watched a demonstration unfold in University Circle before the debate Tuesday night. “We are quick to rise to the challenge.”

“I see peaceful protests right now,” Ronayne, often mentioned as a future candidate for mayor, added. “I see beauty all around. It actually turned out to be a great night in Cleveland.”

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