ELYRIA — The explanation behind the miraculous win of Elyria’s Issue 6 has an unusual tie to the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” a favorite of City Councilman Mark Jessie.
Campaign volunteers even branded Jessie as Hercules Mulligan, the spy who helped the colonists beat the British during the Revolutionary War. A historic tie-in for the city’s historic win only seems fitting. Add in a theatrical comparison to the Elyria Schools’ former choir director turned Councilman and you have quite a story.
“Hercules, Hercules, Hercules,” is what a roomful of campaign volunteers started chanting loudly at Jessie, D-3rd Ward, on Tuesday night when he stood awestruck in the center of Smitty’s Place on East Bridge Street.
The unofficial results from the day’s primary election — displayed on an electronic whiteboard that dominated the room — were just too good to be true, too shocking for words for the ever-loquacious politician.
“Oh, Mark is kind of like the Energizer Bunny. He just keeps going and going,” said Councilman Jack Baird, R-at large. “He started this out at his house with six of us, but by the end we were at (East Recreation Center) with 50 people in the room. I know it sounds kind of corny, but winning was almost sort of like Elyria’s destiny.”
City Prosecutor Matt Mishak, who focused early on the campaign’s social media presence, dared anyone to think Issue 6 could not pass.
“This levy didn’t pass because people voted on an income tax levy. We won because people decided they wanted to invest in their city,” Mishak said. “They are saying Elyria is not just some place I sleep. Elyria is where I live. And, if I’m not going to invest in my city, where am I investing.”
The breakdown was clear — 60.5 percent, or 7,444 Elyria voters, were in favor of Issue 6 and 39.5 percent, or 4,849 Elyria voters, said no to the increase.
To put that into perspective, the last time voters approved an income tax increase, earmarked for the Elyria Police Department, the year was 1992 — the year Ross Perot announced he was running as an independent for president against Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush, and Miley Cyrus came into the world.
Volunteer Sean Beckwith, a 2015 Elyria High School graduate, wasn’t alive when the police levy passed. His birth year is 1997 so in his life, he has seen nothing but defeats at the ballot. One would think he would be the kind of young voter to just sit this one out.
“I totally get that people don’t trust Council or don’t trust the mayor, but there comes a time when you have to stop the decline,” said Beckwith, an Ohio State University student. “I care and people in my generation care. We want a better Elyria for us.”
But the thing that drew Beckwith in was not the politics of it all.
Instead, he remembers being on Facebook one day in January when he saw a post about volunteers creating a giant human No. 6 and having it photographed by a drone.
“I thought it was kind of cool,” Beckwith said. “I went that day, learned a lot and decided to help. Some day I want to be on Council; some day I want to be mayor, but you have to start somewhere.”
That’s another thing about Issue 6, Mishak said.
The campaign was fun.
“I know it was sort of a silly thing, but it was really a bunch of Elyrians coming together on a freezing, snowy day because they were betting on their city,” he said.
Back to Hercules Mulligan — where did the moniker come from and why does Jessie, who is in his second term on Council representing the city’s Ward 3, believe it ties so beautifully into the campaign’s winning strategy.
He even used it as a sign off on a number of emails in recent weeks to keep the nickname going.
“You know who he was, right? He was this rough and tumble spy. The guy who never wavered in the daunting task of turning the tide of the Revolutionary War,” Jessie said, the words spilling from him so fast it was obvious the high from the win had not waned.
“This goes back to the day we got the results from the micro survey,” Jessie said. “They were very discouraging. I saw them in the middle of the week and I knew we had a campaign meeting set for the weekend and had to come up with a campaign strategy.”
That survey, conducted in early January, offered Jessie some rather sobering news as it painted community support for the Elyria income tax increase proposal as very low, the kind that could knock the momentum out of any campaign.
Such surveys and those who conduct them typically aim to see more than 50 percent of respondents in support out of the gate with hopes of building more yes votes closer to an election. However, the survey showed far less support.
Initially, just 35 percent of those surveyed responded in favor of Issue 6. After explaining the ins-and-outs of the issue, support climbed to 41 percent. Jessie said the survey hit right around the time he began listening to the songs from “Hamilton” on repeat — in his car and very loudly in his house.
“The lyrics from the songs say it all. ‘History has its eye on you, ’ ‘Til the world turned upside down,’ ‘I’m not throwing away my shot’ and then one piece ends with ‘we won, we won, we won’ over and over again,” Jessie said. “I listened to that and knew we had to pick our battle strategy.”
To overcome the projected vote deficit, Jessie said it was decided that 1,400 no or undecided votes had to be turned to yes votes.
Baird said the team went door-to-door, sent personal postcards and had radio ads. There were restaurant placemats and pizza stickers. And, homemade signs and what some would consider a paltry budget of about $20,000.
“We got coverage on the four TV new stations. We never had that before,” Baird said. “You throw all that together and you get the perfect storm for victory. As time went on I thought we would win. I never thought like this. It was a shutout.”
From the beginning, Mishak said he knew the campaign would be social media heavy. It’s the meeting place of the 21st century.
“We had your typical posts, but then we had council members giving video testimonials and through the videos we were able to remind people of what we have in this city,” he said. “We really reached people on an emotional level.”
The victory of Issue 6 was quite decisive across the city.
It had overwhelming support, failing in just four of the city’s 31 precincts — three precincts in 2A, 2B, 2D and 6C.
However, the margin of defeat was often within just a few votes in those precincts with more than 45 percent of voters favoring Issue 6.
Ward 2’s representative Councilwoman Brenda Davis, a Democrat, was a huge supporter of the levy.
The wards with the strongest turnout — Ward 1 (Councilman Larry Tanner, D), Ward 3 (Jessie, D), Ward 4 (Councilman Mark Craig, I) and Ward 7 (Councilman Jack Cerra, D) carried the issue with more than 60 percent of voters in favor of Issue 6. The highest number of yes votes of a ward came from Ward 4 — 1,679 votes.
“Hercules Mulligan got down in the trenches. He would fight. He was scrappy,” Jessie said. “That’s what motivated me. It would pick me up when I was a bit discouraged, thinking if the American colonists could beat the British against all odds we could do the same thing.”
Beckwith, who juggled classes with volunteering, said volunteers didn’t keep score on who did what. Instead, everyone did what they could and owned that part of the campaign.
“I wrote a letter to the editor, shared stuff on Facebook and went door-to-door on the east side one weekend,” he said. “Everyone came together. Everyone did something.”
Baird said the group became this nucleus of people all working for the same cause — bettering the community.
“I think a lot of people made some good friends from this,” he said. “We see what we can do together. The next thing we can do is do the same for the schools.”
An Elyria Schools bond issue has yet to go before voters — that will likely come in November — but the district is moving forward on working with the state to develop a master plan to restructure the district into new school buildings and facilities throughout the city.
Jessie, who was a huge help the last time the schools sought dollars for buildings — Elyria High is the result of the overwhelmingly successful 2007 bond issue — said it’s not lost on him how the results of Issue 6 mirrored those of the schools’ bond issue.
Nearly nine years ago, more than 62 percent of the 11,398 voters decided Elyria needed a new high school.
And, like then when proponents crowned the victory a turning point for the schools, now supporters are hailing Issue 6 the same way.
“We let people know it was OK to feel pride in the city,” Mishak said. “In a lot of ways, I think it’s going to be a new Elyria.”