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Michael Bowen:

All right. Well, welcome to this interview of our Calfee NOW series, our brand new series from the government relations practice at Calfee, Halter & Griswold. Today, we have my good friend and actually, my own personal Senator from the 21st district of Ohio, Sandra Williams. How are you doing today?

Sandra Williams:

I am doing wonderful. [crosstalk 00:00:21].

Michael Bowen:

Fantastic. Thank you once again for joining us here. So we're go start off with some basic questions just to kind of get everybody understanding your district and kind of who you are as a person. So what cities and Cleveland wards kind of encompass your Senate district?

Sandra Williams:

So Senate district 21 is approximately 280000 people. I represent the East side of Cleveland, all of the East side of Cleveland with the exception of ward one, the Lee and Harvard area. I represent downtown Cleveland, as well as the lower West side of Cleveland; so the Treemont area, Ohio City, Old Brooklyn, all of those areas. This district covers all, but five wards in the city of Cleveland. I also represent Bratenahl, Cleveland Heights, University Heights, Garfield Heights, and Newburg Heights.

Michael Bowen:

You got a diverse district there.

Sandra Williams:

It's a very diverse district. It's diverse in income. It's diverse in racial makeup. So it's a lot going on in district 21.

Michael Bowen:

Fantastic. Well, Senator, as you know, you got to be a special breed to want to be an elected official. So tell me a little bit about your upbringing and kind of what brought you to this point and why you decided you wanted to be an elected official and run for office.

Sandra Williams:

Well, I grew up in the city of Cleveland. My mother and father moved around a lot when I was young and my mom bought her first house on Buckeye back in 1973. That's where I spent the rest of my life until I purchased my own home here in the Fairhill area. So that was my upbringing. I went to Cleveland Public Schools, graduated from John Hay High School, love the Cleveland Public Schools, which is one of the reasons I always advocate for the youth that attend Cleveland Public Schools. For me, when I was a parole officer in a Van Wert County, I watched a young man, he was on my parole case, and he was in his GED class. Right after his GED class, he was next door to the GED class playing pool waiting on his parents to pick him up.

Sandra Williams:

The pool ball he was playing with, hit the floor. The owner of the pool hall called the police. The police called me that night and wanted me to violate this youth's parole. Why? They said it was an attempted felonious assault and they wanted to violate his parole to send him back to prison. I, myself, thought that was extreme and I told them, "No." On Monday, they charged him with felonious assault and shipped him off to prison. At that point, I said, "Who is making these crazy laws that you would allow somebody to go to prison for playing pool and the pool ball hit the floor?" He literally was shipped out within a couple of days. So that reignited my desire to go into politics and elected office.

Michael Bowen:

Fantastic. I know this, but just for the listeners here, so kind of where did you start in the elected process? What was your first elected role and then kind of how does that work and how did you get to be a state Senator today?

Sandra Williams:

Sure. Well, a little bit about my background. I started out as a corrections officer downtown at the County jail. I did that for six years while I was in college. I graduated from Cleveland State, got a job as a probation officer at juvenile court. Then I got a job with... I received... I had a job with the Ohio Department of Youth Services as a juvenile parole officer, and that's when I saw that incident. I've been trained in DC on managing political campaigns through Participation 2000, a program that governor Celeste started back here in Ohio and then it was taken over by Bill Bradley and taken to DC, trying to do Emily's list. So then I said, "Okay. I'm going into politics." I have all of these skills and I've managed my first political campaign in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Jennifer Schilling is the campaign that I managed and she is now the minority leader in the state Senate for Wisconsin.

Sandra Williams:

So that was my experience. I then came back to Cleveland, got the job with Annie Key, the state representative, and I was her legislative aide for six years. After six years, she decided to run for the Senate and I was asked by many of her colleagues, as well as representative Key to run to replace her. I was like, I just wanted to help change the laws. I was really not thinking about elected office, but they encouraged me and I decided to do it. It was not my original plan. I ran. I think I had six opponents and I won. It was a very interesting process to put everything that I had learned previously to help other people into action. So I served for eight years in the House of Representatives representing House District 11. When I was term limited, the Senate district 21 seat was open as well. So I ran for that and I was successful. That's my journey.

Michael Bowen:

I learned a few things there. That's fantastic.

Sandra Williams:

Yes.

Michael Bowen:

So we talked about the makeup of your district and how diverse it is and income and a lot of things. So tell me a little bit more about your district. What are some of the assets in your district? What are some of the challenges you have in your district and frankly, what are some of the challenges you have representing a district that's so broad and so diverse with income and everything else like that?

Sandra Williams:

I would say our biggest asset is our people. Our people are dynamic, they're diverse, they are hardworking individuals. That would, to me, be our biggest asset. Now, if you want to go to bricks and mortar things, we have our theaters, we have Playhouse Square, we have Severance Hall. We have so many... The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We have the greatest hospitals in the world, in some cases, here, right in Senate district 21. We have our lake. We have a lot going on here. We have some of the best companies represented here in Northeast Ohio. So we have a lot going on. We have some challenges though. While we've had a lot of companies who have been successful here early on with manufacturing and all of that, when those plants closed down sometime ago, the remnants of those plants are still here and they are eyesores in our community. That's something that I know the city is working on and I am trying to work on through the legislative process now.

Sandra Williams:

We have a high crime rate. That's something that is not independent of any other major city, but that's something that we have to address; guns on our street, murders in our streets every night. It's something that we definitely have to deal with. Joblessness, unemployment, underemployment, low minimum wage in this state is something that has played a lot of our low skilled workers and that has caused a lot of problems as well. Let's see here. I would also say while we have low skilled workers and we have jobs that need to be filled, we have the people who are ready to fill them. We have a disconnect between those individuals who need a job and those individuals who have jobs because of the skills that they need to get that job. So that's a problem that I think can easily be fixed.

Sandra Williams:

Before I end on that question, I would also say, I have to say our universities. We have Case Western Reserve University. We have Cleveland State University where I graduated from twice. We have our Cuyahoga Community College, which is one of the best community colleges in the state of Ohio. I would say, I would put them up against any associate college or junior college in this state or anywhere else. So that's what I would say.

Michael Bowen:

Fantastic. No, that's great. I think that accurately portrays the pace what's going on. [crosstalk 00:09:14]

Sandra Williams:

And I will say this, when I've traveled across the United States, and I'll tell you, I was in another country once and the person said, "I love Cleveland. I was in Cleveland for a doctor's appointment." And I was like, "What?" [crosstalk 00:09:32] They came to Cleveland Clinic for surgery, but, "I went to your theater. You have to have one of the best theaters in the world." I was amazed that somebody remembered they came here to go to the hospital, but they stay because they liked our theater. The arts cultural area here in Cleveland, Cuyahoga County is second to none. So I appreciated that.

Michael Bowen:

Absolutely. That's funny. So speaking of challenges, I'm sure you know this challenge all too well, both on the House and the Senate side, Democrats are in the minority, pretty severely in the minority in the House and I would say pretty severely in the minority and the Senate. So one thing I've always admired about you, and I think Calfee admired about you is you be able to get work done despite that. So how do you effectively legislate being in the minority like that?

Sandra Williams:

It is very challenging. It's very challenging, but I think what works for me is the fact that once we are at the state House, I put aside partisan politics and I go there to get the job done for the people who elected me. That is the only reason I am in Columbus to represent the 280000-some people, the latest numbers are, in Senate District 21. So for me, when people bring me an issue that they feel needs to be corrected, I work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and I explained to them the pros and cons of this legislation and why it would be beneficial, not only to my district, but the entire state of Ohio. Sometimes it's hard because many of my colleagues have never represented a district such as mine. Many of my colleagues who are in the majority represent very either middle income or wealthy districts.

Sandra Williams:

So when I bring challenges to them about high poverty or racism, or officer involved shootings, or the need for bias free policing deals, a need to increase college affordability because many people want to go to college, but can't because we have not increased our state share of instruction or the Ohio College Opportunity Grant, once I explain to them the dynamics of what's happening and it's a legitimate issue and I can prove it, then it's been fairly easy. Now, there are some people who, regardless of what you tell them, what you show them, just do not support some of the issues that I bring to the table, but where I can find an opportunity for us to work collaboratively on an issue, I make it happen. So far, it's worked. It's worked a lot. I'm actually surprised at how well it's been working and it's been shocking. People have said to me that not many Democrats have been able to go to Columbus and get as much done as you do. Not as many Democrats have been able to go to Columbus and bring hundreds of millions of dollars back to the district.

Sandra Williams:

Now, let's put aside the arts community. The arts community is supported by Republicans and Democrats. People come from all over our state just to come here to our theaters. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about things such as our ports, being able to finally in the history of the state of Ohio, get a $20 million line item for them, operating line on for the port authority. That is something that was tried over and over again that was not able to be accomplished, just money for our schools, money for our communities. So those are the things I think mean a lot and can push our district forward. My colleagues have been very supportive of me bringing these things back home because they know the impact that it will have on our state. Our state is well connected to other states. We have a lot going on and they understand that, but if you have to be willing to work across party lines to get it done.

Michael Bowen:

Absolutely. That's great. So speaking of... I think you kind of touched on some of these things in your answer to my last question, but what are some of your legislative priorities moving forward and what do you want to accomplish here as a Senator of the 21st District?

Sandra Williams:

Okay. Well, listen, I had to look up... I have so many legislative proposals that I can barely remember them. A couple of things that I am working on right now and I hope to get passed into law, one is a Civilian Interaction bill. The Civilian Interaction bill is a piece of legislation modeled after legislation or law in Texas after Sandra Bland. Basically, it would teach youth, between the grades of nine and 12, what to do when they're interacting with law enforcement officers, whether you're walking down the street, whether you're driving, whether you're sitting in your home and someone comes to your door. It's basically an opportunity for the youth to understand the law and what their rights are, as well as what should be happening when they are interacting with law enforcement officers. It also requires training of law enforcement officers annually about how they should be interacting and treating civilians in our community.

Sandra Williams:

Then finally, there will be a handout or layout in the Bureau of Motor Vehicles Handbook, teaching people what their rights are as a citizen. So I'm excited about that. I think it will save lives. With that in mind, I have a couple of other pieces of legislation I'm working on. These deal with criminal justice reform. I've been introducing these bills for the last six years, and they're slowly moving to the forefront. One deal's with the special prosecutor for officer involved shootings. Right now, Governor DeWine has all of a sudden decided that this might be a good proposal. So he came out in his press conference and said that he wanted to see that bill passed. I have one that would have an attorney in grand jury hearings. That attorney would be separate from the prosecutor and would be there to answer questions for any jurors who actually has a question about the law and whatever else they might have. So that is one of the other bills that I think is very important for the climate that we're in right now.

Sandra Williams:

Then a couple of other ones deal with the Clean Ohio Fund. I have a bill that has been sitting in the legislature for a while. When Ohio basically leased its liquor profits to Jobs Ohio, it kind of gave them all of our profits and all of our bonding capability, but I have found a way to actually pay for renewing the Clean Ohio Fund and that's to address brownfield problem here in the state of Ohio. So I talked about those properties and those old manufacturing firms that were here, some in the 1930s and 1940s, that are just plague in our community. If we can renew the Clean Ohio Fund, we will be able to get the necessary funds back into our district to get rid of some of these blighted areas and then attract other companies into our region. I think that's very important, not just for the safety of our region, but also for the citizens to be able to come and go work in their own community with real jobs that pay a real living wage. So that's another thing.

Sandra Williams:

Then we have to talk about training. I mentioned that before. I have a proposal in the legislature that deals with training youth on in demand jobs before they leave school. One of the biggest problems we have is affordability of college. So we have children spending 12 years, 13 years, sometimes 14 years, if they go to kindergarten, preschool, in school and when they graduate, they don't have a skill that will give them the ability to go out and get a job that pays a living wage. This has been done in other states and I know we can do it in Ohio when we work with companies within our region, and we make sure that those individuals come out with an industry recognized credential and that they are ready on day one to go into a company and be a productive member of that company.

Sandra Williams:

That's very important to me. I think it will help out with our poverty rates since we are number one in poverty fo midsize city. I think that would help out a lot and it will allow people who are facing other issues, such as being on public assistance and not being able to go over a certain amount of money before you fall over the benefit cliffs. That's a real issue that I am working on is the benefit cliffs. Then finally, I would say this. Our city is doing great for a lot of people. We have a lot of people moving back into the Cleveland Northeast Ohio area. We have a lot of people with wealth moving into these districts. When you have people with wealth moving into the district, they want bigger and better and more expensive houses. What happens?

Sandra Williams:

Property values go up. When property values go up, well, folks who have been here for 10 or 20 years are not able to afford their taxes. So that's a real issue I've been working with many constituent groups on. So a proposal that I have in the legislature right now would say that if you have been resident in a district for 10 years or more, that your property taxes will be capped at no more than 10% of an increase every year. That will help out a lot of people who have found themselves unable to pay their taxes. When you don't pay your taxes, in this state, you can have your home taken away from you. They can sell your tax bill just like they can steal your water bill. So my goal is to keep people in their homes as long as possible.

Michael Bowen:

So you don't have much going on it sounds like then. [crosstalk 00:20:05]

Sandra Williams:

I love this job because it gives me the opportunity to work on so many things that are very important. Right now, we are working on education funding reform. Education funding has been a top priority for me and others, and we've never really been able to get it done. When, I think back in 2008, 2009, we changed the law for two years and we switched up parties and it switched back again. That's something that has been challenging for a lot of people, given the number of people who have taken advantage of vouchers and taken advantage of charter schools and all the other opportunities we have for education here in our state. So it's causing a big... It's just a big challenge for school districts and it's a challenge for parents. So we're working on that. Hopefully, we'll come up with a proposal that everybody can agree on, or at least 50 plus one can agree on so that we can make some changes, especially in Cleveland.

Sandra Williams:

We have the Cleveland Scholarship Program, as you know, which allows people in the Cleveland schools to take advantage of other private and parochial schools. But what legislature did a few years ago is they took additional money, another $20 million or $30 million, and put it in a line item just in case somebody chose to go. Now, they usually count people... The state pounds people in October. So my philosophy is if nobody has used that money at the end of October, then we should transfer that money back into the Cleveland schools. Maybe if you did that, we wouldn't need all these levies that we're trying to get passed right now. So I guess that's another issue. I ran on with that question, but it's just so much going on- [crosstalk 00:21:53]

Michael Bowen:

No, that's great.

Sandra Williams:

... and there are so many challenges that the state faces and it's just an exciting time to be in the legislature.

Michael Bowen:

I know our listeners are going to appreciate that and that detail. So I appreciate that. Thank you. So I guess in conclusion, wrapping up, understanding that this is our podcast for our clients and Calfee's lawyer base and frankly, anybody else who listens, do you have any final words for anybody or anything you want to just say to wrap up in conclusion?

Sandra Williams:

Well, I would say this. Being a legislator is a very honorable position and it's a position where you can have a lot of impact on the lives of people in our community. So I believe learning more about the clients that you all represent, keeping me informed and other legislators is one way for us to be able to make good decisions when it comes to companies in the state of Ohio. We get information from people all the time, but it's more important for me to hear directly from the companies that are impacted by the laws that we make. So keeping in close contact with me and in close contact with my colleagues is a good way for us to make sound policy for the citizens and the companies in the state of Ohio. I appreciate what you guys always do and continue to look forward to working with you.

Michael Bowen:

Fantastic. Well, Senator Williams, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it. [crosstalk 00:23:31] We'll be in touch soon.

Sandra Williams:

Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Michael Bowen:

Thank you. Have a good one.

Sandra Williams:

Bye.

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