COTNER, MERCEDES R. (March 1905-29 Nov. 1998) was the CLEVELAND CITY COUNCIL clerk for more than twenty-five years, the first woman to fill that position. She was also the first Democrat woman to run for mayor of Cleveland, following in the footsteps of Republican ALBINA CERMAK and independent JEAN MURRELL CAPERS.
Cotner grew up in OHIO CITY. Her parents were Caroline E. (Auer) and John S. Trapp, a jeweler. She learned bookkeeping and stenography at St. Mary Commercial High School. She married George Cotner in 1927 and worked at Harrington Electric until her first son was born in 1930.
She began her political career as a precinct committee member and then ward leader. In 1954, she was appointed to fill a vacancy on city council from her West Side ward. She won election to this seat in 1955 and held it until she became the Council’s clerk in January, 1964. Cotner joined four other women on the council, including MARGARET MCCAFFERY and Capers. They were occasionally asked to weigh in on “women’s issues.” For Cotner, these included a new public incinerator on Ridge Road in her ward, which she opposed because it would pollute her neighborhood. She chaired council’s powerful urban renewal and planning committee between 1958 and 1964, as Cleveland embarked on one of the country’s most ambitious urban renewal programs, supporting the ERIEVIEW project, one of the program’s few successes.
In 1960, Cotner opposed a city fair housing law that would have prohibited racial discrimination in the sale or rental of property. A dozen-plus years later, as a mayoral candidate, she had changed her mind--changing with the times, she said. (Cleveland City Council did not pass a fair housing law until 1988).
During her long years as the council clerk, Cotner became a political ally and adviser to council presidents James V. Stanton, Anthony J. Garafoli, Edmund J. Turk, and George L. Forbes. Because she was white and from the West Side, she was especially useful to Forbes, an East Side African American, when he made public appearances in front of white audiences.
In 1973, Cotner volunteered to be a write-in candidate for the Democratic party after James Carney – thirteen days before the election – bowed out of the mayor’s race against incumbent RALPH PERK. She had little time, little money, little name recognition, and little financial support from her own party although big-name Democrats including U.S. Representative Shirley Chisolm, Governor John J. Gilligan and U.S. Senate hopeful HOWARD MORTON METZENBAUM campaigned for her. She ran a vigorous – if brief – campaign, accusing Perk of doing a mediocre job of running the city. Perk, understandably un-enthusiastic about attacking a woman, especially a woman older than he was, declined to debate her. In a record low turnout, he beat her handily by a margin of almost 2-1 in a city where registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 7-1.
In 1987, Cotner was rewarded for her long years of loyal political service with an appointment to the REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY, a job she kept after she retired as clerk in 1989. A park on W. 97th St. in her old ward was named for her in 1994.
Cotner had two children, Gerald L. and Timothy G. She is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery.
Marian J. Morton