There are brawlers and there are brokers in politics. Fighters and dealmakers. Blaine Griffin, the president of Cleveland City Council, claims to be both.
Once, after the service workers’ union kicked a former council president out of an event, the Youngstown-born bare knuckler in Griffin awoke. He warned – publicly – that those who disrespected City Council would be “dealt with.”
Within weeks, he apologized. Years later, he brags that he’s built a good relationship with the very same union against which he raised his fists. He can wrestle you into the dust and still rise to break bread with you. That is the story he tells about himself.
Griffin is 52 and taller than most. Yet he is second in political stature to 36-year-old Mayor Justin Bibb. The new mayor ran as a young counterpoint to septuagenarian Mayor Frank Jackson, Griffin’s mentor, the man who opened City Hall’s doors to Griffin.
Bibb can enact little of his change agenda without the council president. In this way they are bound together, even if they did not start as political allies. People in the mayor’s office wonder if Griffin is running against Team Bibb in two years. He won’t say.
This fall, the council president is donning his brawler’s outfit, but for a different election. He is bent on defeating Issue 38, the People’s Budget, a ballot issue that would wrest control of millions of dollars from City Council’s hands. He argues it will weaken city services.
At a fundraiser for his campaign committee in late September, Griffin dominated the space beside a makeshift DJ booth at the Academy Tavern, not far from his home in the Larchmere neighborhood. He told his crowd to vote no on Issue 38. Look past the amendment’s populist labeling, he said.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, employing his favorite throat-clearing phrase, his showman’s trick to draw your attention to the moral of the story. “Just because people put things like ‘democracy’ and ‘people’ in front of it doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing.”
He is following the path trod by his predecessor, Kevin Kelley, who scuttled ballot drives to raise the minimum wage and to blow up a stadium spending deal. For years, waves of signature-gatherers broke against Kelley’s maneuvers. Activists had their revenge in 2021, when they helped doom his mayoral hopes and put Bibb in City Hall.
Now it has fallen to a new council president to fight The Activists, as Griffin has called them. He must do something this autumn that goes against his dealmaker’s good will. He has to be the bad guy. He has to cut down a grassroots campaign while keeping his own political fortunes safe from the blade.
In a way, Griffin is on the ballot, too. If he loses, or even if he wins, he could pay a political price for being the Guy Who Said No.
“Yes, am I concerned it may backfire to a certain degree?” he said recently, answering his own question before he asked it. “But one thing about me, I didn’t get in this job to be a scared man.”
‘We represent the people of Cleveland’
Along with almost $98,500 in pay, a moderately large office and the persistent headache of wrangling 16 elected egos, the council presidency comes with a car and a driver.
The car is a black Ford Explorer. The driver is Det. George Redding Jr., a 24-year veteran with the Cleveland Division of Police. Griffin rides shotgun, reclined noticeably far back. Redding handles the music, a lot of classic hip-hop: Beastie Boys, Whodini, Kurtis Blow.
One day in October, Griffin set aside his afternoon for an interview and show-and-tell in his ward, which contorts up East 93 Street, turns east at the Cleveland Clinic and fans out into Little Italy and Larchmere.
But first, he had a delivery to make: A groundbreaking ceremony had just wrapped up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and colleague Mike Polensek needed a lift back up the street to City Hall.
Polensek, the 73-year-old Slovenian-Italian who has represented Collinwood on council since Dennis Kucinich was mayor in the late 1970s, climbed into the middle row of seats with Darryle Torbert, a Griffin confidante. Earlier that day, Griffin had introduced Torbert to a boardroom full of people as council’s “chief operator.” The car felt cramped.
“You gotta get one of the mayor’s seven-passengers, baby,” Polensek said. “Come on!”
Bibb upgraded his mayoral car from a Crown Victoria sedan, which had suited his predecessor just fine for years. The mayor’s office said Bibb needed more space for rolling meetings. Now, he rides in a Ford Expedition – a black sport utility vehicle, the modern automotive symbol of political power. It is unmistakably larger than the council president’s car.
“Then I’ll start riding in the back seat,” Griffin replied. There were chuckles. He didn’t need to specify which elected official sits in the back, rather than the front, of his city vehicle.
Redding dropped off Polensek, then headed east to Ward 6. The conversation turned to the People’s Budget.
Griffin was about to escalate his campaign against Issue 38. Billboards were up. Soon, mailers would circulate. Yard signs would sprout from the grass. A recording of Griffin’s voice would echo through the streets from speakers affixed to the top of a beat-up minivan: “Vote no on Issue 38! Protect safety and services in Cleveland.”
In January, backers of participatory budgeting – PB, as they called it – had asked council to give them a chance. They pleaded their case at a committee hearing. They wanted to spend $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act money on residents’ ideas. All it would take was half a million dollars in operating funds.
The mayor was on board. But Griffin and much of council were not. Spending Cleveland’s money was City Council’s task, after all, the job they were elected to do. The council president put the plan on ice. The PB campaign gathered signatures to send the issue to voters.
Two days after the hearing, in a speech at the City Club of Cleveland, Griffin defended council against the charge that it was out of touch with residents.
“We represent the people of Cleveland,” he said. “Anything else you hear is disingenuous, hyperbole and misleading.”
Molly Martin, an organizer for the People’s Budget Cleveland campaign, said that Griffin had been open to talking about PB, even if he made clear his own skepticism of it. He met with PB supporters from his own ward, she said.
“He is very willing to have a conversation and to meet,” she said.
Now that he and PB backers are adversaries in a political battle, however, Griffin has dug in his heels, Martin said.
“Things have changed since we qualified for the ballot,” she said. “He’s kind of doubled down in taking action. But – the action is only happening when it’s to defend the status quo.”
As the car continued through the East Side toward Larchmere, Griffin’s neighborhood, he tried out his arguments against PB. It’s not that City Council opposes progressive ideas, he said. After all, council passed a measure against wage theft and backed eviction protection for tenants. Council has signed off on plenty of the progressive agenda, he maintained – just not this item.
Griffin pointed out the signs of change in his ward. New apartments had gone up on Larchmere Boulevard. The historic public housing apartments known as Woodhill Homes were boarded up now, and their replacements were taking root. A Meijer grocery store was on the verge of opening. Griffin had put up $200,000 in casino funds for the project. He had insisted that the developer give new homes to two women displaced by construction, he said.
The tacit lesson of the council president’s tour was apparent: Despite what critics may say – about City Council’s provincialism, perhaps, or its suspicion of outsiders – council gets things done. Council bears the burden of hearing neighbors’ problems and making City Hall work. Just look around.
Griffin returned to Issue 38 and its chief advocates – the people who, according to him, have been diminishing council’s work. Now there was a flash of the fighter.
“Other thing – I’ll make this the last PB conversation,” he said. “What have any of these folks done for anybody?”
Get in, it’s a big tent
Griffin doesn’t have obvious enemies on City Council. He largely has won over the body’s troublemakers. Publicly, they aim their invective at the Bibb administration, not at the leader of council.
The council president says he is taking a page from “Team of Rivals,” his favorite book, about Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. Another president also applies: Lyndon Baines Johnson, who once observed it was better to have J. Edgar Hoover “inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.”
After the 2021 elections, Griffin went out to eat at Trattoria in Little Italy with a victorious Richard Starr. A pugnacious then-33-year-old Boys and Girls Club manager and activist in the Central neighborhood, Starr had beaten Griffin’s candidate in Ward 5, the council appointee Delores Gray. Now he had business to settle with Griffin.
Back in 2017, Starr had challenged incumbent Phyllis Cleveland in Ward 5 and lost. Afterward, he faced a probe by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. Absentee ballot requests had come to the board with suspicious signatures and return addresses at Starr’s Boys and Girls Club location at the King Kennedy public housing complex.
The board referred the case to the county prosecutor. Starr had to hire a lawyer and submit samples of his handwriting, he said. No charges ever came down. Starr felt the City Hall political establishment had tried to do him in.
“They really tried to lock me up and throw a young brother in jail,” Starr recalled recently. “And not saying Blaine in particular, but I figure, if you’re a part of that crew, you’re part of the crew.”
In Little Italy, they ate and talked. Griffin brought up his youth in Youngstown, his own days as the combative youngster who tried and failed to take down a sitting council member. “The person you’re fighting with today could be the person you join with tomorrow,” Griffin recalled saying. The two hotheads made peace.
Starr backed Griffin as council president and is one of the more forceful opponents of participatory budgeting. He said he respects Griffin, who is about the same age as his parents. He believes the council president understands him. He said Griffin calls him council’s “sh-t starter.”
Starr is not a political rube. He also sees the transactional advantage of sticking with Griffin.
“I told him, ‘I voted for you, obviously you didn’t vote for me,’” Starr said. “‘So therefore when I need things done, council president…’”
Even Polensek, council’s gnarliest old thorn, is on Griffin’s side rather than in it. Not long ago, a cranky emailer needled Polensek about his longevity. He replied: “I am an old T-Rex dinosaur, however numb nuts, my teeth are still very sharp.” But you won’t catch him sinking those fossil fangs into Griffin’s hide.
Things were different with prior presidents. Martin Sweeney, in his farewell address, launched insults at Polensek from the council president’s dais, calling him “irrelevant and pathetic.”
Not Griffin. Griffin calls Polensek “the Dean.” Griffin calls him chair of the Safety Committee. What’s more, Griffin calls him back, and, for Polensek, phone calls are the coin of the realm. In his office, he keeps a handwritten log of the complaints that constituents call in. He and Griffin talk every day, he said.
“We’ve become very politically close,” Polensek said.
They are so close, in fact, that to slight Griffin is to insult Polensek, too. When Bibb and Gov. Mike DeWine held a news conference about crime, the two council members stood in the back of the room, behind the cameras. Polensek was miffed. Where was the council president’s well-deserved recognition?
“You know that bothered me more than it did him?” Polensek said. He added, reaching for words: “There’s this – like Blaine doesn’t exist. But he’s there, trying to hold this place together.”
Griffin knows the value of recognition. Politicians prize it, and he doles it out to his colleagues, whose support he needs. At his fundraiser in September, holding a microphone at the DJ booth at the Academy Tavern, he singled out council members for compliments.
On Starr, now age 34, the council member from Central: “Y’all are going to hear a lot about this guy.”
On Anthony Hairston, Ward 10, chair of the development committee: “If you want to handle money in the City of Cleveland, y’all better talk to Anthony.”
On Charles Slife, all the way from Kamm’s Corners, Ward 17: “One of my favorite guys.”
On Kris Harsh, the Old Brooklyn council member who organized a debate against participatory budgeting advocates: “Cleaned the clock of his debate competitors yesterday. I love this guy.”
On Jasmin Santana, majority whip, representing Clark-Fulton: “My Latina sister.”
He rustled up applause for former council members in attendance: “Once a council person, always a council person. It’s a fraternity. It’s a sorority.”
Occasionally, the rambunctious brothers and sisters of council buck their fraternity president. Late last year, they voted down a contract for the clerk of courts. A defeat on the floor was so rare that, for a few moments, it seemed council was taken aback. He later brought members around on the deal.
Brian Kazy, the West Park member who led the charge against that contract, is now running for clerk. Griffin supports his opponent, the longtime incumbent Earle Turner.
Nevertheless, Kazy enjoys the free rein that Griffin allows him. Kazy summed up his feelings about the council president simply: “He’s not a dictator.”
Dodging a dustup
Griffin won election as council president even though his candidate, Kelley, lost the mayor’s race. While Bibb and Kelley scrapped for votes in 2021, Griffin courted council members. Kerry McCormack, Bibb’s lone council endorsement and the member who represents downtown, Tremont and Ohio City, was running for president, too. So was Kazy.
During that race, McCormack said, he had been approached by people – political allies he wouldn’t name – who wanted him to dig up dirt on Griffin, to “smear him publicly.”
“I said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m not doing it,’” McCormack said. “I respect him. Tremendously. Tremendously. Wasn’t going to do that.”
They had seemed headed for a collision: McCormack and Bibb versus Griffin and Kelley. The two council members agreed to keep their contest clean. Then, in Griffin’s telling, they made an alliance.
“Once we got to that point,” Griffin said, “and then we started looking at where our votes were, we finally just figured out it was better for us to work together.”
McCormack became his majority leader. Brawl averted. The team of rivals was formed.
Walking the line on prodding the mayor
Griffin gives his council the freedom to poke the Bibb administration. Sometimes the mayor’s people come away with bruised ribs.
That’s what happened in June, when a $20 million contract for broadband internet was on the table. Council wasn’t sold and had questions for DigitalC, the nonprofit that stood to win the money.
Harsh, the quarrelsome Ward 13 freshman, questioned DigitalC CEO Joshua Edmonds like a prosecutor.
“On Sept. 14, you were in Miami with Mayor Bibb at a digital equity and inclusion summit, correct?” he asked.
“I wish,” Edmonds replied. “No, I was not in Miami.”
Harsh didn’t let it go. “Because there was something on Twitter where someone was upset about it…”
It was an odd detour. What happened in Miami? What was Harsh driving at?
Bradford Davy, the mayor’s chief of staff, didn’t like it. He emailed Harsh and Griffin after 9 p.m. that night.
“Your questions insinuated impropriety, suggesting that Mr. Edmonds was with Mayor Bibb and otherwise influenced the Mayor. This is both wildly inaccurate and inappropriate,” Davy wrote. “To attack the Mayor’s ethics here – based on Twitter comments, no less – is egregious.”
He continued: “Council President, you’ve been clear that we should not negotiate in public; we agree and think you will concur that we should not lobby false allegations at a hearing.”
In other words: Just what kind of council are you running over there, Blaine?
Griffin chimed in from his iPhone, playing the peacemaker, throwing a bone to both sides.
“Thank you Chief,” he wrote. “I always promote decorum at the table. I also encourage my colleagues to ask tough, probing questions. We will work on our end to maintain that line…There should never be (Real or Perceived) personal coming from anyone.”
As it turned out, Edmonds misspoke. He was at the conference after all, but said he didn’t cross paths with Bibb. Council dropped the issue and later passed the contract. It was just one more skirmish building up to the big fight.
‘We are doing more … than anybody else’
This July, bullets ripped down West Sixth Street, the heart of downtown nightlife, injuring nine. It made national news on a summer weekend. Later in the day, Bibb arrived on the scene and briefed the media.
Miles away, a teenager died in a shootout in Collinwood, Polensek’s home turf. The council member saw the pool of blood, he said. Where was the administration? Polensek made it known he would be taking City Hall to task about the violence at the next council meeting. The furious old T-Rex bit down.
When the time for the meeting came, council was there. The television cameras showed up. But the mayor – and all his staff – were absent. It gradually became clear that the mayor’s whole administration was boycotting the show. Bibb had stood them up. The mayor wasn’t going to sit around while council members berated him. Council howled at the insult.
Griffin the fighter sparked to life. This was indefensible, unacceptable, he said. He wouldn’t let council be a punching bag. His speech turned, as council rhetoric often does, to the great burden of City Council: the ceaseless calls from angry constituents and businesses. Council as the lightning rod for residents’ every storm. He fixed his eyes on the TV cameras.
“I got a message for the media,” he said. “While everybody talks about what council is doing, what council is not doing, we probably – no, not probably – we are doing more to engage our citizens and our public than anybody else in this city. Period.”
Griffin and Bibb met early the next afternoon to salvage their relationship. Soon after, the mayor’s office drafted a one-page list of ground rules for the two parties. Council calls and emails would get an administration response within three business days. Mayoral staff would “politely but firmly” correct misinformation voiced at council meetings.
“Except when there is an emergency, Chiefs and Directors will respond to texts and phone calls during regular business hours,” the document read.
This went over poorly with Griffin. No one was going to dictate orders to City Council, and certainly not via memo.
“I appropriately filed it away in my wastebasket,” Griffin said.
McCormack, caught between Bibb and City Council, figured both sides could cool their heads. Council could soften the criticism. And the administration shouldn’t see council as an enemy.
“Fundamentally, we are not an organization that is at war with the administration,” he said. “And there are members of the administration that think that way. And that leads to part of the problem.”
The summer blowup was not the final strained moment between council and the administration. Angry council members have held fiery tête-à-têtes with Davy in the last few months. Nevertheless, Polensek said council is not trying to “stick it” to Bibb – despite the administration’s “undercurrent” suggesting otherwise.
“This undercurrent that they’re peddling that this is council’s effort to hurt the mayor,” he said. “Or that this is the effort for Blaine to run for mayor.”
Griffin hasn’t revealed his 2025 intentions to him, Polensek said. The council president’s concern is elsewhere, he said. Griffin is busy holding down the lid on the pressure cooker of council.
“Let me tell you something, there’s a pressure cooker here,” Polensek said. “There’s a lot of people who ain’t happy.”
Griffin stands as the voice of No on Issue 38
As a candidate for mayor, Bibb had endorsed using participatory budgeting to divvy up $30 million in federal money. Now he was officially against Issue 38, which would dip a $14 million ladle into the city’s own bank account.
On paper, that put Bibb and Griffin on the same side of the PB ballot issue. But the mayor has been keeping his head down. Griffin has been left to run the opposition campaign and take the political hits.
Griffin demurred, though, when asked if he was frustrated with Bibb. Sure, more elected officials – not just the mayor – could be working to defeat PB, he said.
“What did the former Mayor Frank Jackson used to say, ‘It is what it is?’” Griffin said. “It is what it is.”
It was what it was. This was Griffin’s fight to win or lose.
In September, he had suffered a political defeat at his own hands. He pushed legislation that would have given council legal cover to oppose Issue 38, and take stands on other ballot issues, in city mailings. It was arguably above board in the eyes of the law, but the headline – Taxpayer Money For Politics – looked bad.
Bibb, who was in New York City at the time, issued a statement against the measure. Griffin relented. Hundreds of miles away, the mayor won the political point.
Boardrooms and streets
“My fight is not Justin Bibb.”
Griffin arrived at the end of his car tour. He had told Det. Redding to stop at Gordon Park on the Lake Erie shore, where Griffin’s grandfather used to fish and where, as a young man, he would go to take in the view of downtown.
“I’m not fighting the administration,” he continued. “I’m fighting for people, and the people who I love and care about.”
Council still gives the administration much of what it wants, Griffin argued. The council president thinks he gets along with the mayor, he said. He said he’s not fixated on it, though. Sure, there are people who’d like to see the two of them fight. But that’s not what matters.
“My relationship with Justin Bibb is – I just don’t think it’s relevant or not,” Griffin said. “What’s important to me is, are we making the right decisions for people?”
After college at Malone University in Canton, Griffin moved to Cleveland – the “big city,” as he remembered it – and found his way to this lakeside park. He led the East End Neighborhood House, worked political campaigns, ran community relations for Mayor Frank Jackson, then was appointed to the Ward 6 council seat when the late Mamie Mitchell was too sick to continue.
Now here he was, this Youngstown kid whose life could have gone sideways, feeling responsible for the city whose skyline rose down the shore. It was emotional, magical, he said.
When Griffin worked for Jackson, he weighed more than 290 pounds, he said. His blood pressure was high. He was fighting, arguing, out of shape. Then he decided not to carry so much anger with him. He learned from the “zen master,” Jackson himself. He has lost almost 50 pounds. He has a granddaughter now.
But if he was less of a brawler, he was still a broker in his eyes.
“If you ask people in boardrooms, in any of these skyscrapers, how’s your relationship with Blaine, they’ll tell you, ‘We can work with him,’” Griffin said. “If you asked a wino on the street, he’ll tell you, ‘He’s accessible, he’s approachable, he works with us.’”
He held up his phone, showing that he had texted with PB campaign leader Molly Martin. It was his way of saying that their disagreement wasn’t personal.
“I’m not here to be these folks’ mortal enemy,” he said. “I just believe in a position, and here I am.”
This is Griffin’s portrait of himself: He’s the guy who can deal with anyone, who can link the boardrooms and the streets. It sounded like a campaign slogan. He had decided not to run for mayor in 2021. But what about 2025?
“Do I feel that I have the experience and the political acumen and most importantly the love of public service to move up and actually do something more than council president? I do,” he said. “Time will tell what that may be.”
The ‘terrible burden’
Listen closely to the way Cleveland City Council members talk about their jobs, and you’ll get whiplash. A council seat is a higher calling, a position that demands respect. And it is a thankless trudge, full of neighbors’ miseries. It’s a worthy endeavor. It’s a punishing slog. Yet when their terms are almost up, here they come again, asking the voters to sentence them to another four years.
Don’t get it? You have to be there. And at the pinnacle of Blaine Griffin’s day, there was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was breaking ground on a major expansion. On the circular patio outside the hall, rows of chairs facing a stage filled with local VIPs.
The mayor arrived. He and Griffin shared a brief hello. Then Bibb offered a warm greeting to Vishaan Chakrabarti, the architect of the addition. Later, they took a selfie together as Griffin, seated a few feet away, hunched over his phone.
No act was required of the council president at the Rock Hall, nothing but sitting and watching. No shovel or branded hard hat would be pressed into his hands for the ceremonial hefting of the dirt. Griffin was not on stage.
Bibb was. With him were the county executive, the speaker of the Ohio House, a smattering of other officials and a roster of seasoned musicians: Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas, Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, and Charlotte Caffey and Gina Schock of the Go-Go’s.
There were speeches and songs. As a tribute to Moore, Reeves belted Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Afterward, Rock Hall CEO Greg Harris reached for the microphone, but Reeves wasn’t done. He took her hand instead and escorted her to the front of the stage.
“I have a few things I’d like to say, because I’m an elected official, retired from four years on the Detroit City Council,” Reeves said. Harris smiled and nodded along.
“And Mr. Mayor…” she continued.
Bibb slipped his phone into his suit jacket pocket and looked up at her.
“You’re a baby,” Reeves told the millennial mayor. “Cleveland has lost its mind.”
The mayor flashed his broad smile and guffawed. Griffin buried his head in his left hand in a look of disbelief. A wave of surprised laughter swelled over the scene. Then came the next punchline.
“And you’re fine, too,” she said.
She turned to the audience and asked the council members to stand. “From one council member to the other, that’s one of the hardest jobs I ever overtook,” she said.
Reeves told a story of a woman who threatened her at a council meeting, who said she knew where Reeves lived.
“So I had one of my aides to catch her at the door and tell her I know where she lives, too,” she said. “I’m from Detroit. I’m from Motown.”
Afterward, Polensek tried to round up the council members. They needed a photo with Reeves. They waited on the crowd side of the stage barricade like groupies. Bibb was back there, chatting. The mayor emerged from behind the barricade, traded a joke with Griffin and went on his way.
Then it was council’s turn. Polensek, Griffin and Harsh jostled through the small throng of people and came shoulder to shoulder with Reeves. “Dancing in the Street,” Martha and the Vandellas’ big hit, played on the loudspeakers. Polensek beamed for the camera. His face was all dinosaur-toothed grin.
“Martha Reeves,” he said. “The only one who recognized Cleveland City Council!”
That wasn’t strictly true. Earlier, Harris had rattled off a list of council members’ names like a roll call. But Reeves offered something better. She gave them credit. She acknowledged the weight of their load. She showed she was one of them, a Motown member of the City Council fraternity.
“Councilwoman, it’s a terrible burden, isn’t it?” Harsh said.
Later that afternoon, as Redding wheeled the Explorer back to the City Hall garage, the moment with Reeves came back to Griffin. Here was someone who understood City Council, who knew what it took.
“Quote of the day is Martha Reeves, baby,” Griffin announced from the front seat. “Martha Reeves said that’s the hardest damn job she ever had. She ain’t never lied.”