Hear Mayor Justin Bibb in his own words and listen in as Nick Castele shares additional insights (28:04).
An image of the youthful new mayor of Cleveland smiled from a banner at the Futureland startup conference. Hands folded in front of him, he rose above the skyline of the city that – for now – is his.
Mayor Justin Bibb himself sat not far away on a stage in Tower City Center’s atrium. He was giving the opening talk for this conference highlighting diversity in technology and the arts. The gathering reflected Bibb’s own fledgling public persona: young, aspirational and aimed at raising the stature of this modest city.
“For nearly two decades, I believe, Cleveland has been asleep at the wheel in terms of selling ourselves,” Bibb told his interviewer, Gund Foundation President Anthony Richardson, who sat in a chair beside him.
Bibb, 35, is Cleveland’s first new mayor in 16 years. He is a fresh face in an old town sometimes called, gently, a “legacy city.” He was also in the middle of a turbulent autumn, one that ruffled the composure that usually fits him like a tailored suit.
It was not yet nine in the morning. Some five dozen people had found their way through the cavernous Tower City Center to listen to Bibb while drinking coffee and eating fruit and pastries.
In the mayor’s telling, Cleveland trailed the pack as America recovered from the Great Recession.
“And in that moment, Columbus kicked our butts, Pittsburgh kicked our butts, Indianapolis, Austin, the list goes on,” he said. “And so we always have to be selling our assets as a city, and I view my role as mayor truly as the chief sales officer for the city.”
The mayor, as chief sales officer, sat on a black couch, the hem of his gray slacks rising high enough to reveal a monogram on his right sock, just above the ankle: “JMB,” Justin Morris Bibb.
Far fewer Clevelanders knew that name just a couple of years ago. This is the first elected office that Bibb has ever held. Before that, he was a business and law school graduate, a consultant, a name growing in recognition among Cleveland’s young professionals. He had never before been on the ballot until, last year, he claimed the highest office in the city from far more seasoned adversaries.
Now, his name spans signs announcing public works projects. It is the subject of news headlines. It graces the social media posts of candidates hoping to capture some of his luck.
A recording of Bibb’s baritone welcomes visitors to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport – an airport the often-traveling mayor has passed through many times as he sells the city in Washington, Miami and Reno.
At Futureland’s opening fireside chat, the source of that baritone described the new Cleveland he wants to bring into being over the next three and a half years.
“The hardest part of this job of being mayor is, No. 1, obviously focusing on the important basics of keeping the streets safe, keeping our city clean, making sure our young people have good things to do when they leave school,” he said in response to an audience question, “but at the same time, not getting distracted, on still focusing on executing the big, bold, transformative things I want to do in this city. We can and must do both in this moment.”
Doing both: that is the challenge – or, at worst, the trap – that Bibb has set for himself.
As a candidate, Bibb promised a mayoralty with more daring and panache than the caution of retiring incumbent Frank Jackson. It was a pledge Bibb summed up on the stump with oft-repeated adjectives: “bold, dynamic, visionary.”
Bibb also promised something else, something more humdrum: a “modern and responsive City Hall.” A city that mows its vacant lots, responds to its residents’ complaints and roots out dysfunction from its basic services.
There was a third promise, too: to reform Cleveland’s police department with Issue 24, the far-reaching charter amendment that shared the ballot with Bibb.
After his talk, the mayor shook some hands, chatted with Richardson and departed for the next appointment. It was a smooth and successful mayoral engagement. But Bibb’s poise would soon be shaken.
The next day, the mayor stood on the front steps of Cleveland City Hall alongside nominees to the Community Police Commission. The body was created by Cleveland’s 2015 police consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. Issue 24 granted the commission broad new disciplinary powers and called for a slate of new members.
Activists who had campaigned for Issue 24 stood at either end of the mayor’s group. They weren’t there to celebrate. They were unhappy that Bibb’s roster of nominees lacked a lawyer and a relative of someone killed by police.
Just as Bibb finished reading nominees’ names, one activist, Kareem Henton, strode between the mayor and the TV cameras. Henton pulled an air horn from his pocket and sounded it.
Bibb tried to talk over the noise. Then, for a moment, it seemed that the mayor would allow Henton to have the floor.
“Take your time. State your comment, sir,” Bibb said.
Henton began to say something that was hard to hear in the commotion. The mayor continued talking, raising his voice and wagging a finger.
“Listen, last year, I was the only – only – major candidate in this race to endorse Issue 24,” Bibb said. “We led an extensive public engagement process with community leaders, faith leaders and legal experts in this city, and we look forward to getting this done. Thank you.”
With a curt nod, the mayor turned and re-entered City Hall, bringing the event to an abrupt end. Henton’s air horn squealed behind him. A few people on the steps applauded weakly.
Not an hour later, Bibb was back at Futureland, tieless, sharing a couch with sports agent and Cleveland native Rich Paul. They spoke to a packed room in the Flats East Bank about building a business and striving for success. Balance was restored.
The last few months have tested Bibb.
In September, Eric Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, announced he would be leaving the job at the end of the school year. The news dismayed Gordon’s supporters.
Some city unions – including snowplow drivers – threatened to strike over contract talks. Then came the protest on the steps of City Hall that upstaged Bibb. Soon after, the mayor walked out of an interview with WEWS-TV when the conversation turned to the city’s bungled leaf-collection policy.
Two weeks after the City Hall protest, in an interview with Signal Cleveland in the mayor’s tapestry-covered office at City Hall, Bibb said he accepted difficulties as part of the job.
“Considering all we inherited, all the headwinds that we had to confront, I think we’ve shown the residents of Cleveland that there’s a new energy in the city, that there’s a mayor who’s willing to collaborate and think boldly, and that I will never be satisfied with the status quo,” he said.
Bibb sat at a circular table near a window, legs crossed. His communications chief took notes on the conversation. The mayor continued with his thought, switching to the third person.
“And that he may not get things right all the time, but he will listen, will admit a mistake, take responsibility, get back up the next morning and fight to do better,” he said.
The administration has gotten back up to fight for its police commission nominees. The nominees have starred in videos on the city’s social media channels. They’ve delivered public comments at Cleveland City Council meetings. One of Bibb’s communications aides spoke with a nominee in council chambers before her turn at the microphone recently.
The charter amendment called for members who represent a long list of identities and experiences, including litigators and those affected by police violence. In the city’s interpretation, that list is not a litany of requirements to follow to a T. A commissioner need only be knowledgeable of the listed experiences, the city argues. That view frustrates the activists who campaigned for the amendment.
“We wanted to make sure that we fulfilled the merit and the intent and the spirit of the amendment, and we’ve done that,” Bibb told Signal Cleveland. “I can’t help the fact that people might agree that it was poorly written. I didn’t write it. My job is to implement it.”
Bibb didn’t write the amendment, but he endorsed it last year. What’s more, he ran on it. Support for the ballot issue became a defining difference between Bibb and his general election opponent, Kevin Kelley.
The activists who shut down Bibb’s event had backed him on the ballot. They had even passed out campaign literature urging Clevelanders to support Bibb and vote yes on Issue 24. Bibb won 63 percent of the vote; the charter amendment won 60 percent.
The City Hall protest, almost a year after that election, caught him off guard.
“I welcome their critiques. I welcome their concerns,” Bibb said. “But what’s frustrating to me, as mayor, is, probably more so than any other mayor in a long time in Cleveland’s history, I have gone above and beyond to make sure we have more voices in the room to move this city forward. And so we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Bibb said he’ll try to win over his detractors, but that he’ll never convince everyone to agree with him. According to the mayor, just a “handful of people” are contesting his interpretation of the charter amendment.
Henton, one of that handful, accused the mayor’s law director of looking for loopholes in Issue 24. The commission ought to count an attorney as one of its members, Henton said.
“We need them there,” Henton told Signal Cleveland. “We’re dealing with police misconduct in this. Why would we not have legal representation?”
A shakeup at the schools
When Eric Gordon revealed his looming departure as CEO of the Cleveland schools, public reaction quickly slipped from the mayor’s control.
Bibb has said that leaving was Gordon’s decision. Cleveland.com reported that the mayoral-appointed school board had been ready to renew Gordon’s contract. Bibb said he and Gordon hadn’t had a chance to talk about their visions for the district.
The mayor and Gordon initially met weekly, according to Bibb’s public calendars. Later, those meetings became monthly. Bibb told Signal Cleveland the two had been focused on putting out fires, not hashing out CMSD’s future.
Criticism followed. The Plain Dealer editorial board wrote that Bibb had disrespected Gordon by leaving his job security uncertain. In the pages of alternative weekly Cleveland Scene, anonymous voices cast the young mayor as out of his depth on education.
The leader of the Cleveland Teachers Union told Ideastream Public Media she had concerns about a proposed policy change, supported by Bibb, that could alter how school levy dollars flow to charter schools that enroll Cleveland students.
On the floor of Cleveland City Council in early November, Ward 13 Council Member Kris Harsh – a CMSD parent who previously worked to unionize charter school teachers – called on Bibb to woo Gordon back.
“Mr. Mayor, I urge you,” Harsh said, while Bibb sat not far away. “It’s not too late. We can patch this. We can fix this mistake. We can keep Eric Gordon, and I ask you to do that.”
If Gordon’s news stunned Cleveland, the reaction to it took Bibb unawares.
“I was surprised at the level of rumor-mill speculation and how much media upheaval there was around it,” the mayor said.
The mayor has hired a new education advisor, Holly Trifiro, formerly of Teach for America. He conducted an educational listening tour. Bibb has denied suggestions that a disagreement over charter schools prompted Gordon’s departure. Everyone is, in Bibb’s words, “aligned” around Cleveland’s 10-year-old school transformation plan.
But the new mayor also said that he brings a different perspective to education than his mayoral predecessor did. Bibb said he wants change to happen faster.
He pointed to his own mother, with whom he is close. Though educated by Cleveland public schools, she made sure to send her son elsewhere. Bibb attended Christian schools, Shaker Heights public schools and Trinity, a Catholic high school in Garfield Heights. Bibb referred to other Clevelanders he’s met who are concerned about or dissatisfied with CMSD.
“I’m going to have a deep point of view and ask hard questions and challenge our status-quo thinking on how we think about public education, because our kids can’t wait for change,” Bibb said. He continued: “I think a lot of people aren’t used to that kind of critique, but that’s what I was elected to do.”
Bibb picked up that theme later in the interview with Signal Cleveland, moving beyond education.
“For a lot of people, they were so used to having the same mayor for nearly two decades,” he said, “and my approach to the job has been so different, that for a lot of people it’s been a shock to the system, and they’re still adjusting.”
A young team, moving fast
Bibb campaigned on the slogan “Cleveland can’t wait.” His own resume resembles a sprint: Gallup, a civic participation nonprofit, Cuyahoga County government, a consultancy, business and law school, Key Bank, an urban policy nonprofit. Then, mayor of Cleveland.
He gravitated toward politics at Trinity High School around the 2004 presidential election. The editors of the yearbook asked what he would do if elected president of the United States. “I would do my best to instill a sense of purpose in the nation, in hopes that each individual citizen could achieve the American Dream,” Bibb replied. In a photo caption, the editors called him “The Senator.”
“He’s definitely someone who has charted a path for himself,” said Teleangé Thomas, a friend and the chief operations and relationship officer at JumpStart. “He’s been mindful and intentional, has leveraged great opportunities and gotten the most out of those opportunities to position him to lead a city.”
Thomas met Bibb when she was working on Ohio Homecoming, which staged concerts and New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cleveland. She is older than he is, but they were both young Black professionals in a city that expected its upstarts to pay their dues first.
“There is a real hunger, energy and desire of our 30-somethings and 20-somethings, but mostly 30-somethings, who are stepping up and raising their hand to say, ‘Choose me,’” she said.
Thomas worked with the mayor’s office and others to plan Futureland. Bibb nominated her to the Port of Cleveland board in March.
In Bibb, Cleveland’s young professionals saw one of their own. He ran strongest in the primary in wards that covered downtown and the Near West Side, home to many millennials. Bibb himself lives in a new downtown apartment building. By his own account, he has “like 14” houseplants. Tending to them is therapeutic, he said.
A cadre of young professionals has followed him to City Hall. His chief strategy officer — one of two jobs in the mayor’s office akin to chief of staff — is 35. His chief of government affairs is 32. The aide tasked with reimagining the century-old West Side Market turned 30 this year.
The mayor is willing to embrace new ideas. After a news conference in October announcing a survey of the city’s housing conditions, Bibb turned to a Signal Cleveland reporter. He floated what would be a major policy change for the city’s housing market.
“So this might be pretty controversial, but I’m going to explore – and I don’t know, council might be divided on this – I want to explore point-of-sale inspections in the city of Cleveland,” he said. “If it’s good for the suburbs, why couldn’t it be good enough for the city of Cleveland?”
The city has set up removable speed bumps on streets where drivers hit the gas too hard. The administration plans to turn West Side Market operations over to a new nonprofit. A paid family leave proposal for city employees is under consideration.
“They have meaningfully shifted the culture in City Hall from a ‘no’ culture to a ‘yes’ culture,” said Council Member Kerry McCormack, an ally of the mayor.
When recording artist Machine Gun Kelly wanted to ride a zip line to the concert stage at FirstEnergy Stadium, Bibb’s City Hall made it happen. City building and housing workers approved and kept an eye on the plans before the Saturday show. “Thanks, a ton!!!” Bibb wrote in an email to staff afterward.
Has Bibb’s team learned how to pull City Hall’s old levers? “I would say that they’re learning,” McCormack said, emphasizing the -ing.
The new administration has stumbled as it learns.
In February, the mayor announced two nominees to the board of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. Only afterward did it become clear that he intended to fire a sitting member, too: Valarie McCall, an aide to Frank Jackson who was a liaison to Bibb’s transition. Council President Blaine Griffin rose in McCall’s defense. Bibb backed down; only one person was nominated.
Bibb announced in April that he would expunge low-level marijuana convictions. He and Griffin carted boxes of court records through the Justice Center in a flourish for the news cameras. Then the plan stalled. Judges said that defendants – not the city – must make the first move for an expungement.
At the beginning of November, the Bibb administration unexpectedly announced it would curtail a leaf pickup program that served about a third of Cleveland. City workers needed time to prepare for the snow season, Bibb said. Council was blindsided. Outrage followed. It was too late in the year to make such a change. Bibb restored the service and admitted the mistake.
“Sometimes, in order to move fast with the right level of information, data, buy-in, you can take two steps back,” he said. “And that’s been the biggest lesson for me as mayor, that it’s okay to move slow in order to get it right.”
The mayor speaks the language of business school. He talks about identifying “pain points.” He won’t just over prepare for the snow, he’ll “over-index” on it. To emphasize a point, he’ll punctuate a sentence with, “That’s critical.”
He has unleashed a blizzard of requests for proposals this year. Bibb has sought consultants to chart a course for lakefront development, to allow parking meters to take credit cards, to determine the value of Burke Lakefront Airport, to plan the future for city parks, to audit how City Hall actually works.
But after the consultants hand in their reports, someone will still have to do the work of making their ideas stick. The mayor does not believe he is biting off more than his team can chew. He said he is laying the groundwork for change in the future.
“It’s my job as mayor to set the right conditions for that big, bold change,” Bibb said. “But this is a 10-, 15-, 20-, 30-year effort that I am trying to kick off as mayor. And the other thing I would say: People have to also recognize what their role in this change is going to look like. This is not just a ‘me’ as mayor, this is the ‘we.’”
Part of the “we” at City Hall is Cleveland City Council, which approves the mayor’s spending. Bibb entered office with few political allies on the 17-member body. Only Kerry McCormack had endorsed him.
Griffin, the 51-year-old new council president, had backed Bibb’s opponent, Kevin Kelley. In a memorable turn of phrase last year, Griffin had described the election as “the boardroom” versus “the streets” – with Bibb representing the board.
The election behind them, Bibb and Griffin have been getting to know one another. They meet every week or two. Griffin has described himself as neither Bibb’s cheerleader nor the mayor’s detractor. If council ever wielded a rubber stamp in the past, Griffin has made clear that the stamp is now stowed away in a drawer.
Council this year closed a loophole – created for the Jackson administration – that allowed the office of sustainability more leeway on spending.
The body threw cold water on Bibb’s idea to hire outside advisors to shape the city’s federal stimulus spending. The mayor’s office and council are now working out together how to spend hundreds of millions of stimulus dollars.
The administration has tried its hand at lobbying the body. On social media recently, the mayor urged council to approve his police commission nominees. Council had just set dates for hearings.
Griffin is 16 years older than Bibb and worked for Jackson before being appointed to council. He has been around City Hall – and Cleveland politics – for a while now, but he’s careful to say he’s not a “back-in-the-day” council member. Griffin said he embraces change, too. He presides over a body that includes several new members.
This first year of this new, younger era at City Hall has been marked by a “lot of learning curves, a lot of trial and error, a lot of risk-taking, a lot of growth,” he told Signal Cleveland.
“Between any executive branch of government and legislative branch of government, there’s going to be a healthy tension,” Griffin said. “The problem becomes if it becomes toxic. And I think both sides have worked right now to make sure that there’s a healthy tension, and I think both of us are the better for it.”
‘None of our neighborhoods should look like this’
Early in August, on a walk with civic leaders through the Hough neighborhood, Bibb shared some news with Terry McNeil. McNeil lives in Hough and often cajoles the city to do better with basics like fixing streets, plowing snow and mowing grass.
Bibb’s news was that the city would try planting clover, rather than grass, in vacant lots, McNeil said. Clover doesn’t grow as tall, meaning workers would be able to mow less frequently. High grass is a constant summer complaint.
McNeil supported Bibb last year. But lately he’s grown frustrated with the pace of progress. He thinks Cleveland could use better gear and procedures to cut grass and clear snowy streets. He sends his ideas to city officials, whether they like it or not.
“There has been somewhat of a culture shift, but it ain’t enough,” McNeil told Signal Cleveland. As for the clover idea – well, “Clover’s invasive,” he said.
Bibb said it takes time to change how City Hall works – how it buys equipment, for instance, or how long it takes to hire. The mayor has revamped snow plow routes. He plans to overhaul the city’s 311 resident complaint line, adding an online option and an after-hours call-taking service.
But McNeil’s complaints point to a truth about Cleveland in 2022: Many neighborhoods are in distress, and have been for quite some time. The scars of the foreclosure crash are all around. The city is fighting against decay.
“None of our neighborhoods should look like this,” McNeil said.
City Hall has limited resources, and limited workers, too. Building inspectors are performing a new citywide property survey – adding more tasks to the department’s duties. Police officers are retiring, and retiring and retiring.
The force is around 300 officers below its budgeted strength of 1,600, and more retirements are looming. Homicides are down from last year, but the number of killings in the city remains high. Bibb wants to hire a consultant to evaluate just how many officers the city truly needs.
“Historically, the chiefs would just make up a number and give it to council in every budget, without that being informed by data,” he said.
Perhaps some desk jobs within the division of police could be turned over to civilians, leaving more uniformed officers to work the streets, he said. His administration negotiated pay bumps for police officers – leading some other city unions to demand similar raises.
To those anxious to see the new mayor make change, Kerry McCormack, the council member, advises patience. The City of Cleveland is not a nimble vessel.
“I always tell people, you’re not turning a jet ski, you’re turning a Great Lakes ore ship,” he said.
Bibb has also been making use of a different mode of transportation, boarding planes destined for conferences and events around the country.
As of the end of October, he had traveled five times to Washington, D.C., and three times to Miami as mayor. He spoke at South by Southwest in Austin and attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors summer meeting in Reno, Nevada. He shared the stage with the mayor of New Orleans at the Aspen Ideas: Climate conference in Miami Beach. He spoke with the CEO of Siemens USA in Detroit. He has visited the White House. He travels with security.
The mayor was in the nation’s capital in the third week of his term when heavy snowfall hit Cleveland and stopped buses in their tracks. He declined an invitation to visit the United Nations climate conference in Egypt this fall. Bibb said he needed to prepare for the snow.
Bibb said he’s been building the city’s connection with the Biden administration. In April, after one D.C. trip, he had dinner in Cleveland with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, according to both men’s public calendars. He defends his frequent travels.
“We haven’t had a president since FDR who’s investing in cities like President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris,” Bibb said. “And it would be a shame if I sat behind my desk every single day and [did] not fight and go to D.C. to get our fair share of resources, considering we are the second-poorest city in the country right now.”
Bibb said these efforts are already bearing fruit. But they’re no guarantee. The city lost a bid this summer for $10 million from the U.S. Transportation Department. Secretary Pete Buttigieg awarded a giant check in Sandusky, instead.
In addition to putting Cleveland on Washington’s radar, are these trips also about raising Bibb’s own political profile? The mayor brushes off the suggestion.
“No. Being mayor of Cleveland is the best job I could ever have in politics,” he told Signal Cleveland. “And the only thing I’m focused on is closing out the year strong, taking stock of what worked well this year, what didn’t work well, and how do I be a better mayor this year and the day after that, and, God willing, run for re-election and make the case to voters.”
Mayor for now
It is near the end of Bibb’s first year in office, and while he is thinking about a second term, he doesn’t want to be mayor for life.
He stood last week in a gymnasium at the Phillis Wheatley Association community center in the Central neighborhood. It is a 10-minute walk from the home of Cleveland’s longest-serving mayor, Frank Jackson.
Bibb had just concluded an evening neighborhood meeting with Ward 5 Council Member Richard Starr. People crowded around Bibb to say hello and share the problems they needed him to solve.
A 66-year-old woman with an image of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” on her T-shirt asked for a photo with Bibb. She bent his ear about a public housing estate and a local liquor store that’s been a source of trouble. Then she told him not to worry.
“We can’t pressure you with all this stuff,” she said.
“The list is long,” he replied cheerfully and continued down an aisle of chairs, his driver and an aide following.
People come to Bibb with so many things, the woman, who declined to give her name, told Signal Cleveland. She said she had gone to Jackson, too.
“He can’t fix it overnight,” she said of Bibb. “This is a process that’s going to take years.”
Hello by hello, Bibb moved to the back of the gym, through a hallway and into the building’s lobby, where he met an older woman who had shared her address earlier in the night. Bibb repeated the address back to her to show he remembered.
Outside, there was one more person to greet in this city that resembles a small town – Delores Gray, who briefly served on Cleveland City Council and whose twin sister now represents Ward 4.
Then, the crowd finally behind him, the wind catching the bottom of his long coat, Bibb turned the corner onto East 43rd Street, climbed into his black SUV with his driver and rolled away.