On a cool evening in early May, Justin Bibb is out knocking on doors, canvassing a series of blocks on Cleveland’s far west side with his 31-year-old campaign manager Ryan Puente, the former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party. In his pearl-colored Walter Hagen polo, bright gold wristwatch and tortoiseshell specs, Bibb, a candidate for mayor, resembles more of an espresso-drinking coastal architect than your typical Rust Belt politician. As he jogs from door-to-door, Bibb shouts loudly through his facemask: “Hi! I’m Justin Bibb! I’m running for Mayor of Cleveland!”
As Bibb tours the block, as he will do nightly until the September 14 primary, he entertains a range of responses. Some residents have already settled on Dennis Kucinich as their candidate. Others recognize Bibb’s smile from a Zoom talk, and are intrigued by his bold policy ideas or his unwavering eye contact. And for those who don’t recognize him at all, Bibb lays on his full-voiced pitch—“I want to bring new energy, fresh ideas to City Hall”—coupled with an ear for the big concerns of the neighborhood, from community policing to securing a city-wide recycling contract.
At one stop, high on West 114th, Bibb walks up the drive to meet resident John Lusk, 75. John says he’s a Republican, and if he votes, it’ll most likely be for Kucinich.
“Are you well-known enough?” Lusk asks Bibb.
“I’m trying to be,” Bibb quips.
“Well, that’s how Republicans won Ohio,” Lusk says. “They went door to door. Hard work campaigning. Personal, face-to-face contact.”
“Well, sir, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Bibb says.
A crowded field
A relative outsider candidate with a youthful appeal, Bibb is running for mayor in one of the most competitive local elections in decades. At 34, he joins a crowded ticket of mayoral candidates—mostly veterans of City Council, like Zack Reed, Basheer Jones and Kevin Kelley—that vow to be the change candidate to carry Cleveland out of its pandemic woes. More pressingly, most candidates say, they will jolt us out of the status quo sleepiness of the Frank Jackson administration.
But Bibb himself has a huge task as the ticket’s youngest frontrunner. With voter turnout down as low as 13 percent in some Cleveland wards, Bibb is vying to vault over the hurdles of the pandemic while also stoking participation where it’s been declining for years. His tactic, even at COVID-19’s close, seems to be old-fashioned retail politics: Show up (masked) where voters are at. Win them with a handshake and a smile. Repeat until the September primary.
“There’s just this spectrum of engagement and lack of engagement throughout the city,” Bibb said. “Some are asking about my policy agenda. Other parts of the city, they’ve lost hope. In fact, we were canvassing in Glenville last month, and a resident didn’t even know whether or not Frank Jackson was still the mayor.”
After 16 years as Cleveland’s longest-running mayor, Frank Jackson is a somewhat polarizing figure to nearly all of this year’s mayoral hopefuls. At 74, the same age as former mayor and prospective candidate Dennis Kucinich, Jackson is considered a symbol of a status quo that attained some big improvements—like the growth of downtown and Cleveland schools’ increased graduation rate—but failed to stem long-standing problems, such as the use-of-force protocols that led to the police consent decree and the continued decline of many east side neighborhoods.
But to candidates like Bibb and others, Cleveland’s decade-long decline in voter turnout is linked to City Hall’s lack of transparency, trumpeting of big development over people, and lack of big ideas for reversing the city’s slide. Others point to the persistent lack of a public comment period in City Council—allowing residents to talk face-to-face with the politicians that represent them—as another cause of the lack of civic engagement that plagues Cleveland communities.
On January 12, Bibb formally announced his candidacy via YouTube Livestream, nearly a year after hiring a five-person staff and securing $180,000 in funding by December, from both in-state and out-of-state donors. By then, he’d secured his image as the data-driven change politico, the progressive mayor who “would modernize an outdated City Hall.”
“What COVID has exposed for our city is that the old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore,” Bibb said, in a 14-minute-long speech to friends, family and potential constituents. “Our reliance on the status quo is a sickness. Our inability to have a sense of urgency continues to defer way too many dreams.”
Calling out Jackson’s neglect, Bibb lays down what may be his own Yes We Can. “Cleveland can’t wait. We can’t wait,” he said. “And I can’t wait.”
A Millennial go-getter
Born to a social worker mother and a first responder father, Bibb grew up shielded from the late 80s crack-cocaine epidemic at the hand of protective guardians. (His grandmother, Sarah Presley, used to have a sign on her door that said, “I Don’t Call 9-1-1” with a picture of a gun beside it.) Bespectacled, studious and sometimes bullied as a kid, according to family, a young Bibb saw a possible future in theater, or even as a D-1 varsity basketball player. When he tore his meniscus at one game, his mother, Charlene Nichols, urged Bibb to focus on a budding interest in public speaking.
This talent blossomed when Bibb was 12 and was asked to act out Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at Mount Haven Baptist Church.
“Oh, he just tore the house down,” Charlene recalled. “You could see the fire on his face. My son was destined for greatness.”
A possible political foray unfolded in Bibb’s 20s, as did a love of cities and urbanism. As a freshman at American University, he interned for then-Senator Barack Obama, then for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. After earning his degree in Urban Studies—American University’s first major of its kind—Bibb shuffled between high-level jobs in D.C. and Cleveland. He advised midsize city mayors for Gallup and developed corporate strategy as Key Bank’s Vice President of Corporate Strategy.
Today, Bibb’s resume easily distinguishes him as a late millennial go-getter: He’s on five boards of trustees, has lived in four major cities, started three nonprofits, and worked for three political campaigns. The only title that seems to be missing is elected officeholder.
Bibb’s civic-minded philosophy was born early. After a year spent advising Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, he watched voter turnout in the 2013 mayoral election drop by 127,000 votes from 2009. Bibb drew one awful conclusion: “We don’t care.”
That June, Bibb, then a sharp-dressed 23-year-old just a few years out of American University, walked on stage for a TEDx Talk at Cleveland State University. In less than seven minutes, Bibb set down his data-laced urbanist philosophy on how to raise Cleveland out of political apathy: Invest in people, not infrastructure.
“Until city leaders calculate civic voice and civic engagement into their bottom line, Cleveland will continue to lose population,” Bibb said at the time. “If we think this is a place where we can’t make change, we’ll go somewhere else.”
Despite Bibb’s youthful idealism, energy and a list of new ideas might not be enough to combat low name recognition. A March poll by Baldwin Wallace University found that only 5 percent of respondents had even heard of Bibb. A February poll of 3,000 residents, also led by BW, produced similar results. In contrast, almost 60 percent of people said they were “very familiar” with Kucinich.
Moreover, change candidates don’t always sell voters. Mayoral hopefuls Raymond Pierce and Ken Lanci, candidates in 2001 and 2013, respectively, ran on change platforms against the status quo. Both had very little experience in Cleveland politics. Both lost.
Ellen Connally, a retired judge and former president of Cuyahoga County Council, worries that Bibb could succumb to the same future as both Lanci and Pierce—failing to convince the local diehards who will make up the bulk of the submitted ballots. And like Pierce, Bibb’s flashy East Coast resume might mean zilch to voters in the hardest-hit Cleveland neighborhoods.
“To the guy on Lee and Harvard, I don’t think him living in D.C. or London is going to mean anything,” Connally said. “But what are you going to do about Shaker Square?”
Rousing sleepy voters
A respected voice in Cleveland’s Black community, Connally took it upon herself to call Bibb out for his out-of-state campaign spending and political naïveté in an op-ed back in March. Although she doesn’t think Bibb will win the fall primary, she admires his attempt to win the neighborhoods with a strong on-the-ground initiative. That, she says, might be his only way to win voters who aren’t diehards, along with new ones ready for a fresh political era post-COVID.
“I think people are tired of Frank [Jackson] and his humdrum,” Connally says, “so when someone comes around that’s new and exciting, they perk up, they listen.”
“But,” she adds, “shaking hands doesn’t always guarantee votes.”
The goal to rouse sleepy voters isn’t just Bibb’s isolated tactic. A crop of fresh-faced council candidates are going door to door in city neighborhoods in what promises to be one of the most competitive local elections in decades. In Ward 12, which includes Slavic Village and parts of Tremont and Old Brooklyn, Rebecca Maurer, 32, is running for Council with a similar forward-thinking mentality. An attorney by trade, Maurer, who lives in Slavic Village, spent the last few months knocking on 1,500 doors in a grassroots push to energize apathetic voters. A hundred doorstep conversations later, she’s compiled a swath of complaints—tree lawns not being kept up, an eight-month delay to sign a city rebate program, a resident who waited six weeks for, Maurer says, “a simple awning for their little coffee shop.”
“Number one rule with City Hall: Respond to every dang phone call,” she said.
Year after year these types of complaints pile up, Maurer added, and result in the apathy she sees in her own ward, which had a meager 10 percent turnout in the 2017 primary.
“I think it’s completely rational that thousands of Clevelanders get this message,” she said, “and think, ‘Why bother showing up to vote? Why bother even getting involved?’”
In Ward 4, where suspended councilman Ken Johnson’s embezzlement case has furthered doubts, 38-year-old Ashley Evans runs on similar optimism. Her outreach is similar to Bibb’s: Be in person as much as possible, whether that be block club meetings, Mother’s Day canvassing (with wildflower packets in hand), or a $10 outdoor aerobics class in partnership with Bolt Fitness—“not your $200 plated fundraiser”.
“I want people to see me,” Evans says. “I am your neighbor, I grew up here, I’m not transitory in the sense that I’ll fall away and disappear.”
From up to down
Bibb’s policy ideas are also about as different from Jackson’s as one could imagine. He talks about updating parking meters with credit-card readers, installing City Hall satellite service kiosks in every library, and sending along a mental health worker on nonviolent 911 calls. It’s a modernization philosophy that runs through his ideas for enforcing the police Consent Decree, ramping up the Cleveland Plan to improve the city’s schools, or developing a new Office of Economic Recovery to decide how to spend the $511 million from the American Recovery Plan. His platform, he says, “would modify the entire culture of City Hall, from up to down.”
The impetus, he says, is to reshape years of Cleveland’s inferiority complex.
“You think about the narrative of the Mistake on the Lake, this defeatist mentality,” Bibb said. “And that alone undermines the ability to inspire ourselves as a public. It’s, ‘Oh, we have to be risk-averse, because we don’t want to set our expectations too high.’”
The question for Bibb, as his name on the ballot becomes official, is whether or not the public will be inspired by the door-to-door handshaking of a young optimist.
Back in early May, nearly a dozen or so residents promised Bibb their vote just because he showed up on their doorstep. In reality, Bibb and Puente won’t have enough time before the primaries to canvas the entire city, but those like Connally think he’ll have a standing chance if the team focuses on reawakening apathetic voters.
Even those like John the Republican. After a 15 minute back-and-forth about their shared alma mater and the Jackson administration, Bibb says goodbye with his trained smile. As Bibb and Puente are walking back to the sidewalk, John shouts, “You’re the first guy to come around who’s impressed me!”
Bibb waves on the sidewalk. He’s already skipping to the next address.
“You can’t let someone saying, ‘Oh, I already made up my mind’, get to you,” he says. “You can’t take it personally. It’s not about you. It’s about something bigger.”
To learn more about Justin Bibb’s campaign for mayor, visit www.bibbforcle.com.
Mark Oprea is a Cleveland-based writer who has written for National Public Radio, Pacific Standard, and many others.
Correction: This article previously incorrectly identified Bibb as Key Bank’s CSO. He served as its Vice President of Corporate Strategy.