Ryan Puente, Cleveland’s new chief government affairs officer, collects memorabilia from local African-American campaigns. “There’s a rich history in Cleveland’s black political scene,” Puente said recently. The Parma man has interviewed some 75 people for a biography of the late politician Arnold Pinkney, “a master strategist” and one of the trailblazers who “paved the way in Cleveland’s rough and tumble politics.”
Puente started leafletting about age 5 with relatives on union picket lines. He grew up to become executive director of the Cuyahoga County Democrats, then lead the campaign that turned Justin Bibb from unknown to mayor. Now he’s Bibb’s liaison to city council, different governments, unions, businesses, grass-roots groups, and others.
Bradford Davy of Tremont, formerly director of regional engagement for the Fund for Our Economic Future, has become Cleveland’s chief strategy officer. He likes to jog across Cleveland’s bridges and sip coffee in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s vast atrium.
“I’m a public space fanatic,” said Davy. He thinks public spaces can “change how we feel about our cities and how we interact with one another.”
Sarah Johnson, former head of the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s marketing and media efforts, has become Bibb’s chief communications officer. Johnson and other leaders promise to demystify City Hall. “The mayor wants to be very active with the media and transparent,” Johnson said.
The Lyndhurst woman says “The city has this sense of camaraderie.” She likes downtown’s emporiums, from Heinen’s supermarket to the intimate Copper Moon coffee shop. “With all the expansions and amenities, it makes it very convenient for a resident or an employee.”
Selecting an “emerging and experienced” cabinet
Davy, Puente, and Johnson are three of the rather varied picks for top jobs — some old, some new — announced so far by Bibb, whose four-year term began Jan. 3. The leaders like to say they’re “E and E,” which means “emerging and experienced.” They vary not just in age and other demographics but in their careers, which span governments, businesses, universities, and philanthropies.
Bibb’s picks have gotten good reviews so far from other officials and observers. At the mayor’s ceremonial inauguration Saturday, Congresswoman Shontel Brown said, “Justin’s made some great choices.”
In an earlier interview, Jerry Austin, who led campaigns for Rev. Jesse Jackson and others, said of Bibb’s picks to date, “I never heard of almost all those people, so that’s good.” Austin thinks City Hall, led by Mayor Frank Jackson for a record 16 years, needs fresh leaders and positions. “You need the new jobs for new challenges.”
According to Puente and Davy, many voters on the campaign trail feared that Bibb, 34, upon becoming Cleveland’s second youngest mayor, would recreate what the press called the “kiddie corps” of the youngest, Dennis Kucinich, whose higher-ups were as young as 21. But Bibb’s first appointees range in age from the 31-year-old Puente on up.
They include several veterans of public service. Paul Patton, chief human resources officer, held the same job under Mayor Michael White. He’s also worked at MetroHealth, the State University of New York, and Ohio State University. Mark Griffin, chief legal counsel, was Cuyahoga County’s inspector general. Elise Hara Auvil, chief administrative officer, held law and human resources jobs for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, Cuyahoga County, and the city of Westlake.
There’s another big difference between Bibb’s transition and Kucinich’s. Back in 1977, mayors won two-year terms and scrambled to start them just six days after the election.
Bibb’s transition team
But Bibb’s supporters hustled, too. On election night, they launched a transition website by midnight. Funded by individual donors, the transition team had 16 staff members and about 75 volunteers. The volunteers included the heads of Cleveland’s three biggest hospitals and many nonprofit groups, public agencies, and businesses big and small, such as the composting outfit Rust Belt Riders.
Not all were Clevelanders. One of the best-known volunteers was Greater Columbus’ Amy Acton, Ohio’s former health director, who’d been assailed by some conservatives over Covid 19 restrictions.
The team explored what it saw as Cleveland’s biggest problems, such poverty, injustice, the pandemic, lead contamination, a languishing West Side Market, and burdened schools. Different committees recommended appointees and policies.
Volunteers say that Bibb met with them and seemed to welcome their ideas. “I’ve been on these sorts of committees before, and I felt we weren’t being taken seriously,” said Dan O’Malley, who leads Lakewood’s city council and the North Shore Federation of Labor. “Mayor Bibb made it very clear from the beginning that this transition committee was to be doing real work making real recommendations.”
Erika Anthony, who co-chaired the transition’s environmental and open government committees, said she got a call on Jan. 4 from new legal chief Griffin about one of the committees’ recommendations. “They’re not wasting time.”
Anthony knows Davy from her work at the Ohio Transformation Fund, which often collaborated with his Fund for the Economic Future. She said, “He has tremendous compassion and empathy and a servant heart.”
Brad Whitehead, Davy’s former boss, praised him for both “great vision and a tremendous grounding.” He said Bibb has picked other strong leaders so far. “He’s not looking for bomb throwers, but it speaks well of Justin that he’s not threatened by people that can speak their minds.”
“Aspirational and realistic”
Bibb has split the former jobs of chief of communications and governmental affairs between Johnson and Puente. The mayor has also split the post of chief of staff into Davy’s position of chief strategic officer and Elise Hara Auvil’s of chief administrative officer. Auvil will lead the staff day to day while Davy consults with Bibb on long-term priorities and guides the departments in refocusing on them.
Whitehead praised the latter split. “People come in with great intentions of working strategically and get gobbled up by tactical decisions. Splitting the role is a great way to say, ‘We’ve got to do both at the same time.’”
Davy agrees. “We will have to be aspirational and realistic,” he said. “We will have to be pragmatic and also push ourselves to think bigger. We can both focus on fixing the things that need to be addressed immediately and dreaming about what the future of Cleveland looks like.”
Congresswoman Brown and others especially praised Puente. Plain Dealer columnist Brent Larkin said, “He’s considered a star” and ran what “may have been the greatest single campaign in mayoral history.”
Labor’s O’Malley praised the new human resources chief. “Our unions that have dealt with Paul Patton have had positive experiences with him.”
Council President Blaine Griffin said it’s the mayor’s right to pick his cabinet and council’s obligation to work with it. Still, he knows and likes Puente and Angela Shute-Woodson, senior advisor for community and government affairs. “Angela is very, very diligent. We’ve grown up together in this business of politics.”
It’s not just Bibb’s administration that’s new. This month brought a new council president in Griffin and five new council members. November brought a new East Side congresswoman in Brown. 2023 will bring a new county executive and a new U.S. senator for Ohio.
Austin likes how these new leaders will have relatively equal footing. But long-time political consultant Bob Dykes says, “If they’re all new, nobody has a playbook. There’s a danger of chaos.” So, he’s glad that Blaine Griffin has spent many years in government.
Some new, some old
Different chiefs will get different pay. Davy and Puente will each make $142,000. Bibb promoted Deputy Police Chief Dornat “Wayne” Drummond to interim chief. The mayor has kept just one chief long-term: the fire department’s Angelo Calvillo, protected by civil service.
Department directors rank below chiefs. Bibb has put most directors on interim status but reappointed two as full directors: Mary McNamara, director of aging, and Robert Kennedy, director of port control. He also moved Freddy Collier, former planning director, to a sub-cabinet-level post in the Office of Quality Control. On Jan. 12, he promoted Karrie Howard from interim director of public safety to chief public safety officer.
Several high-level picks are pending, including a strategist for lead remediation, a strategist for racial equity, and a long-term police chief.
Here is a list of city leaders as of Jan. 9:
Elise Hara Auvil, chief administrative officer
Bradford J. Davy, chief strategy officer
Mark D. Griffin, chief legal counsel
Sarah N. Johnson, chief communications officer
Paul N. Patton, chief human resources officer
Ryan M. Puente, chief government affairs officer
Dornat A. Drummond, interim chief of police
Angelo Calvillo, chief, division of fire
Angela D. Shute-Woodson, senior advisor, community and government affairs
Jessica Trivisonno, senior strategist, West Side Market
Frances C. DiDonato, senior strategist, operations and organizational design
Eden Giagnorio, senior strategist, communications
Connie Waddy, assistant to the mayor
Cassandra G. Moore, executive assistant to the mayor
On Jan. 12, Bibb announced six more appointments:
Ahmed Abonamah, chief financial officer
Bonnie Teeuwen, chief operating officer
Jeff Epstein, chief of integrated development
Alyssa Hernandez, director of community development
Sally Martin, director of building & housing
Karrie D. Howard, chief public safety officer
The list of high-level officials will be updated at: https://www.clevelandohio.gov/CityofCleveland/Home/Government/Cabinet
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Chief Legal Counsel Mark Griffin’s name
Grant Segall is an award-winning reporter who spent 34 years with The Plain Dealer. He has also published freelance articles, fiction, and “John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil” (Oxford University Press).