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Justin Bibb will be Cleveland's next mayor

Cleveland voters elected Justin Bibb as the city's next mayor by a substantial margin Tuesday night. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
Cleveland voters elected Justin Bibb as the city's next mayor by a substantial margin Tuesday night.

Updated: 8:05 a.m., Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021

Justin M. Bibb was elected mayor of Cleveland on Tuesday, paving the way for a handoff of power between the city’s longest-tenured leader and a 34-year-old newcomer who promised a fresh start.

“Throughout this campaign I’ve said that now was the time for bold, new, dynamic, visionary leadership, and the voters of Cleveland have said we have a mandate for change across this city,” Bibb told supporters at his victory party at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church.

In mailers, at doorsteps and in small backyard gatherings across the city, the Bibb campaign argued that the times demanded a break with the past – and that Bibb was the man to deliver it. By a plurality in the primary and a majority in the general election, Cleveland voters took him up on that offer.

Bibb won 63 percent of the vote, defeating his opponent, eight-year Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley, by 25 points, according to unofficial results. Voter turnout was low: about 23 percent in the unofficial tabulations.

Kelley had run on his experience and accomplishments in office. He was supported by four-term incumbent Mayor Frank Jackson. A crafty political fighter, Kelley entered the race bruised from past battles with populist challenges to his and Jackson’s authority.

Kelley had sought to distinguish his years in office from Bibb’s freshness. Bibb did the same – and he found substantial support among the millennial young professionals who have flocked to the city in the last decade.

“Don’t tell me young people can’t roll up their sleeves and make change in this city,” Bibb told supporters Tuesday night. “Do not tell me that.”

But Bibb’s coalition proved to be broader than merely younger voters who live Downtown and on the Near West Side. He pulled in substantial support from wards that cover Cleveland’s older Black communities on the East Side.

Several pastors joined Bibb for his victory speech, including Olivet’s Rev. Jawanza Colvin. After the primary, dozens of Black religious leaders endorsed Bibb’s candidacy – providing a symbolic rebuttal to charges by supporters of Kelley that Bibb was an unknown quantity in the city’s Black neighborhoods.

Bibb emphasized his connection to Olivet on Tuesday night, recounting his family’s history with the church.

“My family started at this church. I buried my father at this church, buried my grandmother at this church,” he said. “And they always wanted to make sure that Justin dedicated his life to giving back. That’s where the assignment started.”

Bibb was early to endorse Issue 24, a charter amendment granting broad new powers to a citizen police advisory board. Kelley’s opposition to the amendment dominated much of the council president’s closing message in the campaign. But on Tuesday night, the issue passed by a substantial margin.

“We’re going to show the nation that in Cleveland, we can have good, smart law enforcement, but also respect the rights of our residents all across this city,” Bibb said, referring to Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer in 2014. “Because in this moment, after we lost our brother Tamir, after we lost George Floyd, we cannot afford more of the same in policing in America, and Cleveland will lead the way.”

A toast to Cleveland's future

In his concession speech, Kelley thanked family and supporters for their time and for opening up their homes for campaign events. Kelley will leave what happened in the election behind him, he said, and use what resources he has in order to work toward a better Cleveland, both during his remaining days in council and after.

“You can fight about it, you can cry about it, you can complain about it, you can look back at what coulda, shoulda, woulda. You can feel like you were done wrong,” Kelley said. “Or we can come together, and we can look at, what is the Cleveland that we can build together?”

Kelley placed a call to Bibb to congratulate him on his win, and proposed a toast with those still gathered at the Harp to Cleveland and the future.

“Could we do this? We thought so, and we came pretty far,” Kelley said. “But we’re here right now, on Nov. 2, in Cleveland, Ohio, on Election Day. The voters have spoken.”

For Kelley’s supporters, the question is whether Bibb can bring the change they want to see in the city. Janet Montoya worked for the Kelley campaign to garner support and encourage voter participation in the local Hispanic community. She said she’s focusing on the future, too. She wants to see improvements in education and access to educational opportunities, and she hopes Bibb can deliver.

“People need to understand that it is not about black and white, but it’s about equality and equity, and working together as one community,” Montoya said. “And I hope that moving forward, we can all work together as one.”

Montoya joined Kelley in opposing Issue 24, the charter amendment that strengthens the power of the Community Police Commission over police policies and discipline. She said she does not think the measure will bring the kind of change the city needs.

“I am a big supporter of community policing, but I’m not a supporter of giving the full rights to those individuals who do not have the experience to tell officers how to do their job,” Montoya said.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.