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Door To Door: Justin Bibb said 'yes,' and the voters did, too

Justin Bibb's campaign spoke to impatient young professionals and the Black seniors who form the backbone of the East Side electorate, a winning coalition on Nov. 2. Here, the candidate stands on the steps of Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
Justin Bibb smiles at Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood

Now and then during the Cleveland mayoral campaign, people asked me who I thought would rise to the top.

As closely as I watched this race for the “After Jackson” podcast, I had no good way to answer. There was little polling, and it varied widely: a December 2020 peek at the race, the Baldwin Wallace polls, a labor-funded survey, poll results printed in a mysterious newspaper and an internal poll from the Kevin Kelley campaign showing a wide-open fight. That’s it.

In the primary, Dennis Kucinich seemed like a shoo-in to make the general election. I thought that voters, particularly older ones, would go with what they knew – and who doesn’t know Dennis?

Voters had something else in mind, awarding Justin Bibb the top slot and general election front-runner status. The message was sent. Voters wanted someone new.

From then on, it was Bibb’s race to lose. When Kelley — Bibb's opponent in the general election — unveiled the endorsement of former primary opponent Basheer Jones, Bibb responded with a phalanx of Black faith leaders. The endorsements – and the money – were breaking Bibb’s way.

Kelley’s allies started to talk about their candidate like an underdog, the man of the “streets” up against the “boardroom.” Some griped about media coverage of the campaign, with one supporter verging into the territory of World Wrestling Entertainment dialogue.

The council president’s campaign tried to portray Bibb as an empty suit, a meeting-skipper, a flash in the pan, a cop-defunder, a naïf, a nobody, all talk and no show. A largely anonymous website, Cleveland Neighborhood News, amplified those attacks on Facebook.

But none of it stuck. As the Nov. 2 results showed, a Bibb wave was coming ashore. Kelley’s campaign spent too much energy trying to define Bibb and should have focused more on redefining Kelley.

When Bibb proposed something new – like finding loose change for public transit by installing smart parking meters – Kelley shot the idea down as naïve. It might have won Kelley the point intellectually, but it lost him the point emotionally. Bibb became the candidate of “Yes,” Kelley the candidate of “No.”

Bibb’s strength was that he could speak to many Clevelands. Through his grandmother, 92-year-old Sarah Presley, Bibb could offer hope to the Black seniors who form the backbone of the city’s East Side electorate. In his own life trajectory, the 34-year-old Bibb could say to the city’s rising tide of impatient young professionals that it was their turn to lead.

That coalition won him the day.

Should Bibb choose to run again in four years, he may need to take a different tack. He’ll have a record to run on. He’ll have said “no” to some things, gotten in some dust-ups, tried some things that didn’t work out.

But for now, like all newly elected mayors, Bibb will enter office with the winds of the voters at his back.

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