After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor - Episode 14: Justin M. Bibb

Justin Bibb, left, marches in Cleveland's Labor Day parade along Kinsman Road in September.
Justin Bibb, left, marches in Cleveland's Labor Day parade along Kinsman Road in September. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
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After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor Podcast

In August 2010 in Washington, D.C., a 23-year-old associate partner at the polling and analytics firm Gallup kicked off a long panel discussion on education policy.

JUSTIN BIBB: “I think we all recognize that we’re at a critical crossroads right now in our country when it comes to the future of our schools.”

This is the only video of Justin Bibb on C-SPAN. Next at the microphone was Gallup CEO Jim Clifton. Bibb was about a year out of college at that time.

Bibb tells me he met Clifton as a student at American University, when the Gallup chairman spoke at a scholarship reception honoring someone from Cleveland.

JUSTIN BIBB: “And so I go up to the CEO, Jim, and I says, ‘Jim, I’m from Cleveland, one day, I want to go back home and be a social entrepreneur, and I want you to help me.’ And he was like, ‘OK, well meet me in my office in a couple weeks for lunch.’ So he sends me a book before lunch talking about how to be a great social entrepreneur. I read the book, I was ready for the meeting, and during my time abroad at the London School of Economics, we met for dinner and he offered me an internship on the spot. And really the rest is history.”

Clifton and his wife have each contributed $5,000 to Bibb’s mayoral campaign, the maximum allowed. Gallup declined to make anyone available for comment for this story.

But the story Bibb tells me sounds a lot like what he’s done on the campaign: approaching different people he may not know very well and winning them over. Like Sen. Sherrod Brown, or former Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White. Or the Bernie Sanders-supporting group Our Revolution and the former CEO of the chamber of commerce.

That confidence and poise is probably one reason this 34-year-old first-time candidate has convinced so many people to back his campaign – and why he beat established politicians in the September primary.  

It’s also opened him to criticism from supporters of his opponent, Kevin Kelley, that he’s an inexperienced job hopper, more sizzle than steak. More on that later.

Justin Bibb was born in 1987 to Donald Bibb and Charlene Nichols. The Bibbs have roots in Alabama. That’s where Justin’s grandfather Morris was born. Leon Bibb, the beloved local newscaster, is the first cousin of Justin’s late father.

Bibb says his parents split up when he was four years old.

JUSTIN BIBB: “Before my parents’ divorce, we kind of had the Huxtable family, right? My dad was a fireman and a cop. My mom worked at MetroHealth. We had a house in Maple Heights, working our way towards an upper-middle-class life. My parents divorce and my mom really has to start over from scratch. And so my dad went to go live with my other set of grandparents in Shaker, and my mom moved upstairs with my grandma on in Mount Pleasant / Union-Miles on Dove.”

Bibb and his mom shared the house on Dove not just with his grandmother, he says, but also with his aunt Pam and his cousin Chris.

JUSTIN BIBB: “And we stayed there really up until my junior year of high school, where my mom worked her butt off, got her credit together, entered a first-time homeowners program at Third Federal Bank and was able to buy a home in Garfield Heights. And I'll never forget this, one of the most exciting days I had was when I was able to finally invite my friends over to have my first party. Because, you know, I would spend time with my dad in Shaker, since my parents are divorced, and I would meet friends and shaker on the weekends and I always wanted to own my own house party.”

Bibb says he spent kindergarten in the Cleveland public schools before his mom took him out and sent him to Cedar Hill Christian School in Cleveland Heights. The school was near a fire house. Bibb’s father worked as a firefighter and police officer for the suburb while living one city over in Shaker Heights.

JUSTIN BIBB: “As I started to get older, I started to crave my dad a lot more. I was going to the sixth grade, and I said, well, I want to spend some more time with my dad. And I was starting to get reckless because, you know, when you're going to school and all you're doing is memorizing Bible verses and wearing a tie every day, and I'm in church all the time, and I see all my friends having fun on the weekend and I'm not having any fun at all, I'm like, ‘What is this? Life has to be better than this.’ And then I started watching The Real World on TV, and I'm like, ‘Oh, this is how cool kids do in public school, and you know, I want to check it out.’”

He went to Woodbury [Elementary] and the public middle school in Shaker Heights. Kids bullied him there. Roughed him up. Word of that treatment reached Plain Dealer columnist Regina Brett. She interviewed Bibb and his father, and published a story in May 2000 under the headline: “Ganging up on an achiever.”

JUSTIN BIBB: “At Cedar Hill Christian School, you had a very strict uniform, right? Khaki pants, button-down shirt, you know, maybe a tie. So my mom lays out my clothes every day of the week when I go to Shaker. So I'm on my first day in sixth grade at Shaker, and these kids are like, ‘Why are you dressed up?’ Right? And I'm like, getting bullied. I get my butt kicked, right? I didn't know what rap really was. I don't know what Abercrombie and Fitch was. I had no idea. I was completely sheltered, so it was a culture shock for me.”

Brett suggested in her column that Bibb had been bullied by Black peers because he was a high-achieving Black student. The superintendent of the Shaker schools at the time responded to that implication in a letter published by The Plain Dealer. He wrote that Brett’s column “could have led readers to inaccurate generalities about Shaker Heights schools and our African-American students.”

JUSTIN BIBB: “There weren't a lot of Black kids like me at Shaker at the time, and I really didn't find my place yet, right? I wasn't Black enough for the white kids and wasn't Black enough for some of the Black kids. So I was kind of do my own thing. And it was a really formative experience for me, because it forced me early on in my life to really be strong and concrete in recognizing my Black identity as a man, that despite what folks in the neighborhood would say, being successful, achieving excellence in school, there was greatness in that of you're Black.”

Bibb left the Shaker schools, went to Orange Christian Academy and graduated from Trinity High School in 2005. He attended American University, where he majored in urban studies, graduated in 2009 and went to work at Gallup.

Bibb spent a few months working for the National Conference on Citizenship in 2010. But he says his father’s health brought him back to Cleveland. Back in 2008, Bibb says, his dad had gone into septic shock following a kidney stone operation. Bibb says his father’s health never really recovered.

Bibb was hired at the end of January 2011 as a special assistant to Cuyahoga County’s first executive, Ed FitzGerald, who had just taken office.

JUSTIN BIBB: “I thought it was a great opportunity to get really high-level experience working in local government in Cleveland, and being able to be a part of the, you know, first team to truly build a brand new government seemed like an exciting task. At the time, I was 23, and I learned a lot, I learned about what not to do as a candidate for public office and how to build a team, how to ask for help when you need to get help.”

As it happens, FitzGerald is now doing work as a pollster and fundraising consultant for Kevin Kelley, Bibb’s opponent in the mayor’s race. Small town.

As a county staffer, Bibb worked on FitzGerald’s education policies. That included the county executive’s signature proposal to start $100 college savings account for kindergarteners.

Here’s Bibb in April 2011 presenting to Cuyahoga County Council.

JUSTIN BIBB: “And so a program like the scholarship program has the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and really build sustainable wealth creation in our communities. And so I like to say this is our Sputnik moment to have a huge impact in education, and I think that we are in a very historic moment of change and opportunity.”

With that, then County Council President C. Ellen Connally spoke up.

C ELLEN CONNALLY: “Thank you, Mr. Bibb. Very well said. What district do you live in?”

JUSTIN BIBB: “I live in Garfield Heights. Just moved back—”

C ELLEN CONNALLY: “Good, you don’t live in my district, because you might try to run against me.” (laughter)

Connally’s instinct that he might prove a potent political challenger was about 10 years ahead of its time.

The college savings account idea never really got off the ground. After FitzGerald left office, the program was discontinued.  

CASTELE: “Do you have any thoughts about why it didn't succeed?”

JUSTIN BIBB: “Lack of follow through and execution. You know, I think it would have been better for the county to work more cohesively at the time with CMSD and our foundation partners to eventually build Say Yes to Education model like we currently have.”

Bibb’s personnel file from the county includes a favorable performance review calling him “a tremendous asset to county government.” The review said he showed “a remarkable instinct for networking with leaders and stakeholders in the community to carry out his responsibilities.”

In 2012, after 17 months at the county, Bibb left to work in New York City for an information services firm called KGB.

JUSTIN BIBB: “It was a crash course in business for me. The CEO at the time was the former chief technology officer of the New York Stock Exchange that I met during my time at Gallup. And I was debating, you know, after my time at the county, do I go to business school immediately or do I do something else? And I thought my experience in New York really was a great chance for me to kind of enhance my business acumen and my expertise in finance.”

Bibb returned to the Cleveland area in 2014, again taking a job as a special assistant at the county. He left that job shortly afterward, according to his personnel file. That year, he enrolled in the JD/MBA program at Case Western Reserve University.

In 2016, Bibb’s family experienced two tragedies. His cousin Christopher Hardy – the one he lived with as a kid – was murdered on March 1 of that year in Cleveland’s Edgewater neighborhood.

Hardy’s boyfriend, George Rauls, had strangled him. The case received some attention in the local news, because Rauls called 9-1-1 and spoke with a dispatcher during the attack.  

According to Fox8 News, it took police more than 11 minutes to show up. Rauls was charged with murder, but pleaded the case down to voluntary manslaughter and felonious assault. He’s serving a 20-year sentence at Lorain Correctional Institution.

Bibb says his cousin Chris was like a brother to him.

JUSTIN BIBB: “For a majority of my adolescence, my grandma, Sarah, who is now famous on the campaign trail, was downstairs. We had a duplex. My grandma was downstairs with my aunt Pam and my cousin Chris, and then my mom and I lived upstairs. And so when our parents were working, Chris and I would be downstairs hanging out with grandma. We couldn't get breakfast on some Sundays until we shoveled the snow during the winter, you know, and we literally grew up together.”

The second tragedy was the death of Bibb’s father, Donald. He died in late November 2016 at the age of 68. Bibb says he took care of his dad as his health failed. He says it helped him understand his father in a way he didn’t when he was younger.

JUSTIN BIBB: “I spent a lot of time with my mom growing up, and I would see my dad on the weekends. And we would go on vacation to the South or, one year, during President's Day weekend, he surprised me and my brother to a trip to the Bahamas. It's one of the best vacations I've ever had. But I never really got to know the man until I became a real man, and I saw why he made the decisions that he made. Sometimes I question why he worked so hard. ‘Why do you have to be a cop and a firefighter? How come you can't spend time with me?’ And I think what he was trying to do was instill a hard work ethic in his boys. But I think he recognized that, you know, working hard was the ultimate sacrifice he should make for his kids. And so I didn't appreciate that until he passed away.”

While in business and law school, Bibb returned to work with Gallup. There, he helped the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, survey residents about their quality of life. The result was the Citivoice Index. Here’s Tulsa’s CBS affiliate, KOTV.

KOTV: “The city of Tulsa’s now going over the data it collected in last year’s Gallup-Tulsa Citivoice Index. It’s a survey designed to see how Tulsans feel about several aspects city leaders consider key to a thriving community. Streets are the No. 1 thing Tulsans say need to be improved.”

The index was a survey of Tulsans’ basic needs, like food, healthcare and shelter, and a look into their attitudes about the city.

JUSTIN BIBB: Really, instead of measuring just, you know, GDP, unemployment, new business starts, how do you measure well-being? How do you measure public safety? How do you measure community wealth at the local level? So we worked with grassroots community leaders and other institutions in Tulsa to develop a new set of metrics that really inform how the current city of Tulsa operates and manages itself.”

Tulsa’s mayor, a moderate Republican named G.T. Bynum, has embraced the program, and sent out a second survey in early 2020.

I got in touch with Bynum’s office recently to ask about the project. A spokesman for the mayor told me Bynum’s team remembers working directly with Bibb to design the survey. The spokesman said Citivoice has helped Tulsa’s government better understand its residents’ needs. 

Bibb graduated from Case Western in 2018. Late that year, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish appointed him to the board of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

SHONTEL BROWN: “Mr. Bibb, If you will kindly state your name for the record and your desire to serve.”

JUSTIN BIBB: “Good morning, my name is Justin Bibb, and first off, thank you to the council for considering my nomination. As someone who grew up in the Mount Pleasant-Corlett neighborhood, public transit is very important to me. I grew up riding the bus with my grandmother…”

Bibb says he was reluctant to join the board at first. The previous board president had been caught using the agency’s health benefits without paying premiums. But Bibb went ahead and became one of RTA’s trustees.

JUSTIN BIBB: And so I worked hard with our other board members to bring in an innovative, dynamic CEO in India Birdsong, and we did that. I saw a need for moving the agency into the 21st century. So on my own spare time, I started up my own committee on technology innovation.”

In early 2019, Bibb took a new job at Key Bank as a vice president for corporate strategy.

Chris Stocking is deeply involved with Clevelanders for Public Transit, a rider advocacy organization. He says his group was able to communicate with Bibb in a way they just couldn’t with some of the other RTA board members.

CHRIS STOCKING: “He was one of the youngest members, he was really the only person on the board that we could easily engage with on social media. And o we were able to get a lot of feedback on what we want RTA to do just by being able to engage him that way, where a lot of the other board members weren’t as directly available.”

Clevelanders for Public Transit is part of a nonprofit advocacy network and is not making an endorsement in the mayor’s race.

Perhaps the top issue for CPT is finding more money for RTA, to pull the agency out of a so-called “death spiral” of service cuts and fare hikes. That is an ongoing challenge.

Bibb joined board members in halting a fare hike and bringing in a transit consultant to redesign the bus routes.

But another big issue for CPT has to do with fare collection on the Health Line, the bus route linking Downtown with University Circle along Euclid Avenue.

It’s supposed to be fast. You pay at a station before you get on the bus, so there’s no line to board. Armed police officers would check proof of payment. But that led to a civil rights lawsuit and resulted in riders having to pay at the front of the bus instead of at a station. The bus rapid transit became just a regular, slower bus.

Clevelanders for Public Transit called for unarmed, civilian fare checkers known as “transit ambassadors.” That would solve the civil rights challenge and speed up service again.

Chris Stocking says Bibb attended a CPT event that made the case for this solution.

CHRIS STOCKING: “We had asked Justin, ‘Will you look into transit ambassadors, will you make this a priority on your time on the RTA board?’ And Justin Bibb committed to making that a priority. But unfortunately, when he stepped off the board, we had met with him in February of this year, right before his term was up, and when he first announced running for mayor, and we said, ‘What happened with the transit ambassadors?’ And he said, ‘Look, I want to do it, but I’m only one out of 10 people. You’ve got to engage with other board members.’”

Bibb left the board when his term was up in March of this year. In October, RTA announced a pilot transit ambassador program.

As an RTA board member, Bibb received a stipend of $4,300 annually. He reported that income in ethics disclosure forms with the state of Ohio. But he failed to list his other sources of income or his debts, as he was supposed to.

When Cleveland.com asked about the incomplete ethics forms, Bibb said it was an oversight. He has since filed amendments with the Ohio Ethics Commission.

There’s also the issue of Bibb’s RTA board attendance, and I want to sort out the facts here.

A mailer from the Kelley campaign before the primary accused Bibb of missing almost 30 RTA board meetings. The super PAC Citizens for Change made a similar claim. But according to RTA, that number is incorrect.

I requested a copy of Bibb’s attendance records from RTA. According to the documents the agency gave me, he missed 16 meetings total during his two and a half years on the board: 3 board meetings and 13 committee meetings. That comes out to a rate of 84 percent attendance at required meetings.

In 2019, two board members missed more meetings than Bibb did, and one racked up an equal number of absences. In 2020, only one trustee beat Bibb in the absence department, but some of her absences were for medical leave.

Here’s the reason Kelley’s campaign overshot: They counted up absences noted in the RTA board’s minutes, which are available online. But those minutes marked Bibb as “not present” for meetings of committees that he didn’t actually serve on.

Bibb alluded to that when I asked him about his absences.

JUSTIN BIBB: I was not able to make every committee meeting, and some of the meetings that they are trying to attack me on, I wasn’t even a part of those committees. But during my short time on the board RTA for nearly three years, I made an immediate impact. And unfortunately, I had to travel sometimes during my time at Gallup and during my time at KeyBank, I had to be at certain bank board meetings. But beyond that, I showed up, and I wanted more work on RTA that I started my own committee on the agency. So I think my record will speak for itself.”

In 2018, Cleveland City Council appointed Bibb to the Charter Review Commission, which was tasked with updating what’s basically the city’s constitution. The final report from the commission lists 38 votes the body took over the course of the year.

Bibb missed about 42 percent of those votes. Most of those missed votes happened over the course of four meetings: one in July, one in August, one in October and one in November. There were 15 members on the commission and three missed more votes than he did.

Here’s what Bibb says about those absences.

JUSTIN BIBB: “Travel. During my time at Gallup, I travel extensively, but we still fought the good fight to bring some reforms to that commission.”

In 2017, Bibb’s work at Gallup brought him in contact with Urbanova, a small nonprofit based in Spokane, Washington. It works to come up with tech-friendly solutions to the problems facing mid-sized cities.

Urbanova and Gallup surveyed 4,400 households in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood and conducted in-depth interviews to learn what people needed and how technology could help them.

Kim Zentz is Urbanova’s CEO.

KIM ZENTZ: “When Justin and I first started talking about the whole category of smart cities, we really hit it off and we saw things the same way and we were bonded around this idea that everyone else in the space was saying, ‘Hey, I've got the technology for you, let's go sell it to the city.’ And the way we were seeing it was much more, it's much more important to understand the real issues that real people are having in real neighborhoods, expressed in the plain language that they might use when they're talking with their neighbors.”

Zentz says she kept in touch with Bibb. At the start of June last year, Urbanova announced it had hired him as its chief strategy officer. In the press release, Zentz called him the “right leader at the right time.” That phrase is now a Bibb campaign slogan.

Urbanova has three full-time employees, a loaned executive and additional interns and contracted researchers, Zentz says.

Last year, Urbanova and the city of Tulsa sought a grant from the National Science Foundation as part of the federal government’s Civic Innovation Challenge. They didn’t win the money.

KIM ZENTZ: And so we put together a team of university researchers, two cities, a county…So we weren't ultimately successful, but that was one of our first major projects. And it, when you're applying for grants and learning that process, it's really important to just do it, so that you can learn how to do it better.”

I asked Bibb about going out for that grant.

CASTELE: “What did you learn from that experience?”

JUSTIN BIBB: “Man. I learned that, you know, this idea of trying to operationalize resident voice in data is very hard for some people to understand, right? And it's still kind of emerging as, I think, a new way of cities to manage what they do. That's why I really get excited about things like participatory budgeting, where we can really get resident input in how the city spends its money. And I think if you don't have continuous feedback from residents, how do you know that you're actually doing the job of delivering on good services?”

Kim Zentz says Bibb told her early last year, before he was hired, that he was thinking about a run for mayor. When he decided to go for it, she says he let her – and Urbanova’s board – know. Bibb remained a full-time employee until the start of October, when he took a leave of absence through Nov. 4, she says.

KIM ZENTZ: “It was it was tough. You know, he is, when I say driven, my main coaching back to Justin is, ‘Can you stop working for just a little bit?’ So he's a bit of a workaholic.”

Bibb has held quite a few jobs in the 12 years since he graduated from American University.

Supporters of Kevin Kelley have sought to point that out. I’ve gotten ahold of two documents containing what you might call opposition research into Bibb.

These did not come to me from the Kelley campaign. Instead, they were circulated by people who support Kelley – and eventually got to me.

Both documents make an issue of Bibb’s resume and his frequent job changes. Bibb says he’s proud of his resume.  

JUSTIN BIBB: “So I have a long, deep track record of impact. And I'm a millennial. I'm 34. I don't intend to be in any job for 16-plus years. And I think that's OK. And I'm not going to fall into this, you know, narrative that you need to be on a job for 20-plus years to show that you had impact.”

In the closing days of this campaign, Bibb and Kelley have jousted repeatedly over a couple things. One is Bibb’s support for Issue 24, the police commission charter amendment. We’ve discussed that in earlier episodes.

The other is this question of experience and knowledge. Not long ago, Clevelanders for Public Transit hosted a forum with the two candidates.

Bibb proposed converting Cleveland’s coin-operated parking meters into smart meters that take more payment options. Additional revenue could go toward RTA, he said, helping the transit agency with its funding problems.

Kelley objected, saying that, for one, the parking revenue belongs to Cleveland’s general fund and can’t just be given out for anything.

KEVIN KELLEY: “And really, the question is, when you get into that, what do you really, would that result in a large-scale lowering of fares? When something sounds nice, it’s like, ‘No let’s scrutinize how that happens. It doesn’t happen that way.’ The parking revenues – and even if they were to go up under smart parking, they wouldn’t go up enough to make a demonstrable difference in fares or ridership. It would go up a bit, it would help the general fund, and it should. But that’s not the solution.”

Bibb sat down with me for an interview the next day. It was clear that exchange with Kelley was still on his mind when I asked him for his closing argument.

JUSTIN BIBB: “My philosophy of governing this city is not that, ‘We shouldn't try hard things because they're hard.’ My philosophy of governing will be, ‘We should try hard things because it's the right thing to do.’ And sometimes it won't be politically convenient. Sometimes you might be the lone voice advocating for [an] innovative idea. And sometimes it's being able to get quick wins on small ideas, like having smart parking meters in your city, that give people confidence that, ‘You know what? Government has my back. Government’s going to fight for me.’”

In less than two weeks, Cleveland voters will decide whether Justin Bibb will lead that government.

This is After Jackson: Cleveland’s Next Mayor, from Ideastream Public Media.

Next week, Council President Kevin Kelley.

KEVIN KELLEY: “Voters should trust me based on my very available public record of accomplishment. It is so easy to talk about things. It's so easy to talk about, you know, things you want to do or what you're for or what you're against. Hard work is in getting stuff done.”

Our podcast is edited by Annie Wu and Mike McIntyre.

Music by Drew Maziasz.

I’m Nick Castele

Talk to you soon.

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