After Jackson - Episode 18: Mayor-elect Justin Bibb talks transition and his winning campaign

Justin Bibb delivers his victory speech after being elected mayor of Cleveland
Justin Bibb sat down with Ideastream Public Media for an interview about his winning campaign and his plans when he takes office as Cleveland mayor. Above, Bibb delivers his victory speech on election night. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
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In less than two months, Justin Bibb will be sworn in as mayor of Cleveland, taking the job he has worked all year to win.

Between now and then, he has to name transition leaders, hire cabinet members and figure out how he wants to run city government. He has met with Mayor Frank Jackson and spoken with city council members.

The mayor-elect came by the Idea Center early in the morning last Thursday to talk about the transition and to reflect on the campaign that carried him to City Hall.

That campaign earned him a first-place spot in the primary and a blowout victory in November. That’s where we started our conversation.

What was it that you saw that gave you a sense that this was a race that you could win?

Bibb: Well, early in the race, I had a lot of one-on-one conversations with voters. And regardless of I was in my neighborhood, in the Mount Pleasant [neighborhood], or in West Park, there was just a desire for change. And if we could really tap into that desire in terms of organizing people who shared that same sentiment and doing the hard work of just pounding the pavement, meeting voters where they were, I thought there was a lane for us.

And I mean, well, looking at the results, it wasn't just a lane, it was – or if it was a lane, it's a pretty wide one.

Bibb: Yeah, it was wide. And I think you know what we saw in 2020 with this pandemic, everyone kind of reassessed their own personal life outlook. And I think all the traditional political norms were just thrown out of the window. And you kind of saw this in 2016 – and in no way am I comparing myself to Trump – but this desire for an outsider candidate. And I started to see this in other cities across the country. You had the current mayor of Richmond, Virginia, LeVar Stoney, never held elected office before and won in Richmond in 2017. Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Alabama. Never held elected office before. Won that mayor's seat in 2017 as well. And then you had Frank Scott Jr., who became the first Black mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas. Again, never held elected office and became mayor.

And they were all young, too.

Bibb: Young Black mayors leading major American cities across the country. And there was a clear playbook, you know? Organizing early, building name ID, building a broad-based coalition, really hitting home on kind of the key issues facing their respective cities. And that playbook turned out to be the right playbook to win the seat here in Cleveland.

You mentioned outsider candidates, and I know you've talked about sort of – well, people have portrayed you, at least, I don't know what you think about that label, as the newcomer, the outsider. At the same time, it looks like you built a lot of connections with people who are established within Cleveland politics.

Bibb: I've been building relationships in Cleveland since I was a junior in high school when I was in Look Up To Cleveland, right? And I maintained those relationships for over 17 years. And so while I was a newcomer as a candidate for public office, I have not been a newcomer to the city, to our issues, to kind of relational organizing and how to build coalitions. And, you know, I think that boded well for us in terms of my ability to bring people together in this campaign.

So after the primary, when you're looking at the map of election results, the biggest group of votes that were now uncommitted were on the East Side, people who voted for candidates who had been knocked out. How did you make your inroads there? Because, you were pretty successful in the end.

Bibb: We spent a lot of time on the East Side. I spent a lot of time door-knocking myself on the East Side. I spent a lot of time with clergy on the East Side after the primary. You know, I would be in three to four churches every Sunday talking to various congregations. And then, you know, getting the endorsements of Councilman Zack Reed and State Sen. Sandra Williams boded well for us. And I got to tell you this, Zack Reed worked really, really, really hard for our campaign. And you know, the fact that we were all able to put egos aside and really talk about the importance of, you know, building back the East Side as a key part of my messaging, I think boded well for us in the homestretch here.

Toward the end of this campaign, the Kelley campaign was really hitting Issue 24 very hard, portraying it as “defunding the police.” You know, we can debate that label, but that's the label they were using. Do you think that that started to eat away at support that you had?

Bibb: We were concerned about it, absolutely. Because in the primary we had made tremendous inroads on the West Side – and the East Side, as well. And you know, it's important, particularly with this issue of policing, that we had to get ahead of some of the attacks that we saw coming from the other camp. And you started to see this play out nationally as well, where Democrats were starting to fight against one another in terms of who was going to be more, you know, progressive on talking about policing issues. And I think it was important for our campaign to really call out this notion of, you can be for law enforcement and supporting law enforcement and also support police accountability. They’re, you know, two different issues on the same coin, and it's important that we do both. And this rhetoric around “defund the police” was complete nonsense. It's the worst label in American political history. I said that in The Washington Post. And I think when I was on doors talking to voters, they understood and I’m really happy we hit the pavement hard and we were really proactive in getting our message out there.

I think that gives us a point to look at talking about the transition here. One of the things that you will have to accomplish now when you get into office is seeing Issue 24 through, seeing how you set this up. One of the issues will be trying to talk to the safety forces about what this means for their jobs. How are you going to have that conversation?

Bibb: First thing I need to do is listen. Listen to the concerns and recommendations and perspectives from our leadership at the police union. Listen to the concerns and ideas and thoughts from our command staff. And listen to the concerns of, you know, our patrol officers walking the beat. And I intend to fight hard to support our police officers to give them the pay they deserve, to give them the equipment they need to do their job. And my whole goal, my whole goal is to create a police department that my father would be proud of. And at the end of the day, that's a department that respects our residents, that fights crime, that's accountable and getting back to the old motto of they are there to protect and serve. Protect and serve, and that needs to be the mandate for the future.

Have you given any thought to how, to who you're going to put in charge of that effort? Is that something you see the safety director doing? Is that a criteria for the police chief that they've got to help you implement this? How are you going to get it done?

Bibb: I think it's going to require a broad-based coalition with my police chief, my safety director. I want the union to be a part of this conversation, police union, and other important community leaders, including leaders from the faith-based community, as well. I think it's important that we bring more voices around the table to get more community buy-in, because I think that serves everybody well in the long run.

So looking bigger picture here, you've got two months, little less than that now actually, to get this transition rolling and to take office. What are the core decisions that you have to make right now to lay the groundwork for that?

Bibb: Well, the first thing I need to do is identify a transition manager to help run the transition…and a coalition of transition co-chairs from the community to support our effort. And then from there, really working to fill the top 10 slots in my administration. Everyone from the law director to the police chief to chief operating officer. And it's important that we get our core team in place as we head towards early next year. But you know, it's also going to be important for me as an incoming new chief executive to do the hard work of just taking stock. We want to be deliberate, move with urgency, but also be prudent to make sure we get our decisions right. You don't want to be too hasty when you're really trying to build a brand new government, particularly coming out of this pandemic.

On election night, you said the results show that you have a mandate for change. How does that go into your thinking when you're thinking about staffing? Because I imagine you want to have some new voices there, but you need people with experience and know-how, too.

Bibb: I'm going to have a cabinet that reflects folks that have worked in city government, but also folks that have maybe worked in the private sector of the nonprofit world who understand the pain points that many residents are going through right now. And so it's going to be critical that our cabinet is diverse, that has a diverse set of professional and life experiences. And I want to have a cabinet that is smart as heck to tackle some of these issues we have ahead of us.

When do you think you might start announcing some of those hires?

Bibb: To be determined. To be determined.

Are you thinking that this is a national search for people? Do you want Cleveland[ers] – you know, people with connections in Northeast Ohio?

Bibb: Listen, there's amazing wealth of talent and that I can tap into you right in our backyard. And I'm also going to look nationally for some hires as well. I think a good combination of both would serve the next administration pretty well.

So what are the biggest issues that you think you're going to have to tackle right away?

Bibb: Number one, culture. I talked about the importance before about taking stock of the organization, of the organizational health of City Hall. And I intend to do a lot of lunch-and-learns, spending my mornings at the service garages, spending some mornings in the snowplows, talking to frontline City Hall employees, and spending a morning picking up trash and figuring out what's going on with trash collection, and spending some time in the call center for the mayor's action line, so that I, as the chief executive, understand how do we put our residents first and really build a resident-centric approach to how we serve our residents in terms of procuring basic city services. And then once I take stock, I intend to make sure that we have a common set of values that everyone could buy into – not just my cabinet, but that frontline employee that's picking up trash every week. We all need to have the same kind of values of how we show up and do our job every day inside City Hall.

What values come to mind?

Bibb: The values that are important for me are number one, transparency is critical. Number two, equity is critical. And three, moving with deliberate speed and deliberate urgency. I think if there's anything I learned throughout this campaign is that voters are in dire need of seeing a more modern and responsive city government. So tackling those systems is going to, you know, be a big hurdle for us. But we got to do it as soon as we can.

You say tackling those systems, what systems inside City Hall do you think you need to get at?

Bibb: Everything from, do current City Hall employees have the right technology and they need to do their job? I was talking to someone that worked in city planning, and they said, you know, in some departments, you know, they're using Microsoft 7, and in other departments they're using Microsoft 10. That makes – that means you can't share documents, right? During the pandemic, many employees didn't have laptops to work remotely. Most of our data, I believe, inside City Hall is not in the cloud, so you can't access that data remotely if you're not at City Hall. And so just the basic aspects of kind of a 21st century enterprise we got to deploy inside city government to give our employees the tools they need to do their jobs better.

So I understand you've had at least a phone conversation with Mayor Frank Jackson. Yeah. Could you tell me what was that like and what do you think your relationship with the outgoing mayor’s going to be?

Bibb: Mayor Jackson was very gracious in his phone call. He congratulated me on a well-fought victory on Tuesday, and we're actually meeting later this morning [last Thursday] to talk about the transition and getting in some good counsel from him in terms of how to be how to be mayor.

Who are you looking to? Who's advising you right now on transition stuff?

Bibb: Well, I have a good core team that served me well during the campaign that have spent some time in other mayoral transitions advising me. I also have a good network of other mayors across the country that I get good counsel from around leading the transition. And then I've also had a lot of productive conversations with chief of staffs of other mayors across the country as well in terms of some of the best practices around leading a mayoral transition.

I think you mentioned this in an interview with WKYC. You've got to do some fundraising too.

Bibb: I do. I do. You know, we're going to need to raise some resources to support staff to support various studies around how we build a city government for the future. And yeah, we're going to do have to raise some capital in order to do that.

Some studies, what do you want to – are you going to look for some sort of consulting studies?

Bibb: You know, I talked all throughout the campaign about doing a top-down review of every department, and then really doing a deep dive on public safety. It's going to be critical. And so we want to make sure we have all the resources we need to really build a thoughtful, prudent, effective transition to give us a good foundation going into the new administration in January.

What questions do you want to ask in this process about public safety?

Bibb: One, I really want to understand from law enforcement what they really need. What are their core pain points? What are their challenges? What does good culture look like for them? And then marry that with what we're hearing from the community and see where the common alignment is. I also think – and I had this conversation with Jeff Scott over at the Boys and Girls Club and Myesha Crowe, who runs the Peacemakers Alliance – one of their frustrations is that we don't have a comprehensive public safety plan in Cleveland. That's a major pain point. That's community-oriented and bottom-up. And that's something I intend to pursue next year in our first 100 days.

So public safety, one key priority. Anything else that is that is really top-of-mind for you?

Bibb: Well, I talked about the importance of just having a modern and responsive to City Hall, so getting our city operations in place and getting some momentum there. And then thirdly, making sure we can maximize the money we're getting from President Biden. Still to be determined to see how council and this mayor come to terms on how to spend this first round of capital. And, you know, if they don't spend the money, then I'll have all $512 [million] to myself to spend. And I've laid out a really, I think, smart set of priorities around how I would spend that money long term.

Perfect transition to where I wanted to go next actually, this ARPA money. The first half of it is here. And you know, we are now at a point where it could be spent during this lame-duck session. Should the city wait until there is a new mayor?

Bibb: Listen, we only have one mayor at a time. We only have one council at a time, so it's important that we, you know, allow the existing government to make the decisions they want. And, you know, I'll leave it up to them to make that call. But if the money is not spent, then I intend to execute my vision as a new mayor.

And what is your vision?

Bibb: Well, I brought this up in the early days of this campaign, when we found out we were going to get this money from President Biden, that I wanted to create an office of economic recovery that would work with our foundations and CDCs and banking partners to find a way to leverage that capital and turn that $512 million into a couple of billion long term. But my four concrete priorities are around number one, direct neighborhood revitalization, particularly on the Southeast Side. Number two, public safety, paying our cops more, making sure we fully fund violence interrupter programs at the neighborhood level. Three, truly investing in having a modern City Hall, what I call City Hall 2.0. And then four, really, you know, supporting investments around digital equity and lead paint to make sure we get some real change in those structural issues.

The lead paint issue is a big one. The city now has a lead safe law. It just has to make it work. And it seems like one of the big issues is getting enough inspectors to actually go out and do that work. Do you have any thoughts on how you can, how you can turn the tide on that?

Bibb: Well, we have to, you know, really change the culture and the efficiency of our Building and Housing Department, and beef up the cadence in terms of how to do their job. And then I intend to appoint a lead czar to my administration that will work across every single department to make sure that City Hall, across every aspect of city government, is working to fight lead paint, the lead paint crisis and supporting those respective community organizations around that.

So the organization of City Hall is one issue. You know, the health department right now is in the, underneath the mayor's [Office of Prevention, Intervention, and Opportunity for Youth and Young Adults]. Do you think that you need to reorganize?

Bibb: I'm going to have to revamp a lot of the org chart. Now it's going to take some time to understand what moves are going to make sense. But as I look at it right now, there's going to be need to be a lot of change around that.

Any particular ideas for what kinds of changes are needed?

Bibb: Well, one thing I'm really keen on looking at is kind of this chief resident experience engagement kind of office or officer that really focuses on making sure that when you call City Hall, that we track down your complaint and resolve your complaint, that you can access city data easily and that we have a resident-centric approach to how we design and procure city services. And that's something I get really excited about doing.

What kind of relationship do you, would you say you have right now with the business community in Cleveland, and what kind of relationship do you want to have as mayor?

Bibb: I'd say I have a really good, solid relationship with the business community. And I intend to work with the business community to advance the economic recovery of our city coming out of this pandemic. There's some talent I intend to poach from the business community for my administration as well, too. But you know, it's going to be productive. We won't always agree on everything, but it'll be a productive relationship.

Does that talent know you're looking to poach them?

Bibb: Probably not yet, but I'm coming. I'm coming.

One of the things that is actually another unresolved issue at the moment is this Progressive Field deal. I know we've had some hearings on it. It's not fully approved yet. Do you think that the city needs to take a second look at the terms of that deal?

Bibb: Well, the one thing I've been calling for is making sure we have strong community benefits agreements in place tied to the Progressive Field deal. I want to see very clear, actionable targets around minority and women spend[ing] in terms of contracting and folks working on the project. And then long term, you know, one thing I've talked to the Indians and others about – the Guardians, rather, sorry – about is how do we think more broadly about these stadium deals as a lever of more community development? And you have good models with the Minnesota Vikings stadium and what the Atlanta Falcons did where they really leveraged those investments to spur more community development. We need to see more of that in Cleveland when we look at these deals long term.

And when you say community development, what do you have in mind?

Bibb: Well, so with the Haslam family is looking to do is beyond just, you know, creating a new Browns Stadium or revamping Browns Stadium, they want to tie it to lakefront development, which supports and will help more residents beyond just folks that want to go to a Browns game, and really looking at the geographic area around Browns Stadium as a key part of the investment. There's some potential development opportunity near Progressive Field that we can look at for, you know, broader community development. And you know, one small but I think powerful idea is that, you know, if the city is going to spend money supporting these stadium deals, we should have a dedicated loge or seats where community members who can't afford to go to games can come to games year-round, where it's accessible to the public. And we need to see more of that in terms of us getting more buy-in from these stadium projects. But I think long term, I think long term we as a state have to have a broader conversation about how we fund these stadiums. And, you know, because, you know, localities like Cleveland putting up taxpayer dollars, I don't think it's going to be sustainable long-term, in my opinion.

One other issue I wanted to ask you about was public transit. The mayor doesn't directly run RTA, but you get to make appointments to the board. What do you want? What priorities or values do you want those appointments to have?

Bibb: Well, I want to appoint folks who actually ride RTA, who are customers of RTA to provide real-time feedback on what's working, what's not working. I'm looking to appoint board members who share my sense of urgency around getting our fair share from the state in terms of investments in public transit. And then long term, we need to work with the [Greater Cleveland Partnership] and other key stakeholders, including the leadership at RTA, around, are there some alternative funding models we need to explore locally to support our transit issues we have in the city? I know Toledo and Cincinnati have made some great strides around that. And so it's past time we look at some different funding models in Cleveland to really address our transit needs.

The one that you've mentioned on the campaign was the smart parking meters. Are there other sources of revenue that maybe could bring in more money that you would want to look at?

Bibb: I'm not exactly sure yet, but you know, I think the smart parking meters is a novel idea. Although it may not solve the entire financial issues, it's a positive step and us being creative about some of these public policy issues.

I think you referred to it before as sort of a low-hanging fruit thing that you could just get done to give people faith that government is working. What are some other things that you think the city can do right away that maybe aren't that hard that would make a change?

Bibb: Well, we're moving those jersey barriers out of Public Square. I want to do that as soon as I can. Protected bike lanes, having a robust bike lane network in Cleveland. Traffic calming, particularly in, you know, Black and brown neighborhoods in Cleveland, where we see a large number of pedestrian deaths. You know, making sure that our public spaces are well activated and programmed. You think about all the malls we have downtown – Mall A, B and C – and you know, unless there's a major event, we don't really activate those assets well enough. And things like that where we can really leverage the power of City Hall to invest in the built environment of the city long-term.

Is there anything else at this point I haven't asked about [that] you think is really is really on your mind right now is really sort of, you know, something keeping you up right now?

Bibb: Nothing keeping me up, I'd say it's important to reflect take a little bit of time to reflect on this amazing, crazy campaign we experienced. And you know, I said this in my victory speech on Tuesday that I think this mayor's race made our democracy better in Cleveland. It was a competitive campaign. Everyone made me a better man and a better candidate throughout the process. And so I want to just thank all the candidates again for their valiant effort throughout this campaign. And now we must all come together to make our city one of the best cities in the world.

I'm actually glad you mentioned that because it reminded me I did want to ask about voter turnout. I know you worked really hard to get voters out, and you got a lot of people out to vote for you. On the whole, it looks like the needle did not move that much in overall turnout. What do you think is going on there?

Bibb: This is a long-term, systemic issue we have to address that won't be solved in one election cycle. And I'm going to continue to say this. The best thing I think we can do to increase voter turnout long term is to prioritize talking to voters when it's not election season. And so you're going to see me doing door-knocking as mayor. You're going to see me having cabinet meetings in the neighborhoods. People have to feel the office to know why their vote really matters. And I think that's one thing we can do to increase voter turnout long-term.

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