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Justin Bibb won the Cleveland mayor's race with relentless campaigning and connections big and small

Before the Sept. 14 primary, when Marquez Brown was knocking on doors for the incumbent city councilman in Ward 17, he noticed blue “Bibb!” signs in yards across the far West Side neighborhood.

Brown, the Cleveland regional director for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 8, called Justin Bibb to ask about it. The two had known each other since Bibb was a high school volunteer for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

Bibb told Brown that if he could finish second or third in Ward 17, he’d be able to make it out of the mayoral primary and into the general election, Brown recalled.

“When I heard him say that, I told my team, I said, ‘Look, I think there’s going to be a different dynamic in this election come Tuesday night,’” Brown told Ideastream Public Media. “Everywhere I went, people were talking about Justin.”

AFSCME Council 8 had endorsed Dennis Kucinich in the primary. But the former congressman failed to advance to the general election, finishing third overall – and third in Ward 17, where he needed to run stronger. Only the top two moved on to the general election.

On Sept. 14, Bibb, a young Black candidate who had never before run for office, finished second in this predominantly white ward that casts more votes than any other in the city.

That showing helped propel him to a first-place finish in the primary, proving him to be a serious candidate. It was a sign of the general election victory to come.

By calling on old relationships, building new ones and running a vigorous citywide ground campaign on a message of change, Bibb defeated established politicians and won himself the mayor’s office at the age of 34.

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Bibb speaks to a meet-and-greet audience in the Brooklyn Centre neighborhood Oct. 8. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

‘Try to be everywhere’

Before he became the campaign manager who orchestrated Bibb’s mayoral victory, Ryan Puente worked as the executive director of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.

It was in that role, in 2020, that Puente, who is three years younger than Bibb, noticed that party precinct and executive committee members wanted a change, he said.

“Throughout 2020, I just continued to hear a lot about change and energy,” Puente said in an interview with Ideastream. “I just think people were, in Cleveland particularly, energized around organizing and wanting to increase voter engagement.”

Local Democrats felt overlooked by the national party during the presidential election. The COVID-19 pandemic kept many people indoors, stymieing get-out-the-vote efforts. Some Democratic activists organized their own, ward-based turnout operations.

Puente believed that Bibb, a political outsider who nonetheless had built up a broad network of contacts, was well-suited for the moment.

“I saw that there was a lot of folks that believed in Justin and, I think, thought that he was the right leader at the right time,” Puente said, echoing Bibb’s campaign slogan.

That desire for change wasn’t limited to grassroots party members. The popularity of four-term Mayor Frank Jackson was sagging, according to Ed FitzGerald, the former Cuyahoga County executive who worked as a pollster for Bibb’s opponent, Council President Kevin Kelley.

“Frank Jackson was not popular, and he wasn’t popular on either side of town, particularly,” FitzGerald said, describing early polling numbers. “We had him underwater in all of our polls by a very wide margin, and so to me, that showed that this was going to be, probably going to be a change election. And that helps Justin Bibb and it hurts Kevin.”

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Former Cleveland City Council President Jay Westbrook addresses media alongside Bibb, whom he endorsed, at an event July 20. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

Bibb announced his mayoral bid in January, five months before Jackson officially closed the door on seeking a fifth term. According to a December 2020 poll, Bibb had just 2% support among likely voters.

Bibb’s campaign advisors correctly believed that he would be popular in Wards 3 and 15, the Downtown and Near West Side neighborhoods that are home to many younger voters. But Bibb needed second- or third-place finishes elsewhere in town if he wanted to make it out of the primary, Puente said.

“Our mantra was, ‘Try to be everywhere,’ and we were having real conversations at the door,” Puente said.

Those conversations reinforced Bibb’s core messages, Puente said: People wanted change. They wanted good policing, but they also wanted police accountability.

Bibb ran a ground game on the East and West Sides with help from an enthusiastic cadre of students. Supporters met regularly to send postcards to voters advocating for Bibb.

Bibb also built relationships with people Puente termed “neighborhood influencers,” the sort of people who could organize meet-and-greets for Bibb on their blocks. From Franklin Boulevard to Shaker Square, supporters emailed friends and neighbors about why they were backing a fresh face named Justin Bibb.

“Most campaigns are top-down; his campaign was very much bottom-up,” said Quentin James, a Bibb supporter and the president of the political action committee The Collective. “Like, ‘I’m going to come to you, all I want you to do is invite some neighbors or friends over and hear my vision and ask me questions.’”

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Bibb and Kelley chat with Dennis Kucinich before a candidate forum in Tremont Aug. 23. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

But Bibb was still up against experienced vote-getters like Kucinich, Kelley, former Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed and State Sen. Sandra Williams. Endorsements from the Plain Dealer and former Mayor Michael R. White helped to raise his profile.

Meanwhile, Kelley and the super PAC Citizens for Change fought to peel votes away from Kucinich, who was seen as a likely first-place finisher on primary night.

“At first, Dennis Kucinich was so strong that we knew that in order to get anywhere, we had to deal with Dennis,” Joe Fouche, Kelley’s campaign manager, told Ideastream Public Media.

Fouche suspected that Kucinich’s early poll numbers reflected widespread name recognition, but not necessarily guaranteed votes. The Kelley campaign’s anti-Kucinich effort may have helped Bibb by flattening the former mayor’s support, according to Puente.

“We were just hoping to grab that second spot [in the primary],” Puente said. “However, I think when the Kelley campaign started to go after Dennis, as we saw on election night, we think that helped us slide into that first spot.”

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Dennis Kucinich, center, his wife, Elizabeth, and campaign spokesman Andy Juniewicz walk to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections to turn in Kucinich's nominating petitions in June. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

When the primary votes were counted, Kucinich had fallen to third place and was out of the mayor's race. Kelley – thanks to his strong support in West Park and Old Brooklyn – had broken the former congressman’s once-ironclad backing on the West Side.

“Kevin’s campaign had hoped that the story was going to be that he really was the first politician in many, many, many years to beat Dennis Kucinich in his own backyard,” FitzGerald said. “But that wasn't the story, unfortunately for Kevin’s campaign. The story was that Justin Bibb, who was an unknown, came from way back to win, to be the top vote-getter.”

Kelley brought the flushest campaign bank account to bear on the race at the start of the year. In the primary, the council president’s ads dominated the television airwaves.

But with a first-place primary finish under his belt, Bibb kept gaining momentum in the general election campaign, picking up endorsements from elected officials and out-fundraising Kelley.  

“I think folks wanted to see how would he box against the big boys, right? How would he perform in that primary?” James said of Bibb. “And he blew all of us away with that turnout.”

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Former Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White endorses Bibb outside Bibb's grandmother's home Aug. 18. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

‘Someone who has come from nowhere’

With Kucinich vanquished, the Kelley campaign turned its attention to Bibb in the head-to-head general election race.

Both candidates sought to make inroads with Black voters on the East Side, most of whom had picked someone else in the primary. The council president secured endorsements from several Black council colleagues, including former primary opponent Basheer Jones.

Jones stressed that Black voters shouldn’t pick the Black candidate merely because of his race. At an event with Kelley in late September, Jones referred to Bibb as “someone who has come from nowhere, and we have no idea who they are or where they came from.”

The problem for the Kelley campaign was that Bibb was not entirely an unknown.

Even as a student at Trinity High School in the early 2000s, Bibb had begun making connections with people in Cleveland politics. In a page of Bibb’s senior yearbook in 2005, the editors wrote he was also known as "The Senator.”

Angela Woodson, who worked as a senior advisor for Bibb’s campaign with faith groups, said she first met him at county party headquarters during the Kerry campaign in 2004. Woodson and a colleague began giving him rides home, she said.

“I was fascinated that he was catching buses to get over to us right after school,” Woodson said.

Bibb showed a keen interest in politics as a young person. When Frank Jackson was sworn in as mayor in 2006, Woodson brought Bibb to Jackson’s open-to-the-public mayoral ball, she said.

“When I took him that day, I said you would have thought I took him to a Michael Jackson concert, because he was so excited,” Woodson said.

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Justin Bibb's mother, Charlene Nichols, looks on as dozens of ministers endorse her son's mayoral bid. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

Bibb was also known in the Black church. His family attended Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, led for decades by the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. and now by the Rev. Jawanza Colvin. As a candidate, Bibb put in time on Sundays speaking to congregations.

Many pastors did not endorse in the primary so as not to pick sides among friends in the race, Woodson said. But after Sept. 14, things changed. Bibb met with dozens of pastors and won their backing.

“We heard Justin out, and we all agreed that we would get behind him,” Woodson said. “Because he had earned all of our – every right for us to be behind him. He was the top vote-getter, which was impressive. He beat every odd that everybody had been printing and had been saying.”

The endorsements of Zack Reed and Sandra Williams, who did well on the southeast side of the city in the primary, also helped Bibb consolidate support. Reed – well known as a relentless campaigner – canvassed East Side neighborhoods for Bibb, putting his name and popularity behind the first-time candidate.

Reed told Ideastream Public Media that some voters told him they weren’t yet sold on Bibb, even if they had no plans to vote for Kelley. Work by Reed and others likely helped close the deal.

“I just believe that once you endorse somebody, you shouldn’t just put your name on a piece of paper and allow them to utilize your name,” Reed said. “You should put your machinery in work.”

On election night Nov. 2, Bibb won 80% support in many East Side wards, outdistancing even Mayor Frank Jackson’s margins against opponent Ken Lanci in 2013.

If Bibb is going to be politically successful as mayor, he will have to deliver the change that he promised and stay in touch with the voters who won him his victory, Reed said.

“People want real change,” Reed said. “They want the system to work for them, especially people of color, especially for the people on the East Side of the city of Cleveland.”

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Bibb shakes hands during Cleveland's Labor Day parade, an East Side event that draws candidates from all over the city. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

Outside influence

Both Kelley and Bibb benefitted from independent expenditure campaigns.

Citizens for Change PAC helped Kelley in the primary by hammering away at Kucinich. The super PAC also paid for a mailer attacking Bibb.

In the general election, a new super PAC came to Kelley’s aid: Citizens for Cleveland’s Future. The political action committee produced a television ad featuring two councilmen who had endorsed Kelley, Blaine Griffin and Kevin Conwell.

Neither super PAC has disclosed its funders or expenditures yet.

It wasn’t the only outside help Kelley received. A website purporting to be a news outlet called Cleveland Neighborhood News published articles criticizing Bibb. The site’s Facebook page paid to boost those posts to a wider social media audience, according to Facebook ad disclosures, garnering hundreds of shares and comments.

The outlet was originally formed by FitzGerald, he confirmed to Ideastream Public Media in an email in September. The former county executive said that he sold his interest in the website earlier in the year. He declined to name the new owner.

“The new owner is free to do whatever they want with it,” FitzGerald wrote in September. “Some of the content I've agreed with, some of it I haven't. They have told me they intend to operate the site for years to come, are hiring actual reporters, and believe that it can be viable in this news market.”

Nevertheless, Cleveland Neighborhood News has not published any new articles since Kelley lost the mayoral race, nor did it cover the Nov. 2 results.

A spokeswoman for the Kelley campaign told Ideastream Public Media that the campaign did not coordinate with Cleveland Neighborhood News. In an email earlier this year, an unnamed representative for the website claimed to be independent of any campaign or political action committee.

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Bibb and Zack Reed knock on doors in Cleveland's Union-Miles neighborhood the weekend before the Nov. 2 election. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

Bibb received third-party help, as well.

Conservation Ohio, a super PAC connected to the Ohio Environmental Council, joined forces with the Service Employees International Union District 1199 and other groups to buy radio, streaming TV and digital ads for Bibb.

Those ads didn’t just promote Bibb. They also attacked Kelley as “crooked.”

Conservation Ohio worked to reach environmentally conscious younger voters in Wards 3 and 15 while also persuading voters in East Side wards, according to political director Spencer Dirrig. The PAC organized barbers and beauty salon stylists to greet voters at polling places in the primary and on Election Day.

“We believe that that had a strong impact in making sure that people heard our environmental justice message,” Dirrig said. 

Cleveland for All, a super PAC created earlier this year, paid for pro-Bibb mailers. It also sent out mailers for Sandra Williams in the primary.

According to paperwork filed Oct. 12 with the Federal Election Commission, the PAC received all of its money from the Ohio Women’s Alliance Action Fund. The group is a 501c4 nonprofit aimed at “expanding the electorate to be more inclusive of Black women and women of color,” according to its website.

The super PAC Future Cleveland raised $44,500 from people in the city’s business community, according to FEC disclosures. Before the primary, the PAC released a video ad backing Kelley, Bibb and Williams.

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Kevin Kelley speaks at a Teamsters endorsement event in October. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

The experience question and Kelley’s last chance

If 2021 was a change election, Kelley tried to make a dual case for himself: that his experience in office best prepared him to act as a change agent.

In debates and forums, the council president criticized what he saw as Bibb’s naivete and inexperience. But that tack did not win Kelley the day.

“If you ask voters if they care about experience, they’ll say that they do and they’ll rate it very, very highly,” FitzGerald said. “But they really don’t.”

In the final weeks of the campaign, Kelley heavily emphasized his opposition to Issue 24, the police oversight charter amendment that Bibb supported. The weekend before the election, Kelley gave these instructions to construction and teachers’ union members canvassing for him on the West Side: Tell voters, “Yes on Kelley, no on Issue 24.”

But the issue, like Bibb, was headed for victory.

Joe Fouche, Kelley’s campaign manager and a former East Cleveland police officer and chief of police in a small Northwest Ohio town, said that Bibb put together a strong and organized team.

“On top of that, they had a great candidate in Justin,” he said. “And then, if that wasn’t good enough, they were on the right side of Issue 24.”

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Justin Bibb takes the stage at Olivet Institutional Baptish Church to deliver his victory speech Nov. 2. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

Although Bibb ran as an outsider change candidate, he pulled institutional support away from better-known figures.

After his primary victory, he picked up the endorsements of a wide range of elected officials, from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown to Cuyahoga County Councilman Martin J. Sweeney. Democratic affinity groups like the Cuyahoga Democratic Women’s Caucus backed Bibb over Kelley, who also serves as the executive vice chair of the county party.

“The campaign started off early and they just worked hard without ever stopping,” Women’s Caucus Chair Cindy Demsey said of the Bibb campaign. “And so the momentum was building as his name became better known, and people would talk about him and there was enthusiasm.”

Bibb’s win could open the door to more electoral bids by challenger candidates, according to Quentin James of The Collective PAC.

“We’re going to see a lot more challengers stepping up to run,” he said. “Because I think there’s this assumption that there is this very powerful establishment machine. And I think Justin tore it to shreds ... and the kind of myth behind it as well.”

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