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Can Generational Change in Cleveland Make a Difference?

Justin Bibb hopes to be mayor of a city that has been in decline for decades. But despite his youth and confidence, and hundreds of millions in federal aid, the city still faces an uncertain future.

A Justin Bibb campaign poster outside of a brewery in Cleveland, Ohio.
A Justin Bibb campaign poster outside a brewery in Cleveland. Bibb is 34 years old and has captured the attention of the city’s voters.
(Jake Blumgart/Governing)
At this time last year, Justin Bibb would not have been standing in the mouth of a vertical launch tube for a Virginia-class nuclear submarine.

But being one of the final candidates to be the next mayor of Cleveland comes with some unusual opportunities, like touring metal fabricator AT&F’s cavernous facilities. Tucked away in a warren-like industrial park, the manufacturer employs 170 workers on the city border, building mining machinery, Amtrak train cars, and defense equipment like the missile payload tubes Bibb is staring at in awe.

The 34-year-old mayoral candidate is dwarfed by this imposing piece of naval equipment. Wheeling away to continue the tour, he grins and says, “Cleveland, man, would you have known?”

Bibb is here because he finished first in the crowded Sept. 14 primary, the only candidate to rack up a five-digit vote count in an exceedingly low turnout election. Beating out better-known candidates who hold elected office, or once did, Bibb will now square off against the second highest vote-getter: City Council President Kevin Kelley.

The general election, held Nov. 2, is widely seen as a story of a young, ambitious candidate who captured the imagination of voters sick of Cleveland politics-as-usual. After 16 years of Mayor Frank Jackson, and decades of declining population and soaring poverty, Bibb’s supporters say he gives them something to believe in.

“I grew up on the east side, but I’ve been out of Cleveland for about 20 years and coming back in 2020 during COVID, it’s in need of some good news,” says Carl Setzer, a craft beer brewer who arranged Bibb’s AT&F tour. “Seeing the Bibb campaign take shape and gain momentum was one of those political movements that felt like a generational opportunity.”

Setzer is broad shouldered, with a thick beard braided into a twist, and an unusual backstory. For the past 18 years he’s been living in Beijing, bringing American-style craft brewing to China. But during the pandemic, and the lockdown imposed by the Chinese government, he decided it was time to come home.

Setzer and his family moved to Wickliffe, a small city that isn’t even in the same county as Cleveland. But compared to the metropolis of 22 million he just moved from, where it took two hours to drive from end to end, the trek to AT&F’s factory complex on the far west side of Cleveland is a mere 21 minutes.

“As goes the city of Cleveland, so goes the region, whether it’s economic, sociopolitical trends, or population migrations,” says Setzer. “Our generation just needs to believe that it’s not going to be like this forever.”

Setzer isn’t alone in casting Bibb as an antidote to the city’s myriad troubles. When the City Club of Cleveland held a video interview with the candidate, early in the race, so many people logged on to watch that their website crashed. In the primary, he won commanding victories in the near west side and downtown, where a primarily white, professional, and left-leaning population is established, attracting investment and feeling left out of the city’s insular ward politics.

Bibb also did well in many lower-income and working-class neighborhoods on the predominantly Black east side of the city, where he grew up, although the vote there was split much more heavily. Now walking around with Bibb in the midst of downtown, or among the lovingly renovated historic homes of the near west side Ohio City neighborhood, he’s hailed by passing pedestrians, honked at cheerfully by motorists, and recognized by bus riders.
Mayoral candidate Justin Bibb sitting on a bus talking to another rider, both of them wearing face masks.
Mayoral candidate Justin Bibb discusses his transit proposals for Cleveland while riding a bus in the city.
(Jake Bumgart/Governing)

“In January, no one knew me,” Bibb says, after a woman stopped at a red light gleefully hails him. That’s true of random passersby, but he’s been a fixture in civically engaged Cleveland circles for years, working an array of jobs as a policy consultant, in Cuyahoga County government, and for the major Cleveland bank. (In his even younger days, he also interned in the White House during Barack Obama’s first administration.)

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he says of his widespread renown, as another motorist taps his horn and waves as Bibb walks to a candidate forum at the homey Forest City Brewery. Then, shifting into politician-speak, he says levelly, “I’m just doing the work, locked in on winning and getting as many votes as we can.”

Cleveland’s Unhappy 21st Century

If Justin Bibb wins, he will replace a mayor who is more than 40 years older than him. That striking contrast does a lot of Bibb’s work for him.

Those 40 years have not been kind. In 1970, Cleveland was still among the top 10 largest cities in America. Today it isn’t even in the top 50, with 60 percent of its population having vanished since 1950. Over a third of Cleveland lives in poverty and 30,000 vacant lots mar the landscape, mostly on the east side. Even in the 1980s, the decade Bibb was born, the city was demolishing 19 houses for every new home permitted.

Although parts of Cleveland have seen reinvestment and stabilization, including a mini-housing boom downtown (where Bibb lives in Playhouse Square), the city’s population continues to decline even over the past two decades as cities like Philadelphia and Kansas City have seen their fortunes revive.

Cleveland’s finances and services never fully recovered from the Great Recession, and many homes outside the handful of revitalizing neighborhoods never regained the value they lost after the crash. In several east side communities, values crashed from a peak in 2006-2007 to almost nothing. By 2017, in Bibb’s old Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, the median home sale price was only $14,000 (17 percent of the pre-Great Recession price).

The fallout from this latest economic disaster is not yet clear. Cleveland depends on income taxes from suburban commuters for roughly a fifth of the municipal budget, and while city finances are flush right now because of federal aid, the question of remote work’s ramifications looms large. Even more worryingly, gun violence exploded during the pandemic, going from bad to worse, as shooting deaths rose by over 50 percent. The crisis in confidence over policing continues in tandem, despite a federal consent decree, with many Black residents describing both a fear of the Cleveland department and a desire for greater protection.
A quiet street in downtown Cleveland.
A quiet street in downtown Cleveland. Rising crime and a disappearing workforce, thanks to COVID-19, have left the city in a precarious position.
(Jake Blumgart/Governing)
“I lived here all my life and I keep saying to myself, what the hell is wrong here? Why can’t we get it together?” asks Mike Polensek, who was first elected to the City Council in 1976 and has not endorsed either candidate. “The people who are going to vote on Nov. 2, they’re going to look for a person who can give them some light at the end of the tunnel.”

The longing for a new beginning can feel especially acute because of the current mayor’s four-term reign. Frank Jackson came to power representing the lowest income neighborhoods, and he has a reputation as a responsible steward of the city’s budget despite extreme headwinds. His administration also remained largely scandal-free, without a whiff of financial corruption.

But the closing years of his tenure have been marked by what critics describe as a resistance to new ideas, a lack of transparency and an absence of leadership during the acute crisis of 2020. He’s also been haunted by accusations that members of his family are involved in organized crime and gun violence, including a murder. (His grandson was shot to death a month ago.)

Jackson’s long tenure poses a problem for Kevin Kelley, whose foes have tried to tie him to a mayor he’s often worked alongside. Two recent sports stadium deals amounting to over $300 million in municipal subsidies have been weaponized against him, one that gives $255 million to the owners of the Cleveland Indians-turned-Guardians and another that gives $88 million for the refurbishment of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball stadium. Then there’s his opposition to a 2016 $15 minimum wage campaign in the city, which Kelley allied with Republican lawmakers in Columbus to stymie.

Many progressive voters in the city see Kelley as an extension of the old guard, and a politics of downtown-focused mega-projects.

“You can’t run a city with only one branch of government, and Kelley’s had to work closely with Frank,” says Jim Rokakis, who sat on the Cleveland City Council in the 1980s and 1990s, served as Cuyahoga County treasurer, and remains a close observer of local politics. “The positions he has taken over the past 10 years that have put him at odds with the progressive community are positions that he is paying for today.”

After 16 years of civic and political leadership dominated by a familiar cast of characters, recent signs of generational change have appeared. In late 2019, the Regional Transit Authority got a new and widely praised CEO after a period of chaos and scandal. This year the long-serving CEOs of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and the Greater Cleveland Partnership retired, and were replaced with younger leaders. Both organizations wield a great deal of influence, and are prime examples of the kinds of institutions where power in Cleveland is often centered in an age of public-sector austerity.

But the position of mayor still exceeds them in stature and prestige. Bibb’s campaign has done a good job of crafting him as the one to bring the 21st century to City Hall. In his sleek, well-tailored suits and hipster glasses, he doesn’t look like most Cleveland politicians. Bibb speaks the kind of technocratic, good government language familiar from municipal leaders like Michael Nutter in Philadelphia or Pete Buttigeg in South Bend, Ind. That’s a striking contrast to the city’s more parochial political flavor, in part because up-and-comers like Bibb usually seek power and influence outside City Hall.

Bibb describes the centerpiece of his campaign as a push to professionalize and update the city bureaucracy, re-focusing on the nuts and bolts of service provision.

“Just from a systems perspective, we have a long way to go in terms of really modernizing city government, that’s one of the biggest pieces of my platform,” says Bibb in an interview with Governing, ticking off ideas like digitizing permitting processes across departments and creating a means to more easily track citizen complaints. If victorious, his image of vitality and intelligence could aid in restocking the upper levels of the bureaucracy with engaged personnel.

“Many seniors I talk to have to call four or five departments to get their grass cut,” says Bibb. “Sidewalk repairs are a major issue, pothole repair, large-scale infrastructure upgrades. My whole campaign is really focused on getting the city back to the basics.”

Kevin Kelley: How Much Is Experience Worth in Cleveland?

Kelley is no right-wing conservative. He spearheaded a push for right-to-counsel legislation, to guarantee low-income renters a lawyer in eviction court. He’s built alliances with the building trades unions, the firefighters, the teachers and the Teamsters. Unlike the Jackson administration’s transportation bureaucrats, who have a reputation for car-oriented conservatism, Kelley’s standing with bicycle and safe streets advocates has been friendly.

On many policy areas, Bibb and Kelley overlap, both being well within the norms of contemporary Democratic party politics. In an Oct. 11 debate, the biggest point of conflict was over Issue 24, a charter amendment that would establish a civilian oversight board for the police department.

Bibb supports the idea, while Kelley opposes it, saying that it would likely wind up in court and that complaints and judgments against the police department have fallen dramatically since the 2015 consent decree.

At a Clevelanders for Public Transit candidate forum on Oct. 12, Issue 24 arose again despite the transportation theme of the evening.

“It’s not off topic, because nothing else we do is going to matter if you do not get the level of violent crime down in our communities,” said Kelley. “Issue 24 will make our communities less safe, it will lead to less accountability, it will lead to an unelected board of bureaucrats who have no training in policing making decisions on policing.”
Cleveland Council President, and mayoral candidate, Kevin Kelley standing at a podium.
Cleveland Council President, and mayoral candidate, Kevin Kelley waits to begin speaking during the Cleveland Mayoral Debate against candidate Justin Bibb on Oct. 11, 2021, in Cleveland.
(David Petkiewicz/
Kelley also tried to paint Bibb as inexperienced and a policy lightweight, jabbing that he hadn’t even read the ballot measure. At another point he asked his opponent if he understood the difference between the legislative and executive branches, drawing gasps from the Bibb-friendly audience.

Kelley’s essential message is that Cleveland can ill-afford lack of political or management experience. Mailers have targeted Bibb for being an “empty suit” who has hop-scotched around between different jobs (Bibb counters that’s the norm for many millennials). Polling for the race is limited, but suggests the newcomer is still leading.

The Federal Cavalry Arrives for Cleveland, but Will It Stay?

Regardless of who wins next week, the new mayor of Cleveland will come in with a degree of federal assistance not enjoyed since the 1970s. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allots the city over $511 million in support, even as Jackson leaves his successor with a budget in better health than anyone was expecting at this time last year.

But municipal finance experts warn that though this infusion of resources will be helpful as cities readjust to new realities, it won’t be recurring and could leave politicians in the lurch.

“ARPA is a double-edged sword, because the public sees all this money coming in but that’s only going to help for a year or two,” says Eric Scorsone, professor of local and state government at Michigan State University. “Our pensions are still broken, our roads are broken, all this other stuff is still wrong. The economy is still hurting because of all the changes from the pandemic.”

Before COVID-19, Cleveland had experienced a fair amount of success retaining a professional jobs base downtown, which in turn provided income taxes from those who didn’t use many services. But today, Cleveland’s core — long overbuilt for the number of people employed there — feels hollow. There are more unused e-scooters than people on many blocks, and the broad avenues are disturbingly empty of traffic.

Although some workers are trickling back to the office, if more professional class jobs downsize offices or push towards a hybrid work model, Cleveland’s budget could be seriously imperiled. During the pandemic, emergency orders allowed Ohio cities to continue collecting income taxes from people no longer working in their borders. But that protection expired this summer, and given the backlash from suburban Republican legislators even at the height of the pandemic, nothing similar can be counted on to protect cities in the future.

The question, then, is what to do with this one-time federal windfall and how to govern a city that’s enjoyed very few breaks in recent decades. For many critics of Jackson, and the model of urban governance that’s normalized across America, that means less focus on big projects like city funding for sports stadiums or convention centers. Such mega projects have been found to be of little measurable benefit, while boosting the welfare of low-income residents and providing basic city services would pay higher dividends. But even here, with local resources so strapped, it is the expansion of the welfare state being considered by Democrats in Washington, D.C., that could do far more for Cleveland than Bibb or Kelley.

Still, that’s why Bibb’s back to basic messaging, delivered with sleekly packaged rhetoric about hope and change, is promising to many voters. But there is a question of who, exactly, is listening to him or to any of the candidates.

Bibb got the most votes in the mayoral primary, but that still only amounts to 15,000 out of a city of over 372,000. The turnout this year was excruciatingly low, as it has been in these off-year primary contests for decades. Bibb has caught the imagination of many of the most plugged-in voters and observers, but many people in Cleveland are entirely checked out of the race. That’s because for thousands of residents in the city, a resource-strapped local government has long ago ceased being an entity that can do much for them.

For Maurnita Williams, who lives on the city’s east side, the mayoral election has been playing on mute. She hasn’t been paying attention, finding the crowded primary too overwhelming.

“I’m more of a realist or realistic type of person, and they’re gonna do what they want to do,” says Williams, in regards to the city’s political class. Shown a campaign image of Justin Bibb, she allows that he looks familiar, but doesn’t know anything about him.

But she knows exactly what policy areas she wants to see addressed.

“Fill in all the potholes and get the police together,” says Williams, who is Black. “Because now we’re scared to call the cops when we need to be protected in our own home. It could be a racist cop coming to me and next thing I know I’m the one that’s going on the ground and ending up like George Floyd.”

For her, streets and policing are two areas where a mayor can actually do something. The violence that’s been racking Cleveland neighborhoods and communities across the country is beyond their control, she says. Although Williams moved to Cleveland from nearby Elyria, Ohio, she wants to move elsewhere but fears that conditions are similar across the country — at least where she can afford to move.

“I don’t want to say anything as far as any mayor or even police official has helped with the violence going on here, because they haven’t and they probably can’t,” says Williams. “I feel like everyone’s just fending for themselves.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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