Door To Door: Inside Cleveland Mayor-elect Justin Bibb's transition

Justin Bibb, now mayor-elect of Cleveland, exits the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections after voting
In less than three weeks, Justin Bibb will take office as mayor of Cleveland. Here he steps out of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections after voting in late October. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
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At midnight on Jan. 3, Justin Bibb will become mayor of Cleveland.

His transition team, working from a small office at the edge of Downtown, has just a few weeks to prepare him for the job.

Transition manager Bradford Davy told me recently that the team will be judged on whether Bibb is ready, as he promised to be, on “Day One,” whether they’ve found talented people to hire and whether the broader community feels it has been heard.

“We’ve wanted to run this transition the same way we’ve run this campaign,” Davy said.

In a way, the transition is a type of campaign as much as it is a search for talent and ideas.

“It’s pretty hectic,” Eric Fingerhut, who managed Mayor Michael R. White’s campaign and transition in 1989, told me.

In the shuffle between outgoing Mayor George Voinovich and the incoming White administration, Fingerhut worked to carry the energy of the campaign through to inauguration day.

“There was really a sense of excitement about him, and we wanted to make sure that people felt connected to it,” Fingerhut said of White.

Thirty-two years later, if you follow Bibb on social media, you can see him doing the same.

The mayor-elect has popped up at meetings around town. He convened a listening session about the arts at Karamu House, spoke with the student advisory committee of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, met with labor union leaders and thanked the pastors who helped seal his victory. Today, Bibb goes to the White House.

The incoming mayor is collecting ideas for his first 100 days from an array of advisory committees. Bibb’s team plans an online, public tool to track his progress carrying out their recommendations, assistant transition manager Jessica Trivisonno said.

I tuned in this week to a virtual listening session of Bibb’s neighborhood committee. A small but dedicated group floated ideas for the transition team to take back to the new mayor. Among them: city-owned broadband, hiring more multilingual city staff and better programming for kids at recreation centers.

The transition team must focus on the mundane in addition to the lofty. As the temperature drops, the mayor-elect has spoken with the city’s public works director about road salt, Davy said. A snowed-in city can do political damage for decades to come. Just ask Dennis Kucinich.

As for hiring, the Bibb team has posted 12 job openings so far. One job that hasn’t been posted is chief of police. Chief Calvin Williams will follow Mayor Frank Jackson out the door.

This hire will likely take some time. Bibb is looking to the example of Akron’s recent police chief search, Davy said. There, candidates for the job spoke at a community town hall as part of the hiring rigors. Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan launched the search in March of this year, picking a chief in July.

Work aside, no transition would be complete without celebration. Bibb will take his oath of office ceremonially Jan. 8 at Cleveland Public Auditorium.

The Bibb team has also invited supporters to a New Year’s Day reception, according to a screenshot of an email shared with me. The invite asked for donations to the mayor-elect’s transition fund, which pays for staff and events during the mayoral interregnum.

Donation amounts: $250 and $2,500, the maximum allowed. Just who is contributing to the fund will be revealed on Jan. 15, the first deadline for financial disclosures with the Ohio Secretary of State.

The transition team has also formed a nonprofit, Cleveland Together. It’s dormant right now, according to Davy. What it might do in the future, if anything, remains to be seen.  

Even half a lifetime removed from the 1989 campaign and transition, Fingerhut, who went on to become a U.S. congressman and state senator, told me he can still remember the excitement of those early days.

“We just were bursting with pride,” he said. “What it created was an army of people who wanted to help the city and help the mayor be successful.”

Bibb and his army of supporters will soon enter a new theater. Unlike the campaign, the transition culminates not in Election Day, but in a four-year slog.

On Days One, Two and One Thousand, Mayor Justin Bibb will have to balance the city’s competing needs, respond to crises and – somehow – find time to carry out an agenda.

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