For Justin Bibb, summers in Mount Pleasant meant long hours of playtime until the sun set over the lake’s horizon. Pedaling fast on his black Huffy to the nearest corner store, the public pool or the park for pick-up basketball, he would see the city shrink from view behind him. As he flew down tree-lined streets to return to the duplex he shared with his mother, grandmother and cousin, one singular thought began to take form.
Cleveland was for his taking.
“It was like the world was mine,” Bibb says, speaking with sheer delight in his voice. “This city has poured so much into me growing up, and I want to make sure I am giving back as much as I can starting this January.”
After 16 years of outgoing Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration, 34-year-old Bibb enters office as the second-youngest mayor in city history. And, after winning 63 percent of the general election vote, he has a clear mandate to unfurl the old ways of doing things.
Bibb speaks slowly and deliberately with a cadence that is thoughtful, yet firm, especially when talking about his commitment to action.
“I think we are entering into a new era of Cleveland, where a different generation of leaders are cropping up across all sectors of the city,” he says. “It’s really our moment to shine as a city and we all have to play our part.”
In the weeks leading up to the general election, Bibb garnered a number of endorsements from labor unions, media organizations and politicians, including former Cleveland Mayors Mike White and Jane Campbell.
But that may all prove to be the easy part.
The city faces a staggering set of challenges. As one of the nation’s poorest big cities, Cleveland is grappling with the economic impact of the pandemic and an onslaught of other issues, including rising crime, quality of life for residents, the racial wealth gap and the digital divide.
The good news is he’ll have an arsenal — $511 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
“We must be creative and truly imaginative in terms of how we can transform our community, ‘’ Bibb says. “We only get one shot I believe to get this moment right — and that time is now.”
Bibb was just 4 when his parents divorced, and he split his time between his father’s home in Shaker Heights and his grandmother’s home in Mount Pleasant. There were times when his family struggled, often choosing between making rent and buying food. But they always put his education first, especially his mother.
“She could barely read or write when she graduated high school, and it took her over 20 years to get her associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s in social work,” Bibb says. “It’s that grit and resilience and the high-quality shot at life she gave me that motivated me to be the best man I can be.”
At school, the seed of Bibb’s political ambitions took root. When he was a junior at Trinity High School, he volunteered to work on John Kerry’s 2004 campaign. After graduating, he went off to study at American University and, in 2007, interned for Barack Obama when he was a senator. In 2014, Bibb returned to Cleveland to attend Case Western Reserve University School of Law and Weatherhead School of Management.
He got his real-life start seven years ago, working in research at Gallup and eventually moving into finance at KeyBank and nonprofit development as chief strategy officer at the nonprofit Urbanova.
But it was his love for the city that drove him to run for mayor. Bibb believes his innate ability to bring people together sparked his belief that he has what it takes to move the city forward.
“My biggest observation was his work ethic,” says Bibb’s campaign manager Ryan Puente. “He was fun and an electrifying candidate out on the trail, sometimes putting in 10-, 12- or 14-hour days walking neighborhoods. We wanted to be everywhere, on the ground, grassroots. That energy is what led him to success in the election.”
For Ideastream reporter and producer Nick Castele, it was Bibb’s performance throughout the campaign — and at debates — that propelled him to victory.
“What struck me about Bibb is that he didn’t go for the fireworks or to attack opponents,” says Castele, who chronicled the race on his popular After Jackson podcast. “Instead, he held a clean performance, one that honed in on specifics for what he was going to do for the city.”
Not long after the polls closed on that first Tuesday in November 2021, Bibb stood behind a lectern at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church. The large crowd of supporters fell silent as they anticipated a notable victory speech, one they hoped would usher in a new era of change.
“The work is just beginning,” Bibb says. “Tonight, we celebrate. And tomorrow, we are going to roll up our sleeves and do the work to move our city forward in a better direction.”
The days of tireless door-to-door canvassing across the city have led him to this very moment. And, sometimes, Bibb still feels like that boy on a bike — in awe of everything that is before him.
“It’s all still sinking in for me,” he says. “But, in those quiet moments of reflection, I’m still taking it all in, one day at a time.”