Blaine Griffin Blaine Griffin
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In the City Council committee room, beside a table spread with finger food, Blaine Griffin fidgets anxiously inside a void in the crowd. 

A natural backslapper, he is unaccustomed to standing alone and a bit uncertain how to occupy himself during a lull. 

Still, Griffin can’t help but stand out. 

He’s tall with the chest of a former athlete, and his close-shorn head floats above the throng. Often, in conversation — and he always seems to be talking with someone — he must lean over, bringing his anvil jaw closer, to make sure he hears. He likes to dress with a smidge of swagger: sleek suits, vibrant ties, bold shirts and, occasionally, a vest. 

For tonight’s swearing-in ceremony, he’s in a conservative charcoal suit, pink-purple tie and red pocket square. Only his lapel, adorned with a City Council pin and white boutonniere, hints at the celebratory mood. 

After a moment, a middle-aged woman breaks from the crowd and approaches Griffin. His head dips to listen, eyes light up and the councilman flips on.

It’s New Year’s Day, and Cleveland’s 17 recently elected City Council members are about to take the official oath of office. Folks have trekked across the freezing city to watch. With available seating going fast, some are already standing along the rear wall. The upper overflow galleries, usually empty during council meetings, are filling with people jostling for a bird’s-eye on the ceremony. 

Griffin and his wife, Jeanette, sit together at one of the council desks that form a semicircle around the council president’s dais. The other members of council and their families fill up the rest.

When Cleveland Municipal court Judge Ron Adrine raises his right arm toward the chandeliers, Griffin and the other soon-to-be council members raise their hands too. Together, they repeat the oath of office. And in less time than it takes to sing the National Anthem, the new council has been sworn in. 

Griffin grabs councilmen Kerry McCormack, Joe Jones and Brian Kazy for ardent handshakes before council President Kevin Kelley lays out his agenda for the city legislators. 

“To steal a thought from our mayor,” Kelley says, “we will truly be a great city when all of our citizens participate in the prosperity that is Cleveland.” 

When Kelley concludes, each member gets a turn, starting with Mike Polensek, who has 40 years of service on council. Ken Johnson follows, then Dona Brady, and on down the line of seniority until, just before Joe Jones and the four first-timers, Griffin takes a turn at the mic. 

Appointed in May to replace Mamie Mitchell in Ward 6, Griffin spent more than a decade running the city’s Community Relations Board before being elected to his first full term in November. Griffin follows a political lineage that includes Mayor Frank Jackson and the activists who propelled Jackson into politics. While it’s too early to predict the political landscape in four years, Griffin has the makings of a potent base for a mayoral run. 

He stands like someone comfortable speaking in front of crowds. “I am forever grateful to our creator for always looking out for this little old boy from the south side of Youngstown, that grew up in the shadows of abandoned steel mills,” Griffin begins. 

The speech is part origin tale, part sermon on leadership, part campaign poetry and part policy agenda. At times it’s unpolished, but underneath the stump-speech boilerplate a message sparks with something greater. 

“As we write this chapter in Cleveland’s history, I ask that we be a testimonial, as this council, to address some of the most complex and vexing issues of our time,” he says, ticking off infant mortality, opioids, poverty, racism, underserved seniors and gun violence as stemming from something more insidious.

“We have to use this platform to let the entire community know that this is not normal,” he says.

Sounding a bit like Jackson, Griffin touts goals of a high standard of living, quality education, jobs with wages that sustain families, equitable economic development and a public health approach to stop violence. 

“A Cleveland that takes care of its own —  a proud city with safe, strong and vibrant neighborhoods. Ward 6 will be a part of this renaissance,” Griffin says. “Ladies and gentlemen of this council and this community, let’s write a successful chapter of Cleveland’s history.”


As a young man, Griffin couldn’t quite see his future. 

Griffin’s mother was a powerful force in his childhood. A social worker, Erlene Bentley helped organize a union in Mahoning County. The single mother instilled in Griffin the value of education and high expectations. 

As a student at Youngstown’s Woodrow Wilson High School, Griffin excelled enough on the basketball court that he earned a partial basketball scholarship to Malone University, a Christian liberal arts college in Canton. 

A gritty power forward, he started as a sophomore in the 1990-91 school year when the Pioneers went 34-6, the best record in school history. During Griffin’s four seasons, the team racked up more than 100 victories. 

“I was good enough for them to help me with my education,” Griffin recalls. “I won’t say good. I’ll just say I played my part.”

But after graduating in 1993 with a degree in communications, he was a little aimless and unable to land a job.

In 1994, he came to Cleveland and moved into a house at East 78th Street and Union Avenue to care for his ailing grandfather, who was suffering with colon cancer. When the retired longshoreman passed away shortly after Griffin arrived, the 23-year-old once again found himself jobless. 

It didn’t last long. While socializing at his grandfather’s repast at the Harvard Community Services Center, Griffin talked with the center’s director. Impressed, she offered him a job on the spot. 

Griffin helped administer the Healthy Family and Healthy Start program, which provided health care to children, pregnant women and families. He also worked with gang-affiliated and at-risk youth through the Rites of Passage program. 

“I just needed the job,” he recalls. “Then when I got the job, I actually loved working with them young guys. I had seen so many of the same similarities and challenges that they were facing, that I had to face growing up.”

While at Harvard Community Services Center, Griffin got involved with the New Future Outlook League, an organization founded to foster the next generation of black leaders. It yielded valuable introductions, to his pastor, the Rev. C. Jay Matthews, Judge Adrine and others. 

Griffin’s rising profile quickly caught the eye of Paul Hill Jr. The longtime administrator of East End Neighborhood House, Hill was also a de facto talent spotter for a generation of East Side politicians. 

In the early 1970s, Hill had employed Lonnie Burten Jr., a neighborhood activist, to help African-Americans integrate into the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District. One day, Burten, who was working toward a doctorate at Case Western Reserve University, told Hill he wanted to go into politics. 

Burten planned to run against Charles Carr, a well-established black Democrat with a war chest full of loot. “Look, Lonnie, I could see you teaching at the university. I can’t see you in politics,” Hill told his protege. But, “whatever decision you make, I’ll support you.” 

When Burten insisted, Hill campaigned alongside Burten’s neighbor from East 36th Street, Frank Jackson. In an incredible upset, Burten defeated Carr in 1975. Burten became an earnest advocate for the Central neighborhood before dying suddenly in 1984.

Hill saw glimpses of Burten in Griffin. “I liked the way he carried himself,” Hill says, “his initiative, his in-touchness and in-tuneness with the community, even at that time for a young person.” 

So when a job opened, Hill snapped Griffin up to work at East End. Hill put Griffin in charge of some of East End’s most important programs from Meals on Wheels, which delivered food to 400 seniors, to its senior day care. By the late ’90s, Griffin was already being groomed. 

“I was really drilling into Blaine, at some point, ‘Take over East End Neighborhood House and run the neighborhood center,’ ” recalls Hill. “He would have been perfect.”


It is 6:45 a.m. and Griffin can’t even get out of the cold without someone wanting to shake his hand. 

This January Friday, he climbs out of his silver GMC Yukon Denali under the InterContinental Cleveland Hotel entryway and hands his keys to the valet. Two businessmen are waiting to pigeonhole him. They plan to move into his ward and want to meet. Griffin shakes their hands and takes a card. 

“It was nice to meet you, maybe one day we can touch base or something,” Griffin tells them, breaking away. 

A few steps later, a photographer grabs his attention. “Good to see you man, what you got, a list of people you need to see?” Griffin asks.

Finally at the elevator, Griffin holds the doors open so a group of elderly folk can climb aboard. “Good morning, how are you all?” he says. The elevator zooms toward the 500-seat amphitheater, where the Cleveland Clinic is hosting its 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Celebration. 

The Clinic is a touchy subject in Griffin’s Ward 6, which stretches from Little Italy in the north, East 79th Street to the west, past Union Avenue to the south and stops short of Shaker Square to the east. 

The Clinic’s main campus is on the ward’s northwest side. As Politico reported last year, some nearby residents worry that, relative to its immense resources and international profile, the nonprofit hospital is not providing commensurate community benefit. 

In 2016, the Clinic provided $808.7 million of benefits in Ohio, Nevada and Florida. The majority, 74 percent, went to continuing education for medical professionals and to make up Medicaid shortfalls, the difference between the cost of care and what Medicaid reimburses. Not including the shortfalls, $143.9 million, or 18 percent, went to subsidized health services, outreach programs and free or discounted medical care. 

Griffin’s constituents might not know the numbers, but they see the construction: the Global Cardiovascular Innovations Center completed in the mid-2000s, the new parking garage, sky bridge and IBM building at East 105th Street and Cedar Avenue, and the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Center a block north. It feels like a never-ending hard-hat parade. 

This puts Griffin in a delicate position. The neighborhood needs the Clinic’s jobs. And the hospital’s board and leadership are center-gravity for local power. But Griffin also needs votes. So for Griffin, a Clinic-hosted MLK breakfast is as much about politics as it is the ceremony. 

The elevator doors ding open. Bobbing along, slightly pigeon-toed, Griffin climbs the stairs toward the rear of the arena-style auditorium. He shakes five or six more hands on the way: “Good to see you” “How are you doing, you doing OK?” “How you doin’, bro?” “Hey, how are you? Good.” “Good morning, good morning.”

He hasn’t met new Clinic CEO Tomislav Mihaljevic yet, Griffin says, claiming a mesh-backed chair. Before he can settle, he’s on his feet again. “Heyyy, Mr. Bracy Lewis.” 

“I just got to talking about you the other day,” says Lewis. 

“Hopefully good things now,” says Griffin.

“Oh yeah, with my minister at St. James,” says Lewis. 

“At St. James, yeah, we had a good conversation,” says Griffin. “We’re supposed to get together sooner or later.” 

They shake again, and Griffin sits. 

Dennis Kucinich, about to announce a run for governor five days later, works the room below. “I won’t say we’re best friends, but I know him,” says Griffin, watching Denny the Kid cast his magic. “He always kept his house. He and [George] Voinovich, I give them credit, they always kept the house they lived in, never strayed too far away.” 

He quiets, reading the program for the interdenominational service. 

The neighborhood needs to take advantage of the Clinic, he says, for jobs and health care. “Probably the most vexing one is fair and equitable development. How do we make sure we have fair and equitable development?” he says. “People feel like the Clinic is just taking over.

“They’ll say they do a lot of community benefits,” Griffin continues knowingly, waiting for the service. “But it is what it is. Perception sometimes rules the day.”

Back in October 2000, Griffin arranged a community meeting at East End Neighborhood House to relieve some of the tension among his neighbors about the closing of St. Luke’s Medical Center. 

But the meeting was not going well. 

St. Luke’s had shuttered a year earlier, leaving a neighborhood anchor empty. Griffin, who had moved to Larchmere Boulevard and become president of the Buckeye, Shaker and Woodland Hills Neighborhood Assembly, took up the cause. 

He was concerned the facility would languish. “The least we can be given is a plan of what is going to happen,” he told The Plain Dealer in the summer of 2000.

A proposal was on the table from the Job Corps to use the site for a residential training program. But the idea was controversial. A previous plan for the facility in Bratenahl had collapsed after a petition campaign. Members of the community opposed it — so did his mentor Hill. But in public, the Neighborhood Assembly and East End stayed neutral.

Griffin wanted to get everyone in the room and hammer out a compromise. “I thought we were going to get to a solution where everybody can rally around a common need, a common issue of how we can reutilize this hospital and land,” Griffin remembers. 

Instead he got schooled in rough-and-tumble politics. “It was my first lesson in how good intentions can often go bad,” he says. 

He hadn’t counted on Job Corps hiring Arnold Pinkney, Cleveland’s wily and celebrated political operator, as a consultant. Without the community meeting, Griffin and Hill might have been able to quietly push against Pinkney, without upsetting their carefully constructed neutrality. 

But now, as a room full of his neighbors watched, Griffin sparred with Pinkney, expressing his personal disagreement with the Job Corps project. The peppery Youngstown natives rhetorically circled each other, until Griffin, not even 30 years old, drew up and called the elder Pinkney a “bourgeois Negro.”

“I went to a meeting where I thought everyone was going to like the outcome,” recalls Griffin. “I wound up coming out of that meeting deciding that I wanted to be a council person.”

Yet Griffin’s hot-headedness isolated him from nearly everyone: Pinkney, the Job Corps and then-councilwoman Patricia Britt. It also soured his community bonds. The perception was that he was doing backroom deals, saying he was neutral while actually being opposed. 

But when roiling with youthful intemperance, those look like advantages, not crutches. He could bring people together over the St. Luke’s issue, Griffin thought, and knock down Britt, a well-connected councilwoman observers were already handicapping as mayoral material. 

“Blaine was very ambitious,” Hill recalls. 

When Griffin told Hill he wanted to run, Hill heard echoes of Lonnie Burten. “It’s a decision you’re going to have to make, because you can’t do both, going into politics or continuing as a social worker,” Hill told him. “Whatever decision you make, I support.” 

Goosed by the St. Luke’s issue, Griffin believed he could slay the dragon. “I thought it was my time,” Griffin says. 

He was wrong. In the 2001 election, Griffin didn’t even make it through the primary. 

In a six-way race, he finished second to last with just 313 votes. 

“We talked to him about [how], right after 2001, it wasn’t his time,” says Hill, “but his time would eventually come.” 



His reputation tattered, Griffin refashioned himself as a behind-the-scenes go-getter. 

He reconciled with Pinkney, volunteering after the primary on Pinkney-run campaigns for the 2001 school bond issue and mayoral candidate Raymond Pierce. He traveled to the Supreme Court in 2002 to watch arguments in a Cleveland school voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, and went door to door on the East Side for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. 

At his day job, Griffin moved to the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland, managing a program that ran food pantries across the county, then went on to oversee a county violent offender re-entry program.

Then, in 2004, an old friend from East End called. It was Frank Jackson. He was going to run for mayor. Jackson wanted Griffin to be part of the campaign. When Pinkney came on as manager, Griffin became his deputy.

“I had just got this good job at the county. I wasn’t sure that I was going to do it,” says Griffin. “But I believed in him so much, I said, ‘Hey, let me just jump out there and take a risk.’ ”

Griffin was great at the glad-handing and widely read on the issues, recalls Mary Anne Sharkey, the former Plain Dealer metro editor who ran the campaign’s communications.But he was thirsty for schooling on the media, so they talked for hours at a time. 

“I knew that Blaine was mining me for information, which was fine,” she says. 

After Jackson’s upset victory over incumbent Jane Campbell, Griffin moved into the mayor’s administration as director of the Community Relations Board. 

He had always admired the way Jackson mixed idealism with a get-shit-done mentality. Working for Jackson, Griffin learned the same pragmatism.

In 2012, when Jackson needed a 15-mill levy to support the Cleveland Plan, an ambitious school system overhaul, he turned to Griffin. It would be a heavy lift in a presidential year. It was also a compromise for Griffin. He opposed school vouchers and was ambivalent about charters. But here he was, hawking a plan that included a major charter component — and winning. 

“It made me challenge myself and my beliefs and say, ‘OK, how do you develop a leadership skill in order to try and bring collaborative leadership to the table, in order to move an agenda together for our community,’ ” says Griffin. “You show how people love this city, that they’re able to sacrifice some of their own agenda in order to try to do something larger.”

Griffin also ran the mayor’s 2013 re-election campaign. After Pinkney’s death, Griffin ran the 2016 income tax campaign. But there were moments along the way, too, when Griffin the activist whipsawed into the news. 

In 2015, Griffin made a Community Relations Board Twitter account ahead of the verdict in the Michael Brelo trial. He ended up in a beef with local activists, and tweets he wrote in response to them made headlines. 

“Should Cleveland be burned down like #bmore #Ferguson #hough #central?” he tweeted from the account. Then, again: “Have heart! Don’t hide in the shadows! Should #ourcle be burned down? Speak up.”

Griffin says he intended to be sarcastic and regrets the tweets. But he also knew the activist behind the account with which he sparred, he says, and didn’t like that the individual riled up kids in his community, got them in trouble, then returned to their “bucolic neighborhood.” 

“I am a little bit rough around the edges sometimes [and] do get a little fiery sometimes,” admits Griffin. “The reason why is when it’s something I’m passionate about, something I believe in.”



On the barely 50-yard walk to the InterContinental ballroom, someone stops Griffin every few feet. 

“What’s up, Miss Pinkney?” Griffin says to Arnold’s widow, Betty. U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Mike Tobin jokes with Griffin about his rising star status: “Do I have to kiss the ring now, man?” Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon beams by for a handshake.

The politicking thus dispensed, Griffin finds his seat at the front of the huge ballroom, one table over from the mayor, and digs into turkey sausage and home fries.

Mihaljevic, the Clinic’s new CEO, gets on stage. He speaks with a Croatian accent and wears glasses that time-traveled from the 1980s. “Cleveland Clinic is proud to provide over $800 million annually in community benefit,” he says. 

The contribution has more than doubled since 2005, with half going to financial assistance and subsidized health services, he says, counting the Medicaid shortfalls in his tally.

“In the words of Dr. King, true neighborliness requires personal concern,” Mihaljevic says. “And as the CEO, I am personally aware of Cleveland Clinic’s social responsibility and remain firmly committed to supporting community.”

After another handshake gauntlet, Griffin waits at the valet station for his car. The Rev. Lorenzo Norris, of Concord Baptist Church, asks about a recent brawl at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. 

Twelve youths rioted there, breaking windows and clogging toilets. A few had also been charged in the shooting death of 12-year-old Abdel Bashiti. Both incidents occurred in Griffin’s ward. 

“Man, I knew the one guy, Little Tay. I’ve been coaching football, I knew him since he was a young kid,” Griffin tells Norris. “I knew a lot of these kids.”

The valet pulls up, cutting him short. 

He has watched many of his three sons’ friends become either shooters or victims, Griffin says, as he turns on Carnegie Avenue. It hurt to be on-scene time after time as community relations director and see the pain of children gone and families shattered. 

“It really shakes your soul,” Griffin says. 

In that fashion, Griffin is a Frank Jackson disciple. Like Jackson, he professes to a philosophy of power as a means to an end, a necessary dance to get results for the people that matter to him, people who experienced a struggle like his own. Sometimes, that means compromise. Indeed, when asked again about the Clinic and Mihaljevic’s speech, Griffin spins away, diplomatically citing the Clinic’s work in the community.

“They have to realize that their reputation didn’t get the way that it is overnight,” he says, one hand on the wheel. “They’re going to have to have a few more things happen in order to change that perception.”

But, Griffin then says, as if entrusting a secret, “I’ll tell you this story.” At the breakfast, a woman pulled him and Jackson aside. Griffin knew her son, who used to be a Heartless Felons gang member, Griffin says. The young man spent time in prison. When he got out, Griffin bought him Cleveland Cavaliers tickets, and they built a relationship. 

“We would talk all of the time,” Griffin says. He helped him get a job picking up trash for the city and get his life together. So seeing the young man’s mom today stirred him, he says. She reminded him of his purpose. 

“She was like, ‘We’re pulling for you because you’re able to take folks like that and really help them,’ ” he says.


Who’s next?

The question hung so heavy you could pluck it out of the air in January 2017, as Mayor Frank Jackson stood on the campus of Cuyahoga Community College. With a crowd of more than 50 supporters around him, Jackson had the answer: He was running for a fourth term. There were no viable candidates he trusted to continue his work, Jackson said. He wanted to finish the job. 

Standing in support of Jackson that day, Griffin was the logical candidate to run the campaign. But it wasn’t that simple. 

In the coming months, he had to make a choice. Mamie Mitchell was considering retirement. Griffin could step into her seat or shepherd the mayor to victory.

“Blaine agonized over that decision,” Sharkey says. He didn’t want to leave the mayor during a campaign. But, Sharkey told him, Jackson would win easily, with or without him. Now was the time to step out. Hill agreed: “I told him, ‘I would jump at it.’ ”

Although he says his mind wasn’t yet made up, in April Griffin arranged to meet his most probable general election opponent: Joshua Perkins McHamm, a vice president of new business development for construction manager McTech Corp. 

Over dinner at Club Isabella in Little Italy, their conversation turned to the election. Both were obviously considering a run. Perkins McHamm’s platform was for community engagement and not explicitly anti-Griffin. So they agreed to rules of engagement: no name-calling, and a competitive but fair race. 

“It was very mature,” says Perkins McHamm. “It was very civilized.”

Even afterward, Griffin says he waited weeks to decide. In May 2017, when Mitchell retired, Griffin finally got what he wanted. He was appointed to Mitchell’s post. “My community came calling,” he says. 

Defending the seat during the 2017 campaign was a layup. Perkins McHamm recalls how the owners of Trattoria on the Hill, where he’s eaten pizza since he was 8 years old, pledged him their votes. Then Griffin and Jackson swung through Little Italy for a campaign event. “People were like, ‘I like you, I love you, but, basically, my hands are tied,’ ” Perkins McHamm says. “‘I gotta go with Blaine. We like Blaine too.’ ”

Some things were new to Griffin. Over hot peppers at Johnny’s Downtown, Griffin got a crash course in fundraising from Benny Bonanno, who ran for mayor before a 1995 corruption case derailed his political career. 

“I told him that anyone that he has ever helped do anything for the mayor’s office, he should call these guys and raise money from them,” says Bonanno, whose record was expunged but still seeks a pardon from the governor. By the primary, Griffin raised $18,555.

“Had I not talked to people like Benny and other folks, I probably wouldn’t even have thought to call and ask these guys for campaign donations,” says Griffin. “The only way I knew how to win a campaign was to go door-to-door and wear out your shoes.”

In 2001, Griffin got 8 percent of the primary vote. In the 2017 general election, he got 69 percent. 

Griffin’s moment had finally arrived.


A week after the City Council inauguration,
Griffin paces in front of a packed room at Morning Star Baptist Church. 

More than 200 people are crammed into an area off the church lobby to view his presentation. Blaine canvassed the neighborhood in calls and emails, but even he didn’t expect this turnout. People stand along the back and side walls. Still more rock their heels or go tippy-toed to see over the shoulders of a human knot in the rear doorway. 

The room smells of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, tonight’s free dinner, as Griffin bubbles with ideas for his complicated ward. He has constituent service down: safe routes for seniors walking to the new Simon’s Supermarket in Buckeye Plaza, a focus on “bad actors” to clamp down on crime, a court watch and a senior check-in program. 

But the former activist knows that politicians do not live on service alone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Cleveland Clinic and UH are not going anywhere,” Griffin says. Earlier, he took careful note to recognize a Clinic community relations staffer in the audience. “The issue is how do we work with them and make them respond to what we want them to do, and make sure we make them accountable for what we want them to do, and not the other way around.”

Griffin brings up the police district commanders for short speeches. Then, he turns the crowd loose for dinner. 

Lynda Bernays, an East 127th Street resident with short gray hair and round glasses, had claimed a spot for her block club up front. Bernays didn’t vote for Griffin in the primary or the general election, but was wowed by his performance. “I’m so impressed by the numbers coming out,” she says. 

“The thing that amazes me is that he’s preaching stuff that they quit teaching in school — he’s talking about collaboration,” says Lynda’s husband, Stan Smith, who also voted against Griffin in the primary. “He’s sensible and put-together.”

In a few years, that could be Griffin’s bumper sticker. In January, he was fast-tracked into the City Council leadership, becoming majority whip and chairing the Health and Human Services Committee. 

His mentors are already talking him up. Hill compares him to Mike White, George Voinovich, Anthony Celebrezze and Carl Stokes. “I think he has all those strengths that those individuals had,” says Hill. 

Sharkey sees big things too: “He’s got the raw talent.” 

Even his former opponent thinks Griffin is aiming high. “If you ask him, ‘Do you have your sights on being the mayor?’ he won’t answer that,” says Perkins McHamm. “But you can see in his eyes that he’s ambitious.” 

When asked, Griffin indeed dodges the question. He furnishes a dull, gray spiel on the worthiness of a hypothetical candidate and the importance of the institution. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a glint behind that don’t-give-it-up smile. 

“Whatever role that I play, whether as just an everyday citizen, whether it’s as a councilperson, or whether it’s as any other position that I may or may not get elected to in the future,” Griffin says, “I just want to play a role in making sure this city moves forward.”  

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