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.”