Frank Jackson Appears on Sound of Ideas in the Form of Newly Appointed Councilman Blaine Griffin

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Blaine Griffin - CITY OF CLEVELAND
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Newly appointed Ward 6 City Councilman Blaine Griffin, lately of Mayor Frank Jackson's Community Relations board, appeared on WCPN's Sound of Ideas Wednesday morning for a wide-ranging "entrance interview."

Host Mike McIntyre asked a series of probing questions to suss out the nature of Griffin's appointment, and to nail down his position on a number of pivotal issues facing the city, including the Quicken Loans Arena renovation deal and the dirt bike track at Marion Motley Park.

(The audio of the full program is available here. The Griffin segment begins at ~21:15, and it's worth a listen).

Griffin, 46, is well regarded in Ward 6 and is credited with helping to prevent city violence in the wake of recent police shootings — Cleveland's so-called "tumultuous times." He gave remarks Monday to City Council and paraphrased some of them Wednesday: He looked forward to the "collaborative leadership" of City Council, he said. As a 20-year resident of the Larchmere neighborhood, he had deep connections and relationships in the ward and said he couldn't pass up the opportunity afforded to him when Mamie Mitchell signaled her imminent resignation. He ran for City Council in 2001 and lost, but didn't "take [his] ball and go home." He remained active and engaged in the community. He is now eager to work on issues of safety, vacant and abandoned property, and infant mortality.

But the most striking element of the interview was the degree to which Griffin sounded exactly like Frank Jackson: both in his stances on city issues and even in the specific language he used.

That's to be expected. Griffin's closeness with Jackson is well-known. He ran Jackson's re-election campaign in 2013 and was reported, by Cleveland.com's Mark Naymik, as a likely candidate to run Jackson's campaign again this year. On the Community Relations Board, Griffin has worked closely with Jackson on a number of community initiatives, most recently the dirt bike track project. Both Jackson and Griffin have said that they traveled across town together, getting to know members of the "bike life" community to come up with solutions to the growing problem.

And Griffin has not been shy about praising the Mayor and his influence on his own political life. Wednesday, he was introduced as a "loyal and long-time member of the Jackson administration." Griffin even suggested that he viewed his role on City Council, in part, as an extension of Jackson's work.

"I've learned a lot from the Jackson administration," Griffin said, in an answer about why he'd move from a comfortable administrative position to the legislative branch (which, incidentally, comes with a pay cut of more than $20,000). "I tell people that we want to institutionalize the legacy of a lot of the policies, things that we've been working on in this administration. And in order to do that, I think it's time to do that from a policy standpoint."

It's unclear what exactly he meant by that, but on the specific questions of the Q deal and the dirt bike track, Griffin voiced his support.

On the Q deal: "The vote has already been taken, but if I was on council, I would tell you that it was a very good deal. One of the things that I don't think a lot of people have done is really go out into the community and help educate them on the deal, and also put up comparisons, when you look at other cities and how they handle their assets compared to how we handle this asset. It was a very good deal. People sometimes like to try to put wedge issues out there, just so that they can empower certain groups of people to handle their agenda, but what I will tel you is that people have a right to disagree. I think I understand why some people think that it was just about giving more money to a billionaire, but this was a good deal."

When McIntyre pressed for clarification, Griffin agreed that some opponents came by their opposition genuinely, but that "there's other folks that might have tried to join the agenda for their own reasons."

Much like Jackson, Griffin would no doubt suggest that the opposition is motivated by perceived political advantage — an allegation that can be leveled at exactly two people: Jackson's mayoral challengers who currently sit on city council, Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed.

Griffin suggested that if "cooler heads" had prevailed, the city might have been able to concoct a win-win situation for everyone involved. But still: "As it's proposed, I think the deal was a good deal."

Griffin was a key player in the dirt-bike track proposal. (He appeared last week at a heated Slavic Village block club meeting.)  His support was never in question. On that topic, though, he repeated the administration's claims about dirt-bike riding as a lucrative industry with professional opportunities for urban youth. In addition to the dirt-bike track, he said, the multi-modal park would include a BMX track and a garage where young people could learn about small-engine repair.

But the juiciest part of the interview concerned the council appointment itself, over which there has been much rumor and consternation. Some of the candidates for the Ward 6 council seat showed up at a council caucus Monday and voiced their displeasure afterwards. They suggested that Griffin now has an unfair advantage in the September primary and speculated that the arrangement had long been coordinated by the city.

When McIntyre asked Griffin about the timing of his appointment, Griffin responded in classic Jackson language.

"Everybody knows the conspiracy theory," Griffin said. "I regret the fact that people would try to make a conspiracy theory saying like it was some kind of deal that it was cut for me to do this. That's number one. Number two, I have always respected Ms. Mitchell's privacy, and that's something that I think has been essential and as far as I was concerned, if Ms. Mitchell filled out her entire term, I would've been fine. So, there is no deal cut."

Griffin's comment was an almost perfect echo of comments made by Mayor Jackson in November, 2016. During the press conference first announcing the permanent closure of Public Square to buses, Plain Dealer reporter Ginger Christ asked Jackson if the closure had been his plan all along: "Everybody knows the conspiracy, don't they?" Jackson said. "Everybody can believe whatever they want to believe. It was not that."

Griffin's response was a stunning replica, and it hewed to a time-honored strategy for undermining dissent that characterizes alternative views as "conspiracy theories." In this case, though, no one considers what happened a "conspiracy." For those annoyed or angered by it, Griffin's appointment is generally seen as in keeping with the entrenched, anti-democratic but totally routine functioning of City Hall. The closest thing to a conspiracy is that multiple people have suggested Griffin had been the known replacement for months. (Council President Kevin Kelley told Scene several weeks ago that Griffin would be "the natural choice.")

But this brand of chicanery is well-known. In 2015, when the outgoing councilman Marty Sweeney appointed Brian Kazy (who at that time didn't even live in the ward he would represent) as his successor, Cleveland.com lashed out, calling the City Council tradition a "mockery of representative government."

Yet to Griffin, those who oppose his appointment — four months before a primary election, and long after Mamie Mitchell's health issues had been known (Scene has been informed off the record by multiple sources that she has dementia) — are conspiracy theorists.  

"The people who make those conspiracy theories don't know the truth," said Griffin, "and the truth is that I've had a long relationship with a lot of the people in Ward 6."

On that last fact, there is little dispute. Indeed, Griffin would likely be the favorite in a Ward 6 election even had he not been appointed ahead of time.


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