Cincinnati has never had a woman directly elected mayor. This city has never had an African-American woman elected mayor. This city has never had a black woman with even a chance of getting elected mayor. These sentences apply to way too many municipalities in America, and for far too long. There are dozens of American cities—especially in the Midwest, like Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland and Indianapolis—that, despite having majorities or pluralities of black voters, can’t get black women into the mayor’s mansion.
Yvette Simpson is trying to change that story in Cincinnati, where, in 228 years, no black woman has ever been elected mayor.
Simpson is the sitting president pro tem of the Cincinnati City Council, where she has served the city for a couple of years despite being younger than 40. And despite beating incumbent Mayor John Cranley in the primary in May, Simpson still has a rematch in the November elections before she can claim the title, since she and Cranley, a fellow Democrat, were the two top vote getters.
Simpson is not your traditional politician—she has a candid skepticism of politics in general that’s refreshing and engaging. Not to mention a dry sense of humor about the shenanigans involved in running for office and what it means when you’re bucking trends across multiple communities. The Root talked to Simpson about Cincinnati politics, stepping into the breach and how to curve men who see you more as a potential mate than as a potential mayor.
The Root: The Democratic Party lives and breathes by its ground support from black women, but getting black women to actually run for, let alone win, public office hasn’t been the party’s strong suit. Why don’t you think more women run for office locally, let alone statewide or nationally?
Yvette Simpson: A Northern Kentucky women’s group—I’m not sure if that’s the right name—did a study on why women don’t run, and usually it’s because nobody is asking.
TR: How did you respond the first time someone asked you to run for office?
YS: I said, “No way in hell!” (laughs) Then I said, “When hell freezes over.” Then I said, “When pigs fly.” I really hated campaigning. And I had a really poor opinion of politics in general.
TR: But people were asking you and you still didn’t want to run!
YS: After three years [of community and party leaders asking], I said, yes. It was about work-life balance. And ... I didn’t know if you could be a good person and be authentic and run for office. When I ran and won the first time, we called it the experiment to shock the world. I realized that I’m tough, I’m strong and I can take it. A big part of this job [politics] is absolute foolishness.
TR: Many black women talk about the barriers they run into when running for office—politically, economically and sometimes in the community. What kinds of barriers did you see when running for office?
YS: You start to see those barriers come up, like your own party supporting your opponent.
TR: Wait—so your own party tried to sabotage you from running?
YS: Yes, because everybody [in your party] is going to tell you to wait your turn, to bide your time or just defer to other people. You do it when you feel like it’s your time. Many women have been unsuccessful in the past, and I know my party was never going to say it was the right time [for me to run]. I know what it’s like to wait for someone to show up for you and that person never comes. But my city deserves better—it had to be me.
Then you’ve got the misogyny in our own community, even from family members and neighbors.
TR: How does that play out when you’re campaigning or even just doing your job?
YS: I hug, I come in, I’m available to you … I’m accessible to you, but I’m not your boo (laughs). Look, I love black men so much, I do, but I’m also your City Council rep and your mayor. But I’m not your boo, though (laughs). Don’t expect me to be anything other than that. They [some black men] get disappointed when I don’t meet their emotional expectations; that’s the hardest part when it comes to black men. If I was married, that wouldn’t be the expectation. They say they’ll pray with me and for me, but I don’t think they always have confidence in me.
TR: What’s it like often being the only woman or only woman of color in a political setting like Cincinnati?
YS: My nickname is “the Velvet Hammer.” You know how you have to set the stage in that first three seconds when you enter a room? I usually start with a “Gentlemen,” maybe a “[Ladies] and gentlemen” … just setting the atmosphere. You are usually going to get tested, so you have to be clear about things. You gotta have that velvet to start and a hammer to finish.
TR: What kinds of issues are you trying to tackle if you become mayor?
We have two different cities: There is a 20-year life-expectancy gap from one neighborhood to the next in Cincinnati, and one-third of the city is food-insecure. We’re going to go at these problems. We’ll put satellite offices for the mayor throughout the city, and we have a plan for the 52 neighborhoods that comprise Cincinnati. Our slogan is “People and place and process,” and that’s what we focus on.