Yvette simpson sits in a windowless conference room at Ulmer & Berne, the law firm where she practices employment and labor law. There’s a tall cup on the round table in front of her, and she’s using it to explain the difference between herself and other politicians.
“My job,” she says, suit jacket removed and sleeves pushed up above the elbows, “is to touch the cup. Well, what I wanna do is do this.” Simpson reaches forward and taps the lip. “But what I see a lot of leaders do is this: They get up, they move the chairs around, they sit down. They look at it this way. They look at it that way. They go back around. They try to go underneath. And then, like maybe five years later,” Simpson laughs before emphatically reaching out again. “Oh! I coulda just touched the cup.”
Simpson’s proposal? Simple. Do away with the rest of the dance and “just touch the cup.”
In an era of overt disdain for politics as usual, she’s hitting a chord that will likely resonate with voters on both sides of the aisle. After all, she’s not only an attorney, she’s been a member of Cincinnati City Council for two terms now (thanks to term limit changes, that’s nearly six full years). Her official platforms include working to improve neighborhood development, growing small business, empowering and protecting youth, and championing efficient government. Simpson is also president pro tempore of council (next in the line of succession after the vice mayor) and chair of its Human Services, Youth, and Arts Committee, and has been named both a YWCA Rising Star and Career Woman of Achievement, a Girl Scouts of Western Ohio Leader of Promise, and a Rising Star by Ohio Super Lawyers.
To mention who she is professionally, though, is to tell only a portion of her story. She grew up in Lincoln Heights, graduated from Princeton High School, and attended all three major universities in the area—Miami for undergrad, UC for a JD, and Xavier for an MBA. A tireless cheerleader for the city, she has a remarkable ability to be present and involved in many local initiatives and events at once—so much so that friends refer to Simpson as “Ms. Cincinnati.”
Oh, and there’s one other reason you might want to know who she is. Last summer she announced she’s challenging incumbent and fellow Democrat John Cranley in the 2017 race for mayor. It promises to be an intra-party slugfest—she and the mayor are not on the best of terms—and at press time, she was the only other contender in the ring. Which is not too surprising; for all the power the Republican Party wields in Hamilton County, it tends to have a tough time finding anybody willing to run for mayor within the city limits, where the demographics have been trending leftward for years. Still, for all her preternatural spunk, Simpson is going up against a wily opponent with more political experience and a reservoir of energy that rivals her own. Whether either of them has what it takes to “touch the cup” is not in doubt. The question is, who will knock it over first?
It’s 4:45 on a mild Tuesday afternoon in September and Simpson keeps insisting her schedule over the past 36 hours has been “light.” It started with a full day at council yesterday, followed by a Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) meeting in Avondale with city residents whose basements flooded after a hundred-year rain in late August, followed by a dance lesson around 8:30 p.m. (one of two weekly rehearsals for the Dance With Your Heart Charity Gala in Newport). Sometime after 10 she made a pot of homemade vegetable soup, too. Tomorrow’s lunch.
This morning she attended a campaign event at 9 and was back at city hall just after 12:30 for a quick Neighborhoods Committee meeting, during which the group approved historic designation for the House of Adam building downtown. After that she spent 20 minutes checking in with Beverley Hardy, her chief of staff and youth services director; Andria Y. Carter, her communications director; and Nick Chaney, her policy director. Hardy, who’s been with Simpson since her first term in 2011, handed over a half-inch-thick folder—Simpson’s weekly “packet”—full of items that need attention: thank-you notes, meeting notifications, and invitations for events throughout the city.
At 1 o’clock Simpson was back in council chambers, first for a heroin epidemic update involving County Commissioners Dennis Deters and Todd Portune, then for a Transportation Committee meeting that initially focused on glitches with the newly commissioned streetcar. Three-and-a-half hours later she was grabbing a handful of Cheetos from Carter’s handbag (the soup was “not enough,” she said), as Carter warned Chaney he’d be the one accompanying Simpson to her next event. “You need to take better pictures this time, though,” someone teased. Chaney’s face reddened. He blamed his phone.
Which brings us back to 4:45, when Simpson is walking, clad in the same stylish but comfortable flats she’s been wearing all day, to a meeting of female professionals at The Transept on Elm. (The topic? The challenge of the work-life balance.) Simpson falls into a conversation with a few other women—some she knows, some she doesn’t. Everyone’s ignoring the pad Thai bar along the far wall. Chaney takes probably a dozen photos, hoping at least one will be in focus enough for Carter to tweet out. By the time he whisks Simpson away, she’s got dinner in her hands—a to-go box of veggies and noodles. She says she’ll eat it later.
By six o’clock she’s walking into another meeting between city residents and MSD representatives about those sewer backups, this time in Bond Hill. Roughly 260 people—elderly men and women with walkers, young families with kids, and everyone in between—pack the room, frustrated and looking for answers to questions about damaged property and personal belongings. Fellow councilmembers Wendell Young and Charlie Winburn make appearances. Simpson introduces community and MSD officials, then spends the rest of the event passing out notecards to residents in an attempt to consolidate everyone’s questions. She and the MSD rep promise repeatedly that they will not leave until every question has been answered, which eventually happens dangerously close to 10 o’clock, a full 13 hours after her day began. It’s a safe bet the pad Thai was never consumed.
This kind of relentless schedule would derail most people, but Simpson, a woman with a seemingly endless supply of second winds who half-jokingly suspects she suffers from “FOMO: Fear of Missing Out,” has been busy in one form or another since she was a kid. A career in politics is pretty much a natural progression. That said, the 38-year-old Democrat, who was cross-endorsed by the Charterites (Cincinnati’s independent party) in both 2011 and 2013, was perhaps more surprised than anyone when she won her first bid for council six years ago. She refused to believe she’d won, in fact, until nearly 90 percent of the votes were counted (she came in seventh out of nine).
Simpson’s first serious thoughts about running occurred sometime around 2007, when she was helping Miami University establish a pre-law program (she was its director until 2012). She was impressed with the activity she saw growing in Cincinnati—“3CDC’s effort and the private sector start[ing] to come together, the buzz around the casino”—and she thought: “Wow! There’s a real opportunity here.”
She also saw a city council riddled with infighting and stalemates that consistently blocked funding for new projects on the city’s horizon. Things, says Simpson, like Smale Park, some of 3CDC’s initial work, and the recommendations of the GO Cincinnati: Growth and Opportunities Study. “It felt like the councilmembers were fighting just for the sake of fighting,” she says. Inspired by Barack Obama’s successful run for president, she was “convinced by a couple of folks” to make her own bid for public office.
Though Simpson doesn’t identify her by name, one of those “folks” was former mayor and councilmember Roxanne Qualls. The two met just over 10 years ago, when Qualls was teaching and directing a public leadership institute at Northern Kentucky University. When Simpson revealed she was considering a run, Qualls says she encouraged her to apply for the YWCA Rising Stars program (Simpson was accepted in 2005), noting it was a good way to make connections outside the legal community. Simpson volunteered on both Qualls’s 2007 and 2009 campaigns, serving as a social media advisor on the latter; the experience, says Qualls, helped her gain familiarity with “campaigns and how to organize them.”
Simpson calls that first run “the great experiment,” mainly because “I was convinced that if I was myself, there was no way I would win.” By “myself,” she means the antithesis of a stereotypical politician. “People said you’re supposed to go in a room and if there’s a hundred people, you shake everybody’s hand, say your name, give them your card, and go to the next event,” says Simpson. “We didn’t do that. We talked to people. That might have meant that my colleagues were off to five events and we were still talking to the same 10 people.” She says she campaigned that way because “it just felt natural.”
The other nontraditional thing about Simpson’s first campaign? It was managed by Stacy Heyderhoff, a card-carrying Republican who’s known Simpson since their Miami days. (They met as undergrads studying abroad in London.) “I’m not the type of person who solely votes in my party,” says Heyderhoff. So when she moved back to Cincinnati and Simpson offered her a job on the 2011 campaign, Heyderhoff’s personal knowledge of the candidate trumped her political views.
“I don’t see her as a Democrat,” says Heyderhoff. “On a city level, we’re not talking abortion or gun control. We’re talking working on poverty, the streetcar, bringing more business to the city. I agree with her on a lot of those things.”
Once elected, Simpson assembled her staff—attorneys Kate Christoff-Scheetz and Holly Hankinson (as director of community engagement and chief of staff, respectively) and Beverley Hardy as a part-time office manager (she’s now full-time). Together, the trio rolled up their sleeves and dug wholeheartedly into whatever work Simpson took on—be it balancing the city’s budget alongside her fellow councilmembers, helping address blighted buildings, creating a Youth Summit, working to help victims of human trafficking, or supporting local businesses.
“It was a running joke,” says Christoff-Scheetz, who worked for Simpson from 2012 to 2014. “She would never leave a meeting until there was an opportunity to improve quality of lives in a community.” Even something as simple as adding “a new trash can on a corner.”
That approach earned Simpson a loyal following; by the councilwoman’s second bid in 2013, she achieved a comfortable fourth place. (Not one to rest on her laurels, she also earned her MBA, from Xavier University, one year later.)
The project that best exemplifies the way Simpson works, says Hankinson, is her approach to human trafficking. “It started out as a community issue,” she says. Clifton and OTR’s McMicken Avenue had become a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes; residents came to council for help. Simpson and Amy Murray (a Republican and the only other woman on council, who says she and Simpson “have a good working relationship”) collaborated to get temporary barricades installed on McMicken. But Simpson also began contacting social service agencies like the Salvation Army and Off The Streets, and building coalitions with civic leaders like CHANGE Court’s Judge Heather Russell, “to expand support for the women” involved, says Hankinson. Then Simpson partnered with State Representative Denise Driehaus—“To do town halls across the city to educate people, because these issues weren’t just in one neighborhood,” says Hankinson—and began researching additional legislative items to raise awareness.
Simpson is still strongly connected to that work. She speaks at most Off The Streets graduations and introduced a related resolution to council last fall in support of Ohio’s Intimate Partner Violence Bill. But she says she’s most proud of what she’s done for the city’s youth. In fact, she refers to these young adults and children as her “babies.” She helped create the Youth Commission of Cincinnati (YCC), a group that has published two studies on the state of Cincinnati’s youth since 2013 (she serves, by mayoral appointment, as the group’s council representative). She helped found the city’s “Youth to Work” program, which uses city funds “to create summer employment opportunities” for kids (per her city council website) at city parks and swimming pools. And along with the YCC, Simpson started the Youth Summit in 2013, an event planned partially by and 100 percent for the city’s youth “to discuss sensitive topics affecting them,” says Andria Y. Carter. The 2015 agenda covered everything from “identity and image” to college and careers.
Simpson takes a keen personal interest in working with kids. “We have a whole generation of young people who feel left behind,” she says back in that conference room at Ulmer & Berne, sleeves still pushed up. Her wrists, clad in simple jewelry, each sport a subtle tattoo—indecipherable shapes in black ink, the significance of which only she knows. “I think we thought, They’re OK. They’re not. They don’t feel grounded in anything. And that translates into a lot of the devastation we’re seeing, whether it’s self-inflicted through suicide [or] outward in bullying and homicides.”
Having had a mentor who helped her make wise choices, Simpson knows the positive impact such guidance can have. Community support is critical, she says. “Even though parts of this group have dealt with tremendous challenge, and even though they’re left behind and they feel hurt sometimes, they’re significantly resilient and hopeful despite it. With the right support they can get on track.”
Besides, she adds, “we can’t ignore them. They’re our future.”
Imagine an 8-year-old Yvette Simpson at the library, one of her favorite places to hang out as a kid, sifting through a series of what she calls “wanna be” books: “I wanna be a doctor, I wanna be a police officer, I wanna be a scientist.” The one that struck her the instant she saw it was the “I wanna be a lawyer” book.
“I remember looking at the cover of that book,” she says. “There was a man standing in front of the judge and he’s clearly making his case. And I said: ‘That’s gonna be me, except I’ll be wearing a skirt.’ ”
All kids have dreams; the difference here is, Simpson set that goal and never wavered. Maybe she is more tuned in to the leanings of fate than most. This certainly seems to have been the case: She followed the wrong tour group her first day of college and accidentally ended up in the interdisciplinary studies department, where she says “99 percent of the kids went to law school.” Either way, when things are meant to be, in Simpson’s world, they pretty much happen as they should.
Born to a mentally ill mother and a father addicted to crack cocaine, Simpson never lived with either of her parents. She and her sister (her only other sibling) and two cousins were raised by their maternal grandmother—“the lifeblood of our entire family,” she says—in a public-housing apartment in Lincoln Heights. Simpson has strong memories of picking up the weekly WIC basket that helped feed the family. Though she always knew she was loved, she was “exposed to a lot” of damaging situations, being raised in less than optimal conditions. “There were days when I would just be in bed curled up praying to God to take it away,” she recalls. “Many of those mornings it didn’t happen. A lot of times it just got worse.”
She recalls arriving at a group home in Avondale once to visit her mom, only to find the building closed and her mother transported, without any family members’ knowledge, to a facility in Dayton; it took Simpson and her sister seven years to get her back to Cincinnati. She recalls her father, now recovered and working to help other addicts achieve sobriety, calling her regularly when she was a child, saying “come get $5 before I smoke it up.”
“I remember working feverishly to get somebody to take me down to meet him,” she says, “and I don’t think it was because I wanted the $5.”
When her grandmother had to move into senior housing, the 16-year-old Simpson pretty much had to look out for herself. She bounced around between friends and family members’ houses for a solid two years. Her goal then? Getting to age 18. “Where I could make my own decisions,” she says. “I just trusted that I would do better.”
The twists and turns of her upbringing seem to have been ripped from the pages of Dickens. Throughout it all, Simpson credits both “great people” and multiple extracurricular activities with keeping her hopeful and “out of trouble.” Though she won’t reveal the name of her mentor, she says the woman “changed the entire trajectory of my life in a real way.” (The two connected when Simpson was a teenager and the original mentor she was supposed to be paired with failed to show up on the program’s match day.) A competitive jump-roper starting in kindergarten, she was a member of a champion double dutch team. At Princeton High School, she was on the drill team. “If somebody said: ‘There’s this opportunity you need to take advantage of,’ I did,” she says.
After high school, Simpson hoped to attend a historically black college. She got into two but Miami University (where roughly 24 percent of students today are non-white) gave her a full ride; with no other means of paying for college, she accepted sight unseen. The transition was not without bumps. “I was excited to be home around my family,” says Simpson of her first December holiday break, “and they looked at me and said: ‘Oh, she thinks she’s better than us now. When did you start talking like that? She talks so proper.’ All of a sudden you’re different. I remember being so devastated. I don’t think anybody meant anything by it. It’s just what happens when you’re the first to do anything in your family.”
When she returned to school after the New Year, Simpson recalls thinking I’m not home anywhere. “You feel kind of lost,” she says. She persevered at school, though, and threw herself into her new life. She worked three jobs (supporting both herself and others in her family), sang in the choir, joined a sorority, studied abroad in both London and Italy, served on the University Senate, and became a student court justice. She also double majored in mass communication and political science with minors in business and legal studies. “A poor child’s way,” she says, “of covering every single base.”
“Honest-to-goodness,” says Shewanee Howard-Baptiste, Simpson’s friend of 21 years, “our nickname for her was Miss Miami. She was always just really involved. She gave 100 percent for every single thing she did.”
Miami gave Simpson more than just a formal education. In addition to fostering ties that would become lifelong friendships, “I think the empathy piece developed there,” Simpson says. “Learning to be sympathetic to people who were different from me, who maybe in some instances are perceived as better off.” As an R.A. in the school’s largest all-female dorm, she met women with eating disorders and women with thousand-dollar handbags who “never felt like their parents loved them.” Basically, she says, she learned that “rich kids had a lot of problems” too.
She graduated from Miami in 2000. By 2004 she’d earned a JD from UC and was practicing as an attorney with Frost Brown Todd. She had accomplished her greatest dream. Most people would have been content to stop there. Yvette Simpson, it seems, is not most people.
On a rainy late summer day in the West End’s Carl Solway Gallery, Simpson announced she’d be challenging Cranley in the upcoming mayoral race. “I’ve lived in the hills of Cincinnati and the valleys beneath that we don’t talk about,” she said, flanked by a group of supporters including councilmembers Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach. “Because of this I am uniquely equipped to represent the whole of this city.”
A few months before that, The Cincinnati Enquirer published a story saying Simpson was considering hiring an opposition research firm that specialized in “campaigns against an incumbent executive office holder”—something usually only high-level political candidates do when they want to dig up dirt on each other. In this case, Cranley was the obvious target. In the article, UC political science professor David Niven called it “a very, very aggressive tack to take at this stage.” Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke called it “weird.”
If nothing else, the move seemed uncharacteristic for a woman who says the one thing that almost stopped her from running for council in the first place is the fear that it’s impossible to hold public office without becoming negatively political. “We know what bad politics looks like,” she says. “I told myself that if ever there was a day where I felt it was like that, I would leave. Haven’t gotten there yet.” She pauses before adding: “It’s gotten harder recently.”
“John Cranley is not someone to underestimate,” says Qualls when asked about Simpson’s awkward start. She is not an official campaign staffer, but says that “if I can be helpful with an issue, Yvette and I meet for coffee.” Having lost her mayoral bid to Cranley in a hard-fought race in 2013, Qualls has an educated view of the man Simpson is running against. “He is smart. He is aggressive. He is one of the most politically astute people I know,” she says.
When asked why she’s running for mayor, she says she has a “real feeling that this is the time—I’ve taken ownership over the city and the people in it.” But mostly it comes down to political and policy differences with the current mayor. “I thought we were going to have a different mayor,” she says. “I thought I was going to have plenty of time to figure out what my next move was going to be.”
Shortly after Cranley took office, Simpson says she told him, point blank: “If you do your job just fine then you don’t have to worry about me at all. I have no intention of running for mayor. But my phone keeps ringing. Help me by doing your job well.’”
The councilwoman’s main complaint against the current mayor centers on his leadership style. “The city manager’s supposed to take direction from council,” Simpson says. “But we know this administration takes direction from one elected official. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. You can have a 9–0 vote and the administration says: ‘No.’” She cites a Human Services funding increase as “the most significant example. [A] 9–0 vote [in support] by council. Ignored by both [city] manager and mayor and actively opposed by the mayor during the budget process.”
For his part, Cranley says “there’s been a tripling of investment in Human Services to combat poverty” in Cincinnati during his term, “from $1.5 million to over $4.5 million, between the human service funding out of the general fund and the hand-up initiative out of federal grants.”
In addition, the mayor points out he has tried to meet with Simpson weekly since his term began and she has refused almost every time. “She’s running as a collaborator but she refuses to collaborate,” he says. “She could make a much bigger difference for the city if she would work with people she disagrees with.”
Qualls cautions Simpson against focusing her campaign too much on Cranley’s negatives. “It’s not sufficient to be critical,” she says. “From a political perspective, one can always complain about whoever is the currently elected official, but that’s not necessarily what causes people to vote for you. They can agree with you, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to vote with you.” It’s also crucial, notes Qualls, that Simpson continue to meet and make herself familiar to as many different groups of voters as possible: “She is still an unknown entity for many people.”
So what would Simpson do differently as mayor? One concrete example includes looking into expanding the streetcar route as other similar-sized cities, like Nashville and Atlanta, have already done. “We have not applied for rail funding for the last three years,” says Simpson, “which makes no sense—we’re a city that already has a system. At the very least, [we could] apply for a study. [But] it was such a contentious issue we couldn’t get politicians to agree to even apply for funding for a study.”
Noting that “Cincinnati was a city of 500,000 people” at one time, she’d also grow the city’s population by revitalizing “vacant” areas—while striving to not “compromise our neighborhood integrity.” Growing the population would grow the tax base and bring “more money into the coffers.” She qualifies those statements, though, by noting that “Cincinnati should grow equitably,” which means growing “with the diversity we have” and “encourag[ing] the folks at the bottom and the middle to continue to grow up in a real, intentional way.” Critics of the way much of Over-the-Rhine has evolved into a fairly homogeneous high rent entertainment district might tend to agree. It’s unclear, though, whether that has more to do with 3CDC or local government.
Opponents of streetcar expansion argue the city barely had enough money to fund operation of the initial route. The partially-built project was in danger of being cancelled in late 2013 due to a lack of operating funds; the Haile Foundation saved the day with a last-minute $9 million donation. Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartman later called the “build it and then figure out how to pay for it” plan “backward.” Even as recently as last January, the city was scrambling to close another deficit gap in operating costs. And Cranley already seems to be doing a pretty good job of growing the city himself. During his tenure, GE opened its new Global Operations Center at the Banks, which is on track to house nearly 2,000 employees by the end of this year. What’s more, the city’s residential population has increased; a UC study quoted by the Cincinnati Business Courier in March 2015 estimates the 2014 city population at 298,285—up 1,342 from 2010—and projects it will grow to 301,051 by 2020. Plus, says Cranley, “over $650 million of new construction permits [were] issued” since 2014 and twice as many residential construction permits were issued in 2016 as in 2015. “I’m not the only reason for that,” notes the mayor, “but our administration has adopted a customer-friendly approach to development investment.”
It’s important to know, and pretty much par for the course in government work, says Qualls, that—in terms of development especially—“everything we are celebrating right now began being put into place over 20 years ago; with OTR specifically, about 10 years ago.” The key moving forward, she says, is “elected officials who are going to continue this momentum for the next 20, 30, 50 years.”
“The good news,” says Cranley, “is there’s a clear body of evidence here on both of us and voters will hopefully be informed accurately as to our differences.”
If elected, Simpson would not be the first female mayor of Cincinnati; nor would she be the first African-American mayor. She would, however, be the first female African-American mayor in the city’s history. “The two in combination,” says Qualls, “is a very powerful factor.” Running for mayor, it should be noted, automatically takes a candidate out of running for city council. With one potential council term left, she’s taking a pretty big risk. What happens if she loses?
“Worry is a wasted emotion,” she says. “Fear never created anything. Why would you ever think that way? Doesn’t change the outcome.”
In other words, when you’ve seen and lived through everything she has, very few things are intimidating. So running for mayor when you feel the time is right? For Simpson, it’s pretty much a no-brainer.
For a self-described extrovert, Simpson keeps her personal life private. She lives in the city’s West End, has no children and is not married. Her support network is small and tightly knit: her sister, a boyfriend, and a handful of best friends. These are the people she turns to when she needs to get away and seek perspective. She mentions prayer sometimes, too.
Her own to-do list is the first thing to suffer when things get overly busy. Shewanee Howard-Baptiste says she once drove all the way to Cincinnati just to buy bedding and decorations for one of Simpson’s apartments because Simpson was in law school and couldn’t find the time to do it herself. “She was in tears when she got home,” says Howard-Baptiste. “She felt so loved.”
Simpson also admits, though, that she is energized by her work, which is how she can be pretty much “on” 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The weekend after all those MSD meetings she was officiating a dog costume competition Saturday and throwing out the first pitch at a neighborhood baseball game on Sunday. The weekend before that she spoke at Citirama and the next weekend, she was planning on officiating her first wedding. “I get to Sunday and I think: ‘Whew! Tomorrow’s Monday. Why am I still tired?’” She laughs, then answers her own question: “‘Oh! ’Cause you worked all weekend!’”
Even so, sometimes when she’s in an elevator alone, Simpson closes her eyes for just a moment. It’s the only chance, she says, to really breathe on days with such tightly packed schedules. When the doors open again she’s refreshed, ready—Ms. Cincinnati once again.
Maybe sometimes when she’s on that elevator, she thinks back to a moment she says will stick in her mind forever, from early on in her first term. She was heading out of council chambers and encountered a young girl and her mother in the audience. “I didn’t get the impression that she walks up to people typically,” says Simpson. And yet, on this particular day, that girl approached Simpson and said: “You’re beautiful and you inspire me.”
It wasn’t the “beautiful” part that floored Simpson and rendered her virtually speechless. (She’s a confirmed fashionista but she’s also quick to emphasize that’s she’s “smart first. Smart. First.”) It wasn’t necessarily even the fact that the girl may have seen her own future in the newly appointed councilwoman. It was, says Simpson, one of those rare moments in life where she realized how far she’d come. “You were her,” Simpson thought, trying to maintain composure as she looked into the girl’s eyes. “She was you, and you’re here now.”