Meet Cincinnati’s Newest City Council Members

Betsy Sundermann and Jan-Michele Kearney offer fresh perspectives—and cooperation—on Cincinnati City Council.

Almost lost in the daily deluge of coronavirus news is the fact that Cincinnati has two newly appointed councilmembers. Republican Betsy Sundermann was sworn in March 4 to replace Amy Murray, and Democrat Jan-Michele Kearney was sworn in March 18 to replace Tamaya Dennard. Both were hand-picked by other councilmembers and both have law degrees, but they came to council via different career paths: Sundermann was a Hamilton County probate court magistrate; Kearney was cofounder of Sesh Communications and publisher of The Cincinnati Herald. The pandemic forced both to “hit the ground running,” says Kearney.

Illustration by Jason Ford

Sundermann has also worked for the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s office and Hamilton County Public Defender’s office, and is an Ursuline, DePauw University, and UC Law school grad. She didn’t even know Murray was leaving council to work for the Department of Defense when she started getting phone calls asking if she was taking her place. Sundermann was initially hesitant, but, after consulting with Republican party officials and her husband, David Laing—a registered Democrat and assistant city solicitor—she realized the job was a good fit “and went for it,” she says.

Kearney is a Walnut Hills, Dartmouth, and Harvard Law grad who, unlike Sundermann, was warned about being nominated for an open seat. (Dennard, facing federal corruption charges, resigned March 2.) Even so, says Kearney, “I have no political aspirations. I’m always behind the scenes, so I started to say no.” But she heard a Joel Osteen podcast about discerning God’s will in which Osteen asked, “When you’re called, are you listening? Are you ready?” The following day, she read a passage in Stacey Abrams’s Lead From the Outside, urging readers to “be daring” and “If you feel called to serve, go do it.” After consulting with her family—including husband Eric, a former state senator and current CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce—she accepted.

Both women have lived most of their lives within city limits. Both have had extensive involvement with volunteer and civic organizations—Kearney with places like Avondale Community Council, Mt. Auburn Housing Inc., and the Cincinnati Zoo, and Sundermann with everything from the Citizens Police Academy to Price Hill Will and Fernside. And both have prominent dads: Sundermann’s father is retired First District Court of Appeals Judge Hal Sundermann; Kearney’s tenure on the Avondale Community Council came at the urging of her late father, acclaimed physician Luther Lemon.

Both plan on running for full council terms in 2021. In a non-coronavirus world, they’ll be focused on different priorities. Kearney wants to make sure citywide development—which she says she’s “all for”—includes ample affordable housing and job opportunities. Sundermann wants to focus on law and public safety, especially expanding police use of ShotSpotter technology to locate gunfire, and on advocating for Cincinnati’s west side (she’s the only current councilmember living there). But the vast majority of both members’ work to date has centered on helping city residents through the pandemic. Even so, Sundermann says she’s “excited to have another woman on city council,” and Kearney calls Sundermann “a great neighbor,” noting that Sundermann’s staffers printed out council meeting documents for her before she was settled at her City Hall office.

Signs point to such collaboration as not being a fluke: During the interview for this story, Kearney noted a goal, inspired by advice from husband Eric, “Whether I agree with you or not, I want to hear what you have to say.” And during Sundermann’s speech after her swearing-in, she said, “I believe in a politics of working together and making people’s lives better and politics that shun division, gridlock, and anger.”

Only time will tell, but to both new councilmembers we say: Amen.

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