Generation Next: Alicia Reece

Her first 100 hours as Cincinnati’s youngest councilwoman.

It was an ugly day. Ugly, cold and rainy. The sun wasn’t close to shining, and that worried Alicia Reece. She knew what lousy weather could mean. It could ruin everything—all of her work, all of her dreams.

For the past eight months, Reece had walked the distant corners of the city. She stood on street corners smiling and waving campaign signs at cars as they sped honking by. She wrote her own television commercials in an effort to pinch pennies. She went anywhere that welcomed candidates—even once serving as a guest ringmaster at a circus. She’d tried every low-budget, dirt-under-the-fingernails campaign tactic she could think of in order to become a member of Cincinnati City Council.

Sure she was only 28 years old, and this was the first time she’d run for public office, so the odds were probably against her anyway. And if traditional wisdom held true, rain on election day meant low voter turnout—a dagger in the heart of any novice candidate’s hopes. Each raindrop was now washing away what little chance she had.

So she did what she could. She cast her own vote at the Integrity Hall precinct, said a little prayer and walked out of the voting booth back into the rain. For the next several hours she stood in front of the precinct, smiling at people as they walked by, trying one last time to squeeze out the votes.

As she stood there, an elderly woman approached. Reece didn’t recognize her, but the woman recognized Reece. One Friday back in July or August, when the sun was blazing and the temperature was so high people were actually dying, the woman had watched Reece stand out on a street corner for several hours, waving at the cars.

“If you can stand in 105-degree heat in my neighborhood and ask for my vote,” the woman said, “then I can come out in the rain and vote for you.”

Suddenly the day didn’t seem so ugly.

Even though the voter turnout was the lowest this century, Reece realized then that those who were braving the rain were her voters. They were the ones she’d spoken to on the street and at the circus. They were the ones who would prove the political wisdom wrong. And they were the ones who would not only make her the youngest woman ever elected to city council, but make her one of the most intriguing new faces in Cincinnati politics since Jerry Springer.

HOURS 1 to 24:
THE SWEARING IN

On the morning, of Dec. 1, it takes Reece more than half an hour to work her way from her small, still-bare office to the council chambers just around the corner. She’s stopped by reporters and supporters, friends and strangers, new and old council members. As she finally reaches what is now her seat at the council table, she looks, just for a moment, like the family’s oldest child who for the first time is sitting at the grownups’ table at Thanksgiving. Here she is, age 28, surrounded by Jim Tarbell, 57, Minette Cooper, 52, and Charles Winburn, 48. Remove fellow fIrst-timer Pat DeWine, 31, and Reece is at least 20 years younger than her new colleagues.

While age may not play a part in Reece’s ability to do her job, other council members insist, right now it’s an issue she can’t seem to dodge. The person in charge of setting up her office computer, for instance, accidentally mistook her for an aide. And now, just minutes after being sworn in, as she stands before an overflowing crowd and makes her first remarks as a council member, she innocently stumbles over the issue herself.

“It’s nice to be working with you again, Mr. Mayor,” she says as she looks over her right shoulder to Charlie Luken. “The last time we worked together I was in high school and part of the high school program with city council.”

She pauses as she realizes how that may have sounded.

“Umm,” she adds, “not that you’re old or anything.”

Luken laughs.

It seems as if Reece has been preparing for this moment all her life. She began hanging around the marble staircases and high-ceilinged hallways of City Hall when she was 4 years old, when her father, Steve Reece, was an aide to then-mayor Ted Berry. She absorbed the atmosphere and action of the political life during those early days, and as she grew, she practiced the craft at every opportunity.

When Steve Reece ran for council in 1975, for instance, Alicia spent her days handing out Reese’s Peanut Butter cups to voters. She took bumper stickers and other campaign material to her preschool classmates. When her father joined in the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, Alicia tagged along to the national conventions, watching and learning—even competing against Jesse Jackson Jr. in T-shirt selling contests. In junior high she spent her weekends and afternoons registering people to vote. In high school she was elected senior class president. In college at Grambling State University she was elected “Miss Grambling” and traveled the country as the school’s ambassador.

And when she returned to Cincinnati in 1993, she quietly slipped into the local political scene, filling roles here and there in various campaigns. By 1998, she was hired by the Ohio Democratic Party as its minority coordinator for southwest Ohio. Meanwhile, Hamilton County Democratic Party co-chairmen Tim Burke and Mark Mallory were keeping an eye on her. They liked what they saw and approached her about running for city council.

“We saw her perform in pre-test situations—organize and speak to groups, deal with candidates from the Congressional Black Caucus,” says Burke. “She impressed us. She’s very bright and wonderfully articulate with great organizational and follow-up skills. She has a lot to offer. She has the package.”

So it’s no surprise that Burke brushes off any questions about Reece’s age. Just look at the others who’ve started their political careers at a young age, he says: Springer, Guy Guckenberger, Am Bortz, Steve Chabot, Ken  Blackwell. They were all in their late 20s or early 30s when first elected. Even Luken, the man with whom she is now sharing the day’s spotlight, was only 29 when he was first elected to city council.

When he looks at Reece, Luken sees a lot of himself. Both he and Reece grew up around politics; both were young when elected.

“I think she’s the symbol of the new council in so many ways,” Luken says. “There’s a freshness about her, she’s full of energy and enthusiasm and has a lot of will. And I think we’re going to see a lot of that will over the next few years. But I don’t think age will be a problem. I think for someone like Alicia this is going to come pretty natural.”

As Reece sits in her office following the swearing-in ceremony and looks back at the past year, she admits that if there was one thing that got her elected it was the shoebox.

In 1975, after her dad fell 6,000 votes short of winning a council seat, he stopped to analyze his campaign strategy. He wrote down all the things he did right and all the things he did wrong. Then he put his notes in a shoebox and filed it away. (“This was before computers,” Alicia explains.) If he ever ran for city council again, he wouldn’t have to start from scratch.

He never ran again, but when Alicia decided she was running, he dug out the shoebox and pulled out an already well calculated strategy. “Do well where I did well, and improve on the places I didn’t do well,” he told her, “and you’ll win.”

The shoebox strategy was this: Since Alicia didn’t have the money for a big media blitz, she needed to take her message to the streets. A lot of time needed to be spent in the city’s African-American community, where she’d build her base. But she couldn’t ignore white neighborhoods; while she might win in predominantly black wards, those wins would be eroded if she failed to harvest votes in every part of the city.

It wasn’t an ingenious strategy. Standing on corners and waving at cars are as basic to American politics as kissing babies or joining parades, especially in Cincinnati. Former councilman Walter Beckjord did it back in the 1970s. Steve Chabot, John Kruse, Martin Wade—they all tried it. Val Sena once had a life size cutout of herself made with a mechanical waving arm so she could be on two street corners at once. In today’s media age, however, such a strategy is not as effective as it used to be. But Reece made it work.

She had as many as 50 people out with her, making each event a party. She’s bilingual, so she would occasionally strike up conversations with people in Spanish. And once she got someone’s attention, she would then impress with her breadth of knowledge on the issues and her ability to articulate them.

“She earned her victory,” says former mayor Roxanne Qualls. “She did everything a candidate is supposed to do-hustling around, meeting people, presenting herself. I wasn’t out campaigning, but I heard feedback all the time that, without exception, wherever she made appearances those people who had not heard of her before all came away totally impressed.”

By the end of the election, she’d garnered more than 70 percent of the African-American voters, who turned out in high numbers. She finished first in the Evanston ward, second in four others, then held her own in white neighborhoods.

“If you had asked me, I might have put her in ninth place if it was a sunny day and a high Democratic turnout,” says Gene Beaupre, a political science professor at Xavier University. “But I don’t think anyone would have predicted she would finish fifth. In fact, at 10 [p.m.] I was down at the Board of Elections and she was in fifth place, but there were no results from Hyde Park or Mt. Lookout yet, and I said, ‘She can’t hold that.’”

She did. And she did it relatively inexpensively. Reece spent just $65,180 on her campaign-a fraction of that spent by some of her new colleagues. Phil Heimlich, who finished one place ahead of her, spent $504,176—more than seven times as much. Pat DeWine, who finished one place behind her, spent $363,176.

And nearly $20,000 of Reece’s contributions came in the final two weeks of the campaign when it became apparent she was going to do well. Burke called Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Leland, and the party kicked in $2,000 toward the effort. “We only do that for four or five people around the state,” says Leland. “That doesn’t happen everywhere.” Until then she had raised just $47,000. Carl Lindner gave her $15,000 the week she announced her candidacy and an additional $3,000 in August. After that, though, the contributions dropped off to $2,000 from Jerry Springer and $1,000 from a couple of political action committees.

The last-minute donations allowed her to put together a very targeted but impressive media campaign. Jesse Jackson, whom she calls a family friend, made a radio commercial for her. So did Springer and California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, head of the Congressional Black Caucus and vice chairman of the House’s Democratic Steering Committee. Reece aimed ads on WCIN and WIZ at African-American voters, on B105 and Y96 at the young, and WKRC and WSAl at the seniors.

It worked.

“Two weeks before the election 1 was telling someone there’s always a surprise in the council race,” says Luken. “And just before election day my father called and said, ‘I’ve got the surprise: Alicia Reece is in and she’s going to win big.’”

And the Democratic Party is downright giddy that it appears to have landed a candidate with legs. “City council may only be the beginning,” Burke says.

HOURS 25 to 48:
MS. PLAIR’S FIRST GRADE CLASS

“Who can tell me the name of the youngest African-American woman ever to be elected to Cincinnati City Council?” asks Yolanda Plair, a sweet-mannered teacher at Rockdale Paideia Academy in Avondale who single-handedly oversees a class of 29 first graders. “And I’m only going to call on those who are sitting down.”

Backsides go down and hands go up.

“Alicia Reece,” someone answers.

“Very good.”

Plair used the council election as a lesson for her class, and when her students found out she and Reece were friends, they asked if she could arrange to have Reece visit. A call was made, and now, 26 hours after being sworn in, Reece is standing in the Rockdale cafeteria with her right hand raised once again, repeating the oath of office as given to her by a group of 6-year-olds. “I, Alicia Reece, do solemnly swear…”

“You can be anyone you want to be and do anything you want to do,” she tells them. She then gives them each a hug as they head back to their classroom to get their coats before the final bell rings. The schedule is a little tight.

She was supposed to be at the school an hour earlier but was delayed by an orientation for new council members at City Hall. Life as a council member is now officially underway, although since the day after she was elected she’s been fielding as many as 30 calls a day from people wanting information or wanting to voice their opinions. She’s also spent the bulk of her days and nights trying to read a mountain of committee reports and council motions she requested from the mayor’s office and clerk of council. Within her first 60 days, she will be asked to consider many major actions—pass a budget, vote on the future of city manager John Shirey, deal with the development and financing of the riverfront, try to find a way to afford a convention center expansion in addition to dealing with the day-to-day affairs of the city.

“Most first-timers will be quite frank in admitting that the first six months are very stressful,” says Qualls. “There are so many issues—the budget, the riverfront, the convention center, the city manager, the needs of individual constituents, the list goes on—that she not only has to get up to speed on but deal with immediately.”

And like most new politicians, Reece will champion those issues she’s identified as her own, most notably small business development and health care, while adjusting to the highly structured and highly political way business is done on council. Voters have screamed for years that they want to see the end of the back-stabbing, bickering and grandstanding that once earned council the nickname “nine potted plants.” Even if that changes, the way council operates—even in its most effective times—is still different from the ways of a small business or a political campaign.

“I hope she comes with an open mind and understands that she’s not going to jump to the front of the line,”

says James Clingman, president of the African-American Chamber of Commerce. “She needs to learn how things work and build a coalition. Nothing is done in a vacuum on city council, and it can be frustrating. She may already know this because she’s been around politics a long time. But it’s one thing to be on the outside looking in and another to be inside and have someone say, ‘Nope, you can’t do that because you don’t have the votes.’ ”

Luken assigned her to chair a new hybrid committee, the Health, Social and Children’s Services and Small Business Development, Employment and Training Committee, which should help ease her transition as she already is familiar with many of the issues. The committee will also give her a forum. And she’ll use it. Within her first month she says she’ll recommend that the city spend an additional $2.2 million to fund health clinics and tie Shirey’s job status to health, police/community relations and small business issues.

But for now, as her first full day as a council member draws to an end, Reece seems less concerned with how she’ll break through the political roadblocks as with how she’ll get something to eat. Somehow her lunchtime got scheduled over, and she’s just now getting a chance to eat. As she sits in T.G.I. Friday’s on the riverfront, looking across at the Cincinnati skyline, a man approaches.

“Excuse me,” he says. “Aren’t you that new Congresswoman?”

The question catches her off guard. She’s stunned as much by being recognized as by the inaccuracy of the question.

“Um,” she says, “that’s councilwoman.”

HOURS 49 to 72:
THE LIFE OF THE PARTY

Dressed in a long, black formal gown, her hair pulled back in braids, Reece makes her way out of her one bedroom apartment, down a flight of stairs, across the parking lot and through the front door of Integrity Hall. Twelve years ago her parents bought an old photo-processing warehouse in Bond Hill and converted it into the reception hall, along with business offices and three apartments. The hall is one of the neighborhood’s most popular places, with about 100 functions, conferences or parties filling it annually. Alicia rents one of the apartments above the hall—convenient to her job as vice president of marketing and promotions for the family business, Communiplex Services Inc., which runs the hall and organizes community events.

The 200 people filling the elegantly decorated hall hear Reece sworn in for the third time in as many days. Luken is there. Burke is there. Marian Spencer, the first African-American woman on council, is there. Reece slowly mingles with the crowd of family friends, political friends and roller-skating friends. (Twice a week Reece unwinds by wheeling around Golden Skates roller rink in Sharonville.)

Standing out in a black tuxedo with a bright red vest is Lincoln Ware, the no-holds-barred talk show host on WCIN-AM. Reece also works as Ware’s producer, an interesting combination since their political viewpoints are often at opposite ends of the spectrum. Ware’s politics leans so far to the right he received a letter from Republican Party officials suggesting he was mentioning Reece’s name too often on the air. But their relationship works. Alicia books the guests and supplies him with endless questions. Lincoln then fires away at will.

“She’s very levelheaded,” says Ware. “Unless you rub her the wrong way.” Do that, he says, and she does battle. Last year, when two Cincinnati police officers shot to death Michael Carpenter, Reece was so upset by the way the city handled the investigation she wrote attorney general Janet Reno and requested a federal probe of the incident. The FBI got involved.

Or the time when Reece was attending Grambling State in Louisiana and Ku Klux Klan director David Duke ran for governor. She immediately began a voter registration campaign, signing up 7,500 people by the time she was done, including the entire football team—no small task.

Wanting to register the team all at one time, Reece approached the school’s famed football coach, Eddie Robinson. Robinson, the winningest college coach of all time, can be quite intimidating. Reece, who played basketball at Grambling her first two years and casually knew Robinson, didn’t flinch. She walked into the athletic department and refused to leave until she spoke to him.

“You’re a very persistent young lady,” he said when he finally let her in his office. “You’ve also got a lot of guts. Now what do you want?”

“I want you to call practice one hour early so we can register your players to vote,” she said.

He looked at her as if she were crazy.

She made her argument, though, and by the time she was finished he agreed. ‘‘I’m going to allow this,” he finally said. “But I’m holding you personally responsible if they’re one minute late.”

Reece’s willingness to do battle isn’t anything new. When she heard people in high school complaining about violence, she created a program called Youth 2000, which evolved into the Stop the Violence Day that still takes place every January. After graduating from Grambling, Reece returned to Cincinnati and created health fairs, entrepreneur conferences and other programs for the city’s poor, including an annual Loan-athon Day in which $10 million in home loans have been awarded to minorities.

Her previous political activities aside, the work she did with these programs and conferences was as much of a stimulus to run city council as anything. If she was able to help people on a small scale, she thought, imagine what she could do with the backing and the resources of the city behind her. It was a great incentive.

“Everything I’ve been involved in,” she says, “is because that’s what the people wanted.”

HOURS 73 to 100:
THE SERENADE IN THE CHURCH

It’s a little after noon on Sunday and the church service at New Friendship Baptist Church in Avondale is on hold for the moment. Barbara Reece is singing, pouring out her heart about how blessed she’s been. The emotion and the rhythm have the church moving. The choir is singing backup. The congregation is dancing. There’s a groove for God going on. To interrupt a moment like this would be a disservice, so the church just goes with it. The rest of the service can wait.

Then, with great effort, Barbara Reece stands up.

‘Tm going to walk down here,” she says rhythmically, right ‘on beat. “Because I know I can.”

A couple of choir members grab her arms, and some in the congregation stand to see. It’s a stirring sight. For 20 years, Barbara Reece was a professional singer, performing locally under the name Barbara Howard. Four years ago, though, her career came to a sudden stop. Her voice was still strong but her legs weren’t. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she now must use a wheelchair. She strains down three steps and onto the pulpit. Alicia Reece rises from her front row seat and walks to meet her mother.

Reece almost didn’t run for council because of her mother’s health. She told her family she was thinking about running in December 1998, and for three months she and her father researched the possibility. But during that period Barbara’s health problems grew worse, requiring time in the hospital. The last place Alicia Reece wanted to be was out campaigning. It was Barbara who insisted she keep going.

So she did. But Reece wouldn’t have made that decision without the full support of her parents. That’s just the way things work in the Reece household. Alicia, along with brother, Steve Jr., 21, who attends Kentucky State, and sister Tiffany, 19, who attends Southern Ohio College, are a tight-knit bunch.

That helps when things go wrong. The family comforted each other when Barbara was in the hospital. They held each other up when Steve Jr. was found guilty of raping a girl at Colerain High School in 1995 and spent a year with the Department of Youth Services. And the family came on board when Alicia said she wanted to run.

“Whatever she wanted to do was up to her,” says Steve Reece. “We never forced her back into the family business or into politics, but our philosophy with our children is they make their own decisions and as long as they are positive then we as a family will give them 1000 percent support.”

“My parents were always the most popular parents in the neighborhood,” says Reece. “Kids would come and knock on our door and ask if my mom and dad could come out and play. I’d say, ‘They’re not home, but I can.’ They’d say, ‘That’s OK. But send your parents out when they get home.’ “

Alicia’s closeness to her father, though, has some people concerned. Twice he’s had his efforts to hold public office frustrated, which has prompted some people to wonder exactly how much influence Steve is going to try to have over Alicia’s decisions—if he’s not going to try to live vicariously through her, try to become an unofficial 10th council member. Those same people don’t appear to have asked that same question about Luken or Pat DeWine.

“She has access to people with a lot of political experience and governing experience,” Steve Reece says, brushing off suggestions of his influence, “and she can tap into it or draw upon it at any time. She consults me on matters all the time, and I consult her on matters all the time, too.”

Yes, her father continually gives her political advice, Alicia Reece says. But if you take away the “father” title, she adds, he’s more than qualified to give it.

Steve Reece ran for council in 1975 and lost by 6,000 votes, then ran in a special run-off election among Democratic candidates for Charlie Luken’s Congressional seat when he stepped down in 1993. He lost the Congressional run-off to David Mann—a move that angered some in the Democratic party and African-American community. By running, they felt, Reece took votes away from another African-American state Sen. Bill Bowen, who was also in the race and ended up losing to Mann by just 417 votes. Reece responded by trying to form an independent voting group outside of the Democratic Party. He now serves as co-chairman of the county’s Democratic Party Policy Committee.

“[Alicia’sl got her dad’s attitude—if you stir me up, I’ll rock the boat,” Barbara Reece admits. “He used to get her up at 5 [a.m.] and take her out and have her play basketball with the boys. She would get beat up and pushed around, but that’s what he said he wanted because that’s the way life is. But 1 always made sure as soon as she got home that she put on a dress, because I didn’t want anyone to confuse her with not being a lady.”

The church service starts winding down three hours after the opening hymn. It’s been almost exactly 100 hours since she was sworn into office and Rev. H.L. Harvey Jr. mentions how proud the church is of Alicia Reece. Proud not only that she won, but that she did so well, finishing fifth in the 20-member race. Nine months earlier Alicia stood in front of the congregation and announced she was running for office, choosing to announce her candidacy in church instead of some hotel ballroom, she says, simply because she felt it was the right place to do it. She was still a stranger to the rest of the city, but those in the church knew she could win, and win big, no matter what kind of weather came on election day.

“I didn’t run to finish ninth,” she says. “It’s like my principal at Withrow High School used to tell us, ‘Shoot for the stars and land on a cloud.’ That’s what 1 did.”

Originally published in the February 2000 issue.
Photograph by Kevin J. Miyazaki

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