Meet the Woman Trying to Become the First Female African American Mayor of Cincinnati
She’s got her eye on the glass ceiling.
Around the world, fewer than one-quarter of lawmakers are women — an imbalance in representation that affects how laws are crafted and passed and how equality is created in societies. Global Citizen’s series, “Who Run The Gov? Girls!” chronicles the massive uptick in women running for office, regardless of political party, in the US and around the world, highlighting the candidates and the groups helping them to run, the challenges they face, advice & tips for running, and the results.
Yvette Simpson knows how to win a battle — against political opponents, against systemic poverty, against racism.
Simpson, a 38-year-old city council member in Cincinnati, Ohio, was raised in poverty by a mentally-ill mother and absentee father who was addicted to cocaine. She’s also a lawyer, an advocate, a campaign advisor, and she’s won both of her elections for city council.
In May, she pulled a major upset in the primary election against incumbent Mayor John Cranley.
Now, she faces her next major quest for victory. If elected in November, Simpson will become the first African American female mayor in Cincinnati history.
Simpson was raised with her sister and her two cousins by their grandmother in a Lincoln Heights housing project where she learned that one didn’t need material things to be successful.
“Our life was a struggle. We were poor, but we had a lot of love,” Simpson told Global Citizen. “We lived in a community that was more like a village than a neighborhood.”
She lived there until high school when her grandmother became sick, after which Simpson bounced around to the homes of different family members and friends. But Simpson had a goal, and despite the obstacles she would have had to overcome, she was determined to break out of the cycle.
“I had a real sense of justice, a real sense of honor and integrity, even back then,” Simpson said.
At 8 years old, she decided she wanted to be a lawyer.
“I think, based on what was going on in my life, I saw the law as a way to make change,” Simpson said. “Things just shouldn’t be the way they are.”
Supported by her mentors and school counselors, Simpson worked hard and graduated from high school with a full scholarship to Miami University, becoming the first in her family to attend college. She went on to receive her law degree from the University of Cincinnati, then her M.B.A. at Xavier University, before practicing law at two Cincinnati firms.
As an attorney, she realized quickly that she could only have a limited effect on the cases in front of her, she said.
“You can’t make community change one case at a time,” Simpson said. “I wanted to do something more impactful in my community, but I was not sure what that was.”
In search of that missing something, Simpson helped establish Miami University’s first pre-law program and served as its director until 2012.
During that time, Simpson met Roxanne Qualls, a previous mayor of Cincinnati and the second woman to hold the position, who was then teaching at Northern Kentucky University. Qualls had left public service to teach at Harvard University before making her way back to Cincinnati.
“[I] started paying attention to more of what was going on in Cincinnati. I felt like I could do better, and the only way I knew I could do better was to be involved,” Simpson said.
Simpson became involved in Quall’s study on why more women don’t run for office. Although Simpson had no intention of running for office, she worked on Quall’s campaign for mayor in 2013, knocking on doors and making phone calls to constituents.
“I hated campaigning,” Simpson said, reflecting back on her first experience on Qualls campaign.
Simpson swore she would not run herself. Nevertheless, she found herself wanting to create the laws rather than implementing them on a case-by-case basis. She saw running for Cincinnati’s council as the way to do just that.
“I think I said something like ‘when hell froze over,’” she said, laughing. “Well, hell has frozen over, and here I am.”
Simpson called her first campaign in 2012 “the experiment.” She was convinced that she couldn’t win a campaign by just being herself, but that was the only way she wanted to win. So instead of dividing her time and trying to talk to as many people as she could, Simpson had long, deep conversations with constituents who related to her childhood growing up in poverty. She used the same techniques she had learned from Quall’s campaign and knocked on hundreds of doors and made even more phone calls.
“I challenged all my friends, that if I’m not me, if I’m not the person you know me to be, pull me out,” Simpson said.
She won that campaign, and the next.
Since joining the council, Simpson has called for a different approach to how the city handles prostitution and human trafficking in way that aims to help women and children victims rather than arresting them. She hopes to increase resources and collaboration with neighboring communities to address the issue.
“It is one of worst kinds of modern day slavery that we see,” Simpson said. “We should not at all tolerate the sale of human beings.”
Drug trafficking has also been a big issue on her plate as a councilwoman. Ohio’s rate of opioid overdoses doubles that of the national average, and the epidemic has hit Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland especially hard. Last summer, Cincinnati police responded 174 overdoses in just 6 days.
Now, Simpson hopes to create environments like the one she grew up in, villages that support their community members and prepare their children for success.
Cincinnati had the second highest rate of child poverty across all US cities in 2012, with over 53% of children living in poverty. That percentage has since fallen to 44.3%, which officials are still calling “an abominable number.”
“We have to change the environments our children live in,” Simpson said.
Recognizing that the issues around child poverty are multifaceted, Simpson believes it can be done. Her personal story is just one example.
When a child was shot in his neighborhood of Avondale, a community of Cincinnati, parents were afraid to let their children play outside during the summer. Simpson worked with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America to send all the neighborhood kids to camp. Each morning she and her team went to the neighborhood and knocked on doors to make sure every child went to camp. A local principle also showed up each morning; she acknowledged that by knocking on doors and seeing where her students lived gave her a better understand of her students’ lives.
As Simpson continues to impact her community, she remains conscious of the fears she had before she made her first run for public office.
“How long do you have to be in public service before… you feel like the mountain is too big, too strong, you can’t move? Now I’m six years in, running for mayor, and I’m still here.”
Although Simpson won the primary in May, squaring off head-to-head against incumbent Mayor Cranley will be a tough fight. Cranley beat Qualls in 2013 for the mayoral bid and became the youngest person to serve as mayor of Cincinnati at age 39. Nevertheless, Simpson believes this is her year.
“We are now a city that people are paying attention to,” Simpson said. “Our motto is: We can’t wait. The time is now.”