Cover Story: Lemmie at 'Em

New city manager makes moves

Rebecca Lomax

Valerie Lemmie settles in as Cincinnati's new city manager.

Valerie Lemmie is among the first generation of African Americans walking through a door opened by civil rights pioneers.

"I am who I am, and I've been a woman of color all my life," she says.

According to Lemmie, who began her job as Cincinnati's new city manager last month, there are fewer than five African-American women nationally in the position. She comes here in a time when the fight for civil rights doesn't seem to be an issue of only generations past, but generations present.

"I think I recognize that race is an issue that America hasn't addressed," she says.

The opportunity and timing are right to deal with issues facing the city, to change institutions and people's sense of place, Lemmie says, and Cincinnati should embrace diversity.

"We should make it evident in everything we say and do," she says.

Lemmie, originally from St. Louis, has always been a forward-thinking team player, traits she learned by watching family members active in the civil rights movement. That activism put big ideals in a little girl's head.

"They instilled in me the values that I could do and be whatever I want," she says.

Unlike her parents, Lemmie didn't attend segregated schools.

"They had to see their child go off to a school where she may not be very welcomed," she says.

Race never gave Lemmie carte blanche. Many of her college professors told her that, because she's black, she couldn't be as successful as her white counterparts.

"Those things made me more resolved to be successful," she says.

In all her postmodern success as a black, professional woman, Lemmie remembers it was bought and paid for with the blood of activists before her. And in that way, she has an activist's spirit. Yet she subscribes wholeheartedly to the tenants of the American dream.

"I happen to be of the generation when we as Americans could do anything and I still believe we can," she says. "The nicest part is I grew up in a time when people still had something to believe in. If young people believe the American dream then the Cincinnati dream is viable for them...they will be good citizens. My goal is to make this a better place for the next generation."

She held similar beliefs during her tenure in Dayton. While serving as Dayton's city manager, Lemmie pushed to bring minor league baseball to the city.

Recently in an elevator with a person wearing a Dayton Dragons baseball cap, Lemmie saw the realities of her labor, even if it's in retrospect.

"I thought, 'That is really cool, because I brought that deal to fruition,' " she says, adding that construction of Dayton's baseball stadium also brought high quality jobs and a downtown revitalization.

Although she has about 30 honors and awards on her résumé, Lemmie is a self-described private person. She's city manager as Oz, operating behind the scenes.

She has under her charge 6,400 workers. To say it's tough is an understatement. According to Lemmie, city managers are often the eye of every storm.

"It's very lonely," she says.

The loneliness is compounded by criticism.

"It's really hard to pick up the editorials and read, 'That was stupid, why did you do that?' " she says.

Lemmie says it's the specificity of her job that interests and challenges her.

"Where elected officials have policy responsibility, I have operational responsibility," she says.

It's obvious, then, that gender has little to do with the ability to run such a high-post office. Being any city's manager requires a certain type of person. There's the rub.

Lemmie has started women's clubs with every organization she has been with. In them, women share ideas and issues.

Such a "support group" atmosphere is crucial on the days when people feel unappreciated. The groups pack more of a pick-me-up than that ever-crucial cup of coffee.

"Sometimes the best anecdote for a bad day is a friend whispering in your ear, 'You're great, you're wonderful,' " she says.

It's about social checks and balances. And citizens should think similarly when they consider their relationship to the city's administration.

To Lemmie, the citizens of Cincinnati are its stockholders. Likewise, administrators are the city's stakeholders.

"I certainly recognize that I have the responsibility for operating a major corporation," she says.

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