Cover Story: To Be Young, Gifted and Black

Aspirations of a leader in progress

Wendy Uhlman

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece is committed to a bright political future.

The halls of City Hall are rife with estrogen. Cincinnati's city manager, vice mayor and clerk of council are all women.

The presence of the Pumps of Authority isn't lost on Vice Mayor Alicia Reece. They've come a long way, baby.

"On those days when the mayor is not there you have all women leading council," Reece says, only the 10th woman elected to Cincinnati City Council. "There was nobody before me that laid the groundwork. There was no young female vice mayor before me."

Add up Reece's gender, education and pedigree, and it doesn't equal shyness or a lack of self-esteem.

"I'm real close spiritually to God and I said, 'God you gave me all these talents what do you want me to do?' " Reece says. "I truly believe this is right now what I am meant to do."

The interview for this story begins and ends in Reece's convertible while her cell phone is turned off and she's away from the constant interruptions and demands of her office. It also takes place en route to the visitation for a deceased businessman and family friend.

When Reece enters the church, people stop grieving long enough to call out to her by her first name, offering hugs and asking about her family. On the way out, she recalls fond memories of the restaurant owner to whom she's paid her last respects. She speaks of family breakfasts shared with her family at his establishment.

Then, it's back to being vice mayor.

Reece says she uses her talents to concentrate on issues that will make the city a better place for everyone. She recently devoted 100 hours of negotiations in the settlement of the racial profiling lawsuit and lobbied council to ensure the agreement passed.

"I made a decision to go in because things were breaking down," she says, adding she attended the negotiations to make sure the city "stayed at the table."

Council voted unanimously in favor of the agreement.

"It's the most monumental piece of legislation I have been involved in thus far," Reece says.

In addition to being only one of three African Americans on council, Reece is also one of only two women.

At 31, her age sometimes gives people problems. She's had to do some convincing on issues that would have been otherwise accepted if not for her youth.

"I used to say, 'Why don't you just close your eyes and listen to what I'm saying and see if it makes sense?' " she says. "You have to learn the art of making your case and being able to convince others on your position."

Reece learned life lessons from her mother, Barbara, a woman she describes as a behind-the-scenes person.

"She's really where I get a lot of my strength from," she says. "She taught me what it means to be a woman where you have to juggle more than one thing and still be able to be successful and still be able to survive."

Afflicted with multiple sclerosis, Barbara is in a wheelchair. She was hospitalized for a month during Reece's first council race.

Reece initially thought about reconsidering her race because she wanted to be with her family. Her mother told her not to give up.

"She told me to continue to run because my running was going to give her strength to get out of the hospital because she had envelopes to lick and phone calls to make," Reece says.

Witnessing her mother's health-related struggles made the young councilwoman want to tackle those issues politically.

"My No. 1 issue was to keep the health clinics open," she says. "It's always a battle to keep us funding those clinics, but it's so important."

Reece says that the clinics provide needed care to senior citizens and women seeking prenatal care, and she takes credit for the budgetary dialogue surrounding them.

"I think now when people talk about the budget, if they want to talk about health clinics they always look at me," she says.

Breast cancer advocates made Reece aware that Congress passed a bill providing federal funding for breast cancer treatment to women with low and moderate incomes. The funding is contingent upon states' agreement to pick up part of the costs.

She assisted the advocates in changing Gov. Bob Taft's mind when he originally opposed the idea. Reece joined a letter-writing campaign and got a resolution passed by council supporting state-level funding.

Ironically, the threat of breast cancer is now hitting Reece close to home. Barbara was recently diagnosed with it.

Despite what appears to be a focus on issues of women's health, Reece says she tries to reach beyond them to help women in other, more intangible ways, like making inclusion and diversity her main goals.

"I'm hopeful when I'm long gone people will still be talking about inclusion and diversity," she says.

To that end, Reece says there were originally no women on the advisory board for the expansion of the Albert B. Sabin Convention Center.

"I made a fuss about it and we have women on it, which I think is positive," she says. "I think inclusion should be a norm."

During her first few days on council, Reece says she brokered a deal between the city and the NAACP, the group representing city workers, guaranteeing fair promotion of African-American city workers. The deal was expanded to also include women and people with disabilities.

Women in politics are vital to Reece.

"By us being there, we're going to be more sensitive to inclusion," she says. "If men can represent the whole city, I think women can represent the whole city."

Life in politics wasn't always on Reece's agenda. She originally wanted nothing to do with it.

"I ran away from politics most of my life because I grew up with it," she says.

Reece recalls that when her father, Steve, worked as chief of staff to Ted Berry, Cincinnati's first African-American mayor, there was a challenge in city hall about whether there should be blacks on the police force. Later, she heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson speak in Chicago in the early 1980s when he announced his bid for president.

"I said, 'Wow! If this man can get from the ghetto of Chicago and go to the White House, I can be class president,' " she says.

Jackson didn't make it to the White House, but Reece did become class president at Withrow High School.

Before getting elected to city council, Reece worked for Congressman David Mann and on Roxanne Qualls' congressional campaign. She also coordinated the Hamilton County Democratic Party's "Get Out the Vote" campaign.

During her college years at Grambling State University, Reece was relieved to be away from politics. Although she tried to stay out, she heard a call to action when David Duke surfaced as a statewide candidate in Louisiana.

"David Duke said he was running for governor," Reece says. "He wanted to shut my school down because it was a black college."

Using her college radio show, Reece encouraged people to vote. Grambling students offered transportation to shuttle people to the polls.

Reece says that, by her example, corporate America might be more willing to promote more young women, giving them a needed break.

"I think there's a lot of Alicia Reeces out there who just need an opportunity," she says.

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