Why Yvette Simpson Wants to be Mayor

Two-term council member discusses her decision to oppose fellow Democrat John Cranley and her vision for a more inclusive Cincinnati.

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Cincinnati City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Yvette Simpson - Provided
Cincinnati City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Yvette Simpson

Earlier this week, two-term Cincinnati City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson announced her candidacy for mayor, opposing Mayor John Cranley in the 2017 Democratic primary. CityBeat sat down with her to talk about the upcoming campaign, her ideas on policy, areas where she agrees with Cranley and her ideal meeting (hint: it involves donuts, coffee, and conversation about regional transit). Here are her answers, lightly edited for clarity and length.

CityBeat: There have been rumors floating around for a while that you were considering a run for mayor. Was there a particular moment you knew for sure you were going to enter the race?

Yvette Simpson: We started thinking about this close to a year ago. I don’t know if there was one moment. I’m really intentional in everything I do. In our Council office, we have eight team Simpson principles. One of them is “measure twice, cut once,” just making sure we’re sure before we make a decision. So we looked at our odds to make sure we could do it.

And there was some personal reflection around, “Am I the right leader for this?” because at the end of the day, you don’t want to have something that’s not for you. You have to convince yourself of that before you convince anyone else. I’m still that little girl sometimes, like, “Little me? Mayor? What?” I had to go through that first.

When you’re challenging someone who’s already in the seat, they say you have to convince people that they’re not the person to be in the seat. That’s not the frame I want to be in at all. We want to come from a frame of, “This is the leadership we need right now.”

Being on Council has been one of the most amazing experiences for me. But one of the challenges about being a council member now is that it’s harder and harder to get things done. It’s harder and harder to move and push forward. It’s a lot of pushing against instead of pushing forward. I decided that we couldn’t wait.

After awhile, it just sort of became clear. And in the last couple weeks, it just became really clear.

CB: With the drama over the city employee pay raise issue?

YS: Not just that. But yeah, a little of that. For me as a councilperson, I take what I do very seriously. The idea for me that we might be doing something even close to illegal was harmful for me. My colleagues, who want to do the right thing, were also challenged by that. I never want to be put in a situation like that again, and I don’t want my colleagues put in that situation again.

But we’ve been building toward this. The planning was there. But it’s my journey, and I had to be sure. And I think that happened for me in the last couple months, but really even more in the last couple weeks.

CB: You mention you feel like it’s harder for Council to get things done. Why is that, and what would be different under a Simpson administration?

YS: For me, I believe that all viewpoints are valuable. As mayor, making sure that every councilperson who is also duly elected feels like they’re a part of the team is important. We started the wrong way [this term]. Several members of Council weren’t given committees. The very first day, there was the battle over the streetcar. That tone reverberates in a real way.

I want to start by saying, you know what, you have things you care about too. How do we make that happen? Even people who aren’t perceived to be allies of mine. And you know, as Council, we’ve gotten a lot of 8-1, 9-0 votes. We’ve been very successful in that. I think that approach is important, that there isn’t this us vs. them mentality.

CB: Some folks, including you, have pinned that mentality on Mayor Cranley. Are there areas where you agree with him, though?

YS: I think there are good ideas this administration has put forward.

We’ve supported the inclusion office (ed. note: see more about the Department of Economic Inclusion here and here) and I think that’s a great thing. I want us to do more of that. How do we make sure small businesses across the city feel supported? How do we make that bigger and wider? We know that one of the major challenges is that they don’t have the capacity — they can’t get a contract with the city. That’s the first start, and a lot of women and minority-owned businesses can’t do it. How do we make sure we’re building capacity? There may be partnerships we’re able to facilitate.

Another one is the mayor’s poverty collaborative. Anyone who has a heart for poverty or cares enough to say it, that’s a good thing. We’ve been supportive of that. Of course, I have concerns about how we do it. The way it’s structured now is top-down, and my philosophy is that everything we do has to be from the ground up. I think it’s a good thing that the mayor brought attention to that, but our approach on that would be a little different.

CB: Tell us more about what that looks like on a daily basis. How would you engage communities on issues like poverty and economic inclusion?

YS: One of the things I hope to do is have a community engagement platform within our administration, having an ombudsperson who is paid by the city to help make sure we’re hearing from the community. I want to have an open process for appointments. Anyone could apply for appointments, and we pick the person who is best suited, making sure we have a diversity of voices, making sure it’s not a hand-picked person for that. Also, I'd like to meet people out in the community. Bring back the mayor's night in. That kind of thing.

CB: Let's talk some specific policy stuff. You’ve already touched on poverty in the city, but I wanted to delve into a particular aspect of that. It seems like the city has a pretty big issue with affordable housing. How would you address that?

YS: There are a couple things in the affordable housing conversation. One, there are just some places that need a lot of love that get no attention. There are places in Cumminsville and Winton Terrace that need a good look. My passion is making sure the affordable housing we have now is safe and clean and reliable. When you have affordable housing, it has to be a place where you would live.

In developing new affordable housing, I’m a big fan of mixed-income development. When I grew up, we were in a housing project that was next to another housing project that was next to another housing project. There’s something about the concentration of poverty that gives the illusion that there’s nothing else. I think for children and families in poverty, they need to be around a diversity of people, because you get the best of all it. We know from studies that mixed income communities are the strongest and most able to withstand economic downturns. I want us to get into a frame where we build mixed-income communities. I want to see more market-80-60 all together developments. I think it would do wonders for our community.

CB: How do you get there? How do you balance things, and what are the nuts and bolts of bringing in more mixed-income housing?

YS: There’s not a single development project here that’s going forward that isn’t incentivized. We’re incenting a lot of very expensive places. You either incent the behavior you want to see or punish the behavior you don’t want to see. I’m more of a carrot girl. Part of it is having your neighborhoods and your developers all together in a conversation.

We’re doing that in the West End. Rather than a developer saying, “I want that building, I’m going to build that here,” it’s, “The community wants this, how can I be a part of that conversation?” We have local resources, and we’ll apply for state and federal resources too, to make our neighborhoods amazing, investing strategically and in a long-term way.

CB: The way the city gives out tax incentives for development has been up for question a lot in the past year or so. Does it need to change?

YS: Absolutely. We have to revisit that. That structure was put in place pre-2000. There was no development really anywhere. That’s not true anymore. There are areas in our community that are doing really well, and there are areas that really need it.

So downtown development, for instance, even if you’re in that block where everything’s $3,000-$4,000 a month, you can apply for that incentive. If you show that you have a gap, which most developers can, or you need TIF (tax increment finance) money because you have a garage, you can get it.

I’ve said that most of our TIF is going to garages. That’s not what TIF is supposed to be. If we’d used to those TIF dollars for infrastructure, we wouldn’t have had to borrow $110 million for sidewalks and roads and all of that. We need to go back to the traditional way TIF works, which is, if it’s a neighborhood TIF, that money should benefit the neighborhood.

We let our developers know, hey, we’re glad you’re here, we’re about to grow exponentially, but we want to make sure you’re part of the planning so that when you go out and do your development you do it consistent with what we have in mind.

Our planning function has really been limited over the past few years and really delegated out to the development community and not owned by the neighborhoods themselves. If we can switch that back, now you have a situation where the development follows the plan and not the plan follows the development or there’s no plan at all.

CB: Responding to crime in the city has been a big priority for Mayor Cranley, who has made it a point to hire more police since he’s been in office. You’ve also done a lot of crime reduction work, but you’ve taken a somewhat different approach. What would that look like if you were mayor?

YS: Violence prevention as opposed to violence reaction is so very important. Particularly in communities like ours, where it’s completely doable. In Cincinnati, we know what the inputs are. We know where it’s concentrated. We have strong communities who want to help. We can tackle this stuff together. That’s what I love about this city.

It’s about changing the mind frame to say it’s not about getting the bad guys. It’s about realizing the bad guys are people. They weren’t born wanting to be bad guys. Nintey-nine-point-nine percent of people aren’t born with predisposition toward violence. They’re not.

This is a communicable disease. People who are impacted by violence are more likely to commit violence. We want to intervene — inoculate, vaccinate. Vaccination, treatment, containment. You need all three things when you’re talking about an outbreak. That’s the frame. I think if we do those things, down the road we’ll see shootings and other types of violence reduced. We’ve got some initial funds and some legislation we’re working on.

Look, law enforcement is important, and for the type of policing we’re doing, we need more officers than most places if we want community policing. But even they would say they would feel much more comfortable in their jobs if we could see the types of results we want to see. They know. They’ve seen it. It’s heartbreaking for them, too.

CB: I’ve got to bring up something else that’s looming — or maybe not, that’s the question. How big of a role do you think the streetcar will play in the race?

YS: I don’t know. I think the animosity and vitriol that existed around the streetcar four or five years ago is over. Well, maybe over is a strong word. There are people who will always have hard feelings about it. Some people just never let it go, and we love them regardless. But I think it’s way less. Even the mayor’s conversation around the streetcar is shifting, and that’s good. I think it’s going to be a different thing.

My frame now is around, let’s talk about regional, multi-modal transportation. I don’t want to talk about the streetcar anymore. We have a streetcar. The original vision, from my perspective, started with that Metro Moves proposal (ed. note: see more about Metro Moves here). And I’m still really jazzed about that potential. I know the city I’m in, I know the limitations, but I’m not going to let that stop me. This is one of those big vision things.

Now we have rail in our city. How do we begin to change the conversation to be about how we have a connectivity issue (ed note: read more about Cincinnati's transit issues here), one that even the Chamber is talking about now? How do we get everyone on the same page saying, yeah, it’s big, but if we don’t get started on it now it’s never going to happen? I’d like to not be 90 years old and this region still not be connected.

As someone who grew up in poverty, the transit conversation is so connected to that. I don’t remember how the African American community became so positioned against the streetcar, but for some reason, this became an us vs. them thing. What I’m hoping to do now is ask, “How do we make sure it’s going to benefit of all of us? This thing is here, how do we make it work for everyone?” It would be great to get African Americans, the Chamber community, transit advocates, people who need access to transit at the outskirts of our community, all in the same room. We’ll get some Holtman’s and some coffee. It’s going to take a couple meetings (laughs).

I want us to have a conversation [about things like expanding the streetcar and regional transportation]. I’ve tried to get us to apply for TIGER [for transit projects] the last three years just to have money to have that conversation. I was told that wasn’t the priority of the administration and we weren’t going to apply. The bigger conversation is, we’re in the place where it’s here, to begin to do the planning — if we did it, how do we pay for it? Who benefits? How do we make sure we understand the benefits of rail?

CB: A Metro Moves-style project would take a great deal of regional collaboration, maybe a lot more than we see right now. How do you go about that?

YS: I’m chair of the Hamilton County Planning Partnership, which includes all 49 municipalities in the county. They’re so jazzed about working together. We’ve built this relationship where, if the city is doing something, we share it with everyone. That’s a great relationship. It’s a big vision thing. And when that vision comes to transit and regional rail, it has to include all those people, and Covington and Newport and other parts of Kentucky.

With the relationship between the city and the federal government, we’ve seen very little of that collaboration lately. And that, for me, is a relationship that is important and that I’m looking forward to leading. Saying, "Hey, feds, you’ve worked with us before, and it got a little interesting (laughs) but we got things done." I want them to see what we’re trying to do and I want them to support it. State level, too — I want them to feel like they have to be bought into this. Not that there won’t be naysayers, but when people see things are moving in a distinct direction, the naysayers are quieter.

CB: Are there other big issues you’re focused on as the campaign ramps up?

YS: I certainly have things that I value. Council members have things they value. The community has things they value. But more important than any initiatives we might advance is the idea that we’re going to be an administration that listens to people and that their vision will become a part of ours in a real way. There’s a lot we’re going to learn in the next 15 months that will direct some of that.

The approach, to me, is what matters. The cities that are moving and shaking are the ones that have that approach. It’s amazing, too, what can happen when you have that spirit.

I want a city where there’s not one person who isn’t keyed in and involved. I want us to be a much more connected city, a much more inclusive city, and that people feel like they understand where we’re going. I want that pride that Cincinnati has to extend across our city in a real way.

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