TRANSCRIPT for Episode 1: An interview with Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum
This interview took place on Thursday, February 16, 2023 at the Ohio County Public Library. To listen to the podcast click down below.
This interview took place on Thursday, February 16, 2023 at the Ohio County Public Library.
JUSTICE HUDSON: Hello and welcome to the Hudson Household Editorial- an independent media organization. I’m your host, Justice Hudson and I’m so glad you’re here! This is the first interview in what I hope will become a series of conversations with elected officials, community leaders, and normal Appalachian citizens, about issues impacting the City of Wheeling, the state of West Virginia, and the region as a whole. Our first guest is Rosemary Ketchum, representing Wheeling’s Third Ward on the Wheeling City Council. For the sake of transparency, I am a constituent of Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum. This interview was conducted on February 16, 2023 at the Ohio County Public Library. I asked Councilwoman Ketchum a host of questions ranging from local Wheeling construction projects to recent bills passed in the West Virginia Legislature. I hope you enjoy!
1:09 JUSTICE HUDSON: Joining me now is Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum of Wheeling’s Third Ward. Thank you so much for being here.
1:14 ROSEMARY KETCHUM: Thank you so much for having me.
1:16 JH: I want you to take us back to May 2019 when you officially announced your campaign to the Wheeling City Council. What motivated you to run for this seat?
1:25 RK: I love this question. We just shared a three year anniversary post about the campaign and the day that we won. You know, I didn’t grow up in the City of Wheeling. I fell in love with the city when I moved here in 2010 and got involved in local politics for local campaigns, volunteered for many organizations. And I found myself, having fallen in love with the City of Wheeling because of and despite a lot of its problems. I think broadly West Virginia is an incredibly scrappy state, and West Virginians are hard workers and West Virginia is one of the hardest states to live in, both because of access to resources, but also our geography is really tough. [But] Wheeling is a little bit different because it doesn’t resemble the geography of the rest of the state. So all of those, I think, components of Wheeling lead me to feel as if Wheeling was its own person- kind of personified the city for me. And so, I thought, looking around me at the opportunities we had to redevelop affordable housing, expand our public transportation system, to address homelessness- which was, and continues to be, an enormous challenge for the Ohio Valley- I really thought this is something we should be working on. And I looked around the room, and a lot of people were working on it, but none of those people were in elected office. Most of the people doing really great, important work -the people work- were on boards and commissions and volunteering, and that’s incredible, but we needed someone who was willing to run for office. And so, as many folks do, you look around the room and you ask everyone, “You should run for office! There’s going to be a city council race, you should throw your hat in the ring.” And most people, everyone, said, “No, that’s not me, I’m not an elected, that’s not what I want to do. I’m not qualified, I don’t have experience,” whatever. And, it took a while for me to realize that sometimes it’s easier to replace an elected official than to convince somebody else that they oughta run. So, it was early 2019 when we started having conversations and by July we announced our campaign.
3:35 JH: During your campaign you frequently canvassed the Third Ward. You visited homes and businesses and you talked to residents throughout the district. Ultimately you won the competitive four-way race in June 2020 by a margin of 15 votes. What role do you think this campaign strategy played in your victory?
3:53 RK: Well, I think clearly it played some role having won by 15 votes, which, in local elections there are rarely landslide elections. I mean, if you have multiple people running in an uncontested- or a contested race, rather -without a runoff, it’s gonna be close. I mean, there are only so many votes to be had. 15 is very, very close. And so I knew that coming into the race I did not have the same name and face recognition as my counterparts, in part because, as I said before, I didn’t grow up in the City of Wheeling, and in so many ways when you run for local politics it’s about who you graduated high school with, who babysat you when you were a kid, who delivered your newspaper on your street. I didn’t have those experiences- I was homeschooled, I grew up kind of in New Cumberland, West Virginia and Ohio, and so I really had to introduce myself to a lot of people who didn’t know who I was. So I knew it was going to be close. I didn’t know it was going to be that close, but I do remember when I would knock on doors folks would tell me, “this is the first time I’ve ever met our elected official.” And I would say “I’m not your elected official yet,” but they’d say this is the first time somebody that wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness knocked on my door. And we would laugh and it would be funny, but I’d walk away concerned because I, you know, at that point I liked most, if not all, the members of our City Council- they’re not bad people. But, I think inherently local politics, while it’s incredibly- it’s the most direct form of democracy we have, I think a lot of people rest on their laurels and don’t fight hard enough to win these races. And I knew that I was an underdog, and I knew that other folks were not going to be knocking doors. Unfortunately, we announced our campaign in July of 2019 and by November we started door knocking- which, in retrospect, is the worse time to door knock, in the winter. But we started door knocking and we covered about half the ward before COVID hit and that was the real strategy we were leaning on because I got my start in volunteering for campaigns and, both political campaigns and social campaigns, and one-to-one person-to-person contact is the best way- and I’d argue maybe the only way -that you should be winning elections. And when we couldn’t do that I was really worried we weren’t going to be able to get it. And I think- I would like to imagine that the margin would be a lot wider had we been able to continue the door knocking campaign, but we pulled it off with bubblegum and toothpicks as a campaign strategy, but we were able to do it.
6:31 JH: Well, like you said, ultimately you pulled it off. And now you’re in your third year of your first term as a council member, what has been something you didn’t know before taking office that you now know?
6:43 RK: That’s a great question. I mean, I think you never know- you’re never 100% qualified, you’re never 100% ready for the job- and I don’t care if that’s a local elected, I don’t care if that’s the US Senate. I imagine that ever position like this has its own learning curve because every bureaucracy, every government- every level of government -has its own dynamic and it’s kind of like a family unit when you step in and get elected- you know, the work doesn’t start then. The City of Wheeling has been around for 200 years. People have been- there have been habits and systems and rules and the way things are done and the dynamics and the history that exists before you ever get there. And so, there are a couple options you have. You can choose to just go with the flow and not ask any questions and just assume the status quo is the best way to get it done. Or you can say actually let’s ask a couple questions and let’s figure out how this works- not just how it works today, but how it should be working tomorrow. I think most importantly to me I learned how government works, in the best and the worst ways possible. And you learn very quickly that the people who are working in your local government are people. They’re your neighbors, they’re your school teachers, they are the people who you see every day, but might not understand exactly the role they play in your city government. And so it has actually given me the opportunity to give more grace to government- which sounds wrong. You know, we always expect government to be perfect and on it, and we should be as responsive as possible, but I remembered, or I learned really quickly that, yeah, we are just a bunch of people who are following the rules written for us in the West Virginia and U.S. constitution to the best of our ability. And so that was really humbling and also reminded me that there is so much more opportunity than we give it credit for to change these systems to be better, because, I think, in many ways we just assume if it’s working, to whatever extent, now there’s probably no reason to change it. And one of the things I really wanted to do as an elected was to shape government to work better. Not just pass a bill that could help a couple people and the next council could never carry it through. To actually shape the function of our government- and through committees and commissions and new positions -I feel having been in my third year, pretty successful at having done that. And surprisingly, it was easier than I thought it was going to be, because you just gotta lean in. People I don't think are necessarily [expecting] doing as much as a local elected official because it’s part time, and people don’t expect you to spend your whole life mulling over the details, but I really took it seriously. And I obviously still do and believe that the best way to do it is to do it right.
9:34 JH: What’s been the most during your time on the Council?
9:37 RK: Oh gosh! There’s so many things that I pinch myself because I thought “this will take a decade to see through,” and it would happen within the first couple of years. I mean, I guess starting abstractly I think getting people involved in government in a nuanced way has been really exciting and very difficult, but absolutely worth it. People who didn’t know who their City Council member was, didn’t know what the city budget looked like, didn’t know any of these components of government- that even elected officials often don’t know. When you don’t have an informed constituency you do not have an empowered constituency. And so being responsive and accessible has been a really important thing to me and it’s something I strive to do all the time. Thinking more granularly, a couple of the ordinances that I’ve been either a part of spearheading or supported that really mattered to me. I think first and foremost, when I was elected I ran to, kind of campaigned to support conversations around homelessness in our city. To kind of humanize the experience, because, before that, if you remember, the City of Wheeling nearly had a lawsuit, or had a lawsuit with the ACLU of West Virginia for dismantling an encampment on 18th Street- that’s a huge news story. You’d type “Wheeling West Virginia” into google and that lawsuit would be the first thing to come up. That’s not good for us, our reputation. That’s not good for the homeless folks who call this city home. And that’s not good for our ability to attract not just residents but businesses. I think, and I really do love my other councilmembers, I think when I got elected they just all looked and me and said, “Well you’re gonna solve this, right? You’re gonna help us figure this out.” And I said, “Yeah, I wanna be part of this.” And I’d say Mayor Elliott was the strongest advocate of homeless support mechanisms within the city and I really commend him for his work because he got beat up for it. People really said that city government is not here to help people. When I would hear that not once, not twice, but a handful of times from people that I respect or people that are influential in the City of Wheeling I would ask, “Then what is government here for?” If government isn’t here to help people I’m not sure what I’m doing here. And so we were able to quiet some of those voices and move full speed ahead by pulling in an enormous, unprecedented number of social services to hold meetings, and brainstorming, and discussions and workshops that didn’t all end successfully- frankly. It’s an incredibly fraught situation. And everyone is [unsure, possibly said ‘pulling out.’] So ultimately we decided to build a job description for a Homeless Liaison coordinator and hire that position. Again, a lot of folks said, “We don’t need it. The government shouldn’t be doing that. It’s a duplicitous service.” All of these things. And some of those conversations were merited, and we can have- government is known for being duplicitous, for doing things that aren’t necessary. So, I’m very open to those conversations, but we move forward and just this month we announced our LifeHub which is a really ambitious and unprecedented program here in the City of Wheeling to create a comprehensive, wrap-around service facility so that people who are homeless, and people who are in poverty, have access to a one-stop shop service facility. And that’s something I’m incredibly proud of.
13:16 JH: I wanna turn now to local issues first- Wheeling has seen a boom in demolition over hte past year. An additional 12 building were approved for demolition at the last City Council meeting. We’ve also witnessed a construction boom, with restoration projects, new public housing buildings, parking garages, and police and fire departments being built around the city. It would appear the City of Wheeling is at a turning point in its history. Why is it that the number of projects have accelerated compared to previous years?
13:45 RK: I think you are right, I think we’re at a turning point. One of the examples of our turning point was the Health Plan building. It was built a couple years ago and was the first new private construction in our city for about 35 years. And I think across the state of West Virgnia we struggle to attract businesses and corporations and developers who see the state of West Virginia as an opportunity- not just to make money but to create a culture. And I have friends in Huntington and Charleston and Morgantown who are always having the same conversations. And sometimes people living across the water say, “I wish we had what Huntington has or what Morgantown has, but Wheeling is one of, if not the most, unique city in our state in part because we are able to make a case for why Wheeling is the place to make these investments. And so whether it was the Health Plan or the Wheeling Pittsburgh Lofts, which is 120+ upper market housing opportunities in Wheeling’s- West Virginia’s first skyscraper which is the Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Building. We are seeing a kind of evolution of our downtown that we have not seen in maybe a century. And, it’s painful right now because the streets are ripped up and there are cones everywhere and it feels like it's under construction because it very much is. But it’s very exciting to be a member of City Council to be riding the coattails of previous administrations that got it right, but be able to also shape the future of our Downtown. I think that one of the, a couple of the reasons this is happening is, I think, in the zeitgeist, Wheeling has been on the map for about a decade for both really having forward thinking City administrations and councils. You know, a lot of West Virginia city government officials are not that creative, not willing to be bold, not willing to push the envelope. And I think in 2016 with the slate of candidates that were elected we felt that something was changed. And for some folks it hasn’t changed fast enough, I get that, for other folks it’s been a really incredible opportunity to witness policy put into action. And an example is that we discussed what it would look like to reduce parking minimums in our Downtown- we did that. And so across the state of West Virginia when a developer comes in and they say, “wait, you have a parking minimum of however many lots in your downtown? That means if I want to build a building I need to also tear down the next two buildings to just build a parking lot.” That’s not okay. That is not standard practice in smart urban development. And I think the City of Wheeling said, “yeah, we want people to invest in our downtown and we don’t want to burden them by having to create more parking.” We have plenty of parking in our downtown. You know, we get criticized all the time for building parking garages because there is a, I believe, a great number of spots throughout our city. It could be more convenient and that’s what we’re attempting to do- that’s what we are doing with the new parking garage on Market Street. But, I think it’s an example of government saying, “okay, let’s take a risk, let’s do something creative, but let’s not reinvent the wheel.” You know, these are not things that Wheeling has invented. Wheeling did not invent getting rid of parking minimums in our downtown. That has been a 30+ year urban development practice. That’s very exciting. And then I guess the last thing I’ll say is that this recent development, private development, which includes the Health Plan, the Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel project, we’ve got a really incredible new Water Street project in the waterfront development that Dan Mileson is creating which will, I think, vastly change our waterfront which is perhaps the most underutilized waterfront in West Virginia. Great opportunity there- it’s a private development. We talk about the federal, state and local developments that we see. Our streetscape which is a $30 million streetscape which took many, many years to come to fruition is finally being able to take place and take shape here in our downtown. We had a great groundbreaking with the Governor a couple months ago. And this will be a multi-year project but something that will absolutely not just change the look of our downtown but the safety and accessibility of our downtown. I mean, it’s kind of a not sexy and very boring thing to talk about, but our streets will be fixed, our sidewalks will be widened, we will have new light posts, we will have new trees- which is a personal love of mine. I think that having as much green space as possible is really key- and it will also enhance the safety because a lot of folks will talk about how fast cars are driving down our Main and Market Streets which I believe are 25 or 35 MPH, folks will be driving 40 or 45 down our Main and Market Street. When you create narrower streets and this tunneling effect of both wider sidewalks and kind of a canopy people feel like they have to drive slower. And speed limits do not actually inform people’s speed, it is actually the built environment that informs speed. So, all of that together, to make a long story short, will, I think, greatly improve our downtown and make it the best downtown in West Virginia.
19:08 JH: It’s worth noting if you live in the City of Wheeling you know that our Market and Main Streets are pothole-ridden. It is ugly, as you said, but it is good to hear the plans are going forward, that we did celebrate that groundbreaking recently. I think that’s going to be a great plan. And we talked a little bit about public housing so I want to ask you a little bit more specifically on that. While there have been new housing projects throughout the city, some are concerned it's not enough. Many of the new developments are for people aged 55 or income-restricted, and we know that obtaining a Section 8 voucher through HUD is notorious for years-long waitlists. Some also fear that individuals and families right above the poverty line, but still struggling financially, won’t be able to access these apartments. Do you share that concern, and is the city government taking seriously the need for affordable housing?
20:07 RK: Yes, and yes. I think in the past five years we have seen more housing development in the City of Wheeling than we have ever seen, at least in modern history. I think just in South Wheeling we have seen nearly 100 new units in the LaBelle Greene Apartments. We’ve got LaBelle Greene, Owens Greene, Hobbs Greene. These are apartment buildings that have a mixed opportunity apartment building where there are some income requirements and then some not at all. And so I think that is an example of offering this mixed-opportunity so that our Wheeling Housing Authority, that does build low- to moderate-income housing, which is exemplified in the Luau, Booker T. Washington, and others. So there’s a great balance there. But again, it’s never enough. We are not just having a housing crisis here in West Virginia, it is a national concern. And, you know, personally I think it’s really critically that we monitor not just the amount of housing that is being built, but who is buying the housing. We’ve seen across the nation- it hasn’t happened in Wheeling yet, thank goodness that I’m aware of. We’ve seen across the nation corporations and big businesses buying up hundreds of units and artificially inflating the cost of housing in many urban-density areas in a way that I think is both unethical, it should be illegal, but is just wrong. People deserve quality and affordable housing and when business like Wells Fargo and whomever decide to buy up mass housing in order to inflate prices and make a buck, I think that is just wrong. And so, on the city administration side I’m not sure that has been a specific conversation, although I am sure they will be aware of it if it’s happening. But on my end as a counselor, we’re having conversations about housing. I think that’s top of mind- ensuring that we make the City of Wheeling the best place to live. It remains that. Not just the best place to live for somebody who has $150,000 but the best place to live for somebody regardless of income. That’s really, really key. And really hard. I’m going to be honest, we can pass policy all day but it is about making sure it is a practice, more than a policy, to ensure that as an elected official I’m not going to be here forever, our mayor isn’t going to be here forever, our city administrators will eventually retire. We need to ensure that we are creating practices, as well as policies, that in 50 years when we are even better than we are today that the people who started with us are still with us. The people- I grew up in poverty. I still am at or below the poverty line. I was so lucky and grateful to buy a house this past March. I would not have been able to do that in just about any other city, or any other state based on my income, but because Wheeling has yet to fall into this trap of extraordinary housing prices- and it’s getting a little bit more expensive -I, a person like myself was able to buy a house, a single income person. I think we’re at a really good place now, but it can always get better. And I think one of the best ways we can do that is to coordinate the conversations around federal monies. And I think that oftentimes where things get caught up is that the Wheeling Housing Authority has a project over here, the city has a project over there, we’re talking with WODA. Obviously it’s an all-boat-wise scenario, but I would love to see a little bit more coordination on that front. And I think that might happen through our LifeHub model and facility talking about how do we not just create Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel housing- which is important and critical, those are taxpayers -but how do we ensure that there is a balance of housing. And, the last thing I’ll say is that it’s geographically balanced as well. Typically what happens is that we build very, very nice housing in the best neighborhoods that have the most access and we decide to build the less quality and more affordable housing on the outskirts of town. That is standard practice for many cities that don’t value urban planning, or, kind of, ethical human experiences, but we keep that in mind for sure.
24:21 JH: And you mentioned that you’re not going to be here forever, and those in elected offices in the city, they’re not going to be here forever. You’ve mentioned that you would like to see better coordination. So I’m asking you today: would you consider sponsoring the creation of a commission in Wheeling to investigate issues regarding the accessibility of affordable housing?
24:43 RK: Sure. I’m not sure a commission is the best way to make that happen- it could very well be -but I think it would make a lot of sense to be a group of people in the City of Wheeling who don’t just work for city government, but work on all ends of the spectrum, to have the conversations and coordinate these things. I think that makes all the sense in the world. Whether that’s a standing commission, and ad hoc committee, whether that lives in the city, lives in- I’ll say frankly we are not housing experts at the city, and it shouldn’t probably live there. I could imagine it living at the Wheeling Housing Authority with Joyce Wolen, they are housing experts. But yeah, I think that’s incredible and I think it’s probably a good idea.
25:25 JH: I wanna move now just to some information out of last City Council meeting, some pretty big news. The Wheeling City Council unanimously adopted the CROWN Act on February 7, adding “protective hairstyles” to protections against discrimination based on race. A similar bill was introduced by Delegate Danielle Walker, the only black woman serving in the West Virginia House of Delegates, in 2022, but it was rejected by a vote of 74-21. Talk about what this ordinance means for Wheeling.
26:00 RK: Well, I think it’s obvious that we call ourselves the Friendly City we have to make good on that promise everyday. And I know that some of us see the “the Friendly City” as an aspirational phrase. And I think it is aspirational. We want to ensure that we’re always striving to always be as inclusive, as welcome, as friendly as possible, but it also has to be a phrase that is steeped in reality and in the present. We can’t just be waiting for someone to make the city friendly, we have to make sure we do that ourselves. I had conversations years ago with Katonya Hart, with Del Danielle Walker, Crystal Good, a host of incredible women in the state of West Virginia working on the CROWN Act- working on a host of other pieces of really critical legislation -but the CROWN Act in particular. And they asked Wheeling, they asked me, they asked our Human Rights Commission, “Will you take this on?” And we said, “Yes!” I’ll say it wasn’t easy. It was difficult, we had many conversations among city counselors who were either in full support, in questionable support, or really said, “Why do we need this at all?” I believe one comment was made, “If this isn’t a problem now why are we even entertaining it as an ordinance?” Obviously, I think that’s erroneous, and there’s plenty of things that we pass that people would not assume are problems. And so I think as a city government we decided that- we asked ourselves a question, “Does this reflect our values?” And if you look back on our history it absolutely does. In 2016/17 we passed our non-discrimination ordinance in the City of Wheeling. I think members of the City Council were surprised it went so well. We also passed a ban on conversion therapy, and we passed the CROWN Act with support from our Human Rights Commission. And now, it isn’t to say people didn’t come to City Council and say, “this isn’t okay, we don’t believe this, this is racist, you guys shouldn’t be focused on this.” All the plethora of things, but when you look at the charge of our Human Rights Commission, the charge of our city charter, you will see that this not only makes sense, this should have been in there to begin with. In my eyes this is not creating something new, this is just shaping and updating current statute and the city level. I was very proud to attend the Second Annual Black Policy Day (Feb 15, 2023) yesterday in Charleston where Del Danielle Walker spoke about the CROWN Act and about other pieces of legislation. And they are making a case not just for cities to take this on- I think Huntington, Wheeling, Morgantown, maybe Charleeston, have passed the CROWN Act. The state of West Virginia has not entertained this bill. And I’m not confident they will. I love Danielle Walker, and if anyone can do it she can, but this legislative session and these legislators we have elected in the past couple terms are really dangerous and I just don’t think they care that much. If Fox News just asked them to run this bill they would, but they’re not going to. That means that, per usual, cities have to show Charleston how it’s done- show the Legislature how it’s done and really, I think, be ahead of the curve. People like to say West Virginia is 15 years behind the rest of the country, our cities might be 5 years behind the rest of the country cause we’re trying really hard to create some counterbalance between how people perceive our state government, and how people perceive their cities.
29:49 JH: And I want to talk to you about a few other issues at the Legislature, but first let’s move onto some other regional and state issues. First, let’s move to the February 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Here’s what we know so far: on February 3 a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, OH, about 40 miles north of Wheeling [CORRECTION, Wheeling is 70 miles by car from East Palestine], followed by a February 6 controlled burn of several cars at risk of catastrophic explosion. On February 7 Weirton officials announced they had detected butyl acrylate at their water treatment plants, and Governor Jim Justice announced on February 8 that his office was tracking a chemical spill into the Ohio River that occurred as a result of the East Palestine train derailment. The City of Wheeling waited 11 days before putting out an official statement confirming testing was ongoing and that consumer water was safe. Why do you believe it took so long for the city government to release a statement to the public informing them about the derailment and subsequent leak?
31:01 RK: It’s a really great question. I think obviously the derailment was a surprise, and in a valley like East Palestine and the Ohio Valley we are often not given all the information, and or it is held back. In the City of Wheeling- I can’t speak for our city administrators or our City Manager -but we waited to ensure that the monitoring we were engaging in was accurate. And when we engaged in this monitoring, which happens despite a derailment. We monitor our water systems and the quality of our water continually. We shut our water off for about 8 hours which resulted in the use of four tanks, water tanks, that we use for reserve. We utilized only one of those tanks. After 8 hours our monitoring found that the water was safe and we turned those back on. Thankfully we didn’t have to use all of our tanks- we have about four days, I believe, of tanks to use, but we were able to ensure, without causing any panic, without making people believe their water was dangerous when it was not, we were able to ensure water quality and monitor as those chemicals passed through the City of Wheeling. And I don’t know where they are now, I think they may be monitored in the City of Huntington, but these are really life conversations. And I think one of the things that makes it really difficult when a natural disaster occurs is that it requires immediate coordination between multiple government entities. And there are standards in place and practices and things that are triggered regardless of who is there. I’m sure in Ohio they struggled to figure out how to address this. I have family in East Liverpool, OH, so ensuring water quality is really key and the City of Wheeling has quite a top notch water quality system management. I got to tour their facilities about a year ago and was really impressed by the cutting edge systems that we have in place to monitor water quality. So, we’ll continue doing that as we address what is happening from East Palestine, and obviously we’re listening to Governor DeWine and Governor Justice. And I hope in the future this really does change how we address systems. How we react to natural disasters like this, if we can even call it a natural disaster. It feels kind of like an unnatural disaster. And how we hold institutions and corporations accountable for, not just the immediate impacts of something like this but the broader, possibly generational taks that come with this. This is not obviously the first time that water quality has been impacted here in the Ohio Valley. We’re notorious for mining disasters and other chemical spills, but I hope this serves as an unprecedented situation, requiring unprecedented results.
34:16 JH: And it’s worth noting too that in that statement released by the City of Wheeling, they did say that a chemical was detected in the intake, however, it was not detected in the consumer water. And just as you said the city confirmed that the testing is ongoing. The reason I ask you about that is because we witness- and this might have been true for our entire history -a lack of trust in government. According to a 2022 PEW Research Study, only 20% of Americans trust the government “just about always,” or “most of the time.” What role do you think you play as a member of the City Council, in bridging the “trust divide” between elected officials and their constituents?
35:01 RK: I think one of the best ways we can bridge trust is through information and civic engagement. And that’s possibly the hardest thing because there’s so much information, there’s so much misinformation. Everybody is receiving facts from different sources- and I use the word “facts” loosely. I think that obviously stems from people paying close attention to federal and state politics and not close enough attention to local politics. And so they apply the same critical thinking that they do when it comes to the things they hear about the federal government to their local government. And it’s just not the same. I hear all the time, rightfully so, people talk about something that happened 45 years ago to them by either the state government or our city government and they use that as reason why they can’t trust city government today. We have to be thoughtful and we have to affirm people’s experiences because it feels real to them. We also have to say this is the way city government works today, these are the avenues and levers to get involved. Are we always the most accessible city government? Probably not. We need to do better. I think there is always room to grow. We’re always learning how to do better. Frankly, government and bureaucracies are not known for quick change or broad accessibility. I think Wheeling offers that in a way many other governments do not. In part because of our size, we’re a small city of less than 30,000, which offers its own opportunities. Somebody will just knock on my door if they have a question. That doesn’t really happen in much larger cities. I’m really excited as a city council member to be working with our city council and city admin to create more avenues for accessibility and transparency. One of the ways that I am really hopeful to build trust is through our Youth City Council model that we passed and adopted this past year. And essentially it is a city council made of kids at the local level who, not just have a vote about what may happen in our city government, but will be given a budget by our City Manager to take on projects. And at the end of every term that they serve they will offer recommendations to City Council about how we can do our jobs better, how we can better serve kids in our communities, and hopefully offer ideas we didn’t think about. I swear kids will do better city counselors, better elected officials, than most adults who are serving in Congress and our Legislature right now because they don’t succumb to the same biases that we have, and they’ve got big ideas. For them no is a starting point, it’s not a full sentence. And I think that’s really valuable. Not leaning into youth voices is, I think, one of the reasons government is, in so many ways, a mess both nationally and statewide. And,the other thing I’ll say, that builds trust in a real and present way, but it also lends to these really existential conversations of retention and population decline. West Virginia, in 2020 the census discovered that West Virginia had the sharpest population decline of any state in the nation-
38.31 JH: Overwhelmingly so, overwhelmingly.
38:34 RK: Overwhelmingly so. It’s not an accident. It is not a blip on the radar. It is a trend over many, many years that young people say this is not a state for me. Now obviously that number needs- we can extrapolate that young people are not the only part of it obviously, people who’ve passed away, older people, communities that move a lot. All of those members are part of it. But by and large young people say, “I don’t feel like West Virginia reflects my values. I don’t feel like there is a way- a workforce opportunity for me in the state.” Then they decide to leave. And it’s not a problem that young people leave our state, it’s a problem that they don’t return. When they find, whatever in the state, so egregious- politically, culturally, socially, economically -that they cannot see themselves thriving in our state. That’s not okay. And if we can give kids a seat at the table and a checkbook, I think we can make great things happen.
39:32 JH: That’s a great transition into a bit of a conversation about the West Virginia House of Delegates. It feels as if this session has been in the media, on our social media, more than in previous years. We’ve seen a few public hearings as well where a lot of young people have come out to speak in opposition of a few bills [heavy Southern WV accent], obviously in support of others. So, I wanna talk to you about House Bill 2007. It was passed back in the House of Delegates on February 3. It seeks to ban gender affirming surgeries for people under 18 in the state. As far as we know, these procedures are not currently offered to people under 18 in the state. This bill is just one of over two hundred similar bills introduced across the country this year targeting transgender people, drag queens, and access to LGBTQ+ media and resources in schools and libraries. What do you think is driving these bills across the nation?
40:27 RK: Well, I don’t give members of our Legislature enough credit to create their own bills. These are often a copy-and-paste style way of legislating that happens across the country. They look at other state’s that do similarly egregious actions and say, “Let’s take that up in our state.” If you talk to West Virginians this is not a priority. If you talk to allies, LGBTQ people, this is not about protecting kids. If we really want to protect kids we’d fix our abhorrent child welfare system and our ability to serve kids through DHHR. We, I think as a state, cannot afford to go backwards. And this is just one more example- one of many examples -of our state Legislature not listening to young people, not listening to people of faith, not engaging in their communities and asking them what they care about. Moreover, when we talk to young people we find they care about a lot of issues and this is just not one of them. Interestingly enough, in 2017 Williams Institute study found that West Virginia had the largest number of trans kids per capita of anywhere in the nation. That’s also not an accident. We don’t know exactly why that is. We don’t need to know why that is. Just knowing it is enough to know what to do. I think it’s telling that members of our Legislature would rather take this up as a priority because trans kids are the most vulnerable kids in our state. It behooves them to attack people who cannot fight back. I know that we have great folks on the ground working really hard to fight these things back. I’m not confident that we’ll be able to be successful in fighting this back. Even if this does pass we will work very hard to- I think we’re attending lobby day at the Capital this coming Monday (February 20). Members of the Friendlier City Project here in Wheeling are going to drive down to Charleston and talk to our legislators and say we know you care about Wheeling. We know you care about the Northern Panhandle. We know you want us to thrive- this isn’t it. This isn’t it. I hope that our stronger members of the Legislature are strong enough not to be bullied into voting for this, but we’ve seen a member of the Democratic Party vote in favor of [HB] 2007. So I think it’s more complicated than we’re giving it credit for, because the West Virginia Legislature is more complicated in many ways than I wish it were. Yeah, I think that being able to, as a city, make the case that you might not move here because the state is forward thinking, but you can move here because Wheeling is forward thinking, or Huntington has your back, or Morgantown will protect you. We can’t guarantee we will be able to offer medical services to trans kids under 18, we’ll see how this litigation shakes out. I’m sure there will be litigation after this bill passes- if this bill passes. It is, just to reiterate myself, just another example of West Virginia getting it wrong and missing the ball completely. This is a distraction and just not for us.
44:05 JH: And this is a personal issue for you. For those who are unaware when you were elected to the Wheeling City Council back in 2020 you became West Virginia’s first out transgender elected official. You are a transgender woman. In the debate over HB 2007, and bills like it, often, as we’ve pointed out here, children are brought up. And it is said they are too young to make decisions about their gender. Now, it’s also personal for me As a gay man, I take offense to these statements because I knew from a young age I was different from other boys. Even if I didn’t have the word for that at the time. That leads me to ask you a bit of a personal question, but I think it’s important that people know this answer, when did you know you were transgender? When did you think that there was something different about you?
44:59 RK: I think as soon as I could describe what I felt, that is what I described. And, most trans folks will say their parents and their close family knew before they did. That doesn’t happen once, that doesn’t happen twice, that is almost every lived experience of an LGBTQ person that says “I knew immediately.” Even if they didn’t come out. Even if they didn’t tell themselves until they were much older. There was this inherent, for some folks almost indescribable feeling of being different. I think that West Virginia is one of, if not the queerest state in the nation, which is ironic, but maybe not ironic because we are seeing some bigoted folks fight really hard because they see it, I think they know that people feel more comfortable nationally talking about their gender identity and their sexual orientation. They would much rather frame it as some terrible, unethical, egregious thing to talk about your gender identity. It is the human experience. If we do not give kids enough credit to know their own lived experience I don’t know what that says about us. That is some of the most disrespectful things I can imagine. I trust kids to know how they feel and to describe it. I’m so grateful when I was a kid people trusted me to describe it. Had I not had thoughtful adults around me as a kid who said, “we trust you,” I would not be where I am today- I guarantee you. I do know that there are some folks who support [HB] 2007 who just misunderstand it, who are otherwise good people who will make a very bad decision. And it’s because they believe they’re doing the right thing. They believe they’re on the right side of history. If they were willing to do their own due-diligence and talk to folks directly impacted by this they will see it as not black and white. And folks who describe their experience of transitioning, or identifying their own gender identity, will tell you it was immediate. When I could form the words to describe who I was that is what I used. Medical care is not a necessary, but sometimes an inherent part of somebody’s gender transition. Personally I did not undergo any hormonal replacement therapy, or any gender reassignment surgery. That was just not part of my journey. I think in part because I didn’t have access to it. If I could go back in time and be a 14-year-old kid who had access to services I would do it. I would do it. Luckily, I don’t experience gender dysphoria in a life-threatening way, but people do. Kids do. And if we’re willing to talk to people about their mental health. If we’re willing to trust kids to talk about their physical health. And their needs- their emotional needs, physical needs -we need to be willing to have the same conversations about gender identity.
48:17 JH: I just want to quickly, too. Another thing that gets brought up is this idea that adults in queer people’s lives are the ones leading them towards this. Leading them towards being trans or being gay. Again, quickly, in your personal experience were there people around you that- did you know about transgenderr- being transgender because other people were saying it, or because of your own research?
46:42 RK: I mean, you’re absolutely right. It’s fascinating that folks believe that somebody will change their entire life because someone asked them to. Because somebody brought it up in a conversation. I had never heard of the word “transgender” in my life until I was probably 13. I believed I was gay my whole life- that was the only access I had, terminology, language, to describe what I thought I was feeling. When I talk to folks I say me, my mother, and my family grew up watching shows like Will & Grace because they thought well, you know, this must be what it is. And I was like that’s all we have so I must be gay like these characters. It wasn’t until I had access to mental health care, to a therapist, who said here’s what it is. This is actually what this looks like. That unlocked a lot of experiences for me that I probably wouldn’t have access to had I not had the language and terminology. I think that, yes, language is empowering. It’s important to let folks know what the options are because I Wouldn't have known. I would have continue expressing myself as a trangender person without the language. It is dangerous to tell people they cannot say or they cannot describe their lived experience because that is not what Americans do. That is not what people who believe in the U.S. Constitution believe. And I’m sorry to say if that’s what you believe then maybe the United States isn’t your country. Maybe you need to consider living in a country that would much rather hurt people and curb their civil rights because that’s just not what we believe here in the United States. Now, god forbid, we continue down this train of thinking in our state, maybe that is the country we become. That’s not the country I want to live in. That’s not the country I grew up pledging allegiance to. We need to ensure that trans people and trans kids are protected because America should be the one place on the globe that trans people feel welcome and powerful and protected.
51:00 JH: I want you to imagine, and this might be difficult because I’ll ask you to do it briefly, but just imagine all the trans and queer youth in West Virginia are listening to this right now, what would you tell them? What would you tell them? They spoke in front of the legislature, they poured their heart out, they had other people read statements for them because of the fear they had. And they saw themselves- they saw that bill go through. What would you tell them, right now, queer and trans people in West Virginia?
51:32 RK: I would tell them that it might not feel like it but your work is working. The fact that they are bringing these bills up means they are afraid of their future. They are afraid of becoming irrelevant. They’re afraid of their beliefs becoming the minority- and I would argue they already are. These people just happen to have the levers of power, and money. I would tell these folks that I loved being an organizer, I loved being a volunteer, but I was not able to change the conversation as a volunteer or as an organizer. I have been able to change the conversation and change the law as an elected official. It is not an accident that people who run win and then write your laws. If queer people, and allies, and LGBTQ folks, if the people who just believe in the best for West Virginia decide not to run then we’re doing it to ourselves. You know, we’re abandoning a state and allowing the people who believe the worst in us to lead us. That’s not okay. That’s not okay. It’s not hyperbolic to kind of look across the pond at other countries who’ve allowed this to happen. If we imagine West Virginia being a country, in and of itself, what’s happening is dangerous and existential. But not a destiny. I think the thing I’ll say is that if you are interested in being involved, changing the conversation, being on the right side of history you have to run for office.
53:03 JH: And I just have to put out there, anybody in 2019 looking at you running for office as an openly transgender woman. A lot of people would have doubted that you could be here today. And yet here you are in one of the most conservative states sitting on the City Council. Now, Lastly Councilwoman Ketchum, I cannot let you leave here without asking this question. Now, the 2024 election cycle has already started. Beginning the week after the November 2022 general election, multiple candidates have announced their intention to run for US Senate and WV governor. Even more have materialized since then. Your own term is up in 2024, and the City of Wheeling will have its first open mayoral race in eight years now that incumbent Mayor Glenn Elliott is term-limited. Again, I can’t let you go without asking you: What is next for the Rosemary Ketchum campaign?
54:03 RK: That’s a great question! I have never been so grateful to have a job in my life. This has been the most incredible work. As I said at the beginning of this interview we have been able to make a lot of progress in a short amount of time. And, being able to see out that progress is really important to me. I want to ensure the moment we created continues and outlives us as elected officials. You are right, we have an open mayoral seat and that will be, I think, a very vivacious race. There will be multiple candidates I imagine who will run for that. Probably members of City Council. Other folks as well. We are considering it because we believe that we have to double down on what is right and we have to ensure the conversations we’re willing to have don’t end when our term ends. That they continue when our term ends. So, if it’s me I would love that. If it is somebody else who can do this work I would love that too. Whether or not my name is on the ballot for mayor I will make sure that whomever is willing to have tough conversations and serve on the right side of history, they will have my support.
55:10 JH: Now, I understand that as a candidate- or a potential candidate -it’s not wise to make a decision so early because there’s financial reporting and there’s all of these legal processes that go on. So, I hear you, you’re keeping options on the table. Can we maybe speculate how far, when we consider City Council, Mayor- is there consideration for House of Delegates? Is there consideration for the State Senate? I take back the State Senate because you couldn’t actually be elected because we have already a member in the State Senate from Ohio County, but, how far- how many options are on the table?
55:51 RK: That’s a great question! I am not considering the State House. I enjoy my time with our members of the State House. There is no- there is a universe where that is possible. I don’t live in that universe. I’ll be very honest, every time I go to our legislature and just look at the makeup we are in a supermajority. And there are only a handful of supermajority states in the nation. That doesn’t mean that forward thinking candidates cannot win. I think- in Ohio County we have elected Shawn Fluharty and he is an incredible advocate. Monongalia County has elected Del Danielle Walker. It’s possible, but they are the hardest working elected officials in the nation right now because they are under attack, and they have very little ability to really carry the ball for so many things because they are in the super minority. Do I want to be in the super minority? I don’t. I really don’t. But if I see an opportunity and I can make a difference in that happens to mean running for the State House I would consider it. But I think at this point I am really invested in the work of local politics and I do think that the renaissance of democracy that we’re seeing happen across the nation is not happening in statehouses, it just isn’t. And it’s not happening at the federal level either. It is happening in our municipalities. I think that’s where bold change happens. I think that’s where the future is crafted. And our municipalities are the laboratory for democracy. And I do believe had I served in any other office I wouldn’t appreciate local government as much as I do now. So, my heart is with Wheeling.
57:31 JH: Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum of Wheeling’s Third Ward, thank you very much for joining me this evening.
57:36 RK: Thank you
57:42 JH: Thank you so much for listening. If you want to support me and the work I do, please consider sharing this interview with your friends and family. You can find me on Twitter @JusticeHudson97, and you can check out my substack (The Hudson Household Editorial) where you’ll find a written transcript of this interview and other articles I write! See you next time!
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