West Virginia’s First Trans Lawmaker On Why Local Elections Matter

Supermajority Education Fund

October 14, 2020

After working for five years as a community organizer in Wheeling, West Virginia, 26-year-old Rosemary Ketchum grew frustrated with her local government leaders. She had fought for change on issues like poverty, healthcare, campaign finance, and the LGTBQ community, and worked with organizations like the ACLU of West Virginia and the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. 

“We had plans and could talk for days about how we could solve these things,” Ketchum says of herself and her fellow organizers. “The real obstacles were the elected officials we had to inevitably convince to take on our policy positions.” 

Undeterred by the status quo, Ketchum decided to take a new approach. “I thought, ‘If I can’t convince them, it’s probably easier to just replace them and run for office myself,’” Ketchum recalls. And that’s exactly what she did — to great success. On June 9, 2020, Ketchum was elected to represent Ward 3 on the Wheeling City Council. She became the first transgender elected official in West Virginia, and one of only 27 openly transgender elected officials across the United States. 

Supermajority News recently spoke with Ketchum about the importance of local politics and how to get involved. 

Local elections historically have lower voter turnout than state and national races. Why do you think this is, and what can be done to change it?

So much of our political investment is only in the top tier level of politics. Federal and state positions are critical, and we should be paying attention to them, but not at the sacrifice of municipal politics, which are some of the most important races in our communities.

Your mayor and your city council can make a decision on a Monday, and by Friday, you can see it happening. It’s such a direct form of democracy, but it’s not as sexy as presidential politics, so it doesn’t get the same airtime. We have an opportunity, particularly in a more rural place like Wheeling, West Virginia, to lead our state in progressive, inclusive, and thoughtful politics. We have that obligation, and in many ways, we have untapped power to be able to do that.

Breonna Taylor’s case has put a spotlight on local politics as it pertains to law enforcement. What can be done on countywide and citywide levels to make the justice system more just for Black Americans?

Each municipality has somewhat different power structures, but they all have the administrative authority to dictate the budgetary implications of their law enforcement. Here in the city of Wheeling, we are having conversations about what it looks like to reimagine law enforcement and protect our communities. Training our law enforcement in mental health first aid, racial justice, and implicit bias is essential. I hope we are seeing a nationwide political shift toward more community-based policing, as opposed to the militarization of law enforcement that we’ve seen propagate throughout the country in a very frightening way.

Has your own experience as a member of a marginalized group impacted the way you approach political decision-making?

It has allowed me to recognize the intersectionality of what it means to be vulnerable. I’m a trans person who grew up in poverty, and a large percentage of West Virginians live in a perpetual state of poverty. [In 2018, West Virginia reported the fourth highest poverty rate in the U.S., with 17.8% of residents living below the poverty line.] Those two lived experiences really influence the way that I approach the work on city council. How are we able to be as inclusive as possible?

To be a trans person in local government in rural America is a fascinating multi-layered experience. For people connected to the LGBTQ community, the symbolic nature of having a trans elected official represent them is powerful. And for the folks that might be antagonistic toward the LGBTQ community, they still have to call me if they have a pothole. I know that I’ve had conversations with people who really probably don’t like me personally, or at least don’t like what I represent. We’re still able to have a thoughtful and courteous conversation, and that is what I wish and expect out of the rest of my political career.

What’s the best way for someone to stay informed about the issues affecting their community? 

I would first say meet your representatives. It is their job to talk to you and meet with you, so set up a Zoom call or call them on the phone. You’d be surprised how accessible some of your elected officials are. 

Most council meetings are open for community discussion, so you can attend (even on Zoom) and talk about something that matters to you. As a current elected official, I can tell you that the pedestal the community speaks from is the most powerful position in the room. If you’re able to talk to your elected officials and put some public pressure on them, that is incredibly powerful. If you really want answers, you have to ask. 

What would you say to someone interested in running for local government?

I volunteered for a congressional campaign and a gubernatorial campaign prior to my decision to run, and that was really integral. That will help you decide whether you want to be the person who runs or someone else on the campaign. Running for office, while I recommend it, it might not be for everybody. It takes all of you, but it is the most valuable experience I’ve ever had. 

If you’re a member of a vulnerable community, find organizations that help support vulnerable candidates. One of the most influential organizations that helped me was the Victory Fund, a political action committee that looks to support LGBTQ candidates, both financially and with the “how-to” questions.

Unfortunately, politics has been made incredibly hard to get into because the laws are written to be complicated, particularly campaign finance laws. If a layman or non-lawyer wants to run, it’s difficult to even get started. Find that support system, and find somebody who has run before to ask them what it was like. You’ve got to do the research. That’s what I’ve learned most, and that’s what I think helped me win.