Herald publisher tapped for Dennard’s vacated council seat
CINCINNATI (Enquirer) - Cincinnati Herald Publisher Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney will replace Tamaya Dennard on Cincinnati City Council.
Since Dennard resigned last week in the wake of her arrest on federal charges that she traded a vote on a development deal for cash, Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld has been searching for a replacement.
Dennard, as the city charter calls for, had previously selected fellow Democrat Sittenfeld to choose her replacement should she not finish her term.
The selection was expected to take weeks, but Kearney immediately rose to the top of the list.
Sittenfeld, at a 4:30 p.m. press conference, cited Kearney's "fundamental kindness and compassion and decency."
"She is simply a lovely person," he said. "I believe than Jan-Michele isn’t just going to thrive in this role, she’s also going to make the rest of us better."
The selection caps a chaotic few weeks at City Hall, which also saw the departure of Republican Councilwoman Amy Murray. Murray left to take a job with the Trump administration. Betsy Sundermann, a Republican from East Price Hill, was selected to take her place.
The selections mean council retains the same demographic balance that citizens chose in 2017 for a four-year term – six men, four white and two black; two women, one black and one white. In the group there are six Democrats, two Republicans and one Independent.
Kearney and Sundermann will finish out four-year terms and be up for reelection in 2021.
The Enquirer talked with Kearney this week about her place atop the shortlist.
She and her husband, Eric Kearney, own Sesh Communications, which publishes the Cincinnati Herald, a Cincinnati newspaper focusing on Cincinnati's black community. It's celebrating its 65th year in business this August.
Eric Kearney is also the president of the Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce.
Kearney said if she got the job she would step down from her role as the newspaper's publisher because it would be impossible to do both jobs well.
"I really want to do a good job and be present (on council)," Kearney said. "I can’t just walk away tomorrow. I will have to transition out of the role.
"I don't want to have any conflicts of interest."
Her selection to council has been a whirlwind. Dennard resigned March 2 and it's not a role Kearney had actively sought. She describes herself as a behind-the-scenes person, not somebody comfortable center stage.
Eric Kearney was an Ohio state senator and once in the running to be lieutenant governor to failed 2014 Democratic Ohio governor candidate Ed FitzGerald. She was always happy to support him and other campaigns.
A preacher's podcast and a politican's book
Two weeks ago, before Dennard's troubles became public, Kearney was listening to an episode of televangelist Joel Osteen's podcast in which he talked about listening to God's message.
Osteen's message, she recounted, was that God doesn't scream at you. It's more a feeling – and people should listen and pay attention, Kearney said.
The next morning, she was reading Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams' book, "Lead from the Outside," to help her mother-in-law prepare for book club, when she came across a chapter about how people, especially women, need to conquer fear and be daring.
Then Dennard got arrested.
On the following Sunday, Kearney was driving home from a meeting when Renee Mahaffey Harris, a friend who worked on Eric Kearney's campaign, and president and CEO of Center for Closing the Health Gap, called and asked Kearney if she would be interested in Dennard's seat, should it come open.
Kearney said she told Harris: "You know that's not me. I don't get out in front."
They got off the phone and Kearney kept driving. She thought about Osteen's message. She thought about Abrams' encouragement to be daring.
So when Kearney got home, she asked her husband what he thought about the offer. He said she should say yes. And so did her 15-year-old son and her 22-year-old daughter.
So she called Mahaffey back and changed her answer to yes.
"I told her if I was chosen, I would work hard for citizens," Kearney said.
Kearney grew up in Avondale, two blocks from the zoo. She went to Rockdale Academy and Walnut Hills High School. From there she went on to Dartmouth College, where she spent her senior year as an exchange student at Talladega College in Alabama and graduated cum laude. She graduated Harvard Law School in 1981.
She returned home, where she took a job at the Taft Stettinius & Hollister law firm. Eric Kearney, who is also a lawyer, spotted her in court one day and hung around long enough after his own case to learn Kearney's name. Then called her at work and asked her out.
She said no, but a mutual attorney friend, Ken Lawson, encouraged her to accept.
They got married in 1995 and that same year the Kearneys, along with two friends, started Sesh Media. Sesh, in ancient Egyptian, means "scribe." They started with a monthly publication, called "News, Information and Pictures," published in six cities.
"I would work my day job, then come home at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. and work on NIP, sometimes until the sun came up," Kearney said.
The following year the Herald, started by Gerald Porter and later run by his wife, Marjorie Parham, came on the market. The Kearneys added it to their media portfolio.
The Herald, a weekly publication then and now, was a larger task and Kearney quit her job at Taft to become publisher.
"It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s really important," Kearney sald. "We try and make sure it's a forum of many voices in the black community."
She points to the first black newspaper, the Freedom Journal, first published in 1927, as the template for the Cincinnati Herald.
"It was a means of advocating for ourselves, telling the good news too," Kearney said.
There's a section chronicling graduations and promotions. And opinion pages, too.
"It’s fun and I really love it," Kearney said. "I've met a lot of people. It’s a labor of love."
The newspaper as a business was thrust into the spotlight in 2013 when Eric Kearney was running for Ohio lieutenant governor. The publishing industry as a whole was suffering; Sesh owed taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.
Media reports put the debt at almost $1 million. Kearney said it wasn't that high.
It's all paid back, court records show and Kearney herself verified. In fact, at the time of the governor's race, the company was already five years into a payment plan to the IRS, she said.
What happened, Kearney said, is the story of a lot of small businesses – the company struggled with cash flow. There wasn't enough money to make payroll and pay withholding taxes, so they chose to pay employees and keep the paper afloat, Kearney said. There was also a 2002 employee theft of $25,298 the company had to deal with.
"We got behind," she said.
Kearney now publicly talks about her experience running a small business.
"You can’t run from debt, you have to make a plan," Kearney said. "We did that. My message is really a story about survival. You have to keep going."
College: Dartmouth, graduated 1978; Harvard Law School, graduated 1991. She worked in Paris between college and law school.
Famous friend: She was in President Barack Obama's Law School class and they were friends. She was invited to his wedding and he sent her a postcard that she still has wishing her good luck on the bar exam. But they're not so close she has his cell phone number.
Family: Married to Eric Kearney, president of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce; kids
Neighborhood: North Avondale
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