CHRIS SEELBACH: GETTING PAST GAY
He’s here. He’s queer. You’re used to it. Now Chris Seelbach wants you to consider his whole résumé.
By Jim DeBrosse – August 27, 2015
It’s been a busy May Saturday for City Councilmember Chris Seelbach. It started with a flurry of early morning calls to colleagues to help thwart the resignation of Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell. On little sleep, he heads to Weaver Field in the West End to proclaim “West End Reds Day” in honor of the businesses and GoFundMe donors who saved the inner-city youth baseball team. From there, he zips over to Findlay Market, inching his Smart car into a “cheater” space on Race Street between a No Parking sign and the loose bumper of a Toyota. He strides past the outdoor vendors until a woman selling custom jewelry stops him. “You’ve been kicking butt on city council,” she says. “I want you to know, as a citizen, I appreciate that.”
Seelbach breaks into his big altar boy smile before making his way to the beer garden on Elm Street, where he buys a Moerlein Helles and drops a tip for the ALS fund-raiser that he’s there to support. A few sips later, another woman, Mary Thomas of the West End, walks up and gives his 6-foot frame a hug. “I just wanted to thank you again,” Thomas says. Three months before, her friend from Northern Kentucky was visiting OTR when rowdies in a passing car tossed a drink at her and shouted insults. Seelbach heard about the incident and called her friend to apologize. “It was a small thing [to call],” Thomas says. “But it was a big thing to her.”
Seelbach, the city’s first openly gay councilmember and at 35 one of its youngest, has garnered national attention as an advocate for issues dear to the LGBTQ community, and he’s proud to have played a role in transforming the city’s reputation when it comes to matters of sexual orientation. But he’d like to be known as more than just the “one-trick pony” that his staunchest critics make him out to be. He has pushed for labor rights in a city dominated by Blue Chip corporations and championed controversial needle exchange programs in the face of the area’s unprecedented heroin problem. But his attachment to urban quality-of-life projects such as the streetcar hasn’t endeared him to a certain segment of Cincinnati voters. Neither has his active enmity toward his one-time Democratic ally, Mayor John Cranley.
If he aspires to higher office—and he does—Seelbach needs to make “first openly gay councilmember” a chapter in his political career, not the whole story. Meanwhile, there are the wide-ranging daily duties of a city councilmember.
Before Seelbach can finish his Moerlein, he’s buttonholed by a market employee: there’s a Bob Dylan wannabe performing under a stage tarp that may soon be blowin’ in the wind. Seelbach snaps an iPhone picture of the flapping menace and whisks it off with a note to alert the assistant city manager.
Because maybe the untethered tent is a genuine danger. Or maybe his call is just a CYA move. Either way, it’s part of the job.
To find a Seelbach detractor you could follow the trail of city hall showdowns to Mary Kuhl. The 54-year-old Westwood community activist sees Seelbach’s passion for the urban core as pandering to hipster voters.
“If you live downtown or you’re one of the urban twixsters with skinny jeans and big black glasses, you probably think he’s doing a great job,” Kuhl says. “But the wake-up call comes from the middle-class, blue collar, traditional communities.” Kuhl insists that she’s not talking about “traditional” in the sense of two-parent, male-female households. “I mean like you live in a normal family environment with a yard, a house, and some kids. Your reality is not the reality of the urban twixster and their skinny jeans.”
Kuhl blasts Seelbach for backing the “streetcar to nowhere” project and urban core development in general, and for taking the time to address on the city council floor the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, the transgender youth who “with his 16-year-old brain thought the only way he could solve his problem was to step…in front of a semi,” Kuhl says. “Meanwhile, my part of town and others like it are under siege from crime and low-income housing and lack of city services.”
Seelbach, now in his second term in office, has heard this sort of complaint so many times from his critics that he is beyond rolling his eyes. Instead, he ticks off a list of diverse accomplishments where he led the way. Like balancing the budget without laying off police or firefighters; tracking veterans’ employment in city contracts to help them land jobs; increasing funding to human services; investing in homeless shelters. For west-siders in particular, he says he cast the deciding vote for the new Westwood police station, and backed $4.2 million in spending for the new Warsaw Federal Incline Theater and recreation center in Price Hill and $500,000 for renovating Westwood’s historic business district.
Seelbach doesn’t apologize for supporting urban redevelopment. On the contrary, he argues that the $148 million streetcar project and other amenities he has pushed for—commuter bikes, 24-hour Portland Loo toilets, pay station parking—ultimately benefit outlying neighborhoods.
“Unless you have a healthy core, the rest of the apple doesn’t matter,” he says. He traces the transformation in the city from the $90 million GE building at The Banks to the $9 million Taft’s Ale House in Over-the-Rhine. “Over-the-Rhine was one of the most unsafe, undesirable, and unsightly places in the country,” Seelbach says. “We had to transform it. We know now how to change one neighborhood and we’re trying to do that in other neighborhoods as well, including the west side.”
As for safety concerns, he says that almost 80 percent of the city’s revenue for police protection and other neighborhood services comes from the city income tax. “And most of that income is coming from jobs in either downtown or uptown,” he notes. “If you’re worried about your police officers on the west side, you ought to be worried as well by what’s driving the tax revenues.”
All that said, he is an urbanist. He lives in Over-the-Rhine and he’s a millennial, so—skinny jeans or not—he fits Kuhl’s description. And if he wants to be more than the face of Cincinnati’s urban young professionals, he will have to prove himself an effective leader to the Mary Kuhls of Ohio, says Mark Caleb Smith, director of Cedarville University’s Center for Political Studies. “At some point, being openly gay will no longer be an issue,” Smith contends. “But long-term, the most important factor is still whether this person is perceived as a good politician and a good leader.”
Is Seelbach a good leader or a bad leader? You’re more likely to say “bad” if you live on the city’s more Catholic, more conservative, more neglected west side. The irony is that Seelbach grew up middle class and Catholic in a “traditional community” very much like the one Kuhl describes. The main difference being that he grew up gay.
In 1984, Steve and Judy Seelbach, who had met via CB radio, moved into a house in the post-war neighborhood of Pleasure Ridge Park in Louisville with then 4-year-old Christopher. Judy was working at a bank and Steve was starting in the construction equipment rental business. Louisville’s historic Seelbach Hotel was founded by his great-great uncles; his own family wasn’t part of the windfall when Sheraton bought the hotel in 1956.
Chris attended Catholic schools, graduating from that city’s St. Xavier High School. He went to Mass every Sunday, volunteered in soup kitchens, and went on religious retreats. It was a cozy world where service to others was a central part of faith, and where God was “this person who was all about love and loving other people,” he says. “And I was happy knowing in my heart that I was trying to live up to those standards.”
Judy Seelbach says her son was an “easy kid,” albeit with an independent streak and a weakness for bringing home stray dogs. Seelbach describes himself as an average student and a mediocre athlete, although his father insists he shined in high school volleyball. In preschool, after a teacher told him that meat came from killing animals, Seelbach became a vegetarian and has been one ever since.
His parents got their first inkling he was gay when the friends they had never met before showed up for his graduation party. When Judy and Steve asked him outright the day after, he gave them an honest answer. Their response—pleas for counseling and “corrective” treatment—led to more than a decade of strained relations. “We didn’t understand it,” says his father. “Judy and I have always been the type of people who fix things. We thought we could fix that.”
The pain of those years became “the propelling force for what I would become,” their son says. “I could either take my life into my own hands and make something of myself, or wallow in my self-pity. I was determined from then on to fight for the underdog.”
In 1998, Seelbach enrolled at Xavier University, where he formed the school’s first gay-straight alliance. He followed his degree in business administration with law school at the University of Dayton, juggling classes, a clerkship, and an internship on the staff of then-Vice Mayor David Crowley. The first time Crowley saw Seelbach speak as a student at Xavier University, “he leaned to me and said, ‘I really like this young man,’” says his widow Sherri Crowley. “He was so sure he was going to make the world a better place for people.”
Before his death in January 2011, Crowley asked his wife to do all she could to help Seelbach’s campaign. She stumped for him that fall, donated money, and made a political ad for him—support that was no doubt crucial in Seelbach’s winning the ninth and last spot for city council that year.
Seelbach’s six and half years as chief financial officer and head of the political consulting unit for The Seidewitz Group, a Cincinnati marketing and branding firm, helped groom him for city council. “People don’t understand that probably 80 percent of what you do on city council is dealing with the budget,” says the firm’s founder, Scott Seidewitz. “We really helped Chris in an area where he has excelled on council.”
His entrance into civic life has coincided with the city’s remarkable decade-long transition from one of the worst ratings to a perfect score last year from the Human Rights Campaign, a group promoting the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender groups. Seelbach had a personal hand in making it so, leading efforts to extend city health benefits to gay couples, creating a domestic partner registry and an LGBT liaison to city government, and requiring city contractors to adhere to the city’s non-discriminatory policies.
National accolades have followed. In 2013, the White House awarded Seelbach the Harvey Milk Champion of Change award. In 2014 he was one of seven Bohnett Fellows chosen to study at the Harvard Kennedy School. And recently he was named “Elected Official of the Year” by the National Association of Social Workers. In January, after Leelah Alcorn’s suicide, he helped spark a national conversation on the challenges faced by transgender youth. His emotional speech about Alcorn on the council floor was quoted by the The New York Times, Huffington Post, PBS, and others.
Seelbach’s parents have come around, too. His 30th birthday party was his parents’ “light bulb moment,” Seelbach says. With Steve and Judy there, together with his partner Craig Schultz, Chris asked each of his friends to tell a story about how they knew him. “It was the 16 people closest to us, ages 25 to 88,” he says. “Half gay, half straight, from all different backgrounds.”
What his parents heard that night thawed their hearts. “When I met the people he surrounded himself with—very good people, gay and not gay, and all of them truly valuing Chris in their lives—that really helped turn us around,” his father says. Steve and Judy no longer introduce Craig Schultz as just “Craig” but as their son’s partner. “We just made a decision to make it work for all of us.”
Seelbach and Schultz have been together since 2005. Marriage is definitely in their future, Seelbach says. Schultz—at 47, 12 years Seelbach’s senior—is the more laid-back of the two. While Seelbach tools around town in his Smart car on official business, Schultz tends to his businesses (he’s a landscaper and a salesman for a startup) in an aging Chevy Silverado.
“Craig is such a good balance for him,” says Pope Coleman, 88, former interim director of the Contemporary Arts Center and long-time community volunteer. Coleman and his artist wife Constance became close friends of both men after Schultz began doing their landscaping. “Craig keeps Chris under control so he doesn’t get over-excited [about issues.] He reminds him that he’s a public figure, and as a public figure, everybody is watching.”
Seelbach learned that lesson the hard way. In July 2012, he reported in a late-night 911 call that he had been assaulted outside a downtown bar—telling the dispatcher four times that he was a city council member. He took a beating on talk radio and on social media, especially by members of the anti-tax group COAST, for trying to elicit special treatment. “I wish I hadn’t [done it], but I’m not perfect,” Seelbach says.
But Seelbach is not apologizing for what his critics are calling his biggest political blunder: the Responsible Bidder Ordinance—a city law that would have required larger contractors who wanted a share of the $2 billion that the city and county will spend upgrading the sewer system to hire local residents and provide job training. When Seelbach proposed the RBO in 2012, “everyone was talking about only two things back then—jobs and job training,” Seelbach says. “What I realized is that we have this $2 billion project [and] we have to make sure these jobs not only go to people in this region but that they get the training so that they have the skills to get other jobs—pipefitters, electricians, welders, you name it.”
The RBO infuriated the non-union construction industry, the two Republicans on the Hamilton County Commission, and the conservative wags on talk radio and at The Cincinnati Enquirer. The law was roundly criticized as being a costly gimme to the unions, since most unionized construction firms have apprenticeship programs already in place, and Seelbach was accused of being a puppet of organized labor. Several contractors sued the city, and a lower court struck down the law on the grounds that the county, not the city, sets the bidding rules for sewer contracts.
Seelbach says furthering economic equality is part of his political agenda. “If you’re a member of a wealthy corporation, you’re moved to the front of the line in City Hall,” he says. “But if you’re a low-income person struggling to survive, you can’t even get in line. These are the people I want to work for.”
Politically, Seelbach’s next step depends a lot on how things shape up for the 2017 mayoral race. The animosity between Seelbach and Cranley stops just short of council chamber doors. Seelbach says the air has been particularly frosty since August 2014, when Cranley got ticked off by Seelbach’s comments about him in a story in this magazine. (Cranley declined to comment for this story.)
Their battle lines have been drawn primarily over the streetcar project, but there is a deep personality conflict between the two, both of whom are being considered for statewide office. Seelbach says he can work with everyone else on council regardless of political differences. As evidence he mentions Republican Amy Murray, with whom he has forged an alliance on several issues. In December, the two approached Cranley with a proposal to forgive parking fines in exchange for donations to the Freestore. Cranley exploded at them, “screaming at us and telling us we were horrible people to even think of the idea,” Seelbach says. “This is something that happens every day with him.” (Murray, through her chief of staff, David Miller, said she would describe the meeting with Cranley as “a lively discussion.”)
Seelbach says he has been asked by several African-American Democrats considering runs for mayor in 2017 to partner with them on council if they can unseat Cranley. Even so, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of a statewide run in 2018. David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, would be happy to see him make the leap to a “down-ballot” office like secretary of state. “We’ve got a strong field of progressive officeholders, and he’s one of the stars,” he says.
And his sexual orientation? “I think when Chris tells his own story, it inspires people,” Pepper says. “It’s a real strength, especially when he’s been a leader on so many issues of social equality.”
Pope Coleman, whose friendship with Seelbach cuts across three generations, compares him to Ronald Reagan. “He was born lucky, just like Reagan,” Coleman says. “Yes, he’s smart, he’s charming, he’s open to new things. And he’s as clean as any politician can possibly be. But I think even more important, he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Ten years ago, if you told people where Cincinnati would stand on gay rights today, they would have said you were nuts. Ten years from now, who knows how far Chris will go?”