Women In Government: A conversation between Stacey DeGraffenreid and Alicia Reece
More women are running for and winning elected office in the Tri-State. Hamilton County specifically has the most women in elected offices than any other of Ohio's 88 counties, with women holding seats in 8 of 11 offices. Women also make up half of the judicial seats in the county.
WVXU is bringing some of them together for conversations about public service across the political spectrum in our Women In Government series.
In this installment, we hear from Hamilton County Commission President Alicia Reece and Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Juvenile Division Judge Stacey DeGraffenreid.
Reece, a Democrat, has served on Cincinnati City Council, the Ohio House of Representatives, and is serving her first term with the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. Along with Denise Driehaus and Stephanie Summerow-Dumas, Reece is part of the first all-women Board of Commissioners.
DeGraffenreid is serving her first term in any elected office. Prior to winning the election in November 2022, where she ran as a Republican, she worked in the Juvenile Division of the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office, practiced law in municipal and juvenile court, and worked with juveniles in the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office.
Here, Reece and DeGraffenreid talk about their shared history with athletics, women who have mentored them and more.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
ALICIA REECE: One of the things I think people don't know about us is that the two of us were on the first AAU girls basketball team in Cincinnati, Ohio, history. We played against Wilma Rudolph — the great Wilma Rudolph — and we won against her basketball team. So, I just wanted to highlight that we go way back.
STACEY DEGRAFFENREID: Yes, those were some fun times. So let me lead off with a question: How do you think that your career and athletics have helped your current positions or prior positions?
REECE: I think back then our thing was we thought we should be equal to the boys teams, and we were very competitive. I think it helped us in terms of leadership, practice and preparation. It also gave us a chance to be on a platform with other women, other girls, around the country. I think, for me, it really just said, "Hey, we can do anything (if) we put our minds to it." Women that play sports, I think, are just very good leaders.
REECE: What made you go into this field of criminal justice and law?
DEGRAFFENREID: I was fortunate enough to have a strong mother, a strong female figure in my life, who encouraged me and said, "Hey, if that's what you want to do, you just should go back to school and do it." I didn't go to law school until later. It's been a great journey. I had an opportunity to work in the Fortune 500 companies and different things prior, so I think that helps me in my current position because it gives me some other real world experiences aside from just the law. Also the sports background, as you said, it teaches you to win and to lose. Even when you think that you're right and the judge is wrong, you have to remember the judge gets the last vote. That was a good thing that I learned in my prior career is that the rulings stand and you have to move on. I think my athletic career helped with that, too.
I was wondering, what do you think some of the barriers (to) entry could be to other women into holding (office), specifically, maybe like the City Council or the House of Representatives where it's such a short term of office?
REECE: Running every two years, it is tough — you've got to raise money, but I liked it a little bit because we were closer to the people, you had to answer back to them quicker. I just tried to say "Stay ready so you don't have to get ready." I will say one thing that was different, as a little tidbit — and this is why it's good to have women in positions and mentors — I had a run in my stocking my first year as a council member and I didn't know what to do. I couldn't get to the store. It was former vice mayor, the late Minette Cooper that said "Come in here." She had a drawer, and she already had like all these different female things that we would need. So it prepared me like OK, I need to do more than just read what's going to be on the docket; I've got to be ready for it.
So, I want to ask you the question of mentors, women mentors. Was there anybody that helped you navigate?
DEGRAFFENREID: Probably the one that I remember the most was Judge (Melba) Marsh. She's a great mentor — not telling you what to do, but kind of guides you. With her career ... being the first Black female judge here in Hamilton County, I mean, just watching her, listening to her in her courtroom, she's just been such a great mentor.
(Also) my office was next door to Judge Megan Shanahan. When she was a prosecutor, she was a fireball, and now as a judge, she's been great. So, definitely those two — there's lots of other women too — but those specifically. The number of women has just increased, it's so great to see. I'm so glad that the legal field has really embraced women and that there are just so many more.
REECE: Yeah, that's huge.
DEGRAFFENREID: Yes. So why do you think that it matters that there are more women in political office?
REECE: Like you said, it has evolved where women are coming from the back seat who have been the backbone and saying, "Well, I can do this." What we're seeing now is more women recruiting other women. I think it's so important because we are just get-it-done type of people. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get things done. We always try to ... we're up all night. ... I just think it's so great to have women at all different levels. I have one niece who actually ran for the school judge; she wanted to be a judge. I said, "You know your auntie is on the legislative side. Why don't you go there?" She says, "Because I want to hit the gavel and know it's the law." But she can look to you and look to other people and we have them in different areas, not just in politics, it needs to also be in the corporate world as well.
I would love to know ... you were a prosecutor and you were the public defender, so you were on both sides, and now you're a judge with juvenile (court)... Particularly growing up, you've been in basketball, you've been very active in Princeton (City Schools), how does that help you in the juvenile court?
DEGRAFFENREID: I think there's so many diverse people who come before you, and I hope to think that drawing on my past and I'm able to look at each individual individually and their circumstances and their situation, and I try to make the best decision that will help them. Juvenile court is a little different in that rehabilitation is the number one goal, so we try to make a plan and ... figure out a way that their future can be brighter than it is at this time. Obviously, we have to take the victims into consideration, so there's a lot of different sides to look at.
REECE: A follow up to that, you're also are a mom...
REECE: ... and that's the other thing you bring, you're a mother. So will you talk about women bringing those kinds of things to the table as well?
DEGRAFFENREID: Right, and even since the pandemic, I really do feel like children today, (their) approaches are different and I think that the fact that I'm able to have a teenager; that gives me a different perspective. When I look at that individual, I can understand a little bit more from seeing my daughter and her friends to then apply to the cases. They're also such different personalities, that that is something that I'm able to apply every day.
Have you ever been the only woman in the room when decisions were being made, and what was that like?
REECE: Yeah, that's actually most of my career. Sometimes, as women, when we go into the room, we have to go in and establish ourselves, and it's hard for me because we've been athletes. So, we come in (and) we're like, you know, "Who is the best player?" It's not about a woman or a man, I'm the best in the room or you're the best. And ... I really draw on the basketball to give me the confidence, even though I may be the only woman in the room. I do it so that the next woman coming in the room won't be challenged the way maybe I was challenged.
DEGRAFFENREID: Well, thank you so much for being here today. It was so nice to meet and talk to you about our good old days on the basketball court. We'll have to dust off our shoes, maybe?
REECE: Yeah, we're going to get our knees back or something. We have to show your daughter (and) my niece that we were doing some things back in the day.
DEGRAFFENREID: That's right.
REECE: This has been great. Thanks for having us.