In May, Youngstown resident and city planner Tom Hetrick won the Democratic primary for President of City Council, becoming the first out gay male candidate to win an election in the city’s history.
The primary was most certainly…atypical.
Just three months prior to election day, the local board of elections announced that no names would appear on the ballot, because the incumbent had not collected enough valid signatures by the deadline. As a result, voters had to actually write in the name of their desired candidate.
In addition to the incumbent, several people jumped into the race as write-in candidates, but after winning nearly a majority of votes in the May primary, it’s Hetrick who will proceed as the Democratic candidate against two Independents in the general election this November (all of whom will be named on this ballot). If elected, Hetrick will reach another milestone for LGBTQ+ representation in Ohio, becoming the first out gay man elected to city office in Youngstown.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with the candidate about life in Youngstown and how his work in the community inspired his leap into local politics.
This was your first run for city office. What inspired you to run in this primary, and why now?
TH: I’ve been a city planner for Youngstown for almost a decade. As a Neighborhood Planner for the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, I’ve worked with neighborhood residents all over the city. We’d go one neighborhood at a time, creating a plan for that neighborhood to improve the conditions of housing, parks, playgrounds, and things like that.
I got to know a lot of people from all over the city and form relationships, but also got to hear firsthand about a lot of the issues they’re facing. I didn’t want to just sit on that information. That’s part of what motivated me to get into local politics. The write-in situation was the spark that made it all happen.
What are some of those issues that you heard about from the community and how have they influenced your platform?
I ended up with a four-piece platform completely informed by things I’d heard over the years, over and over, from residents – the first one being housing. In Youngstown, we have lost a lot of our population, so we were dealing with vacant houses for a long time. As we’ve gotten that under control, there have been problems with rental properties and nuisance properties, but also affordability challenges; a lot of folks are living on fixed incomes in Youngstown, many in 100-year-old houses that they can’t afford to maintain, so it creates real hardship for folks.
Community safety is another important piece, making sure people feel safe walking around their neighborhoods, as well as improving the conditions of our parks and playgrounds, to have safe places for our youth to hang out, socialize, and get physical activity. Access to healthy food is the other major piece of the platform. Much of Youngstown is classified as a food desert, so our residents don’t have easy access to affordable, healthy foods that they need.
Voter turnout in Youngstown is very low. What can candidates do to get more people to the polls?
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to engage what I would call a sporadic voter. I think what a lot of candidates do – and I was guilty of this myself, though I’ll give myself the excuse in that it was a relatively short [3-month] campaign season for the primary – is we end up going after the most reliable voters. We use data to try to figure out who is most likely to come to the polls. As a result, we end up chasing just a very narrow group of very reliable voters, but I don’t see a whole lot of work being done to engage voters who may not come out every year to vote, but they’re registered. I think that’s one thing that really should be done and that I hope I have the resources to be able to do leading up to November and in future campaigns.
What’s your experience been living in Youngstown?
I really do love Youngstown. There are so many interesting things here to do. The summer church festival season is probably one of my favorite parts of living here; getting to learn about another culture for the weekend, their churches, their beliefs, their food, their art.
There’s also a certain grit and determination here. I don’t like to use the phrase pull yourself up by the bootstraps, but we kind of have to. No one is coming to save us or to lift the city up. The responsibility is ours. In terms of the LGBTQ+ community, too, it’s very vibrant; there’s a lot going on, from theater shows to events at the bars to the Pride parade.
As an out gay man, what would your election to council president mean to you in terms of representation in the community?
I keep coming back to some statistics I’ve seen, both nationally and locally, which show that many of the issues facing LGBTQ+ youth or young adults are some of the very issues that affect most people in Youngstown: lack of affordable and quality housing, homelessness, even things like food insecurity. For example, I’ve seen a statistic that LGBTQ+ youth are far more likely to be food insecure than the general population, which surprised and saddened me, but also made clear that many of the same things we need to work on for the city are things that very much affect the LGBTQ+ community here, as well.