Ketchum, who made history as state’s first openly transgender elected official, to run for mayor

By: - October 2, 2023 6:00 am

Rosemary Ketchum, 3rd Ward Council member representative of Wheeling, announced recently her campaign for mayor of the West Virginia city. (Rosemary Ketchum | Courtesy photo)

When she was elected to Wheeling City Council in 2020, Rosemary Ketchum made history as the first openly transgender woman to hold public office in West Virginia. 

Ketchum announced recently she’ll run to be the city’s mayor in 2024. If successful, she’d become the state’s first openly transgender mayor.  As governments in the state continue to pass legislation targeting LGBTQ+ people, Ketchum said being part of that community in West Virginia can feel like living on Mars. 

“It feels very uninhabitable in many ways,” Ketchum said. “And I have a lot of LGBTQ friends and family who live across the state of West Virginia and they’re worried. 

“They feel like West Virginia exists in two worlds: the world that is their hometown that they love, and you want to stay in, and then the world that exists in Charleston, in that Legislature that feels really dangerous, and combative, and aggressive, frankly, adversarial,” Ketchum said. 

Since she was elected to Wheeling City Council in 2020, the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law banning gender-affirming care for teens and another that prohibited transgender student athletes from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. The city of Hurricane recently became the third local government in the state to enact a ban on children attending “adult live performances,” legislation meant to limit drag shows. 

“In my city council capacity, I have really had to field a lot of concerns from people who say, ‘Rosemary, I love the work that you’re doing, but is it enough? Should we stay in the state? Are we safe here?’ And I love the work that I do. I feel safe, and I feel effective in my work. But I also feel compelled to call out the work that’s happening in Charleston that is not just anti-LGBTQ, it’s anti-West Virginia,” Ketchum said. “And we need to make sure that we’re doubling down on that as cities. And we’ve been able to do that in many ways.”

In a statement, Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said Ketchum’s election to council was an historic milestone for the state and that he’s proud she’s running for mayor. 

“At a time when extremist politicians across the country are peddling misinformation and conspiracies about the LGBTQ+ community, Rosemary has been a steadfast leader,” Schneider said. “She’s an incredible role model who has shown young people that they can be effective leaders no matter their gender identity. After she was elected, Rosemary rolled up her sleeves and got to work on the issues that matter most to her constituents. And that’s exactly what she will continue to do as mayor.”

While Ketchum said she’s not running only to make history, she’s also excited her campaign may inspire the people hoping to make changes in West Virginia. 

“It does build some momentum and some inspiration for folks who say ‘People believe some really strange things about our state, but we’re looking to change the narrative and say that West Virginia is a place for people who can embrace their differences and people who really believe that you can start a family here and start a small business here and be successful,’” she said.

“That’s the kind of campaign that we’re interested in running,” Ketchum said.  “And that’s the kind of mayor that I’m interested in becoming.”

In her time on council, Ketchum points to accomplishments that include creating a city homelessness liaison coordinator, restarting the city’s Centre Market Commission, a guiding body for small businesses, and expanding public transit hours and routes in the city. 

The city has also taken steps to address social problems like becoming the first and only West Virginia city to declare racism a public health crisis, a move that stemmed from disparities that were magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Wheeling also passed an ordinance that bans conversion therapy and the Crown Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race-based hairstyles. 

If elected mayor, Ketchum said she wants to work on getting state and federal resources to continue addressing homelessness, including opioid addiction and behavioral health resources.

“I am committed to working with our state and federal partners to ensure that Wheeling is part of the resources that they’re able to disperse and have really in-depth conversations about how we actually address homelessness in a wraparound and holistic way,” Ketchum said. “Because by and large, we address [homelessness] in two ways [as] it is either a moral crime, or it is a legal crime to be homeless. And I think we can expand the work that we’re doing in order to not only protect the folks who are homeless, in our communities, but also improve the quality of life for everyone.”

Ketchum said she also wants to focus on economic development. The city has “incredible historic building stock,” she said, but developing those buildings can be a challenge. 

“One of the things that we’re interested in is re-hauling our Community and Economic Development Development Department to ensure that when somebody wants to start a small business or wants to develop a building in our city, that it is easier than any other city in the state of West Virginia,” Ketchum said, “And right now, that might not be true.”

As the state’s population continues to decline, Ketchum said she also wants to focus on retaining youth in the city. The city created a youth city council, but hasn’t been able to fill those seats, she said. 

“That’s something I want to be able to do as mayor and engage with our school systems to ensure that if a kid wants to get involved and be part of their community, Wheeling is the best place for that to happen,” she said. “Because ultimately 50 years down the line, if we continue on this population decline, there will be no mayors, there will be no city councils, there will be no work to do because there will be no people to serve. And I think it’s really important as we continue to do this work that that is top of mind.”

Ketchum said she sees the state’s population decline as a mandate to do something different.

“If Wheeling is anything, Wheeling is different,” she said. “And so the people who are a part of this campaign, and as we begin our canvassing efforts, I’m excited to learn how we only can only lean into our differences, and make sure that we’re building a city for everyone.”


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Lori Kersey
Lori Kersey

Lori Kersey is a reporter with a decade of experience reporting in West Virginia. She covers state government for West Virginia Watch.