COVINGTON, Ky. – County Clerk Gabrielle Summe sits at her desk in the Kenton County Administrative Building, barely able to see over the mounds of redistricting paperwork and precinct mapping—it’s her busiest time of year.
It’s election season.
But no amount of filing, paperwork and registering voters has stopped her from making her community her responsibility—by giving back and making the change she wants to see where she lives.
And for that, Summe was honored by her alma mater, Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills, Ky., as a ‘Woman Making A Difference.' She is a 1984 graduate of the all-girls Catholic school. In its 13th year, the award recognizes graduates who have made significant contributions to their careers, their families and their communities.
Growing up, she observed her family pave the way for change and now she is paving the way for the next generation.
“It’s part of my responsibility of where I live to make it a better place to live,” said Summe.
Originally from Fort Wright, Ky., the 47-year-old said she doesn’t think the role she plays in the community is as impressive as her fellow alumnae; however, she said she does believe that she is touching lives on a personal level, not with money, but with time and effort.
“I learned I had to be engaged with the community,” she said of a lesson taught early on by her mom.
Chip Off The Block
Her mom, Kathleen Summe, who earned a master’s degree in social work—helped create the Mental Health Association in Northern Kentucky, now known as NorthKey—always told her children that if she wasn’t working, she was volunteering.
“If you couldn’t give money, you could give your time,” Summe said her mom told her during her childhood.
When she was little, Summe remembered, how her mom would expose her to the sick and frail, in an effort to show her that those people were her responsibility to care for.
“They are truly special. They require special attention and respect,” Summe said. “And for [my mother] those people could be anyone.”
Summe has emulated her mother, who was an avid volunteer with St. Charles Nursing Home, the Jaycees, Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, as well as mental health and veterans organizations.
Summe works with Kids Voting and speaks at local schools and community groups about elections. She also volunteers for the Credit Abuse Resistance Education (C.A.R.E.) program—and believes that, like her mom, volunteering and spending time with your community can change the way things are where you live and how they will be for the future.
“Sometimes the past can hobble the future,” Summe said, who is a board member of the Diocesan Catholic Children’s Home and Welcome House Outreach homeless shelter.
“How do you fix that for the future?” she said that she asks of herself. “You can ignore the problem or be part of the solution.”
‘Permission Is Power’
Growing up one of four girls, the world was her oyster… well, at least according to her dad Joe, who was city attorney for Fort Wright, Lakeside Park and Lookout Heights.
The father of six, including one son, wanted his children to make a difference, speak up and do anything they put their mind do.
“Permission is powerful. We could do anything. No limitations,” Summe said of her father’s encouragement. “Dad believed anything a man could do, a woman could do.”
As the youngest, she had several influences to look up to. Her sister Patricia Summe is a circuit court judge; her sister JoAnn Meadows is a teacher at Notre Dame Academy; her sisters Kathy Summe and Julie Jacobs are judicial secretaries; and her late brother, Peter Summe, was a Fort Wright City council member and the city attorney.
“We’re not involved in politics, we’re involved in our community,” she said of her family, which includes 52 first cousins.
In fact when they were children, she said, they were at their dad's side as he went door to door to talk to neighbors about issues affecting them.
“If you want changes, you have to be willing to be involved,” she said.
Long Line Of Politics… And Cows
In Northern Kentucky, the Summe lineage is linked to politics, the legal system and volunteerism, but it was also one of the biggest names in dairy farming this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
In the early 1880s, Summe’s great-grandparents migrated from Germany and started a dairy farm on what is now Buttermilk Pike in Villa Hills.
“There were so many dairy farms in the area and the roads were often bumpy, it was joked that Buttermilk Pike got its name because the milk was being churned so much from the bumpy road that at the end of the road it had turned into buttermilk,” Summe laughed.
Eventually the business would grow into a nearly 400-acre farm, and they would open a storefront in Covington to sell their dairy products. Over the years, the farm was passed down to the family’s next generation—building it greater for the next and learning more as it grew.
Gabrielle Summe’s great-uncle Gus Summe, above, circa 1914, standing in front of the family's Covington dairy store–a product of their Villa Hills, Ky., dairy farm.
Issues like tolls the family was charged for traveling from Kentucky to Ohio to sell their dairy, started them on the road to the statehouse -- lobbying for change, Summe said. As a result, her family, along with the Dairymen's Association, were eventually responsible for nixing the tolls.
Changing policy was in their blood.
From the farm to the law, several of Summe’s relatives have made their way to seats of power.
As a youngster, her father worked diligently on the farm alongside his six brothers. He then used his passion and knowledge for the law to give a different kind of assistance to his family and the farm they had worked so hard to build.
He served as city attorney in three different cities over the span of his legal career.
Her uncle, Paul Summe was a Covington City commissioner, and for a short time, the Covington Mayor. Uncle Charlie Summe was a Kenton County Commissioner for 28 years.
Summe said that her family learned from the dairy farm that the way to protect their business was to speak up and use the law and politics to change what they deemed necessary to preserve what they had built.
Making Her Own History
Summe’s career started just after she graduated from Xavier University in 1988—a time-honored tradition since her father attended Xavier, as did her brother Peter, and sister, Patricia, who was one of the first females to attend the Catholic university in the 1970s.
After she earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and public relations, with a minor in both psychology and philosophy, she made the trek New York City. She landed a job at a public relations firm, but after two years, the newly acquainted city girl was headed back to the country.
After a brief, part-time stint marketing with Procter & Gamble, she moved into an arena she was very familiar with: politics.
She used her knowledge in communications and marketing to spearhead Garry Edmondson’s campaign for Kenton County attorney. With her guidance, Edmondson, who’s retiring this year, was elected to his first term in 1994, for what would be an extensive career in the county's law office.
Summe stayed on with Edmondson as the director of the child support division in his office. While working there, she started law school at NKU’s Salmon P. Chase College of Law, graduating in 2000 with her law degree.
Edmondson promoted her to the assistant county attorney, where she would dabble in several areas of law.
Summe said she wanted to figure out to combine all of her interests and skill sets and Edmondson gave her the nudge she needed. So in 2010, Summe made history when she was elected the first female county clerk in Kenton County, overseeing 117,679 registered voters. She began her newest venture, serving her four-year term as clerk, in 2011.
Her first change: She streamlined internal procedures to better serve residents by coming up with a systems that keeps the office open from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. most nights.
Summe also remodeled the Independence office to better accommodate the public.
"The room that contained the auto department in Independence had four entrances into that room," she said. "It was a confusing, ineffective space, and too small for the lines of people at the end of the month, so I moved it to the larger room at the back of the building which only has one door into that space."
"This change not only gave the public a much cleaner efficient space it also gave my employees a new clean work environment," Summe said.
But one of her biggest priorities has been to preserve the county’s history by digitizing its marriage licenses, beginning in 1840 with more than 500,000 images to process, as well as the county’s deed records.
Her primary role, however, is to ensure effective and efficient elections.
COVINGTON, Ky. – Kenton County Clerk Gabrielle Summe, above, was a 2004 recipient of the Business Courier’s 40 under 40 award. Jessica Noll | WCPO
With 19 cities, five school districts and three districts, she said, it makes for several variations of the ballots in Kenton County. During the last presidential general election she had to create 62 different versions of the ballot depending on precincts.
“We win the complicated ballot of the year,” the Secretary of State’s Task Force on Elections scoffed.
Now, she’s at it again.
The primary is set for May and comes after her office has been working on redistricting, which was mandated after population shifts. To accommodate the fluctuation in population throughout county, Summe has added seven new precincts and has eliminated eight—changing the upcoming ballots and poll locations.
Redistricting regulates how many state representatives and state senators the county’s districts will each have based on how many people reside there.
Northern Kentucky Voice: Your Voice, Your Story is a periodic and ongoing series on WCPO.com about the people of Northern Kentucky making a difference in their community. If you would like to tell your story, or know someone who should, email Jessica Noll at Jessica.Noll@wcpo.com.