CINCINNATI -- Tamaya Dennard won’t need to bring a folding chair to get a seat at the city’s most powerful political table anymore.
Dennard won a sixth place finish to earn one of nine seats on Cincinnati City Council in November. Throughout her campaign she used a folding chair to demonstrate how the powerless should fight for a political voice.
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” Dennard often repeated on social media, in interviews, and during speeches.
Dennard even clutched a red folding chair as she was sworn into council on Tuesday, along with two other political newcomers: Greg Landsman and Jeff Pastor.
This week WCPO is featuring stories about each of the three new council members.
Dennard’s campaign was unconventional, and she hints that grassroots style will shape how she governs at City Hall. Not only did she win that city council seat on her first run for office, she did it without buying a single television ad.
Instead, she spent her time throughout the campaign meeting with voters on thousands of doorsteps, waving at them on street corners, and sending handwritten postcards.
While shaking hands, Dennard frequently wore hoodies or T-shirts, ditching traditional suit jackets.
“We were trying to figure out a way to reach everybody,” said Dennard in an interview with WCPO in December (during which she wore a black “Product of Public Schools” hoodie).
“We tried to make politics less stuffy,” 38-year-old Dennard said.
She and her staff want to continue door-knocking this summer, hosting office hours at happy hours or coffee shops, and holding council meetings in each of the city’s neighborhoods.
Dennard even campaigned for council to meet in the evening hours, instead of the afternoon, so more working people can attend.
“I’m trying to figure out how to bring government to people,” Dennard said. “A lot of times, it’s this mentality that people should come to us.”
It was while working for Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld that Dennard realized she wanted to claim a seat of her own in council's chambers.
After volunteering on Sittenfeld’s campaign, Dennard decided in 2012 to quit her job with Duke Energy to work for him. She accepted shortly after Sittenfeld had already divvied up his office budget for the year. He only had $14,000 left to pay Dennard.
With $428 every two weeks in take-home pay, Dennard struggled to make rent and turned to public assistance.
But she wouldn’t be on council without that experience.
“It was the smartest and dumbest thing I’ve done,” Dennard said. “Looking back on it, that’s what changed things for me.”
She learned to navigate City Hall while working for Sittenfeld. She also served as architect of his big re-election win in 2013, when he earned more votes than any other candidate running for council. She pushed his campaign to knock on more doors, wave at more cars and attend even the smallest of campaign events.
And people took notice.
Invitations to speak at high schools and colleges about her experience as a woman working in local politics started rolling in. She encouraged those young students she spoke with to run for office.
Yet she was still working behind the scenes for Sittenfeld.
“I was telling everyone else why they should run and I was like, ‘Oh shoot, I better take my own advice,’” Dennard said.
She will be one of only two women serving on council, and hopes to inspire other girls and women to enter politics.
Perhaps she already has.
“I had a kid come up to me,” Dennard said. “She was like, ‘You’re on city council? But you have on a North Face and a hoodie, just like me.”