Rosemary Ketchum Transitions From Community Advocate to Public Servant

WHEELING – Throughout her adult life, Rosemary Ketchum has been a passionate proponent of public activism, a believer in community building and an advocate for grassroots causes such as human rights issues. Today, it’s not only her ambition to get these things done — as an elected official, it’s her job.

Now heading toward the two-year mark as a member of Wheeling City Council, Ketchum remains focused on a variety of city issues that have kept council members busy — multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects, municipal budgeting, federal pandemic relief fund allocations and a myriad of other matters.

The trenches of these boots-on-the ground issues seem like a far cry from the national spotlight that shined down on Ketchum after she won her election and took office in the summer of 2020, when major media outlets celebrated her story of becoming the first openly transgender candidate to be elected to public office in the conservative state of West Virginia.

While the dust has settled a bit from the initial media frenzy, Ketchum has settled into her role in Wheeling. But is that role just another semi-rural city council member or one of a semi-celebrity, trailblazing LGBTQ pioneer in politics?

“I think for a long time, as an LGBTQ person, I really pushed back,” Ketchum said of all the attention about being transgender. “I appreciate it. I try to embrace it. But I didn’t want that to become my narrative. I really struggled, because I really didn’t want to be pigeonholed into that one thing where people look at the paper or read the news and say, ‘there’s Rosemary again, talking about LGBTQ folks’ — not that it isn’t important or that it’s not something that I should be working on. But I’m a person with a lot of interests. I wouldn’t run for office on one issue, and I wouldn’t continue legislating on one issue.”

Ketchum said during her everyday routine of working with people, she rarely if ever talks about LGBTQ issues. She has a personal webpage online, and under the “about” page is a summarized biography of her life, and it mentions nothing about trans or LGBTQ topics. Yet she is still open and willing to speak about these issues and others for which she strongly advocates.

She said when people do discuss it with her, some have tried to credit her for the noticeably changing attitudes in the Wheeling area about LGBTQ issues and trans people.

“I say absolutely not – that’s just the way the world is going right now,” she said. “I just happen to be a symptom of that and just finding my way here in the city of Wheeling. But it makes me think about the growth and the progress that we are making as a city. Year after year, folks come back to Wheeling and go, ‘oh my gosh, I’ve been gone, and I had no idea that this business was here, this building was built’ or this new amenity or this neighborhood that they weren’t familiar with has all of these exciting things happening.”

Ketchum is a Wheeling transplant and is not even from West Virginia originally, although she moved to town with her parents and later attended and graduated from both West Virginia Northern Community College and Wheeling Jesuit University with degrees in psychology.

“My perspective is kind of from a modern-day Wheeling, and at least over the past decade, we’ve made some pretty good progress,” she said. “Now rather than simply being an advocate, I have the opportunity to actually legislate, and to actually improve the lives of folks who we should be serving.”

One key issue for which Ketchum has championed is homelessness, a dilemma that has been prevalent throughout the city but particularly in the ward she serves.

“Homelessness is a big one for me, and our growth there I think is exponential just in the past six months,” she said. “It took years of legwork to even create the job description, but now we’ve hired Melissa Adams as our homeless liaison coordinator. It wasn’t easy, and it was not a unanimous vote.”

Ketchum said if someone doesn’t encounter homeless people during their normal day, it’s understandable that they may believe it isn’t such a big problem. However, Ward 3 is home to a number of outreach agencies and service providers, so naturally the homeless population is more prevalent there – and Ketchum sees the struggles these people endure daily.

But the homeless liaison, police department, city manager and local agencies are working together to help overcome challenges.

“We have somebody at the table here in Wheeling, and I think we are incredibly well-suited to help address this issue, and I’m grateful that I was a part of that,” Ketchum said. “To be honest, I don’t know that it would have happened had we not been pushing really hard. So that’s one thing I’m proud about, and if I never get elected to public office again, I’m really grateful that I was able to work, even in a small part on this issue.”

Another rallying cry for Ketchum has been the continued growth of small businesses in town. One of the largest and most popular small business hubs in the city – Centre Market – is a gem in her ward, and she has been working with city and community leaders to revitalize the market and make it the best destination it can be.

The revamped Centre Market Commission is now stocked with key people who are pushing to make small businesses a showcased centerpiece for commerce in Wheeling.

“We talk a lot about revitalizing and what the new Wheeling looks like, and making good on the promise that we are the Friendly City,” Ketchum said. “In many ways we aren’t, but in more ways I think we are.”

The best part is, there is a growing enthusiasm among many Wheeling residents that a great new chapter in the city’s history is being forged by the people who are working collaboratively in the city right now. And she is excited to see it come to fruition.

“It’s been an incredible team effort, and what inspires me the most is — reminding folks that you might have left Wheeling, but Wheeling has never left you, and we are getting better every single day,” Ketchum said. “We’re not perfect, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”