Incumbent Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley won an extremely close re-election race four years ago against a political newcomer, and some people predict another tight finish Nov. 4 in a three-person race with a former township trustee and the former mayor of Dayton.
Foley, a Democrat, faces Republican Mike Nolan and independent candidate Gary Leitzell. The three offer distinct views on how best to tackle some of the county’s biggest challenges, including attracting economic development, creating new jobs and combating the heroin epidemic.
The outcome of the race could be decided in part by voter turnout, which is expected to be lower because of a lack of interest in the gubernatorial race.
Republican Gov. John Kasich holds a big lead in the polls after a series of revelations that Democratic candidate Ed FitzGerald went for 10 years without a driver’s license and was found early one morning in a car with a woman who is not his wife.
Daniel Birdsong, a political science professor at the University of Dayton, said many Democrats may choose stay home this election because the governor’s race is not competitive.
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“Polls show Republicans with an enthusiasm advantage, so they will make up more of the electorate this year,” he said. “This should benefit Republicans in the down-ticket races, assuming that voters complete their ballots.”
The current county commission is all Democrats: Foley, Judy Dodge and Deborah Lieberman.
Foley, who won by 1.8 percentage points four years ago, said he does not worry what happens in other races this year because he cannot control it. He said the commission race is more about people and their accomplishments than political parties.
Leitzell, however, said that Republicans may not turn out to the polls because Kasich is sure to win. He said Democrats may not be interested in FitzGerald, but they may feel compelled to vote for the county Human Services levy.
Nolan said he expects voter turnout will be low, and he has not encountered anyone who is “overly energized” about this election.
“I believe the races will come down to sheer numbers, and not issues,” he said.
Foley, 49, who lives in Harrison Twp., is finishing his second term as commissioner.
He was first elected in 2006 after serving as the county’s clerk of courts for six years. Before that, he was the assistant county treasurer.
Foley said he has a record of accomplishments in the areas of economic development, criminal justice and human services delivery, which he describes as the primary responsibilities of commissioners.
Foley said one priority is diversifying the county’s economy. He said this is essential to grow employment and attract young talent and new investment. He said the county strategically manages its resources and distributes its economic development dollars, focusing on aerospace, advanced manufacturing and logistics and distribution.
He said the county has contributed funding to a string of major projects, including the GE Aviation electrical power research and design center, as well as the Airbus initiative through the National Composite Center in Kettering.
“I take the job seriously, and I use the gas in my tank on stuff that matters, and I don’t spend a lot of time playing politics,” he said.
Foley said he is very involved with efforts to move the Montgomery County Fairgrounds to Brookville.
He said he also pushed hard for the formation of the Dayton Region International Trade Alliance. The county helps pay for a staff person in Israeli who tries to connect businesses here and abroad, providing both with access to unfamiliar markets, he said.
Foley said he is an outspoken advocate for pursuing a more innovative form of local government, perhaps modeled after governments in Cleveland, Louisville or Indianapolis.
Louisville and Jefferson County Kentucky combined to form a single city-county government. Cleveland-area governments created an 11-member Cuyahoga County Council, which makes policy decisions for county government.
Foley said the county and region could be more competitive economically and reduce costs of government services if there were not 28 separate government jurisdictions, which often compete with one another.
He said a more unified government would attract greater economic investment and give it more clout at the state level.
“We would be a stronger community with a more unified system of government,” he said.
Nolan, 63, is a cattle farmer who worked for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office for more than 26 years until he retired as chief deputy in 2010.
Nolan said he oversaw the $45 million sheriff’s budget for about five years and understands the intricacies of large budgets and county government.
Nolan also served as a Miami Twp. trustee from 2010 to 2013, which he says was a pivotal time for the jurisdiction.
He said he helped ensure that phase II of Austin Landing shifted the financial liability of the project from the township to the developer. He voted to redo agreements with the developer so the company would cover the township’s payments on the debt if revenues from tax incremental financing ever are insufficient.
“Developers need to have skin in the game,” he said.
Nolan said he is confident he could help bring Austin Landing-type projects to other parts of the county, because the public-private partnership model works. He said he has a talent for facilitating these partnerships, which take getting the right people to the table.
“We built the majority of Austin Landing by going out and seeking those businesses,” he said.
He said he wants to focus on making the area around UD and Miami Valley Hospital a research and development hub. He said he wants to make the area around the Interstate 70 and 75 intersection the distribution “capital of the world.”
Nolan says he respects the county commissioners but all three are Democrats, and he could not find one instance in the last several years when a commissioner cast a dissenting vote.
Nolan said he would bring a fresh perspective with a proven track record of working with people with different views, including political affiliations.
Nolan says eliminating redundant services is perhaps the best way to reduce government expenses.
He said he helped merge the Miamisburg and Miami Twp. fire departments, which saved the governments about $1.2 million by the second year. He said he also oversaw the creation of the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center, which has saved cities in manpower and equipment costs.
Nolan said his experience in law enforcement also makes him uniquely qualified to address the county’s heroin problems.
He said Dayton’s decision in 2010 to make the city immigrant friendly attracted illegal immigrants, smuggled here by members of Mexican drug cartels.
He said the cartels have flooded the region with cheap heroin, and he wants to create a multi-agency task force, paid for using county funds, that specifically targets the sale and abuse of the deadly drug.
Leitzell, 53, depicts himself as a feisty underdog, the consummate political outsider who brings a new, bold approach to community problems and creates an effective and responsive government.
He describes his opponents as longtime bureaucrats. He says they are former county employees who are products of the system, which makes them lack creativity in their thinking and problem-solving.
One unorthodox proposal regards combating the county’s heroin problem. He wants to create a pilot program modeled after state-assisted heroin clinics in Denmark and other countries.
Clinics in some parts of the UK distribute a small amount of heroin to addicts, which the addicts must consume in a controlled setting while being monitored by medical staff.
He said heroin clinics would prevent fatal overdoses and eliminate the need for addicts to commit crimes to feed their habits.
“What happens is crime drops 40 percent because these people’s lives become stabilized, and they are no longer stealing to get drugs because they aren’t dope sick,” he said.
Leitzell, who served as Dayton’s mayor between 2010 and this year, said he questions long-standing practices and policies, and looks for innovative ways to reduce government expenses, increase revenue and attract new residents.
Leitzell said his Welcome Dayton initiative, which established the city as an immigrant-friendly community, has grown the city’s population and continues to garner recognition and accolades.
“Welcome Dayton put us on the global map, and it didn’t cost any money, it was the right thing to do, it made sense, and I saw it as a viable way of repopulating my city and getting my neighborhoods fixed up,” Leitzell said.
The county is expected to lose tens of thousands of residents in coming years, but it can offset these financial losses through tourism, he said.
He said jurisdictions countywide should work together to identify and collaboratively market the most attractive places and destinations, such as the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and Sunwatch Indian Village.
“If we are going to lose 40,000 residents in 15 years, wouldn’t it be nice to have 40,000 tourists replace them?” Leitzell asked.
He said he also wants to create a program to identify school children who go home hungry and provide them with take-home snacks and meals.