39th House District race: 3 candidates who want Strahorn’s seat

Walter James Hickman Jr.
Walter James Hickman Jr.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Ohio primary election was moved from March 17. The deadline to vote in the Ohio primary election is April 28. Voters must request an absentee ballot from their county’s board of election if they have not already voted. All absentee ballots mailed in must have a postmark of April 27 to be counted, and all ballots must be received by the boards by May 8 to be counted. Voters can drop off the ballots to board offices in person by 7:30 p.m. April 28. In-person voting will be offered on April 28, but will only occur at boards of elections early voting center and only be available for people with disabilities who require in-person voting and people who do not have a home mailing address. Local election officials say voters need to make sure they include all the required information on absentee ballot request forms and pay close attention to unsolicited request forms they get in the mail. State law allows ballots to be scanned but they cannot be tabulated until 7:30 p.m. April 28.

With Rep. Fred Strahorn leaving office because of term limits, the race for Ohio’s 39th House District appears to be wide open.

On Tuesday, three candidates will face off in the Democratic primary for Strahorn’s Ohio House of Representatives seat, which has long been held by Democrats and represents most of the city of Dayton and Jefferson Twp.

The candidates in the primary include Willis Blackshear Jr., a young rising member of the Montgomery County Democratic Party with a familiar name (his father was the Montgomery County Recorder); Jo’el Jones, an outspoken community activist; and Walter James Hickman Jr., a first responder and former sheriff deputy and investigator.

The top vote-getter will face Republican John Ferrell Mullins in November for the right to represent the heavily Democratic district. Strahorn ran unopposed for the seat in the last two elections (2016 and 2018), and he won more than 77% of the vote when he was last challenged in a three-way race in 2014.

The Dayton Daily News asked the primary candidates a variety of questions about the race. These are some of their responses.

Willis Blackshear announced he’s running for state representative. Photo by Jim Otte.
Willis Blackshear announced he’s running for state representative. Photo by Jim Otte.

What are the two biggest challenges facing the state and how would you deal with them?

Willis Blackshear Jr.: Education and investment in the community. Our education system is broken at every level. Our state's unconstitutional school-funding system means that zip code determines opportunity. We must overhaul the funding system for our local schools. We all want to have desirable, safe and attractive communities, and our local governments play a big role in that. It's time to reinvest in the local government fund, so our local communities can bolster local services like road repaving and public safety.

Walter James Hickman Jr.: Environmental and mental health. I would wish that we start working on these issues because of the overwhelming expense and suicides of gun violence. Other problems are related to facilities for the severely mentally ill.

Jo'el Jones: Poverty and gun violence. Poverty has many subsections, and the impact of not having enough (food, housing, utilities) sets off other challenges, like mental health issues, violence, child abuse, spousal abuse, divorce, educational challenges, and the list goes on. I would collaborate with fellow legislators whose communities are similar in size and challenges. Together, we will work to introduce legislation that assists communities with these challenges like workforce development for 21st-century careers, mental health funding starting at kindergarten, increased funding to help families with utilities and other needs to ease the burdens of life.

What makes you qualified for this office and why are you the right person to lead this district?

Jones: What I believe sets me apart from my competitors is my 25 years of community work, in addition to my professional career. I've worked on issues of community development, wage insecurity, nuclear proliferation, policy centered around our veterans and their families, as well as addiction when it was still a crime and was called crack. The 39th district is divided, and whoever is elected needs to understand that. One side of the district, which is separated by the river, is experiencing rapid growth, housing, job creation, community stabilization, and other amenities. But, on the west side of the river, the experience is vastly different. A legislator must address the needs of both sides of the river. I, through my 20-plus years of work in the Dayton region understand that each side (of the river) has different needs, I am prepared through my experience professionally and community advocacy work prepared to help both sides. What is evident, is that both sides of the river are dependent upon the others to truly succeed. It is possible to have equitable growth, as we rebuild and better the Dayton region.

Hickman: My willingness to serve my communities based on need alone. I am willing to go out and explain issues so voters can understand what they are voting for, which will give them confidence in their worth. I am willing to confront any action of unfairness against people in the district.

Blackshear: From a young age, I learned the value of hard work, service to others, and giving back to the community from my dad, who was a public servant and elected leader in Montgomery County. He instilled in me the importance of putting others before yourself, to always remember where you came from, and how you got to where you are. He inspired me to be driven to make a difference in the lives of others. I am now a community advocate in many aspects of my life. Professionally, I am a liaison between the Montgomery County Auditor's office and the community. I am on the ground providing public services and hearing the concerns of those in my community every day. I have worked with the Montgomery County Black Elected Officials for the past few years on their civic engagement program, where they work to educate young voters in Dayton public schools. Their work culminates in a march to the polls, where students have the opportunity to vote for the very first time. Additionally, I am the Co-Chairman for the Dayton MLK March, a Montgomery County Male Leadership Mentor, and I volunteer with the Dayton Food Bank and the Boys and Girls Club in Dayton.

It’s time to pass the torch to new leadership. We need a new leader who knows our community, a leader who understands our concerns, and a leader who will work tirelessly to find solutions to our problems. We need a leader who will fight for what’s right and never give up, a leader who will be a strong voice for us in Columbus. I am ready to be that leader.

What specific ideas do you have to make life better for residents in your district?

Hickman: I hope to encourage developers to build green homes in our community, rid ourselves of food deserts with convenient grocery stores with healthy choices.

Blackshear: Right now, so many members of our community are saddled with student loan debt, car payments and other expenses. They can't afford to do things like buy a house or invest in their retirement. I am experiencing that right now - and I'm getting by, but so many of my peers can't say the same. Many Ohioans are working hard, and are not being paid a truly livable wage. Every Ohioan deserves to be paid a living wage, with health care and retirement benefits. That's why I support a $15 minimum wage. One way I hope to achieve that is by advocating for skill training programs for our high-schoolers. Our students need to learn more about careers in the skilled trades, and we need to make sure those students have the skills that employers are looking for. Specifically, I would advocate for increased funding to Ohio's Office of Workforce Development, to expand our state' investments in apprenticeships and other skill-building programs.

And we should overhaul our school funding system to ensure that students in districts like Dayton Public Schools and Trotwood-Madison Schools have the same opportunity for success that students in suburban districts do. I am optimistic about House Bill 305, which is currently undergoing hearings in the House Finance Committee. The bill has bipartisan support, and would invest $1.5 billion into our schools over six years while making our school funding system more equitable.

Jones: Specific ideas I have to make life better for residents include tackling the challenges of crime and gun violence by investing in 21st-century workforce development programs. There is a plethora of models that have worked for communities like Dayton. Additionally, I want to collaborate and capitalize on our present resources. Our community colleges and universities are doing amazing things. I will work to create additional collaborations between colleges and universities so that the 39th can capitalize on the expertise already present in the community. Also, I want to work on ways to ensure community organizations, like the Wesley Center and East End Community Center have pathways for funding that they can count on.

What will be your top priority if elected?

Hickman: Environnment, children protection and women's rightss and protection from laws that deny their rights. I would like to bring another hospital to Jefferson Twp. or the West Dayton area, but I will need the financial backing of the community to possibly initiate the process.

Blackshear: Restoring the local government fund to re-invest in our neighborhoods, and bring our tax dollars back to our communities. Supporting common sense gun legislation that will prevent the violence that has devastated our community. Advocating for high quality education for every student in our state. As the opportunity gap continues to grow, too often our children here in the 39th District are left behind.

Jones: If elected my top priority will be the constituents of the 39th district, their strengths, their challenges, their hopes, and their dreams.

Jo’el Jones.
Jo’el Jones.

Following the shooting in the Oregon District, what, if any, state legislative proposals do you support to address gun violence and try to prevent another similar kind of attack?

Blackshear: Gun violence is all too common in our community. Nine families lost a loved one in the Oregon District tragedy last summer. I just lost my cousin to gun violence last month. He had a newborn son, and a family. The sad part is that, after the tragedy, he was only just a headline. Too many families like mine experience this type of grief, and it is time for our elected officials to step up and do something. I'm running for state representative because the time is now to enact common sense gun reforms.

While I am a supporter of Governor Dewine’s STRONG Ohio bill, it does not go far enough to prevent gun violence in our community. I support universal background checks and a red flag law. These are the measures we need to keep guns out of the hands of those who would use them to hurt others. Additionally, we need to ban bump stocks and high capacity magazines, and close the gun show loophole.

Jones: I support a ban on assault rifles. I support expanded background checks. As State Representative, I will work to begin looking at ways to help our tremendous mental health problem we have in this nation, specifically our community. We have to empower our mental health professionals, moreover, we except that mental health must be a disease, and just like any other illness has to be treated. That may mean for some, long-term hospitalization, intensive therapy for juveniles that culturally appropriate. We have to treat the illness of mental illness with care and tack. There are no one-size-fits-all. All we know about the mind is only a drop in a bucket of what is yet to be discovered.

Hickman: I go on record to say I have always said the majority of gun violence are suicides. However, I intend to author a bill that any municipality, village or small community that fails to acknowledge mental illness threats to their community and others in the region can face a form of sanctions if they purposefully withhold that information to shield their community from negative attention.

What do you think residents in your district are looking for from their state lawmakers?

Jones: I know that residents in the 39th district are looking for solutions and not rhetoric. Experience, not on-the-job training. The Statehouse is where policy is made that impacts our daily lives. Thus, we must have a legislator who understands exactly what those issues are, moreover ways to either solve them or create noticeable change. I know constituents in the 39th want a representative who will be responsive, and not just available during election and town halls. We are in a state of change in the Dayton region, I want, constituents' want a representative that understands that, and is prepared to advocate and fight for that in Columbus. And that is exactly what I am about, and that's why I am a candidate for State Representative of the 39th district.

Hickman: Gun reform, mental health reform and improved education and revitalization of our neighborhoods with corporate investments in retail and grocery stores.

Blackshear: I believe that residents of the 39th district are looking for a leader who knows this community well, who will listen to their concerns, and will be a strong voice for Dayton and Jefferson Township in Columbus. I believe I am that leader.

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