In recent months, the city of Dayton has received one blow after another — a water line break that triggered an outage for 400,000 people, four indictments from a federal public corruption probe, a rally by the Ku Klux Klan that racked up $650,000 in security expenses and tornadoes that ripped apart neighborhoods.
The flurry of major events has put Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley at the forefront of the region’s efforts to respond and recover.
The job of Dayton mayor is called in the civics handbooks a ‘weak mayor.’ The city administration is run by the City Manager Shelley Dickstein, and the mayor is just one of five equals on the city commission who vote on city spending and legislation and hire the city manager.
But through these four events, Whaley has been more prominent than ever. She advocated for weeks for a calm, positive response to the Klan rally - which is largely what occurred. The night a major water line collapsed she gave middle-of-the-night interviews on live television to clarify what happened and what was being done to fix it. The morning after the tornadoes hit the White House called - whatever help the city needed was available, they told her.
A former political opponent, former judge and mayoral candidate A.J. Wagner, a Democrat, said Whaley has done a good job dealing with crises - except when the public corruption case first broke. In that Whaley avoided public comment for days; Wagner said that was “weak.”
A Dayton-area corruption investigation by the FBI is underway. When agents announced four indictments and confirmed the existence of a five-year investigation, the regional FBI head said Dayton had a ‘culture of corruption.’
Former city commissioner Joey Williams has been indicted as has former state lawmaker Clayton Luckie, one city employee - RoShawn Winburn - and a local businessman, Brian Higgins. All four have pleaded not guilty. U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio Ben Glassman said he expects more arrests and indictments will follow.
Whaley declined to answer questions during a recent interview about the FBI investigation and federal indictment. She also would not state whether she has been contacted by the FBI or has hired an attorney.
“I’m going to respect this process and I can’t comment on any of it,” the mayor said.
Whaley said she is amazed by Daytonians grit and determination in the aftermath of the tornadoes.
“In the region, this will be a turning point. But for Dayton, I think this is about us coming together, helping our neighbors and strangers and rebuilding a piece of a neighborhood,” she said. Damage is more widespread in Harrison Twp., Trotwood and Northridge, she said.
Rob Scott, former chairman of the Montgomery County GOP, said Whaley is in position to lead Dayton as it rebuilds from the tornado devastation.
“It is really going to raise her political profile in the state and the nation if she can turn this into a positive,” Scott said. Attracting private investment into designated opportunity zones and lining up state and federal funding could enable Dayton to revitalize areas that had been struggling even before the tornadoes hit, he said. “It’s a perfect time for her to grab all of this and throw it in there,” Scott said.
Whaley and Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, exchanged text messages after the KKK rally and the tornadoes, the mayor said. “He has been, really, what an elected official should be: working with everybody, even if we disagree on different issues,” Whaley said.
The morning after the tornadoes, Whaley said she received calls from Ohio’s two senators, Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, as well as U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, and dozens of mayors from across the country. At 7:45 a.m., she received a call from the White House.
“They said, whatever you need, here is the number. I had never had any contact with them so I really appreciated that. (State Rep.) Niraj (Antani) got them the number for me,” Whaley said.
Building a profile outside Dayton
The recent events came as Whaley was already gaining a wider profile.
Whaley, 43, ran for governor in 2017 in the Democratic primary before dropping out and throwing her support behind nominee Richard Cordray, who was then defeated by DeWine. In 2011 she worked statewide to get voters to reject Senate Bill 5, which would have modified collective bargaining rules for public employees. Voters rejected the measure in the November election that year.
She also co-founded the bipartisan Ohio Mayors Alliance in 2016.
At the national level, she serves as a trustee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is a four-time delegate to the Democratic National Committee. She is backing South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg for the party nomination for president in 2020 and is regularly quoted in national press publications.
She is on the advisory council for Accelerator for America, a national group founded in 2017 by mayors, labor leaders and others to focus on economic issues such as transit and the future of work. Buttigieg, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and others are on the council with Whaley.
Whaley said her statewide and national connections helped as the region sought recent grants and assistance for local initiatives. Local efforts recently won a $150,000 grant through the U.S. Conference of Mayors for construction of a new grocery store near downtown; a $500,000 grant from the National League of Cities and a $1 million grant from Chan Zuckerberg Foundation for the region’s newest effort to improve preschool preparedness for children, Learn to Earn Dayton.
“We recognize we are not a community with a lot of resources. So we have to start getting national resources,” she said.
When the Klan came to Dayton over Memorial Day weekend, the event did not spin out of control into a violent, deadly clash as a rally did in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Instead, Dayton won the day with positive national press. “Hate Comes to Dayton, Dayton Unites Against It” said the headline in the New York Times.
She has a poor relationship, however, with one of her predecessors: former mayor and now U.S. Rep. Mike Turner. In an interview on the region’s tornado efforts she noted Turner did not call her office offering assistance nor ask for a FEMA designation. “Where is Turner? It’s his district,” she said.
Turner did tour damaged neighborhoods in Montgomery and Greene counties following the storms.
“Since I live and work in Dayton, I see the Mayor all the time, however we have not talked much since the corruption indictments at City Hall occurred, questions concerning the City’s water quality arose, and questions continue concerning millions of dollars of misspent federal funds under her watch,” Turner said in a written response.
Turner’s criticisms of Whaley refer to a demand from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that Dayton’s administration justify how it recently spent $3.2 million in federal aid or else refund the money. Montgomery County’s administrator recently also objected to how the city of Dayton was sharing information about the quality of the water from the city treatment plant, which is supplied to much of the county.
On the public corruption investigation, Whaley has not been implicated but the case could cast a cloud over her, said University of Dayton political scientist Christopher Devine. It could provide a line of attack for an opponent and prevent her from speaking more about economic growth and urban rebirth, he said.
Cedarville University political scientist Mark Caleb Smith isn’t so sure.
“While an opponent might use it against her, I am not sure it would stick with the general public. Like recent scandals in Columbus, this strikes me as critical for elites, but not necessarily on the radar with voters,” Smith said.
Whaley came of age in Dayton politics, starting when she rebooted the College Democrats at the University of Dayton more than two decades ago.
She is married to Sam Braun, who has held posts in the Montgomery County auditor’s office since 2006. The couple live in the Five Oaks neighborhood northwest of downtown.
Whaley worked for several years to support Montgomery County Democratic candidates in their campaigns and worked as a deputy to County Auditor Karl Keith. She was elected to a seat on the Dayton City Commission the first time in 2005, then ran for mayor and won in 2013.
Whaley has raised $1.33 million in campaign funds since 2013 — the first year she ran for mayor, campaign finance reports show. She was paid $49,725 base salary in 2018 as mayor, according to city payroll records.
Her most lucrative fund-raising period came in 2017 when she pulled in $455,132 in a six month period. Money came in from unions, Columbus-area politicians and hundreds of Dayton area residents: $2,500 came from strip club owner Luke Liakos, $2,500 from retired physician Mike Ervin, $1,500 from now former CareSource executive Pamela Morris.
Whaley said the bump in fund-raising was a function of her campaign for governor. Campaign finance laws prohibited her from opening a separate campaign account, she said.
More recently, Whaley co-hosted a fundraiser for Buttigieg on May 31 in Dayton, five days after the tornadoes struck. Whaley said she canceled a fundraiser for her own campaign that she had planned for June 1, but went ahead hosting the Buttigieg event because Buttigieg’s husband Chasten came to Dayton for it and to take part in Dayton’s LGBTQ Pride Parade.
For the most part, Whaley said the recent events are why she long sought to work in government and politics.
“This job, since 2014, it’s one of the greatest honors to get to do this work. I mean I love being the mayor of Dayton. It is a very hard job too though and we have had all kinds of crises, if you think about it,” Whaley said. “(But) That’s what leadership is: You have crises, you work through them, you’re honest about them, and then you move forward.”
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