For the third time in the past 50 years, Dayton has elected a 30-something mayor, and like Paul Leonard and Mike Turner before her, Nan Whaley is a strong, confident personality.
The woman who was executive director of the Montgomery County Democratic Party in her early 20s and a city commissioner at 29, said Thursday, “I got really used to always being the youngest person in the room.”
Whaley, 37, will be the youngest person in a new “room” as the youngest mayor in Ohio’s six major cities. But she’ll be trying to solve problems of blight, job and population loss, and income and housing-value declines that are older than she is.
Dayton’s population has dropped steadily from 243,000 in 1970 to 141,000 today, and that flight has left the city with the same hollowed-out neighborhoods and struggling schools that plague many Midwest cities.
Whaley said her largest goal is to help create growth in Dayton’s job market.
“The whole reason we care about jobs – a lot of people think it’s the income tax (receipts) and that’s a nice side thing – but when our folks are working, it’s better across the board,” Whaley said. They’re taking care of their kids. They’re taking care of their neighborhood and their house. Our community is better.”
From UD to mayor
An Indiana native, Whaley came to the University of Dayton in fall 1994 and earned a degree in chemistry, a subject she says she didn’t love, but that helped make her a data-driven person.
She helped lead the College Democrats at UD, then spent two years in her early 20s leading the county party and serving on the Board of Elections. She said she was offered a job with the Democratic National Committee in 1999, and thought that if she left for Washington, D.C., she likely wouldn’t come back to Dayton.
“But I just knew I wasn’t interested in D.C. and wanted to stay in Dayton. I just really love it,” Whaley said. “(County Auditor Karl Keith) said something like, you’ll know the right decision for you, and it was the best decision I made.”
After working on the Board of Elections, on local campaigns, and as an assistant to Keith in the auditor’s office, Whaley said she got her “a-ha moment” about running for office herself.
“Emily’s List (a group that supports pro-choice Democratic female candidates) came to me in like 2003, and said, we think you should run for Congress,” Whaley said. “I’m 27, and I said, well that’s crazy. … The idea of raising a million dollars sounded insane to me. But going through that process and thinking about that made me say, I don’t want to be in Congress, but I do want to run for City Commission and make a difference in my community in a bigger way. That was a big turning point for me.”
Whaley was elected to City Commission in 2005, and her first years weren’t always smooth, from comments about a police protest that angered some officers, to a rocky first year with fellow Commissioner Joey Williams.
Williams said Friday that he could quickly see Whaley’s intelligence and energy but thought she should learn the lay of the land a little more before being so outspoken.
“The turning point was sort of a comical gift I gave her,” Williams said. “The key song on this CD was called “Bossy,” by a young female hip-hop artist. She thought that was pretty funny, and I think that was sort of the beginning of a turnaround in our relationship, and it’s probably improved every year.”
Over the past eight years, Whaley has gradually become the most outspoken and possibly most active member of City Commission. And at Tuesday night’s election celebration, Whaley and Williams — who was re-elected to commission with more votes than Whaley received for mayor — joked about their early tension now that they are major allies. Whaley called Williams her political “wingman.”
Moving Dayton forward
Whaley outlined possibly her biggest challenge without even being asked on Thursday. She said if she could accomplish one thing in the next four years, it would be job growth for the area. But she also said that job and economic growth is an issue that’s hard for local government to control.
Robert Greenbaum, an associate professor at Ohio State’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs, agreed with Whaley, saying the smaller the community, the larger the influence of the national economy — meaning Dayton doesn’t have the same control that Columbus or Indianapolis might.
Greenbaum said Dayton was hurt by its outsized reliance on the auto and manufacturing industries. When those industries were robust, the city flourished. But when they failed, it hurt an entire region.
Pittsburgh was a similar case, said Greenbaum, as the collapse of the steel industry caused a long decline. He said the city is experiencing some recovery now, but added it has taken decades to achieve.
Whaley’s jobs plan has many prongs — from logistics and manufacturing ideas to the education and medical industries, capitalizing on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and building a workforce that will support any industry.
Greenbaum said that diversity of industry is a key to success for many strong cities, and he said Whaley’s plan dovetails with the Brookings Institute’s call for cities to build around existing strong institutions.
“For us locally, it’s a regional effort. It has to be,” Whaley said. “When people are looking for jobs, sure I want them to come into Dayton, and that’ll be a priority for me, but it’s really a priority that it has to come in the region.”
Whaley said she has tried to take a long-term view to problem-solving, pushing for land-use policy and land banking to solve housing problems, and encouraging long-term infrastructure investments like Dayton’s ongoing bridge work. But she said her focus will likely shift as mayor.
“I think it’s going to be a lot more business-focused, a lot more focused on economic development, because business leaders want to meet with the mayor,” Whaley said. “I’m excited about that, and that’s going to be new for me. As the only woman on commission, I’ve noticed that I have a really good relationship with other women CEOs.”
Whaley is not afraid of the spotlight, and has already said she plans to be a more vocal, aggressive advocate for the city than outgoing Mayor Gary Leitzell has been.
But at the same time, she said she’ll work closely with the other four members of all Democratic City Commission — Williams, Dean Lovelace, Matt Joseph and Jeff Mims.
“If you asked me what I’m most excited about, for being mayor, it’s this team. Matt and Joey and Dean and Jeff have so much capital in the community,” Whaley said. “Plus, they’re smart, and they get what we need to do.”
What others say
There are a variety of opinions on how a mayor should govern. Former mayor Rhine McLin said a mayor can only be as powerful as her fellow commissioners will allow. McLin’s predecessor, Congressman Mike Turner, said the city needs a strong mayor, arguing that you can’t lead the region via a committee of five.
Letizell argued that he was hamstrung somewhat because he didn’t fit in with an otherwise all-Democrat commission.
“I think the new commission will work together because of the (political) party ties,” Leitzell said. “I just hope that they maintain an open mind and look at new ideas. … We need creative people sitting at the table with the decision makers saying, ‘wait a second, that may not work, why don’t we try something different.’ That’s what I do, and we still need that influence.”
Williams said he doesn’t think Leitzell’s ideas have been as out-of-step with the rest of the commission as the public thinks. And despite their public image, he says the ideas of the other commissioners are not in lockstep.
“I think it’s a group that’s going to respect each other’s differences, and we’re going to have debate,” Williams said. “It’s not good to have five that think exactly the same.”
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