Young candidates vie for 39th District

A young rising star in the local Democratic party and a Republican college student will face off in the race to represent Ohio’s 39th District, which leans Democratic and covers large sections of Dayton, Drexel and Jefferson Twp.

Willis Blackshear Jr., 29, who works for the Montgomery County Auditor’s Office, will compete against John Ferrell Mullins III, a 20-year-old undergraduate at the University of Dayton.

Blackshear is a community liaison for the Montgomery County Auditor’s Office and former president of the Greater Dayton Young Democrats.

He is the son of the late Willis Blackshear Sr., who was the Montgomery County recorder and one of a small number of Black candidates to be elected to a countywide, nonjudicial position.

Public service also runs in Mullins' blood. His grandmother, Rita Mullins, was the first female mayor of Palatine, Illinois, and held the office for two decades.

Mullins, who goes by Trey, is from Novi, Michigan. He is the vice president of University of Dayton College Republicans.

Blackshear and Mullins are vying to succeed state Rep. Fred Strahorn, a Democrat who has served four consecutive terms and has reached his term limit.

The Dayton Daily News sent a list of questions to Blackshear and Mullins.

Mullins declined to provide answers beyond basic background information. Blackshear’s edited responses are below.

Q: Why are you running for this office? And what makes you qualified for this position?

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.

Q: What issues do you think are most important to voters? Why are you the right person to address these issues?

Blackshear: Too often, it seems like the members of Ohio’s General Assembly leave children, families and businesses in our urban areas behind. They don’t focus on the issues that matter to real people.

As I assisted many property owners in applying for tax relief in the wake of the tornados, I heard their concerns that went beyond the damage to their properties. I heard seniors talk about the difficulties of living on a fixed income, trying to pay their bills, pay for their medications and still have money left for food. Parents shared their concerns with our local schools and their wish for their children to have a quality education.

Our state legislature is too focused on frivolous causes. Last year, the Ohio House passed a bill that prevents cities from banning plastic bags. Meanwhile, residents of the 39th District are living in a food desert, without access to fresh food.

As I’ve continued my work throughout this year during a pandemic, I know firsthand that members of our community are concerned for the safety of their families. But the Republican Statehouse wants to end important COVID-19 guidelines, putting our community further at risk.

Q; What specifically will you do if elected to office to improve the lives of your constituents?

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 skilled 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.

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.

Finally, there’s a simple way the state can improve our communities: by reinvesting in the local government fund. This would give our local governments the resources they need to fix potholes, beautify our neighborhoods and bolster the other services that improve our residents' everyday lives.

Q: Do you support or oppose the state authority to issue public health orders to shut down businesses, schools and other activities during a pandemic?

Blackshear: I support the state authority to issue public health orders. Districts like the 39th have been hit the hardest during this pandemic. The pandemic has caused businesses to have to shut down, people losing their jobs and people losing their lives. We need to listen to the experts so we can get things back to where they used to be. The state needs to focus on making sure Public Health has the resources needed to address this issue instead of taking away its authority.

Q: Do you support or oppose removing the ‘catch all’ language in Ohio’s child immunization laws that allow parents to opt not to have their kids vaccinated for reasons of conscience?

Blackshear: I support removing the “catch-all” language in Ohio’s immunization laws. Immunizations protect both the public and the individuals against communicable diseases.

Q: Ohio and other states saw sustained demonstrations this summer against racial injustice and police brutality. Protesters called for a slate of reforms. What do you think are the most important changes we should make and where do you stand on the following reforms:

Blackshear: Ban or severely limit choke holds? Support

Ban or severely limit use of tear gas? Support

Increase police officer basic and ongoing training, particularly for de-escalation and recognizing implicit bias? Support

Require independent investigations of officer-involved shootings and deaths in custody? Support

Require centralized reporting to the state of use of force incidents? Support

Increase transparency for officer discipline and disciplinary files? Support

As a co-chair of the city of Dayton’s police reform use-of-force working group, one of the first recommendations we put forth was for police body cameras. I believe that all officers should have on body cameras because it helps with transparency and trust. It is imperative that we set aside funding for this. We need to focus on improving the trust between citizens and the people they serve.

Q: The FBI and DOJ is charging former Ohio House speaker Larry Householder and four other men in a racketeering scheme that allegedly involved $60 million in bribes to elect Householder and pro-Householder lawmakers, make him speaker, pass House Bill 6 and defend the bailout bill from a referendum. Have you received campaign donations or any support from Friends of Larry Householder, Larry Householder, Jeff Longstreth, Neil Clark, Juan Cepedes, Matt Borges, Generation Now, FirstEnergy PAC, any other FirstEnergy sources? If so, have you or will you donate that money to charities?

Blackshear: No, I have not received any support from the people or organizations stated above.

Q: Do you support or oppose repeal of HB6?

HB6 was forced through the legislature by corrupt elected officials that sold out Ohioans for their own bottom line. I support the repeal of HB6.

Q: SB221, the governor’s Strong Ohio gun reform package, isn’t likely to pass this legislative session and will likely be re-introduced next session. Where do you stand on the basic elements of the package?

Should Ohio require background checks for ALL gun purchases, including private party sales?

Blackshear: I am a supporter of Gov. Mike DeWine’s STRONG Ohio bill, but 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.

Q: Should Ohio pass a red flag law that allows families and police to seek a court order to remove firearms from those deemed to be a danger to themselves or others?

Blackshear: Yes.

Q: State lawmakers craft laws that impact open meetings and access to public records. In your public service experience, how have you worked to increase transparency?

Blackshear: Transparency is vital to maintaining the public’s trust in our state and local governments. I’ve already mentioned my work on Dayton’s use-of-force working group, recommending that the city issue body cameras to every police officer. I believe this step is vital for transparency in policing. In addition, my work in the Auditor’s Office this past year has centered around our 2020 property reappraisal. We have gone the extra mile to make this reappraisal fully transparent, and have even given each property owner the opportunity to participate in the process.

Q: Given the pandemic and economic crisis, state tax revenues are tumbling and the upcoming budget is expected to be very challenging. Would you vote to increase income, sales and/or business taxes to avoid drastic cuts to state programs? Why or why not?

Blackshear: We should consider using some of Ohio’s Rainy Day Fund money to avoid drastic cuts to state programs. If a pandemic and an economic crisis don’t count as a rainy day, I’m not sure what does. We need to make use of these funds instead of letting them sit.

Q: A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June makes employment discrimination against LGBTQ workers illegal but it doesn’t cover housing or places of public accommodation. For more than a decade, some Ohio lawmakers have tried to pass a bill that would make discrimination in housing, employment and places of public accommodation illegal on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce now backs this bill. Do you support or oppose the bill?

Blackshear: It’s shameful that our Republican state legislature has refused to support protections for the LGBTQ community against discrimination of any kind. I fully support this bill.

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