What to Expect from AJ Wagner
Who is AJ Wagner? He’s a businessman, a writer, a retired judge, an educator, a husband and father, a community activist … and a man with a plan. He believes in Dayton: the neighborhoods, arts and entertainment, educational opportunities, entrepreneurism and most importantly, the potential for growth. AJ is genuinely committed to the city and it is his sincere hope to inspire others to “believe in Dayton as a destination, a spirit, an attitude, a vision and a home.” His enthusiasm is contagious. His determination is strong. His vision is dynamic.
I first met AJ at a holiday party last year. He was wearing a fantastic brown corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows and enthusiastically telling tales of how he and his wife Joan dress up as Santa and Mrs. Claus every Christmas. On the spot, I decided I was a fan of this charismatic man with a corduroy jacket, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when I was asked to interview him about his decision to run for Mayor of Dayton. We recently sat down at Caribou Coffee and chatted about his life, his goals and why running for Mayor is an important next step for him personally and professionally.
Can you tell me a little bit about your personal background and family?
I was born in Pittsburgh 60 years ago, the third child of what eventually became a large family with 18 children. I have to say I was raised in poverty. I had to stand in bread lines when I was a kid. I went to the College of Steubenville, home to Mayor James H. McGee. My wife and I have two daughters, Aileen Joan and Maureen Elizabeth, and two grandsons, Aaron Josiah and Ethan McGuinness. [AJ Wagner]
When did your interest in politics begin?
My dad was involved in politics in Beaver Falls, so I come by it honestly. I first ran for office when I was in grade school, and I lost. Actually, my wife and I met while I was circulating a petition to run for class Vice President in college. Politics and the urge to be involved in the community in a positive way have been in my blood for a long time. We moved to Dayton in 1974 so I could attend law school. In 1975, I went to work for the City of Dayton as a legislative aide. I worked for the City Manager’s office and for the Department of Planning and Development before I opened my own law practice. I started working for Probate Court as a referee in the mid-‘80s. [AJ]
What prior experience do you have on the campaign trail?
I ran Clay Dixon’s 1989 campaign for Mayor. In 1990, I decided it was time to run for office and I spent the next ten years as County Auditor. I’ve honestly had my eye on the mayor’s office on and off since 1985, and in 1997 I took a serious look at it, but decided against it. I eventually became a judge in 2000 and remained in that position until I retired at the end of 2010. [AJ]
With regard to your professional track record, what experiences will be the most relevant in your run for Mayor?
There are three main areas that have prepared me the most. I’ve run my own business, and it’s important for anyone in politics to understand what it’s like to be in business. Through my background in finance, I developed an understanding of government budgetary processes and innovative solutions for county government. Finally, being a judge expanded my knowledge of how to resolve conflict. [AJ]
Was there any particular event that made you decide to run?
My wife said, “Go ahead…” I would not do this without her support. She believes in me. We both know that what I’m committed to is going to be stressful and time-consuming. I love challenges and so does she. The challenge of being able to make lives better is worth it. [AJ]
What are some cornerstone issues of your campaign?
Everything is still in development, but our biggest focus right now has to be jobs. There has to be a multi-tiered plan of action for economic development in the community. There are already people out there trying to do good things, but it’s a question of unifying them and bringing a strong sales approach to projects that already exist. There is also a lot of office and industrial property we need to fill. I want to be part of the economic development teams that are pursuing new businesses. I also want to assure the people who are already in Dayton that it’s a good place to stay and do business. We can’t afford to lose businesses in the city. It’s my hope that I’m invited to sit at the table when we get close to deals to make sure that they get closed. Another part of economic development is arts and entertainment. We need to provide strong support for the arts. The merger of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance was brilliant because it helps run a more efficient organization. Keeping the arts alive is key to keeping a healthy city that is attractive to outsiders. [AJ]
We’ve spoken before about the importance of education. How does it factor into economic development?
Our best economic development tool is education. I’m a big fan of Dr. Tom Lasley’s Learn to Earn program. I’m confident we can develop a plan where every student who graduates from high school in the City of Dayton, who maintains good grades and qualifies for college, will have their Associate’s degree paid for. There’s a lot of good research that groups like updayton and Generation Dayton have looked at that shows that if we get college students involved in the community, they tend to stay. We also need to have a strong push for internships and good volunteer opportunities for college students while they are here. [AJ]
How are schools and neighborhoods involved in strengthening the community?
It all starts in the school systems. With the current school board and superintendent we can keep working on making schools better so the city can hang onto young families. We have work to do in the neighborhoods. We have some wonderful housing stock, from the historic areas out to the starter homes in Patterson Park and Westwood and other neighborhoods where families could thrive. If we can make all of our neighborhoods that attractive then we can keep young couples in the city once they start having children. I want all neighborhoods to be safe and walkable, with certain amenities like coffee shops and gathering places of some sort, a small grocery and a park. I’m also a big fan of urban gardening and co-ops. It’s a wonderful form of social entrepreneurism that creates a profit as well as fresh produce for people and institutions within the community. [AJ]
What makes you stand out as a candidate?
I think the city wants someone with a few years under their belt, someone who has experience as a judge, a finance person and a private businessperson. I bring that to the table in a way that no other potential candidates can. [AJ]
What is the most important message you want to get across to people?
You have to empower people and let them do it — encourage them to get involved and see that they can change their city. The young professional groups should be empowered to continue to do the things they’ve already been doing — they have been very effective. [AJ]
Where do you think the bulk of your support will come from?
We’re going to pick up pieces here, there and everywhere. I certainly think my support is out there. In every election, I’ve always won the city by significant numbers. I would expect that to be the case again. [AJ]
Will there be challenging demographics to get support from?
It depends on who else enters the race. There are only so many hours in the day, and you can only meet so many people. But that’s why I’m announcing it early … I have work to do. I need to get out and become acquainted and reacquainted with people. I can’t take anything for granted. [AJ]
What kind of feedback from family, friends and colleagues have you received?
At first, the most common feedback I received was, “What, are you nuts?” Maybe the answer is, “Yes!” I will lose a lot of time with my wife. I’ll have to downsize my law practice quite a bit to make more time. But we’re here to help other people. I wouldn’t have done any of the things I’ve done in my life without many good, generous people. There’s a lot of payback here because I’ve received a great deal in my life to get where I am. For those who know I’m going to run, they know that it’s a natural next step for me and they’ve been very supportive. They all have ideas, slogans for me and specific problems they’d like me to address — and they’re all right. There are some wonderful ideas coming from friends and acquaintances. [AJ]
You write for the Dayton City Paper and have published several books over the years. How does being a writer influence you personally and professionally?
I started writing in law school when I wrote for the law review. Being able to effectively communicate a message has the power to get results. In terms of my professional and legal career, it’s been critical to make sure people understand clearly what I’m trying to communicate. Personally, I think any artist would understand how I feel about writing: it just grabs hold of you and you have to do it. I love to write. I can’t find enough time to do it, but I try to write almost every night. I wrote children’s poetry just because it was fun. It was a wonderful thing to not only be able to write it, but to stand before classrooms and read it, seeing the reaction of kids. We gave the book Miracle on Alaska Street away to thousands of kids in Dayton Public Schools who otherwise might not have owned a book. I’ve been able to raise thousands of dollars for different charities through my writing. [AJ]
You have a strong religious foundation. How does your faith play into things?
My faith is tremendously important to me. It is what motivates me. I really believe in God’s presence in everyone and in the message that we should not judge people. It sounds funny coming from a judge — but I never judge people’s souls. I support the equal treatment of people in the community. My faith is strong, but on the same token, I believe that if you’re going to be part of democratic government, you can’t insert your religion into it. You can live your religion, you can argue for your values, but you can’t ignore the law because of your religion. You have to uphold the legislative process. [AJ]
What are your thoughts on future plans for some of the historic buildings in town?
One of the tougher decisions we’ll have over the next few years will be how to deal with our historic buildings, such as Memorial Hall and the Arcade. If we don’t find a developer for the Arcade, I don’t know how we’ll save it. I hope we can find someone who will really develop it and not just sit on it and let it deteriorate. Memorial Hall is another one … before they built the Schuster Center, I was in a planning meeting and I remember asking, “What’s going to happen to Memorial Hall?” The planners assured me that there was enough activity to keep Memorial Hall open. Look at what Matt Luongo’s doing with the Downtown Dayton Revival — this is great! Now, can you take that kind of energy and turn Memorial Hall into a venue that puts Dayton on the map as somewhere to visit? Sure. There has to be some creative thinking around it and some work, but I think it’s possible. [AJ]
To sum up in simple terms, who is AJ Wagner?
If you went out to my car with me right now, my satellite radio preset buttons include
Rock, Top 10 Hits, Soul, R&B, Country, Classical, Jazz, Sinatra and Oldies (because I’m an oldie). I think I’m about as eclectic as my radio choices. I hope I’m an open person to not just all those different sounds, but to all those different cultures, lifestyles and ideas.
Reach DCP freelance writer Annie Bowers at AnnieBowers@DaytonCityPaper.com.