Dayton City Commissioner Nan Whaley enters heated mayoral race
While the suits in Washington decide over confusing matters like fiscal cliffs, tax dollars going out the window and gun control, it may not seem like much is happening in Dayton’s local government. Don’t be fooled: there is plenty happening around the city, including a race for mayor that seems to be getting tighter and more interesting every day. As current mayor Gary Leitzell prepares for the race in hopes of getting reelected and Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge A.J. Wagner announcing his candidacy last spring, a new contender has stepped into the ring: City Commissioner Nan Whaley. For those familiar with local politics, Whaley has proudly been serving the city that she loves as city commissioner for two consecutive terms and now she hopes to take her public service one step further by entering the race for mayor. But who exactly is Whaley, what kinds of hopes and dreams does she have for city and why is she running for mayor in the first place? All of those questions and more is what led me to sit down with Whaley in order to figure out, among other things, why she has such a desire to run for mayor, why she loves the city so much and, if elected, what she plans to do for Dayton.
First off, tell me a little bit about your background. Did you grow up in the area?
No, I’m originally from Indiana. I went to high school there and afterwards found the University of Dayton and graduated from UD with a degree in chemistry.
And became a faithful Flyer?
Yes, I happily became a Flyer, and I got quite active in the city when I was at UD. I remember living in the dorms at Marycrest and taking a bus to the Democratic headquarters downtown, and that’s when I fell in love with the city. Once I graduated I knew I wanted to stay here, and I’ve lived in the city ever since.
Has politics always been a part of your life?
Yes, it’s always been something that I’ve really enjoyed. I think that getting involved in government is the best way to make a meaningful difference in your community. That’s what always attracted me to it. It was one of those things where you do what you love, and I loved being active in the community so I just went for it.
Explain to me a little bit about the structure of Dayton’s city government, how it operates and why someone in your position as City Commissioner might decide to run for mayor?
We have what’s called a council/manager form of government. Basically, the way it works is that there’s a commission which decides on policies and budgets for the city, then the city manager does all the hiring and firing at the staffing levels. That’s how the separation of power works. Currently, about 80 percent of the cities in Ohio have this kind of government structure, Dayton just happens to be the largest city that utilizes it.
Has it been this way throughout the history of the city?
No, it started around the time of the Great Flood [of 1913]. John H. Patterson, who of course was the founder of the National Cash Register Company, helped get Dayton out of dire straits after the flood. He had looked into council management, which at the time was a fairly new type of system, and also took the structure of his board at NCR and applied it to a city. So in a very small nutshell, the city manager would be the equivalent of a CEO, the mayor like the board president and the four city commissioners were like board members.
So what made you decide to run for mayor, since it appears that people within the council get more of a say on policies and budgets than the mayor actually does?
The position of mayor is still very important to our local government. I love being a city commissioner, but I think there are opportunities for the community to win if it has a mayor who is pushing hard and advocating for the success of the city and of the region. The mayor is a voice that can be used for leveraging our assets and bringing people together within the community, and that’s what I intend to strive for if elected. I love this city and I believe the mayor can make a really big difference, so for me it’s the belief that I am advocating for the residents of the city and for the future of Dayton. The mayor can do a lot in setting a vision for the city. I also understand that for success to happen it’s going to be a team effort, which is where my experience as city commissioner comes into play. Commissioners [Joey] Williams and [Matt] Joseph and I have a similar outlook on what needs to be done to move Dayton forward and I look forward to working with them to implement our vision.
As city commissioner, what kinds of things have you done to improve the city?
In the seven years that I’ve been commissioner, the city has been hit with numerous roadblocks and the challenge for the council has been to manage some really tough budgets. While that may not be the shiniest or flashiest of things to work on, it’s an aspect that’s really important to me. Another thing I’ve focused my attention on is the issue of vacant housing. Dayton got hit really hard with a housing crisis, and before I even arrived Commissioner Dean Lovelace passed a predatory lending bill to curb the unscrupulous lending that was occurring in our community. It was a ground-breaking piece of legislation but eventually the state stepped in and said that cities were not allowed to regulate banks performing this kind of legislation. They even went as far as to say that lending wasn’t an issue in Ohio, so we got hit extra hard in that aspect. I think it’s clear that if Commissioner Lovelace’s legislation were allowed to remain in effect we wouldn’t have nearly as difficult of a housing crisis as we do here in Dayton.
What made you so interested in the housing crisis and, more specifically, in the problem of vacant/abandoned buildings across the city?
It’s something that you just can’t miss, quite frankly. It’s a really big problem that many people don’t want to deal with, and my thought was to take it one step at a time. I’ve talked with the Dayton Fire Chief [Herbert C. Redden II], who has said it’s clear that vacant properties create crime problems, and that’s important when you’re considering living in a certain area. It’s also important for the citizens of Dayton to feel like if they invest in their properties that the value will stabilize. That hasn’t been the case lately, and it’s certainly not the case when there’s a vacant house sitting next door. All of these reasons, from stabilizing the housing stock to trying to make neighborhoods stronger, safer and more attractive have been the pieces of the puzzle that made me want to tackle the issue in the first place. If we don’t invest in the issue now, then we are just going to keep the same problems alive in the future.
Speaking of the future, what are some other key issues of your campaign?
Besides housing, I think it’s going to come down to the job market in Dayton. We need to create better opportunities for people across the entire city, and to do that we need to utilize our assets. Areas like Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the downtown business sector and our water system are where jobs can be created, and there should be a long-term strategy to assure that our economy is stable enough to survive. Education is also essential, and I see that as another part of the plan for more jobs here in Dayton. I know it gets discussed a lot, but having a serious action plan to tackle the issue of jobs in our local economy and being realistic about what we can achieve is something I really want to work with and have the community behind. Like I said earlier, Dayton’s neighborhoods really need the support from the city government so that they can make their neighborhoods the best they can be.
What more can be done within the realm of education?
It’s important for the mayor and the superintendent to be in a healthy partnership with each other, and if that occurs then it can create a culture of learning across the entire city. Statewide, Ohio has a third grade reading guarantee, meaning that every child coming out of third grade and going into fourth needs to have the ability to read. Making sure our kids have the right reading skills for the real world is something the city needs to focus on more in the coming years. We also need to figure out better ways that the community can connect with the school district. There should be more of a connection between our local libraries and Dayton Public Schools, and we need to create neighborhoods that support reading in our kids. These kinds of ideas can help improve the livelihood of our future generation, and it’s not simply about what can be done within the schools, but also outside of the schools to involve our community in this important mission.
You mention the downtown area, which seems to have a general misconception of being scary and unsafe. What more can be done to help improve the downtown area to get more people to come visit and live downtown?
Downtown is one of the safest areas in Dayton. There are certainly opportunities available to make it better, and creating centers of excitement for people and having better housing downtown would help out tremendously. The bottom line is that we need to keep it safe for our citizens. I also think there is huge opportunity already available, with events like Urban Nights, First Fridays and the recent Downtown Dayton Revival concert that took place in early September. So when people say there’s nothing to do downtown, they probably just aren’t looking hard enough. I mean, sure, right now during the winter months there’s not much to do anywhere, but generally speaking there’s usually some kind of event happening every weekend in downtown Dayton, and there’s still so much that can be done as well. We’re always looking for the next big thing that can be done that will get people excited to come to Dayton and especially get them excited to come downtown.
What are some other things happening to Dayton that you’re excited about?
Another thing I’m really proud of is working to make the city more bike-friendly. This includes the Bike/Walk Dayton Committee, which engages engineers, police, business, public health and residents to create the infrastructure and environment to make Dayton more bike-friendly. One example of these efforts is the new bike lanes downtown. Our goal is to connect more street bike lanes to one of the best trail systems in the country. Dayton is one of three cities in Ohio considered to be bike-friendly by the League of American Bicyclists.
Before we end, could you summarize the goal of your mayoral campaign in a couple brief sentences?
Well, I think Dayton is in a really interesting point of time right now, especially with the anniversary of the Great Flood. That flood changed everything for the city, and now Dayton is again going through some really tough times. But as the flood taught us, even the most difficult of obstacles can’t stand in this city’s way of rising to the top. We have a rich history, and now it’s time for us to take the lessons of our past and apply them towards our future. And I don’t intend to do it alone. As mayor, I plan on using clear communication and teamwork in order to get things done. Now is the time for Dayton as a city to redefine itself, and it’s time to build a better future for both ourselves and our future generations.
Reach DCP freelance writer Zach Rogers at ZachRogers@daytoncitypaper.com