Dayton Mayor touts economic resurgence

Nan Whaley wants to become governor so state will do more for local communities

By Tim Walker

When Nan Whaley, mayor of the city of Dayton since 2014, stood downtown outside Warped Wing Brewing Co. in May and announced her plans to seek the Democratic nomination for the governor of Ohio in the 2018 election, her announcement was greeted with surprise—and support—from many quarters. For Whaley, however, the decision to run in her first statewide campaign was a very simple one.

“I love being the mayor of Dayton,” Whaley says. “It’s been one of the best experiences of my life.” Indeed, Whaley’s announcement and enthusiasm for the mayor’s job has already resulted in a number of early endorsements of her candidacy, including two major ones from Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and from the powerful IUE-CWA union, which represents nearly 40,000 active and 100,000 retired industrial and manufacturing workers, including 5,000 in Ohio.

As only the second female mayor of Ohio’s sixth-largest city, 41-year-old Whaley has faced a number of challenges during her tenure, with two of the most prominent being the drug crisis and the struggles of Dayton’s public school system. The city has been widely identified by the national news media as one of the epicenters of the current opioid epidemic and Whaley has been widely recognized for her efforts in trying to take the streets back from the devastating drug traffic. In June, the mayor earned a great deal of publicity when she announced that the city of Dayton had filed a lawsuit against a number of pharmaceutical manufacturers over their contributions to the city’s opioid crisis, a move which came on the heels of a similar announcement from Mike DeWine, the state’s attorney general (and Republican candidate for governor).

“The big drug companies,” Whaley says, “claimed opioids weren’t addictive, and they created this crisis. They must be held responsible and pay their fair share to clean it up. We need to treat this epidemic like the statewide emergency that it is.”

Under Whaley’s leadership, Dayton declared a state of emergency over the recent drug crisis and helped to develop a needle-exchange program, one which refers addicts to local resources as well as trying to reduce HIV infections by providing clean needles to drug users. The city has also continued to ensure that first-responders had easy access to the drug naloxone, used by police and health professionals to revive victims of opioid overdoses.
In a subject that has drawn criticism, Dayton’s public schools have unfortunately seen little improvement during Whaley’s time in the mayor’s office, although she had pledged to make education a priority during her 2013 campaign. While able to avoid a much-threatened teacher’s strike, one which would have started just before this year’s school term, Dayton’s schools still struggle to meet the state’s academic goals, having earned the worst performance index in the state on 2015’s state tests according to the “school report cards.” The performance index measures the actual test performance of every student, adding credit for high scores while penalizing low ones. Dayton’s performance index, at 62.95, was only good enough for a “D” in Ohio’s grading system, and Lockland was the only other school district in Ohio to score below a 66 for that year.

“We’ve tried to do a lot for early childhood education in Dayton,” Whaley says when asked about the local school system. “All 4 year olds now have the universal opportunity to go to a high-quality preschool, regardless. We know that investments in early childhood are one of the best investments we can make to encourage long-term change and create long-term opportunity. We have to do that and we’re not doing that.”

Even with the struggles, however, Whaley sees a brighter future for the state. “I believe Ohio’s best days are ahead of us,” she says. “I think we need more people in government that are willing to get their hands dirty and to be more honest about what’s going on and to work on the challenges before us.”

The youngest woman elected to Dayton’s City Commission in 2005, Whaley won her first term as mayor in 2013, and is running unopposed for the job in the next election. She has also served on the Montgomery County Board of Elections and as a county deputy auditor. Born in Mooresville, Ind., Whaley has lived in Dayton since graduating from the University of Dayton in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Whaley subsequently received her master of public administration degree in 2009 from Wright State University, where she has also served as an adjunct professor.

It is in the governor’s seat, however, that Whaley thinks she can best help Ohio’s struggling communities. “I can see what the state is doing to our local communities. You have these great mayors that are completely committed to their communities and they are just getting no help from the state. We should have a state government that works in partnership with our local communities.”

“Over this past decade,” Whaley says, “the state government’s tax policies, their investment in both the people of Ohio and their local cities and towns, have just completely gone away. It would be fine if they were creating jobs and our economy was more robust, and we weren’t getting further and further behind in this state. We’re not competing. I think it’s because we’re not investing in our communities and we’re not investing in our people. That’s what really thrills me in this race. In Dayton we’ve seen a really strong economic resurgence, and I believe it is because the community has really come together.”