Nan Whaley acknowledges she has grown and changed since four years ago, the last time she announced a campaign to become Ohio’s governor.
The intervening years as mayor of Dayton have offered her no choice. First came a series of tornadoes on Memorial Day in 2019 that killed two, injured others and reportedly caused $1 billion in damage. A mass shooting two months later at a Dayton bar left nine people dead.
The city was still rebuilding — both structurally and emotionally — just as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Dayton and all other corners of Ohio. Dayton’s Montgomery County has recorded 996 coronavirus deaths through Monday.
“The challenges that Dayton has faced, which are through no fault of anybody in Dayton, has made me realize the issues that we confront, we need new leadership in Ohio to really get done,” Whaley told the Ohio Capital Journal.
Whaley is the first Democrat to jump in the gubernatorial race, though Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley has also committed to competing for the party’s primary. Other candidates may follow, with the primary election scheduled for a year from now.
The winner is expected to face Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who has said he plans to run for reelection.
Whaley served eight years in the Dayton City Commission before being elected as mayor in 2013. She ran unsuccessfully for governor during that first term as mayor.
Now finishing up her second term, Whaley said she is campaigning again for a chance to impact Ohioans’ lives at the statewide level.
Whaley is deeply critical of the present Republican leadership within the Ohio General Assembly, saying Ohioans “deserve better than what they’re getting from the Statehouse.”
Once complimentary of DeWine’s efforts on gun reform and the pandemic, Whaley now condemns her potential electoral opponent for not sufficiently pushing back against the far-right members of his party.
“I think there are opportunities that we could’ve gotten something done, but because (DeWine’s) too weak to stand up to those folks, we don’t get it done,” she said, reflecting on the past few years.
In March 2020, she told the Washington Post that she disagreed with DeWine on “all kinds of things, but he can lead.”
“Watching the leadership of state and local officials through this crisis, I’m so proud to be in this state,” she said as Ohio first responded to COVID-19.
Her view of DeWine’s handling of the pandemic soured when he announced a statewide mask mandate in late April, then rescinded it a day later after receiving criticism from business owners and Republican legislators.
In July, Dayton was the first Ohio city to require masks in public, and other cities quickly followed suit. DeWine reissued the state mask mandate a few weeks later and it remains in effect.
How would Whaley bridge the ideological divide as a Democratic governor facing off against a Republican-led legislature she views as extreme?
“I think that the key is having true grassroots support in the governor’s office,” she answered.
Public support has not always helped a sitting governor overcome legislative roadblocks. DeWine has remained generally popular among nearly all demographics since the beginning of the pandemic — his approval rating reached 80% last March and stood at 66% in November. That has not stopped the General Assembly from introducing an array of bills targeting his administration’s public health authority, nor did it prevent the Republican supermajorities from overriding DeWine’s veto of one such bill last month.
Public opinion has not yet benefited the governor on another issue important to Whaley: gun safety reform.
On Aug. 4, 2019, a Dayton shooter killed nine people and injured 17 more. The next day, DeWine spoke at a vigil for the shooting and the crowd chanted repeatedly for him and other public officials to “do something” to curb gun violence.
The governor stood aside Whaley that October in unveiling his proposed “STRONG Ohio” legislation. Public polling shows a vast majority of Americans support universal background checks for all gun sales. DeWine’s bill did not go that far, instead calling for an optional background check system for private sales.
At the time, Whaley called the bill an “important start.” The legislation stalled in the General Assembly last term, never receiving a vote. A version of the bill is expected to be reintroduced this term.
Whaley blamed special interests and corrupt lawmakers for defeating legislation that she said most Ohioans supported.
“We have so much corruption in the Statehouse, that they’re more interested in their extreme, political right-wing friends, and they’re more interested in the lobbyists that line their pockets, than what regular Ohioans want,” Whaley said.
She lambasted a state government in need of “serious transparency and serious disinfectant,” throwing support behind campaign finance reform that would require better public disclosure of political donors. The candidate said she would roll out further proposals on ethics reform in the coming months.
Ohio Democrats made anti-corruption a key issue in the 2020 election cycle following the arrest of House Speaker Larry Householder and other Republican operatives as part of the House Bill 6 scandal. The party lost seats in the General Assembly, however, as President Trump carried Ohio by 8 points in an unsuccessful bid for reelection.
Whaley said it is difficult for Democratic legislators to “drive the agenda” facing up against supermajorities in the Statehouse without any power from the executive branch.
“It’s important that we start the cleaning from the top,” she said, claiming that doing so would provide opportunities to make improvements toward education, poverty and public health initiatives.
‘We’re going to try everything, because we have to’
Whaley’s campaign hopes to achieve a reversal of fortune for a political party that has not won a statewide executive branch election in Ohio in 15 years.
To do so — after first winning the Democratic primary — Whaley would need to defeat an incumbent governor with decades of political experience, near universal name recognition and millions of dollars already on hand before his reelection campaign has begun in earnest.
Though DeWine already has one primary challenger and may face more over the next year, the Republican Governor’s Association is standing by the incumbent.
“Governor Mike DeWine’s leadership kept Ohioans safe, people working, and kids learning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and his policies continue to put Ohio first,” said RGA Executive Director Dave Rexrode in a provided statement, calling Whaley a “failed candidate.”
The election will take place during a midterm election year, which historically has not favored the party controlling the White House. That is how Ohio Democrats won its most recent gubernatorial election — in 2006 during the Bush presidency, as Democrats nationwide flipped both chambers of Congress and won a number of statewide elections in Ohio.
Democrat Ted Strickland won the governor’s seat over Republican Ken Blackwell by a margin of 1 million votes that year. That’s also the year Sherrod Brown first won election to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, defeating an incumbent with advantages in name recognition and fundraising: Mike DeWine.
Things have changed since 2006. Ohio has even changed from when Whaley ran for governor in 2017; swaths of rural Ohio went further red in favor of Trump last year as Democrats bolstered gains in metro areas and suburbs.
Ohio Democrats will field candidates for seven statewide candidates next year, including the U.S. Senate seat left open by the retirement of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati. Republicans currently hold all seven, and besides the Portman seat, all appear to be gearing up for reelection bids.
Whaley’s campaign intends to “test, innovate, measure, and experiment” with reaching out to Ohio voters this year, campaign manager John Hagner wrote on Twitter.
“We’re going to try everything, because we have to,” Hagner added, pointing to Democratic gains in Georgia and elsewhere.
Just 2 ½ years after writing a New York Times column entitled, “Ohio Isn’t a Red State Yet,” Whaley will now lead a campaign seeking a new path forward for an Ohio Democratic candidate to win the state. She said Monday she’s ready for the challenge.
“I’ve never thought of Ohio as like a red state or a blue state,” she said. “I think it’s about Ohioans not getting listened to.”