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Analysis: What Is Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley Up To?

nan whaley
John Minchillo

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley has probably been asked the question 1,000 times since the 45-year-old Democrat announced in January that she won't run for a third term as Dayton's mayor: Are you going to run for Ohio governor in 2022?

Earlier this week I spoke with the mayor of my hometown and made it 1,001.

Will you run for governor or any other statewide office in 2022, I asked.

This is as close as I could get to an answer:

"I've made up my mind what I am gong to do,'' she said. "I'll make an announcement, probably in mid-April."

A fine political non-response response. And that's OK, she works on her schedule, not the media's.

So, it is left to those of us in the political punditry business to try to read the tea leaves and commit acts of brazen speculation. Here goes:

Yes, there are plenty of signs that point to Whaley running for governor (or some other office) in 2022. She has been enormously popular in Dayton; she ran for re-election as mayor in 2017 without opposition – the first time that has happened since Dayton has had direct election of the mayor.

Here's a clue as to what is on her mind:

Her former mayoral campaign website has been re-branded; it is now called Nan Whaley for Ohio, the kind of name you give a candidate for statewide office. On that website there is a tab where you can contribute to her (maybe) campaign through ActBlue, the organization which provides fundraising software to Democratic candidates.

Nan Whaley for Ohio is not the kind of name you choose for a website unless you have ambitions for statewide office.

Secondly, she has an ax to grind with Mike DeWine, Ohio's incumbent Republican governor.

It stems from the tragedy that struck Dayton in the early morning hours of Aug. 4, 2019 when a lone gunman, in the space of 32 seconds, killed nine people and wounded 17 others in a horrible bloodbath in Dayton's Oregon entertainment district. The gunman was shot and killed by police, who responded quickly. Had they not, many more people might have died.

Later that day, DeWine joined Whaley at an emotional vigil in a nearby park, where the crowd chanted to the governor, Do something, do something! DeWine was visibly moved by the crowd's anger and frustration.

Before long, the mayor and the governor announced a "Strong Ohio" bill for the Republican dominated Ohio General Assembly to consider. It was a package of reforms they believed would make it harder for people like the Dayton mass murderer to get their hands on weapons and to generally reduce gun violence in Ohio.

But the legislature, which has long danced to the tune of the National Rifle Association and the Buckeye Firearms Association, did nothing with the package. In fact, it passed a "Stand Your Ground" bill which eliminated the duty to retreat in the face of possible gunfire.

Whaley, along with most of the other big city mayors in Ohio, were enraged when DeWine signed it into law.

"I know people in Dayton feel betrayed,'' Whaley told me in January. "I feel incredibly disappointed. He caved into the pro-gun lobby and the legislators of his own party who passed this bill. You cannot sign that bill and then say you will work to enact real gun reforms."

If she does decide to run for governor, she will likely have the backing of the 314 Action Fund, a national PAC which promotes Democratic candidates who have a background in science. The PAC is working hard to convince Amy Acton, the former Ohio Health Department director, to run for Ohio's open Senate seat next year.

Joshua Morrow, the executive director of the PAC, told me his group has had discussions with Whaley about running for governor. They were attracted to her, Morrow said, because she has a degree in chemistry from the University of Dayton.

"Yes, I've talked to them about it,'' Whaley told me this week. "It's the first time anyone has ever been excited about my chemistry degree."

If Whaley does decide to run for governor, it would likely put her in a Democratic primary with Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, who is her personal friend and close political ally.

It would be awkward, but they are both grown-ups and could run a civil primary campaign. Cranley has been raising money and traveling the state for months with the aim of running for governor. Could they team up and be on the same ticket as candidates for governor and lieutenant governor?

Or could Whaley be thinking instead of running for the U.S. House seat held since 2003 by Republican Mike Turner, a former Dayton mayor? There has been no love lost between those two in the years Whaley has been mayor.

Or could she be thinking of stepping into the fray for the open U.S. Senate seat?

Whaley could also be looking at one of the down-ticket statewide offices – treasurer, auditor, secretary of state.

The bottom line is this: I don't know yet. If I had to guess, I'd say governor.

In the meantime, we'll just keep asking the question: What's next for Nan Whaley?

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Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.