Analysis: Sooner Or Later, Cranley And Whaley Will Have To Debate Each Other

Jun 4, 2021

Looking at it from the outside, the early stages of the Battle of the Mayors – Nan Whaley of Dayton and John Cranley of Cincinnati – for the 2022 Ohio Democratic nomination for governor would appear to be a stark contrast in styles.

Whaley, with her internal eight-cylinder engine constantly revving. Cranley, who seems to be in no hurry to formally announce his candidacy, quietly raising a huge pile of money and making forays around the state in his spare time.

Neither one has to worry about a mayoral election this year – Whaley announced in January she wouldn’t seek a third term (she has been so popular that the Republican Party in Montgomery County didn't even bother to field a candidate for mayor in 2017), while Cranley is finishing up his second four-year term and is term-limited out.

They have been friends and political allies in the past, but now they will likely have to go head-to-head in the May 2022 primary.

Both are concentrating their campaigns on bringing down Republican incumbent Mike DeWine, who has plenty of trouble and a likely primary challenge in his own party.

Earlier this week, Whaley showed up  in front of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus for a press conference in which she rolled out her own plan to deal with the public corruptions issues that have shaken people's faith in state government and to rake DeWine over the coals for doing nothing about it.

"He is too weak,'' Whaley told me Thursday. "Ohio deserves better than what we have now."

She's felt this way since last July, when federal agents arrested former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four of his Republican associates in a $61 million bribery scheme aimed at convincing the legislature to give FirstEnergy a $1.3 billion bailout for two poorly-run nuclear power plants. Householder remains in office.

"It has been nearly a year and Mike DeWine has done absolutely nothing – not a single thing – to deal with this situation,'' Whaley said. "And electric ratepayers are paying for this corruption in their electric bills."

It's smart of Whaley and her campaign to hold such press conferences at the Statehouse in Columbus for one reason – that is where the Statehouse press corps works and you have the potential to reach nearly every media outlet in the state of Ohio because of a press corps that is hungry for political news.

If you are a political writer – or, really anybody else – and you want to see Cranley get agitated, just suggest to him that it would appear he is not taking the gubernatorial campaign as seriously as Whaley and has been nearly invisible outside of his mayoral duties – which will come to an end in December.

"I am absolutely committed to running for governor of this state," Cranley told me, his voice rising a few octaves. He tends to  talk very fast when agitated.

"I don't know how anybody could say I am not."

Cranley plans to make it official in the coming months and roll out a detailed platform over the summer.

Asked how much he can devote to this now, Cranley said he can do enough and still do his job.

"Look, I'm not just a candidate for governor,'' Cranley said. "I also have a major American city to run."

That could be regarded as a slight to Whaley, who runs a city that is not nearly the size of Cincinnati but has a long and proud history. (Full disclosure: Dayton is also my hometown. It is where I was born and raised. It may not be a major metropolis, but it was plenty big enough to produce two boys who, in 1903, unlocked the secret to powered flight. So there.)

One thing the two Democratic mayors have in common, though, is very low name recognition outside of their own political bases – Cincinnati and southwest Ohio for Cranley; Dayton and the Miami Valley for Whaley.

Even Democratic voters in places like Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown and Akron have no idea who Cranley and Whaley are. Or, at best, a vague recognition of the names.

In politics, money can cure low name ID. Both Cranley and Whaley say their campaigns have surpassed the $1 million mark.

Another thing the two Democrats have in common is that they almost never mention each other. All of their barbs and political hardballs are aimed not at each other, but at the Republican incumbent, who says he plans to run for re-election.

Credit Paul Vernon / AP

Both are convinced that DeWine has been a failure as governor – on the economy, the pandemic, dealing with political corruption in Columbus and on gun control.

"A generation ago, Ohioans' income was above the national average,'' Cranley said. "Now it is 89 cents on the dollar, compared to the national average."

Republicans like DeWine, he said, have been at the controls of state government for most of the past 32 years.

"They have run this state into a ditch,'' Cranley said. "But if you look at the economy in Ohio, there are really only two success stories – Columbus and Cincinnati.

"Cincinnati has had the most dramatic comeback," Cranley said. "We deserve a governor who has led a comeback."

Cranley says he has something in common, too, with Jim Renaccci, the former Republican congressman, who appears to preparing for a GOP primary challenge to DeWine.

"Renacci says exactly what I am saying – that DeWine has been a disaster for Ohio's economy,'' Cranley said. "Of course, he and I have different ideas about how to deal with that. I'd love to debate Jim Renacci on the subject."

But, as entertaining a piece of political theater as a Renacci-Cranley debate might be, the fact is this – sooner or later, Whaley and Cranley are going to have to set DeWine aside for an hour or two and debate each other. Friends or not.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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