DAYTON, Ohio — As she considers all that has happened to her Ohio city in 2019, Dayton's mayor sees a cautionary tale for the rest of the country.
“I think about how Dayton is the tip of the spear on national issues that have gone unabated,” Nan Whaley said during a recent interview.
In a space of 10 weeks beginning May 25, Dayton saw a Ku Klux Klan rally, devastating tornadoes, and a mass shooting that killed nine people. Whaley says the three events reflect the lack of action on national problems of white supremacist activity, climate change, and gun violence.
“And so these things will continue to happen to other communities,” she said, as she reflected on the searing images of the past year and what's ahead for Dayton and herself.
Nancy Miller, a University of Dayton political scientist, says the crises — and the way Whaley handled them — not only brought national attention to Dayton, a Rust Belt city of some 140,000 known as the home of aviation pioneers the Wright Brothers. They also spotlighted the 43-year-old mayor herself, whose down-to-earth, blunt style gives her an easy rapport with everyone from customers in beauty salons to national news anchors questioning her on live TV.
“WHAT IS UP WITH 2019?”
With a coffee mug bearing her name and the city's seal in hand, Whaley smiled and said people around town ask: “Like, what is up with 2019?”
She recounted the anxiety of seeing dozens of protesters toting assault-style rifles — allowed under Ohio's “open carry” law — when they came downtown to jeer Klan members in May. The city had months to prepare for the rally, and police kept the afternoon free of major incident, allowing her “a sigh of relief” at day's end.
It was short lived.
Within three days, she would be surveying the Memorial Day tornadoes' aftermath, hearing harrowing accounts such as that of a man who survived clinging to a door knob as the back porch underneath him was blown away and seeing the dismay of a business owner who said "that's 25 people out of work” after seeing his ruined building.
“VERY FAMILIAR, BUT VERY FOREIGN”
The night of Saturday, Aug. 3, she went to bed late after socializing with friends. About four hours later, she was awakened by her doorbell. It was an assistant city attorney, Martin Gehres, who told her there had been a mass shooting in the Oregon district, a downtown strip of nightspots and restaurants that draws a diverse crowd most weekends. Police ended the assault in 32 seconds by gunning down the young man — but he had already killed nine.
Whaley's first instinct, she said, was to throw on a pair of yoga pants and race to the scene, but her husband Sam Braun and Gehres both urged her to take a moment: shower, dress and gather herself for the marathon day ahead.
She would be in the Oregon district soon enough.
“It was like something that was very familiar, but very foreign at the same time,” she said. “I'm in the district, but it's 6 in the morning and there are these things left, like meat on the taco truck, and the piles of shoes. There was this one car, police were just pulling it apart. It was the shooter's car.”
In a return visit later in the day, she was struck by the smell of bleach, used to clean up bloodstains.
That night, looking out from a stage at the mass of people who came for a vigil, she cried.
“A YEAR AROUND HEALING AND TRANSFORMATION”
In 2020, Whaley plans to continue to push for the gun-control measures that Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has called for in the shooting's aftermath and to work on the city's gun violence as a public health issue. She also will focus on the city's housing needs.
“And there's a lot of discussion about a year around healing and transformation,” she said. “We know we've been through a lot in 2019. People are just beginning to unpack it; I'm just unpacking it.” While looking ahead to better days, she appreciates the resilient spirit shown by many in a city that has struggled economically over recent decades.
“So to see Dayton be kind and proud of itself through such terrible, painful, hateful acts has been really beautiful at the same time.”
“WE'LL DECIDE WHAT TO DO NEXT”
Whaley dropped a bid for the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, after being re-elected mayor unopposed in 2017, but has been dipping her toe into national politics. She helped lead a campaign to propel Ohio's Democratic U.S. senator Sherrod Brown into the presidential race, something he decided against. She then endorsed fellow Mayor Pete Buttigieg and spoke at his April campaign kickoff in South Bend, Indiana.
Whaley shrugged off as more surprising than likely speculation in a recent New York magazine story that she could be a running mate for former Vice President Joe Biden on a Democratic presidential ticket.
Her 2020 political goal is to help the eventual nominee win back Dayton's Montgomery County and Ohio itself — both of which Republican Donald Trump carried. And after?
“This year has been so painful, my husband and I have made the decision that we’re just going to get through this year and then I’m going to focus really hard on the presidential race,” she said. “And we'll decide what to do next at the end of next year.”