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Analysis: What Happens When Friends Become Political Opponents? We're About to Find Out

a photograph of Cincinnati mayor John Cranley and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley
Courtesy of Nan Whaley
Courtesy of Nan Whaley
John Cranley and Nan Whaley at a previous Cranley mayoral campaign event.

Maybe Netflix or somebody should make a binge-worthy series on the now-official Democratic gubernatorial primary between Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

Gripping drama. The stakes couldn't be higher!

And, occasionally, hilarity ensues!

We've known it was coming for many months now, the Ohio Democratic Party's equivalent of a heavyweight title bout pitting two Southwest Ohio politicians against each other in a 2022 primary for the chance to win back the Ohio governor's office.

Tuesday morning, Cranley, Cincinnati's term-limited mayor, took off with a handful of campaign aides for several days of bouncing from one Ohio media market to another, giving interviews to local TV stations in places like Toledo, Youngstown and Steubenville, where neither one is exactly a household name.

If politics is, in part, entertainment where the stakes are rather high, the contest between Whaley and Cranley – two political allies and personal friends – may be great fun for political junkies to watch.

Or not.

Similar, but different
"John and I are friends," Whaley previously told me. "We have different issues to talk about, different styles. It will be fine. I'm not worried about it."

There's no question that Whaley, who has been an extraordinarily popular mayor of Dayton since she was first elected eight years ago, sort of stuck a thumb in her friend John's eye when, on Monday, she kicked off a statewide tour on job creation with a visit to the blaCk Coffee Lounge on Elm Street in Cincinnati, just a block away from Cranley's City Hall office.

It's the same place Cranley and his wife Dena had coffee with Vice President Kamala Harris April 30.

So, where does Cranley go the next day to launch his own formal campaign for governor, the first stop on a statewide tour? Straight up I-75 to Whaley's turf, Dayton, to do pre-arranged TV interviews.

It’s like two hounds sniffing fire hydrants and tree stumps before marking their territory.

Politics is a funny game sometimes.

In some ways, the messages being sent to Democratic primary voters, and general election voters as well, by Cranley and Whaley, are very much the same – that Gov. Mike DeWine and the Republicans who run all of state government have failed to make Ohio a better place to live, work and play. Unless, that it is, you are a privileged, wealthy member of Ohio's business class.

In her campaign rhetoric, Whaley often calls out DeWine by name, blaming him for job losses, for doing nothing to stop the corruption that has struck the GOP establishment, and for caving in to conservatives in the legislature on issues from stopping the pandemic to protecting voter rights.

Whaley – who is forgoing a third term as Dayton's mayor to run for governor – lays it all at DeWine's doorstep.

Cranley has been a little more subtle in his condemnation of DeWine. In a two-minute, 14 second YouTube video formally announcing his candidacy, he says that "for most of the past 30 years, Ohio government has been a rigged system led by one party."

He doesn't speak the governor's name, but there is a pointed photo of DeWine and former House Speaker Larry Householder, now under indictment in the largest bribery scandal in Ohio history, together in the Ohio House Chamber.

Republicans, Cranley said, "get to stay in power as long as they push an agenda that favors the wealthy few."

Amassing campaign funds
Cranley has a long reputation as a Cincinnati council member, mayor and two-time congressional candidate of being able to raise large sums of money.

Through June 30, Cranley had raised $1.58 million for his gubernatorial campaign. Whaley has done better - $1.84 million to date.

They are close to dead-even in terms of cash on hand - $1.35 million for Whaley, $1.31 million for Cranley.

Cranley has been dominant in his mayoral campaigns. But when he has campaigned outside the city, it is a mixed record at best.

The fact is, Cranley could conceivably still be the Democratic congressman from Ohio's 1st District had he not made a fatal mistake in 2006, his second campaign to up-end Republican incumbent Steve Chabot.

In 2000, Cranley, as a 26-year-old wet-behind-the-ears lawyer, took on Chabot in the 1st District. Chabot, who was already an old warhorse by then, won the race, but Cranley took about 45% of the vote – not a bad showing for a rookie.

Six years later, Cranley was firmly established as a Cincinnati council member and the Democratic party in Washington saw him as their best hope of taking out Chabot. So, the Democratic brainiac who went to St. Xavier High School and Harvard took on the Republican football jock from Lasalle High School who went on to William and Mary University.

This time, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) zeroed in on Chabot's district as one of its targeted races, shoveling money, staff and advice into the Cranley campaign.

In the end, it didn't matter. I wrote at the time (for the Enquirer) that Cranley had given up too much control of his campaign and its message to the DCCC, which had an imperfect understanding of the 1st District – to put it mildly.

Trusting political instincts
In this race, you can rest assured the Democratic Governors Association will keep its mitts off a contested primary between Cranley and Whaley, either of whom could be legitimate, serious contenders against DeWine or his GOP primary challenger, Trump acolyte Jim Renacci.

After the primary, the Democratic nominee can expect some help from inside the Beltway.

As he has for the past 15 years, Cranley has hired A/L Media of Washington as his strategic media planning firm – in particular, two political pros from A/L Media, Eric Adelstein and Mark Bergman.

He's got other outside help, but he also has some good Ohio hands in his new political director, Jada Campbell of Columbus, who has worked for the Franklin County Democratic Party, and Jared Kamrass of Cincinnati, who heads Rivertown Strategies, one of the leading political consulting firms in Southwest Ohio.

It’s very important for both Cranley and Whaley that they go with their instincts on Ohio politics and not turn the messaging entirely over to the D.C. political pros.

Friends running against friends. You don't see that often in politics.

There are those out there who say that DeWine will survive a primary challenge from former congressman Renacci. And that DeWine would be the odds-on favorite to win re-election.

It doesn’t matter, they say, if Whaley or Cranley wins the Democratic primary because they are going to lose a state that has gone for Donald Trump in two straight presidential elections.

Well, these may be the same people who are saying the second-place Cincinnati Reds can't make it to the playoffs.

In politics, as in baseball, never say never.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.