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Analysis: 'I'm Not a Millionaire': Nan Whaley Tries to Set Herself Apart in Ohio Governor's Race

Dayton Ohio Mayor Nan Whaley at Trolley Stop restaurant in Dayton
Dan Sewell
In this photo taken on July 29, 2020, Dayton Ohio Mayor Nan Whaley sits in the outdoor patio of the Trolley Stop restaurant in Dayton and talks about her city's plans for marking the one-year anniversary of the city's Aug. 4, 2019, mass shooting. The restaurant is in the entertainment district where the shooting happened.

If you are a candidate for statewide office in Ohio, with its multiple and widely diverse media markets, you have to have one of two things:

  • Immediate, statewide name recognition, for good or ill, like the incumbent governor, Republican Mike DeWine; or
  • The political savvy and resources (read: money) to transform yourself from a regional politician into a name known in every corner of the state.

That latter is the challenge for Nan Whaley, the 45-year-old mayor of Dayton, as she pursues the Democratic nomination for Ohio governor in 2022. It's the same challenge faced by her Democratic primary opponent, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, who is a household name in his hometown but scarcely registers on the Name-O-Meter in the rest of Ohio.

Right now, at this early stage, if there were a Reuben sandwich named Bill running for governor, it would rank far higher in name recognition than either Cranley or Whaley.

But that can be fixed.

Money is one way.

But creating a persona for yourself with potential Democratic primary voters is another.

And you don't have to make it up. You don't have to create a fantasy person who doesn't really exist. All you have to do is use what you've already got. That is clearly the path Whaley has chosen.

In a phone interview this week, Whaley made it clear how she plans to introduce herself to people in places like Cleveland, Toledo, Steubenville and Coshocton.

"I am from the middle class," Whaley said. "I am not a millionaire. There are candidates out there who are much wealthier than me."

DeWine, for example. A multi-millionaire. And his Republican primary opponent, former congressman Jim Renacci, who was struggling with fundraising and loaned his campaign $1 million of his own money after raising a paltry $22,000 in the first half of 2021.

Those are rich guys.

Cranley? Well, he's no Lindner when it comes to big bucks, but he hasn't done badly. A lawyer, Cranley was a partner in City Lights Development, which pulled off a $5 million development of the Incline District in East Price Hill. In 2009, Cranley resigned from council because of conflicts of interest with the development company seeking Port Authority money.

A graduate of the Harvard Law School, Cranley has been with the prestigious Cincinnati law firm of Keating Muething & Klekamp for years. And his wife, Dena, is the daughter of the Jordanian immigrants who founded the Gold Star Chili chain.

He's doing fine, thank you.

And he doesn't think Whaley should be making the race for the gubernatorial nomination personal.

Cranley said, rightly, that he comes from a middle-class neighborhood, Price Hill, and has: "worked very hard for everything I have."

Whaley makes $50,000 a year as mayor of Dayton and that is going away soon because she announced early this year that she would not run for a third term.

There is no question that Whaley, who led the city through the tragedy of a mass shooting in the Oregon entertainment district two years ago, is tremendously popular. She was first elected mayor in 2013, after serving two terms on the Dayton City Commission. In 2017, when she was up for re-election, the Republicans didn't even bother to field a candidate.

And there's no question in my mind that if she had run for a third term this year, she would have won it with ease.

Pretty good for someone who is not a Dayton native. People in Dayton, the city where I grew up, take their native sons and daughters seriously.

She came to Dayton from Mooresville, Ind., a small town south of Indianapolis. Specifically, she came to Dayton for an education, first earning a degree in chemistry and later a master's degree in public administration from Wright State University.

Dayton is where she developed a fire in her belly for politics, and it has paid off for her.

She and her husband, Sam Braun, who works as a school treasurer for a firm that assists area school districts, do not live in a mansion. That's above their means. Instead, they have a nice home in the middle-class neighborhood of Five Oaks.

"There are differences between us," Whaley said of her erstwhile friend and political ally Cranley, who lives in Hyde Park, one of the city's more well-to-do neighborhoods.

Cranley's been on a tour of the state this week that has consisted mostly of pre-arranged interviews with TV stations around the state. Whaley did much the same when she first announced her candidacy in April.

This week, Whaley made a stop at blaCk Coffee Lounge on Elm Street in downtown Cincinnati, where she talked about job creation, especially for minority-owned businesses.

Whaley told me she plans to revive the "front porch" meetings she has had in Dayton neighborhoods where people are invited to come and talk to the mayor about any issue that is on their minds.

"We're going to expand the 'front porch' meetings around the state," Whaley said. "It's a good way for me to listen and learn from people. Get to know what is on their minds."

Being seen in the neighborhoods, particularly in times of crisis, is one of the things that has made Whaley so popular in her city.

She's convinced that people all over Ohio want that from their statewide candidates.

That's why she has a map in her office showing every one of Ohio's 88 counties. She has vowed to visit them all between now and the May 3 primary. She marks them off the map with a Sharpie.

When I asked how many she had visited so far, she paused and counted out loud.

"Nineteen," she said. "Long way to go. But we'll get there."
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.