City Commissioner Nan Whaley dominated Tuesday’s runoff vote for mayor of Dayton in an election that saw a sitting mayor defeated in a May primary for the first time in at least 50 years.
Whaley got more than 50 percent of the vote, and will face former judge A.J. Wagner in November in what is shaping up to be the most expensive election in Dayton history.
Wagner narrowly edged out incumbent Mayor Gary Leitzell for second place. Leitzell will remain in office as mayor for an eight-month lame duck period while Whaley and Wagner campaign for his office the rest of the year.
“If you would have told me I would have gotten above 50 percent (of the vote) against these guys, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m still a little shocked by it,” Whaley said.
Leitzell, who checked election results with his wife and daughter at a local bar and grill, said he wasn’t terribly upset with the result.
“The citizens of Dayton have made their decision and I hope they’re happy with it. Me, I’ll just get on with my life, and maybe I’ll get my roof finished,” Leitzell said, joking about the home project that earned him criticism in 2010.
Leitzell claimed he’d be more powerful as a private citizen than as mayor.
“Now I can make a difference where it matters, which is where I live,” he said. “I’m not under the watchful eye of two political parties, I’m not under the watchful eye of people who say I’m being paid with taxpayer money. … In a sense, it’s kind of a relief.”
Leitzell was a little-known, surprise winner in 2009, ousting incumbent Rhine McLin during the throes of the Great Recession. That momentum did not carry over this time.
Wagner said he had “literally hundreds of people” who came out to volunteer for him, some longtime friends, and some who were new to his message. Still, he recognized the challenge ahead.
“My work’s cut out for me,” Wagner said, who had about half of Whaley’s total. “I don’t win without a lot of hard work and probably pulling together some endorsements from other folks.”
Whaley also said her volunteers worked extremely hard, knocking on thousands of doors. Voter turnout was dismal. Despite high-profile candidates and television ads and numerous mailings, only 9,869 people voted in a city of 141,000. That’s fewer than the number that voted on the income tax issue in Beavercreek, a city of 45,000.
“You’ve got to motivate people to vote,” Wagner said. “I didn’t get to enough neighborhoods to get that done this time. So I’ve got six months, and I’ll get there.”
Those six months will be interesting for the Democratic party. While Whaley was the endorsed Democratic candidate, two Democratic county commissioners — Deborah Lieberman and Judy Dodge — publicly supported Wagner.
“It had nothing to do with doing anything against the party; friendship trumped this time,” Lieberman said.
Whaley raised more than twice as much money as Wagner, and over 100 times more than Leitzell, and she used it – sending multiple mailings to Dayton households, doing automated campaign phone calls, and airing more television commercials than Wagner.
Whaley campaigned largely on four plans – her jobs vision was built on eight “community assets,” and her neighborhood plan aimed to improve safety and city services while attacking blight. She called for new attractions to make downtown more vibrant, and pointed to the need for better long-term education efforts, starting with young children.
Leitzell spent barely $1,000 on his campaign, and he kept his public message positive, pointing to success stories around the city, and frequently mentioning a list of 83 positive things that had occurred since he took office.
In his State of the City speech last week, Leitzell made the case for “maintaining our present course, because it’s working.”
The top issue of Wagner’s campaign was to clean up the city’s neighborhoods and improve housing stock, saying those things would draw new residents and investment. He called for increased housing code enforcement and stiff penalties for absentee landlords.
In a less heated Dayton City Commission runoff, endorsed Democrats Joey Williams and Jeff Mims were easily the top vote-getters. Williams is the only incumbent in the field.
Also advancing to the November election were David Greer and David Esrati, who had run along with Leitzell on the “Independent Dayton” ticket.
Joseph Lutz finished fifth in the commission voting, and therefore was eliminated from the race.