November 18, 2019

The 32 Seconds that Changed This Mayor’s Life

by Without Fail

Background show artwork for Without Fail

Normally, being the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, means paying attention to everyday issues, from garbage pickups to municipal budgets. But in the early morning hours of August 4, 2019, a gunman opened fire at a downtown bar in the city, and Nan Whaley’s role as mayor immediately shifted. She found herself thrust into the national spotlight as all eyes turned to Dayton. And it wasn't long before she was face-to-face with President Donald Trump.

Where to Listen


ALEX BLUMBERG: From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds, about their successes and their failures, and what they’ve learned from both.

Just a quick warning before we get started, this episode touches on a violent event.

On the show today, I’m going to talk to someone who is, locally, pretty famous... She has a lot of influence on a specific group of people and their daily lives, but she isn’t normally in the national spotlight. She’s a person whose name you probably wouldn’t have known, whose face you wouldn’t have seen on TV...At least, you wouldn’t have, until one day this past summer when she suddenly found herself in the middle of a tragic crisis and at the center of a national debate.

My guest’s name is Nan Whaley. She is the Mayor of Dayton, a mid-size city in Ohio. And I talked to her about the crisis that put her in the national spotlight. But we started the conversation with why she became mayor in the first place. She told me that she’s been thinking about government and what it means to have a career in public service her entire life.

NAN WHALEY: My very first memory actually is being four years old and it's the Carter-Reagan debate. And I can, like, still see the, the couch is like that plaid '70s couch, and my mom is sitting watching the debate and she is like, "This is bad. Oh, this is so bad." She's, like, really upset. And I think that's why I remember it as a four year old, because you'd notice when your mom's upset. 


NAN WHALEY: And so I said, "Well, what -- what's -- what's bad?" And she said, "Well, you know, Ronald Reagan's going to be president and this is bad for our family." And then, you know, about a year later, my dad got laid off from General Motors. And -- and so, you know, I'm like five, six years old, he's laid off and my mom is getting dinner on the table, and she says "Do you know why there's no meat on this table?" And I was -- you know, I was, like, six. I didn't know there was -- I didn't really understand meat. And I said -- I said, "No." She's like, "Well, Ronald Reagan took the meat off this table." And so, you know, anything that happened in our family during the time that Reagan was president, my parents laid back to Ronald Reagan. I mean, I was so afraid of the man. Like, I thought that, like, if it rained outside, it was his fault. I mean, so my parents always have, like, connected elections to, like, why we get to do things. And so -- or why we can't do things and how when someone's in office, it affects our life. And they've always -- like, this is something we've -- we always learned.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Do you see it the same way that your mom did, like first of all, do you think she was right? Do you think you didn't have meat on the table because of Ronald Reagan? Was that true or too simplistic? Or -- or exactly spot on?

NAN WHALEY: I think that -- that Reagan's policies did affect my family. I think that's right. I think was my mom being dramatic about the food? Yes, probably. She got a little extreme about it, I would say. But the point still stood that these elections matter to -- to our lives. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: As a kid growing up in Indiana, Whaley took those lessons to heart. After graduating high school, she went to college in Dayton, started volunteering at the Democratic headquarters there, and fell in love with the city. She settled there after college, eventually became a campaign manager, then a DNC delegate, then a city commissioner. And finally, in 2013, she ran for and was elected mayor of Dayton.

NAN WHALEY: I've been mayor now for six years.  It's an amazing job. Uh. It is a very tough job. Uh, you know, I always like the quote that Lyndon Johnson gave, you know, in the -- something like in the trials and tribulations, whenever I feel, you know, bad for how tough the presidency is, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor. You know? 

ALEX BLUMBERG: What’s an example of something that's hard about being a mayor? Like what's the -- you know, just sort of in general. Like, what are you -- what -- what's a goal that you're trying to accomplish, and what are the barriers to accomplishing that goal?

NAN WHALEY: Well, so in -- in the -- in the mid-size city role, you know, Dayton's -- the city proper is about 140,000 people. So the people of the city see you regularly. They, you know, call you with every -- literally every -- you get an email or call about every pothole, or any, you know, vacant house. Like, very specific. My trash didn't get picked up. You know, those kinds of things.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Have you literally gotten an email about potholes?

NAN WHALEY: Oh, yeah. I mean, I'm just back and forth right now about, like, these speed bumps and when will they be done on the street. So I mean like, three and four back and forths on it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait. Over email right now?

NAN WHALEY: Yeah. Over email. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Can you pull up the email that you -- like, the back and forth over the speed bump?

NAN WHALEY: Sure. Um, her — I'm pulling it up. Her original email was like -- was not friendly. Let me see. It's from Debbie.


NAN WHALEY: Yeah. I know Debbie, she -- I run into her at the Legacy Pancake House regularly. So, -- here's how it starts. Yeah, here's how it starts. So she’s like, she emailed because she's frustrated because, you know, she gets the run-around from two departments about the speed bumps and, like, when the paving's happening in her neighborhood in Mount Vernon. And you know, “those speed bumps were important to my neighborhood and were to be put in. Now I have to get a petition to make my neighborhood safe, and probably have to wait two or maybe more years to even get them put in, maybe. The work of the City of Dayton makes citizens do to try to make their neighborhoods safe is unacceptable. I asked about big signs." And that's a ... 


NAN WHALEY: All caps. "They say -- all caps 'SLOW DOWN' to be posted around the neighborhood, and that request was never addressed previously. The speed limit signs are worn out and not even properly placed that they can be seen. We have a safety issue of speeding cars all around the city and I'm trying to take care of my neighborhood and make it safer. So I write -- you know, so I write to the -- the staffer, and you know, "There seems to be some concern with the Mount Vernon neighborhoods. See below. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help." So then I kind of get into a back and forth...

ALEX BLUMBERG: So you forward that to the -- to the streets -- the street -- the department of streets or something? Yeah, okay.

NAN WHALEY: Yeah. And then I am CCed to make sure it goes through the rest of the -- you know, like, that she gets the answer because I want to make sure, like, Debbie -- anytime they've contacted me via email, I feel like I have a responsibility to make sure that this is tied up. And so, I think it's the size of Dayton's city that makes it such an interesting challenge, you know? Because you wouldn't -- you wouldn't email, you know, Jerry Kenney of Philadelphia and say, "Hey, what about the speed bump," right? You know, but our size is small enough that I'll run into Debbie at Legacy Pancake House in a few weeks and, you know, if I haven't made sure that email's okay, she's gonna be really mad at me. And I -- you know, that's not good government. So I wanna make sure that they get the service that they demand.

ALEX BLUMBERG: For most of her tenure in office, this is how Mayor Whaley’s days went. Replying to emails, dealing with potholes, solving everyday problems. She loved that job, loved getting to work so closely with her community. 

But the smallness of the job could also be a source of frustration. Because there were issues her constituents faced that she didn’t have the power to solve on a local level, issues that went beyond street repairs and garbage pick-up. And on issues like that, she sometimes felt ignored by officials at state or national levels. 

Ignored until one day, when one of the biggest national problems in our country became heartbreakingly local for Mayor Whaley, and eventually landed her in a private conversation with the most powerful elected official in the entire country. 

It all started early on a Sunday, August 4th, 2019.

NAN WHALEY: At four in the morning — I have a really loud doorbell — and my -- the doorbell rings, I, you know, shake my husband up. And at first my thought is like, "Oh, somebody needs something in the neighborhood" Like, that -- like, somebody got locked out. Like, that's my first thought is, you know, either somebody's intoxicated and locked out of their house or somebody just needs something. So I wake Sam up and we go downstairs. I have my phone in my hand, and right as I'm opening the door there's a text that comes across from a friend. Like, "I just saw the news." And then it dawns on me in that moment, "Oh, something has happened here." And right when that happens, I open the door and Marty Garris, who's the city attorney is there and I said, "What happened?" And then that's when he told me that -- he said -- he said, "Nine people have been shot. There's been a mass shooting in the Oregon District." 

ALEX BLUMBERG: And the Oregon District ... That's a -- that's a -- that's a part of Dayton.


ALEX BLUMBERG: What -- what had happened?

NAN WHALEY: Well, we learned a 24 year old white male from a Dayton suburb called Bellbrook came to the Oregon District with his sister and a friend around 11 o'clock at night. And through the course of the night, he and his sister and friend separated. And he left and at some point went back to his car, which was parked at the end of the block, put together an assault-like pistol gun, and went through the back of the alley, uh, which was across the street from Ned Pepper's, the bar that he was targeting. And in the course of 32 seconds, going towards Ned Pepper's, he killed nine people and wounded dozens more. Um. Some were wounded by gunshot wounds. And then others, you know, people ran out of their shoes. And so, you know, there was like basically a stampede. Uh, luckily, we had seven Dayton police officers that were always stationed in the district because it's near closing time and, you know, moving people along. And you can see video where the police in that 32 seconds grabbed their handguns and I think we had one rifle, maybe two rifles, and came barreling toward the shooter and they killed him.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What was the first thought that you -- what was the first thought that went through your mind when you -- when you heard that news on your porch that night?

NAN WHALEY: I think my -- my -- you know, your first is like, "Why?" 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm. Was there any explanation? Was there any motive?

NAN WHALEY: We still don't know why. And I said that the first day. I said, "You know, I don't know if we'll ever know." And I really don't. You know, his sister was one of the nine victims and, you know, half the Dayton Police Department thinks because he shot her on purpose and half believe that he didn't even know he shot her. So I don't think -- I don't think we'll really know why. I mean, the shooter has two things in common with all shooters that have happened, all these mass shootings across the country. He had access to a gun that could do an amazing amount of damage in a very small amount of time. And, um, he hated women.


NAN WHALEY: And my first response was like, go throw on my yoga pants and get to the Oregon District. And both Marty and my husband were like, "Uh, yeah. You're gonna be busy all day. You should, like, take a shower. We got a couple minutes here." And while I was home and getting ready, I called my staff of course. And then the first person I actually called was John Cranley in Cincinnati because I knew, like, he had gone through the Fountain Square shooting last year.

ALEX BLUMBERG: The mayor of Cincinnati.

NAN WHALEY: Yeah. And he of course -- I mean, he wasn't up at 4:30 in the morning. I don't know why. But he called me right away around -- probably around six in the morning and gave me just terrific advice about the first 24 hours. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: What'd he say?

NAN WHALEY: He said, um, "Don't -- don't answer the questions Nan. Just ask them." And, like, he meant that both in, like, ask the questions to the police, but also ask the questions, like, you know, when is enough enough? Why does this have to happen, you know? And -- and as someone that likes to get stuff done, mayors always want to, like, say, "Well, this is why. This is why it happened." And you can't really answer it. You can't really answer the question of why it happened. Especially right away. And so, uh just that frame was so, so valuable. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: What -- what is it behind the impulse to reach out, do you think?

NAN WHALEY: Well, I love mayors, first of all, personally. And the US Conference of Mayors does a really great job of connecting us all. And this position, because you're the only mayor in your community and it's such a leadership role, the only people you can really talk about that really understand the position are other mayors. And there is something so -- so -- to me, when mayors reach out to me when I've -- when something's happened, it's always meant a lot to me. It especially meant a lot during this shooting. And, you know, I think only John could have given me the advice that I needed, and I knew that. And so that's who was -- that was actually my first, like, outside call. Um, and then, you know, like, I remember going like, "Okay, I've got to be as strong as possible and get through the next 24 hours, because that's what you do in a crisis."

ALEX BLUMBERG: So Mayor Whaley set about dealing with the crisis. She tried as much as possible to set aside her own grief and anger, and headed to the scene of the shooting in the Oregon District of Dayton.


NAN WHALEY: This is a place that, you know, everybody that's been to Dayton has been to the Oregon District, you know, for dinner or something. It's our -- it's our entertainment space of localness. And to be there standing there, there's nothing but pools of blood on the street. And, um, you see like the little placards where they have the, the bullet markings. And then -- and then you see this, like, fire truck and there's this guy in this white hazmat uniform coming to clean, and the smell of bleach is in the Oregon District. Like, all these things seem so familiar and then so not fitting. You know, the meat is still on the taco truck, you know, and you can still see the meat. Like, what -- like is this a dream? Is this -- is this where I'm at? Is this -- is this what is happening now? You know, surely -- like, surely not, you know? That's kind of -- that's kind of how you feel through it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. So there's this -- there's all the feelings that you're having as, like, sort of like the mayor, how do I -- how do I help my community? How do I, I guess sort of like help the victims the best I can. Is it -- is it one of those things where then the national spotlight is on you very quickly? Like, how does that...

NAN WHALEY: Oh yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: does that happen?

NAN WHALEY: Well, we had the first press conference at seven in the morning and I think I did one at 10 and I did one at one, at three, at four. And I noticed the press was getting larger. I didn't realize that they were -- that even the local media, I didn't realize that they were going live through all the press conferences all day. And I didn't really realize that it was like so much national exposure. And uh, so, you know, I was kind of surprised and taken by Dayton getting so much attention. But I also think, you know, this could happen anywhere. And I think that's why the Dayton shooting has gotten so much attention because yeah, it can happen anywhere.

ALEX BLUMBERG: The press and attention continued that evening as well, as Mayor Whaley returned to the Oregon District for a candlelight vigil.

NAN WHALEY: It was right on Fifth Street in the district, because I wanted to reclaim the site of the shooting as quickly as possible. So they had cleaned the site and, uh, we put a stage up and, like, a fire truck with an American flag behind it. So the back of the stage. And then people just came to Fifth Street that night at eight o'clock, and they all had candles. And there were thousands of people. It was all the way down the street. And then -- and then I spoke…

ARCHIVAL NAN WHALEY: But everything we’ve faced this year, this one is especially tough. Not only because we lost members of our community, but because honestly, it was avoidable. I spoke with….[applause]...I spoke with 61 mayors today who called, recognizing I had been initiated into the unfortunate fraternity of those who endured one of these tragedies in their own communities. Something must be done, Dayton [applause]...

NAN WHALEY: And then Governor DeWine spoke, and that's when governor DeWine started speaking that --

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mike -- Mike DeWine is a Republican governor of Ohio, right? 


ALEX BLUMBERG: And so definitely on the opposite side of sort of like gun legislation than -- than you are.


ARCHIVAL MIKE DEWINE: Mayor, thank you for the great job that you and your team have been doing. Um, we are here tonight [Audience: Do something!] because we know that we cannot… 

NAN WHALEY: They were just not listening. I mean, they -- they saw -- they saw an elected official that had not done anything on guns. That's what they saw in DeWine -- and so this "Do something" started coming through the crowd.

ARCHIVAL AUDIENCE: Do something! Do something! Do something!

ARCHIVAL MIKE DEWINE: ...we care very very deeply, about you...

ARCHIVAL AUDIENCE: Do something! Do something! 

ARCHIVAL MIKE DEWINE: …and we will do everything that we can…

ARCHIVAL AUDIENCE: Do something! Do something! 

ARCHIVAL MIKE DEWINE: ...everything that we can...

NAN WHALEY: It just overtook the whole place. And it was completely organic. I've never really experienced anything that organic. And then I went to the mic and said, like, you know, "There will be a time for action, but we are going to honor these people that have -- have died." Or something to that effect. And then the calm come back to the crowd because they love their community so much. And it was -- it was incredibly powerful and sticks with all of us. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. Wow. At the end of that, how did you feel?

NAN WHALEY: I felt just -- especially after the vigil Sunday night, just so driven and called to, you know, something must happen. Something must change after the Dayton shooting. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: After the break, Mayor Nan Whaley finds herself face to face with someone who does have the actual power to help things change, the president of the United States. That’s coming up. 

[Break 1]

ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Nan Whaley, Mayor of Dayton, Ohio. 

When we left off, Mayor Whaley was deep in the middle of the crisis facing her city, dealing with the very local effects of an issue — gun violence — that could really only be addressed on a national level, in Washington, D.C. But that Sunday evening, less than 24 hours after the shooting, she received an unexpected call. The caller ID on her phone displayed a 202 number: the Washington, D.C. area code. 

NAN WHALEY: I answered the phone and it said, "Please hold for the president." And I held for the president. And it was maybe a four-minute conversation. Um, you know, he expressed his sympathy and, I said -- I remember saying that Mr. President, I just don't know why anybody would need this kind of gun. I don't -- I don't -- I don't get why anybody would need this kind of gun. And he -- and he responded, "Well, what does Mike say?" Meaning Mike DeWine, and I said, "Well, everyone agrees that we got to get something done. They were all here and they all agree that we've got to do something."  And -- and so then he said, "Well, I'm coming. I'm coming to Dayton." I said, "Okay." "Yeah, I think I'll come Wednesday." And -- and then that was the end of the conversation.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So, when he called, did you know, like, okay, this is my -- this might be the only time I get to talk to the sitting US president about an issue that I care about. Like, was that something that was planned? I don't know. Like, when you said why does anybody need this kind of gun, talk -- talk about that moment.

NAN WHALEY: Well, I just think it was really what I was feeling, you know? I don't think it was anything, "Oh, the president's gonna call me." I didn't know if he was gonna call me or not. I mean, you know, you don't -- that's something you really don't know. And so and no one's giving me -- given me a really good answer on why these kinds of guns are necessary in the public. And so I was really asking him, you know, why, why do we need to have this? What -- what are we doing? And -- and, you know, that's when, you know, his response was -- I mean, it wasn't like I'm gonna get to the president and I'm gonna make some -- say something that's going to be so profound that suddenly he will make sense and do something. I just -- you know, I just felt really compelled to say like, I don't understand why we need these kinds of guns. 

ALEX BLUMBERG:  Right. So tell me about, like, when -- when did you realize that, like, he's actually coming, Donald Trump is actually coming to visit Dayton? And what were your thoughts?

NAN WHALEY: So I -- so on Monday I -- I -- I knew that, and then I think Monday night I was like, "Oh, I gotta figure this out. You know, he is coming."  And then people in my -- in my team, like, they -- they thought I shouldn't greet him. I shouldn't go at all, even if invited. Uh, like, they said, like, “how can you -- how can you go and see this man who you, you know, fought every, you know, everything he stands for?" I mean, and it was pain — and they were going through so much pain. I mean, like, this isn't in a vacuum. My staff is, you know, been working non-stop. My team has been working non-stop. And then the Oregon District, the local business owners are very progressive. And so they call me Monday, I think they called me Monday. Yeah, they called me Monday and said, "We do not want him here." 


NAN WHALEY: So, you know, there's just an awful lot of emotion that you're going through, and then you have to, you know, really find what's best for the community and what's your role as mayor. And, love or hate Donald Trump, you love or hate him. And so there's no middle ground. And so what he does is he pushes a community apart, and it's like the last thing you need, right? If you're trying to keep a community together. And I'm in a county that voted like 50-50. And you know, I mean, so it is a very even place, one of the last even places in the country. And, you know, that was tough. I mean, like, you know, your community is going through uh -- an enormous amount. Your community has a lot to say about this guy on both ends and, uh, you know, you still have to represent your community. And I called some other mayors that night and said, "What do you think?" You know? And all of them were like, "Oh, yeah. You have to go." And so, yeah, I -- you know, I said, "Nope, I'm gonna go. I'm gonna fight hard for him not to go to the Oregon District, but it's my -- I have a duty as the mayor to greet the president when he comes to Dayton. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: So, Mayor Whaley worked with her community and other local politicians to prepare for President Trump’s visit to Dayton. And on the morning of Wednesday, August 7, the moment finally arrived. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump landed in Dayton, Ohio. And, with the world watching and Democratic Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown by her side, Mayor Whaley went to greet them. She was finally gonna get her chance to talk to President Trump in person, and she hoped to use the opportunity to get him to take some action on gun control.  

NAN WHALEY: when he came off the tarmac, uh, I said, "Mr. President, welcome to Dayton. The people of Dayton are hanging, are hungry for action. And I know you are a person of action." And he said, "You'll like what you see." 


NAN WHALEY: And then, you know, he did what a president should do. You know, he went to see the victims. And he was well-received. And I -- and I like, again, I mean my position on -- on his visit was like, where could he give the most value? And so that's an -- that's a more appropriate place for him to go, rather than a place that doesn't want to see him. And the victims were excited to see him. And, you know, he was -- he was well-liked and well-loved in these -- in these places. And that was good. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm. Did -- you know, I mean the President has such a specific image sort of like publicly and on Twitter and, like, did meeting him in person -- I don't know. Did he seem, was it the same, different? Like, you know, compare and contrast sort of his Twitter persona versus what you saw in person.

NAN WHALEY: Oh yeah. He was -- he was the same in person. I remember this wild thing he did was we're in the victim's room and it was Nicole and she had a gunshot wound to the head. And so Sherrod and I are kind of hanging back. I mean, I've never met Nic -- I've already met Nicole. I know their parent's family are really excited to meet -- to meet the President. And so, you know, they -- they've already seen me. They don't need to see me. I'm just hanging back. And all of a sudden the president hollers, "Hey, Sherrod. Hey, Nan." And we come up to the bed and he points to all her family members and says, "Do you see these people? They all used to be Democrats until me." Like, that's just a strange interaction, you know? Everything was strange.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mayor Whaley and Senator Sherrod Brown wanted to make the most of this opportunity with the president, to maybe do the thing that the people of Dayton had been asking for at the vigil: get the president to try and do something. The problem was, President Trump was only scheduled to be in Dayton for a few hours. And their window was closing fast. 

After visiting the victims, they went with the president to meet with first responders, where President Trump talked about inviting them to the White House for an awards ceremony. And that was the last event of the president’s visit. And so, Mayor Whaley and Senator Brown made their move. 

NAN WHALEY: Towards the end of it, after we had seen the first responders, it was Sherrod and the governor and Senator Portman and myself were like, kind of in this -- with some of the staff in a circle there in the hallway, and Sherrod pivoted to the assault weapon ban. And said, "You know, really -- you know, Mr. President, this -- this ban, you could -- you could get this ban and then we wouldn't have this problem." And he said, "Well, Sherrod, why don't we have the ban? And he said, "Well, because you know, the -- you know, Obama couldn't get the votes. The votes couldn't -- he couldn't get the votes." And I said, "That's right, Mr. President. You could do something that Obama couldn't get done. Like, this would be great." And he kind of looked around at DeWine and Portman. I said, "And even the governor voted for the assault weapon ban when he was in the Senate." And the governor kinda like shrugged and was like, “yeah, that's true.” [laughs] And then he -- he pivoted back to his awards, and Senator Brown said, "You know, the best award you could give these police officers is getting these guns off the streets so they don't have to fight them." And that just -- I think that was it for him. And he left.  

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. What -- what do you mean he left? Like in a -- in a ...

NAN WHALEY: He just walked away. Like, he just kind of looked at us and walked away. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Was that -- how did -- how did -- what did you make of that?

NAN WHALEY: Umm. I don't pretend to understand him. I felt like -- um, you know, this -- this work is, you know, a cross between just -- I mean, I almost call it like a -- a bumblebee effort, right? Like, you just swarm any way you can on guns and see what can move at what time and how fast can you just move any which way. And you just hope that some, you know, some normalcy prevails by doing that.

ALEX BLUMBERG: After the break, I talk with Mayor Whaley about what she makes exactly of that moment in the spotlight with President Trump. That’s coming up. 

[Break 2]

ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Mayor Nan Whaley. 

During President Trump’s brief trip to Dayton, Mayor Whaley navigated a difficult course. She tried to strike a balance between the personal and the political: comforting victims and thanking first responders on the one hand, and advocating for gun reform on the other. And after the president’s whirlwind visit, she dove right back into managing the crisis, briefing the press. And it wasn't until later that she could begin to process what had happened that day, and what it all meant.

ALEX BLUMBERG: This was, like, such a -- so sort of like an -- in, like, basically a week, you're ...

NAN WHALEY: Four days. Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. This is four days. Your -- the -- your city goes through this horrible tragedy. You're -- you're sort of like all of a sudden finding yourself in the national spotlight, and then spending a day with, you know, the most -- I mean ...

NAN WHALEY: Powerful man in the world.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Powerful man in the world, and what did -- I don't know, like, what do you make of that -- that experience now? Did — do you have any takeaways from it?

NAN WHALEY: I have to be honest, I get really sad when I think about this -- this guy is more interested in how he's received rather than what he can do. Yeah. So I -- I -- like, I have a really hard time with it. Like just -- just thinking about it and thinking how, just how uninterested people are in, like, making sure something like Dayton never happens again. And -- and I mean, it -- it -- it does, it makes it hard some days to do the work. And -- and you know what -- what I find is if you can keep the conversation local, the better off you are. If you can -- then if you can't do local, state, but then, more and more it's getting worse and worse statewide because of national pushes. And then if it's national, like, there is no incentive to govern. And, you know, frankly, you know, what I see is on both sides, if you govern, you lose.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Does it -- does it feel like that -- because -- because what you're describing is basically a different set of incentives on a national level than on a local level. And sort of the incentives are if the other side benefits in any way then we have to be against.

NAN WHALEY: Right. I think that's right.


NAN WHALEY: So do nothing, right?

ALEX BLUMBERG: So do -- so do nothing. Don't -- like, even if it's something that, like, there's pretty broad agreement on such as an assault weapon ban.


ALEX BLUMBERG: There -- that's the thing that's perplexing, right? Like, it's -- like, I think isn't the polling on that like most people are...

NAN WHALEY: Yeah, most people support assault weapon ban, and nine out of 10 support a background check.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And yet ...

NAN WHALEY: Nine out of 10. Nine out of 10! Like, nine out of 10 Ohioans don't even like the Buckeyes. I mean, it's an insane number of people agreeing on something.


ALEX BLUMBERG: The local Ohio State University team for those not from Ohio who are listening. Yes. Right. And so, like, nine out of 10. So the question is like, how can that be if, like, nine out of 10 Americans support this thing, how is it still not happening? How can we not even do a thing that, like, the -- the -- the -- you know, 90 percent of the country wants us to do.

NAN WHALEY: Right. There is incentive for inaction, not cooperation. And that's the opposite in local, right? The incentive is to take care of the problem, to get it done, to move on, to figure a win. And, you know, we constantly are, like, you know, from labor negotiations to economic development deals to -- to paving a street, it's like, where's the win-win? How's the win-win? Where's the win-win? And -- and so when you're doing that, and then you look up and see what happens state and nationally on -- no, it's a zero sum game. You're just exasperated by it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. Yeah. Why is it easier on a local level?

NAN WHALEY: I think you have to -- you know people very personally, and you have to look people in the eye every day. I think -- I think too, the government that's local is the one that actually affects your day-to-day life in a -- in a more -- more regular way. You know, it's a real annoying fact if your water doesn't work or, you know, water's not safe, or you can't get out of your house because the snow is not plowed, or...

ALEX BLUMBERG: And you've got people emailing you about speed bumps, like, you can't ...

NAN WHALEY: Right. You can't hide. No. I mean, could you imagine hi -- hiding, you know? I just went and got my hair done, and the lady that does my hair said somebody else -- you know, of course everyone knows who does my hair in town. And she said, "Oh yes, someone came and she said, 'Hey, you talk to the mayor. I have this issue. I mean, I've emailed her, but I want you to tell her too'", you know? So, you know, they even, you know, lobby your -- your hairstylist in this town. There is no getting away no matter where you go. And that's the job of -- of mayor, frankly. And I love it. Like, I mean I'm not -- like, I love it. I think that that's why it makes us such a special place in -- in government and such a special place in -- in the world of politics. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mayor Whaley is continuing to tell the story of what happened in Dayton to lawmakers in the nation’s capital. On the day after President Trump’s visit, she and over 200 other mayors sent a letter to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. In it, they urged the Senate to take action on gun safety legislation that had already passed in the House. And this past September, Mayor Whaley called for stricter gun laws in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick, Rob Szypko and Heba Elorbany. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor.   


Mixing by Kegan Zema and music by Bobby Lord.

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