On May 7th, Dayton residents will go to the polls and vote in the primary for city mayor. Independent incumbent Gary Leitzell will face two Democratic challengers, AJ Wagner and Nan Whaley. WYSO's Emily McCord sat down with all three candidates to hear more about them and their positions and begins her series with Mayor Gary Leitzell.
Emily McCord: Why do you deserve a second term as mayor?
Gary Leitzell: Well, it’s a not a case of whether I deserve it. It’s the fact that thousands of people have asked me to do it. I always tell people I didn’t do this the first time because it was about me. It was about…I was angry, I was frustrated and I saw my city stagnating and I felt that if I didn’t stand up and at least to change the way they think at city hall then I couldn’t guarantee that someone else would do it. So, I did it and I think people are happy with the direction we’re moving in. A lot of people were asking if I would run again and I would ask them how they felt cause I’ve always said that this wasn’t something that I had to absolutely have to do. I’ve got a pretty busy life and things I can do on other things. And they were all unequivocally said ‘yes, we want you to run again’. So, I threw my hat in the ring and said ‘I’ll do it again’. But I’ve also made it very clear that I will limit my budget.
EM: Limit your budget to what?
EM: For the campaign?
GL: For the entire campaign. The first time around I spend $17,600 against something like $160,000 that was spent against me. And after last year’s Presidential election where we just saw outrageous spending by both sides. I think I believe that I represent about 80% of the population and can say that ‘we’re tired of that’. And I’m willing to lay down a budget line that says…the job pays $45 thousand a year. Now I’ve always said you shouldn’t have to pay more one-year’s salary to get elected. But just to prove my point I’m willing to limit that to a quarter of my salary, which is still a little bit more than half than I spent the first time. I challenged the other candidates to do the same and of course, they’ve declined. But three of us who are independent candidates are willing to do it. David Esrati and David Greer are running for city commission and basically we’ve come together to prove this point that the I believe time has come where money needs to come out of politics and we’re willing here in Dayton, Ohio to prove a point. If we win it’s going to send a message to the entire country that it can be done.
EM: What issue is most important to you in terms of the problems facing the city and what do you plan to do about it?
GL: Well, the two biggest issues that come up again. It’s always going to be jobs and our neighborhoods and I can tell you this. I was a President of my neighborhood association. I was chair of the Southeast priority board before I became mayor. Those neighborhoods that have neighborhood associations fare much better than those that have none. And I think if we want a long-term solution to saving our neighborhoods, we have to get any neighborhood that doesn’t have a neighborhood association organized to create one, even if it’s just a group of block clubs. People who care. People who are responsible for where they live. And it kind of radiates out and all the sudden a neighborhood association is formed and people start coming together and taking care of some of the problems. We have 65 neighborhoods in the city of Dayton and at least a third of them are exceptional. People kind of blanket Dayton as a bad place but we have some very, very beautiful neighborhoods. However we have a handful that are fairly blighted. Those neighborhoods that are blighted have not had neighborhood association in probably in 15-20 years.
EM: So, neighborhoods association being the number one thing to help neighborhoods?
GL: Well, we’re doing several things. We have a demolition program. We have “Moving Ohio Forward” money that will help take care of some of the blighted structures and burned out structures that need to come down. We’ve got some renovation programs to help stabilize neighborhoods. But the reality is it’s people taking responsibility that’s going to solve a lot of our problems. We’ve got a REAP program where you can acquire a property if it’s vacant and more than two years in arrears in taxes, you can acquire a property for less than $2000. But it takes 18 months to get that to happen. I’ve actually got four applications in. Two have bounced back because there are issues. One house had a federal lien. The other one the city ended up demolishing. They didn’t tell me it was on the demolishing list and they ended up demolishing it and I don’t need the vacant lot. I was actually looking at rehabbing the house and it’s on my block. So, it’s just educating people that these plans exist and it’s inspiring people to step up and take responsibility instead of waiting for government to solve their problems because it’s still going to take years and years and years. I always joke, you know, government moves at the speed of sludge. So, we have to somehow get it, and it will never move at the speed of business, but if we can get it to move a little faster by I guess forcing it along through creative means than we should try.
EM: What about bringing jobs to downtown and bringing business to downtown? What’s the biggest challenge that Dayton has?
GL: Well, um, People. People on the street, and we’re working on that. There was no silver bullet solution. But if we had more entertainment more people would come out of the offices and then business people would see more people on the street and they would open more businesses which would attract more people, more housing options. And we’re working on that. We’re increasing the housing options because we realize that 95% to 98% of our residential units are occupied yet only 70% of our office space is occupied. So if we can convert some of the office space into residential and put more feet on the street, then you’ll have more people wandering around after 6 o’clock at night, which means that businesses will see that we’re more of an active city and they’ll say ‘well, I want to open a retail business or a restaurant’. And we’ve got more restaurants coming in. We’ve got coffee shops and they’re all privately owned. There’s not a single one downtown that says Starbucks on it. So, people are taking a chance. Businesses are moving into downtown. They’re looking at it as a viable place because we’ve changed the image of Dayton. We’re no longer a dying city. We’re now considered one of the progressive cities with great opportunities. It’s just a matter of letting people, of letting the world know that we think differently here. The Welcome Dayton plan helped, got us international attention. That’s another solution. If we can attract people who are disenfranchised from other parts of the world who come here legally as refugees, or just as immigrants as wanting to come to America, they are two and half times more likely to succeed at a small business than anybody born here. And they’re fixing up the properties. They’re buying the houses and fixing them up. I can’t get the people from the suburbs from Centerville, Washington Township or Beavercreek to buy a house in Dayton for 20-30 thousand dollars and fix it up but we can certainly get these disenfranchised people from around the world to come here and do that. And they’ll live there for the rest of their lives. They’ll settle and they’ll live there and they’ll create their own businesses. And 25 years from now, if their businesses are successful and they’ve run out of family members to employ, they’ll be bringing in other citizens. But the reality is, if you want to increase your population, that’s one way do it. If you want to increase the number of jobs that pay income tax that support services, that’s another way of doing it. Again, there’s no silver bullet solution, but if we can do all of this at the same time, it’ll change the dynamic.
EM: What about crime in Dayton? What are you going to do stop violence in the streets, robbery, things like that?
GL: We are working with that. We have the community initiative to reduce gun violence going on. We’re trying to work with, I can’t say, group related activity. I can’t say gang cause it’s not always gangs. Sometimes it’s family stuff or whatever. We’re already working on that. But I like to remind people that back in the 1980s we averaged 100 homicides a year. I think last year we had less than 30. In prior years to that, we averaged about 34. So crime has come way down and in the last couple of years. It’s come down without huge numbers of police officers on the streets. So the old paradigm of more police, less crime doesn’t necessarily apply in this case. We are using technology in a large degree to help and we are providing tools for the citizens to have access to information so that they can be more vigilant in their neighborhoods and police the crime. I guess the things we are doing is looking at more technology and we’re investing in that and information, just getting information out. They put up bulletins now every week of the crime that happened and we’re putting out pictures, the mug shots of the people, so that when you’re walking down the street you can recognize people as being in your neighborhood. One of the things I’ve asked and we’ll see if it happens…it would be really cool to use Facebook every week and put out Dayton’s most wanted every week. Here’s the five people we’re looking for this week. If you see them, please call this number just to let citizens know that they can be part of this. It’s going to take a community effort with the police to solve a lot of these issues. But I want to assure people, crime is down. But that’s a national trend, too. It’s down here in Dayton and downtown is actually one of the safest neighborhoods.
EM: You’ve been criticized in the past for your approach to the mayoral role. For example, working part time or taking time of to do some home repairs and things like that. What do you say to critics to your view as to the role of the mayor?
GL: Well the job is part time. It’s in the charter as a part time job. We’re basically supposed to be a board of directors of nonpartisan citizens who oversee a strong city manager form of government. And the manager has the access to the entire resources of the city as his fingertips; we don’t. I work about 36-40 hours a week part time. I mean, no joke. I get up in the morning. The first two hours of every day I’m dealing with emails, responses and things like that. But I don’t go to the office. I have a phone at home. I was self-employed before I did this. I don’t need an office to go to, to be seen at, to have meetings. A lot of my meetings I have with citizens are at coffee shops, at restaurants or even there’s a couple of taverns that I frequent in the evenings and just say meet me there and we’ll talk. But what I have been told is I’m the most accessible member of that entire city commission. If you contact my office on a Monday or Tuesday and request to have a meeting with me, it’s very likely that by Thursday or Friday, you’re sitting in front of me. The reason that happens is because I treat it as a part time job, I leave big blocks of time open for that kind of stuff. Cause I’ve got other things I could be doing, typing things, and I can do it anywhere. I have an iPad. I have a laptop computer. So, when those people that come forward say that ‘I never see you anywhere’, I tell them, ‘I never see you anywhere either and have you ever called my office to find out what my schedule is and where I’ll be?’ Which most people say, no they don’t because they don’t realize I’m accessible. The other thing is I use Facebook a lot and people send me messages. And people tell me that they sent me something on Facebook, I respond. And that makes me accessible, too. So, I’m using the social media and modern technology to be accessible to citizens. If they call the office on the phone, it’s unlikely they’ll get me. I don’t have a cell phone. I will not carry a cell phone because the only people who want to get hold of me are the media. And I only want to talk about the good things that are happening. So, that’s pretty much what I would say to the critics. You say I don’t work full time. I say 40 hours part time is plenty. If I take some time off to fix up my house, I’m doing a good thing in Dayton.
EM: If you had to pick something that you could do as mayor to improve your next term, what would it be?
GL: Well, there’s a lot of things I’ve already done to improve this term but I don’t get up and I’m not in the media about it. I inspire people to be the best that they can be and I think if I can continue doing that, you’ll see a lot more change happening. We’re going through a renaissance here in Dayton and the renaissance has momentum and it’s kicking up because we’ve got three years worth of seed planting now coming to fruition and I think a few more years of that…I’m going to run out of ideas eventually, or people will just be so busy they’re not going to have more things to do. But I think I can get more involved. All this seed planting has been done and all these ideas are carried out and people are just taking charge of things on their own, which is what we needed. Maybe it’s time I can go into some of these neighborhoods and say ‘look, let’s help you organize and show you the tools that are available’. Our priority boards have issues and we’re looking at how we change our citizen engagement strategies. So maybe it’s time to go back to those boards and say ‘look, here’s how you can morph into something new and unique that will benefit the city and change the way you do things’. So, I could probably spend more time doing that. The first term, someone said, you know, ‘I did very well for a no name nobody from the neighborhoods with no money and no support and supposedly no experience’. And so, the first term was spent basically proving myself and a lot of people have said to me ‘you’ve proven yourself’. So, now I can focus on doing less things and be more effective at doing it. So, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.
EM: One thing you did do when your first took office is that you created a leadership council to address some of the city’s economic issues. What’s the status of that now?
GL: Well, I sent them a letter early this year that said since this is an election year and the majority of the people on that council had relationships with every single one of us that were running, I felt it that it was best not to meet this year. People’s loyalties are going to be tested and there’s no point in having that be used as a tool to disrupt things because people will use it as a political tool to say…I’m sure that a third of people on the council probably support me and a third support one of the other candidates and third support the other one. So why disrupt it? I just said basically ‘hey, I think this is a decision I’m willing to make. Let’s not do anything and we’ll come back together next year’.
EM: What’s your vision for what the city is going to look like in the next five years?
GL: Well, I did this because I wanted a better city for my daughter and five years isn’t long enough. If you look out ten years, I think we’ll be more of an international city as long as we can keep the momentum up with this immigrant friendly notion. We’ll have more cultural diversity, more creativity, more innovation. I think if we can create a society where people are not afraid to try things, you’ll see all kinds of innovative things happening. I think with the increase of housing downtown, more options downtown…My wife and I and a friend of ours are creating, we created it last year, an outdoor market…if we can get that growing and people will have a destination for Saturdays to come down. We just have to change the culture of a city, and we can’t dwell on negative things over the last 40 years. We have to look at the positive things. And the positive outweigh the negatives. We just have to focus on it and change the dynamics. So, I actually see a more progressive city, maybe a small increase in population. I mean I don’t think we’ll ever get back to the quarter of a million people we had in the 60’s and I don’t think we’re going to get back to the manufacturing element that we had back then. We have some manufacturing. We have high technology. We have jobs here but they’re so specialized we don’t have the people to fill them and I think that’s something we need to let the world know. We have these positions. Come. Come. Bring your innovative nature and your opportunistic style and come to Dayton and it’s a place where you can try things and not be ostracized for it.