A.J. Wagner is a former Montgomery County court judge and county auditor. He says his experience is what distinguishes him as a candidate for Dayton mayor and hopes to win the primary in May, as he challenges incumbent Gary Leitzell and Democrat Nan Whaley. WYSO's Emily McCord is interviewing all the candidates to learn more about them and their positions.
Emily McCord: How do you define the role as Dayton mayor? What do you see that looking like?
A.J. Wagner: You know, a lot of people had called over the years for broader leadership for the whole region. The mayor of Dayton kind of could be that. But my view of it is that we have tremendous leadership all around our communities and that the role of mayor isn't necessarily to lead, but it's to kind of bring along those who, other leaders, to energize them and motivate them and get them involved in the community because one person can't do it by themselves. So, it's collaborating. It's bringing people together who can develop collaborations, can develop programs, can develop ideas together, so that they together lead into the community. And it's not me or the mayor that will do that except by virtue of brining people together. The leadership's already there, it just has to be focused and motivated.
EM: So, what distinguishes you from the mayoral candidates that are running?
AW: Mostly experience. I'm the old man. I've been 10 years as county auditor, 10 years as Montgomery County court judge. But I've also been a school teacher. I've been a banker. I've owned my own business. I've raised two beautiful children who are now middle aged, they tell me. And it's all those kinds of experiences, I think, that can come to bear in a positive way on how you see things, how you think of things, how you envision solutions to problems, because you've seen other problems, especially when you've practiced law. You've seen a lot of problems, and you've seen solutions to those problems, both in the law and in other personal ways. And I think that my experience can come to bear on the city in ways that both Gary and Nan, who are good people, but who don't have the depth of experience that I have. And I think that's the difference.
EM: Is there one problem that is at the heart of what you want to do for Dayton more than any other?
AW: (chuckles) I probably would prioritize the problems, but there are several that I want to attack. In fact I've got a full schedule already lined up for when I become mayor. But it's got to start with the neighborhoods and housing, even though we desperately need jobs, and that has to be near the top also, we desperately need to change some things. But right at the top has to be the neighborhoods. They have been deteriorating at a rapid rate and all you have to do is drive around Dayton for a while and see falling down houses and peeling paint and tires in alleys. You see so much decay that you've got to have a real concern for what's happening in the city. Some of that has been exacerbated by the ruling that allowed our employees to move out. But it's also been exacerbated just by the mess that there is, outside investors coming in and speculating on our properties and buying properties and really draining them of all their value. Renting them and not repairing them and not taking of them, just getting all that they can out of them and then running away. It's kind of like Bain capital. They're doing it to our neighborhoods.
EM: So how do you stop that?
AW: Well, you have to create new laws. You have to increase enforcement and you have to create new laws. Because of my experience as a judge and lawyer, I know that we can make laws that will help hold their feet to the fire. We're not going to win them all. We're not going to win all the battles, but right now people can walk away from their properties because nobody chases them. We have to develop systems that chase them and hold them accountable. If you walk away from a property right now, you may, that property will go into foreclosure and nobody will chase you. We have to make sure that when that property goes into foreclosure we enforce the liens that come off of that property and force them against any other property that owner has. So that they're forced at some point when they want to sell their properties to pay up and cover the city for the expenses that they have. But also, it will tell them that can't just walk away from each individual property. So, it's a process that we can make and that we can create that will hold them more accountable than they've been held.
EM: I do want to talk a little about the differences in particular between you and Democratic challenger Nan Whaley. You two are both Democrats and I am curious, she has the endorsement of the Democratic party and you do not. What's the story there?
AW: First of all, I did not ask for the endorsement. I actually looked at this in two ways. Number one was, if I wanted the endorsement there would be a fight. There would a big internal fight within the party. If I'm going to govern the city, I need the help of the Democratic party. But I also need the help of the Republican party. We don't need split parties. We don't need split communities. It won't work. It hasn't worked and it won't work. We need everybody at the table. And I thought, well, if I honor the charter, which this is a non partisan race, if I honor the charter and turn down the endorsement, it avoids the split in the party, and I hope that's true. We avoid the split in the party. They can endorse Nan. I'll run on my own merit. And then I will, hopefully when this is over, if I'm mayor, we can pull the party back together because we haven't done much damage to it. We can pull the party back together. We can also because of my non-partisan stance, work closely with Republicans, work closely with independents, to make sure the whole community is focused and going in one direction.
EM: He had, Mayor Leitzell had requested that everybody in the mayor's race keep campaign finance spending to a minimum. I think it was 10 thousand dollars or less. That was his proposition. He felt that would have been good news for Dayton. Both you and Nan Whaley did not agree to do that. Can you explain?
AW: Sure. You know, although people know me for the most part because I've been an elected official for over 20, well right around 20 years. Although people know me, there's still people who don't know me and don't know what I would do as mayor. You cannot communicate for $10,000. You cannot communicate to the citizens of Dayton what you want to do. It takes more than that just to do a mailing out to the voters. It takes more than $10,000. It is a lot of money to run a campaign and the purpose of the campaign is to get people to get know you and to get them to help them know what you're going to do. They need information to make an intelligent decision. And if you say $10,000 you're not giving them the ability to make an intelligent decision.
EM: What about building business in downtown Dayton? What's the biggest obstacle to that right now?
AW: The city. I come to that conclusion after hearing literally story after story after story of developers telling me that they've had it. They just don't want to go to Dayton anymore because it's just too much paperwork. Too many nos. Too many times they're told no. And I had the good fortune/bad fortune of sitting in a meeting last week with some of the city staff where we were trying to convince, we're trying to strategize how to convince the library board to use the Arcade as their new library. And we had the developer in the room, the owner of the Arcade, the proposed developer, was in the room. And really, it was horrible, I thought. I would not wanted to be that developer. I would have walked away. The city was pretty much saying you can't do this, you can't do that. You're going to do this and you're going to do that. It wasn't even a please and thank you anywhere in there. And I just thought 'boy, if I was this developer, I wouldn't want to come to this community either'. And they told stories of one of the problems with redeveloping the Arcade is the owner says I go out to other developers and other possible businesses and they just say 'we're not coming to Dayton. We're just not going to do it'.
EM: How do you get at that problem, as Dayton mayor if you were elected?
AW: First thing you have to do is review all the rules and say, "okay, what's in the…what's getting in the way?" and "how does it get in the way?" The second thing is really is partly a question of attitude and how do we change the attitudes of those who are enforcing the rules. I believe it's probably not all their fault. It's a management style, a management problem that every time that they don't enforce the rule they get in big trouble, threats and whatever. You can't operate on a system that kind of encourages people always to say no. We have to figure out ways to change attitudes so that we give them the ability, the authority, and empower them to say yes. And sometimes yes, but could you do this? But we want them to say yes and until we empower them that way, it's just going to continue to be nos.