DAYTON, Ohio — A shooter had just torn through a Walmart more than 1,300 miles away, and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley was in her car on the way to a cookout, agonizing over when to call El Paso Mayor Dee Margo. She wanted to let Margo know that she cared, that she would stand by him as he tried to lift his city out of the darkness.
After a back-and-forth with her husband, Whaley decided to give Margo some space and call the next day — let everyone sleep on it.
But her slumber that night was brief: An early-morning knock at the door woke her. Another shooter had opened fire, this time in Dayton. Nine people were dead. The city would forever change, Whaley knew. That darkness would descend here, too.
“I am sorry that we share this affinity,” Margo said when the two mayors connected later that bloody weekend. Whaley was standing in Dayton’s convention center, wails from grieving families trailing through the hall.
“I agree,” she replied.
So many mayors have this in common: a mass shooting with a high-powered weapon, lifeless bodies strewn on the pavement, a community grappling with how to move forward. Whaley, a trustee for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, knows this all too well — these phone calls, the shared grief.
Underlying the connection between the mayors is a central tenet of Whaley’s leadership: The office of the mayor should matter to the community, in times of joy and especially in times of grief. It took her two years to decide to run for mayor, and she declared her candidacy only after realizing that she could turn the position, described by her predecessor as “part time,” into one of legitimate power. Since her election in 2013, Whaley, 43, has become a visible leader throughout her city and its greater region, spearheading an education overhaul and taking on the opioid crisis.
But the limelight has downsides. A pile of letters from constituents angered by her “disrespect” for the president sit on her desk, and hundreds more fill an email folder that she painstakingly sorts through. For days after the Aug. 4 tragedy, a security detail drove Whaley around her city and followed her into her favorite restaurants.
“If I had my choice, I would just never have it,” she said of the detail. “I respect the fact that you need to stay safe, but this is the job.”
Whaley’s critics have accused her of turning a tragedy into political capital. But she sees it as an opportunity to use her bully pulpit for good.
Only once, she said, has she felt uncertain that she would do good by her city — and that was when President Trump came to town.
'Gritty and resilient'
Whaley’s decision to join Trump during his Dayton visit was not an easy one. She said she believed the president to be a divisive figure whose presence could further fracture her grieving city. On the other hand, he is the president of the United States, and she thought it was her duty as mayor to greet him.
She texted Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, a longtime friend, at 10:38 p.m. for advice.
“You up?” she said. Peduto, who led Pittsburgh after the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue last year, immediately called her.
“It seemed like she already had made up her mind, but she wanted some backing,” he said. “I reminded her of the opportunity to talk to the president directly, to look at him in the eye and talk to him about what needs to change.”
The next day, Whaley told a crowd of reporters that she planned to confront Trump during his visit and tell him “how unhelpful he’s been” on gun issues.
Whaley took antihistamines to help her sleep that night, but a queasy stomach wrested her from bed before dawn. She spent 20 minutes on an exercise video, Yoga With Adriene, before she made her way to greet the president.
As Whaley stood beside Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on the tarmac, she mulled over the words she wanted to say.
“Mr. President, welcome to Dayton,” she said once Trump arrived. “The people of Dayton are hungry for action, and I know you are a person of action.”
The president shook her hand and responded, “You’ll like what you see.”
She was so confused by the comment that she scribbled it down on the back of a check on the way to Miami Valley Hospital, where Trump would meet with the shooting victims.
Whaley made it through the day by telling herself that she was upholding her responsibilities as mayor. She repeated it to herself like a mantra.
In the days that followed, another unexpected responsibility developed: funerals and visitations.
Whaley stood close to the sister of Thomas McNichols, a 25-year-old father of four, as she laid her brother to rest eight days after the shooting. In a crowded, emotional room at a Dayton church, the mayor spent a few moments addressing the bereaved family in hushed tones as she crouched at the bench where they mourned.
She never knows what to say in those moments, except for expressing sorrow and assuring the family that, when the attention fades away, she will still be there.
On her way out of the visitation, mourners tapped her on the shoulder.
“You’re doing a good job,” one said. “Thanks for being here.”
The amount of loss her community is facing feels daunting to the mayor at times, but she said she gets through it out of admiration and love for the city she represents. Whaley has lived here since she enrolled at the University of Dayton more than two decades ago and was first elected to the city commission in 2005. After growing up in Mooresville, Ind., she said, she fell in love with Dayton’s personality.
“This city is gritty and resilient,” she said.
They’re the same qualities that Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley uses to describe Whaley.
“She’s just so Dayton,” he said. “So relatable and so human — it really shines through.”
The past few months have tested Whaley and her city. In May, more than a dozen tornadoes landed near Dayton, causing considerable damage to houses and businesses. A few days earlier, a group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan had held a rally in Dayton, exhausting the city and draining its resources as hundreds of counterprotesters and dozens of police officers showed up to respond.
Through it all, Whaley has done her best to remain positive.
Since the shooting in Dayton’s Oregon District, a neighborhood of small businesses, Whaley has encouraged shoppers to return to the area, eating a meal there nearly every day for the past three weeks and often posting about her food choices on social media.
Navigating between resilience and politics, sadness and anger hasn’t been an easy balance.
As hundreds of people crowded the main street of the Oregon District the evening after the shooting, Whaley was moved to see residents supporting one another in grief. But when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) stood up to speak, the collective sadness transformed into rage. Chants of “Do something!” reverberated through the crowd. Whaley stepped in, encouraging the crowd to focus on the vigil.
“Of course anger is allowed and part of the grieving process,” she later said, reflecting on the moment. “But I didn’t want that to overtake the fact that we came there as a community.”
Weeks after the tense moment, resident Bradie Hammond, 32, said the mayor’s presence in the Oregon District helped give her strength to return to the area.
“I love the fact that she has been here and continues to be here firsthand,” Hammond said, wearing a “Dayton Strong” T-shirt. “When she speaks from here, you can tell that she’s feeling what we are feeling.”
'The mayor should matter'
It’s in the quiet moments that Whaley seems most distraught, said aide Ariel Walker, when she lets herself fear that no gun policy changes will come of her city’s devastation.
Whaley’s priorities are to strengthen laws on straw purchases and background checks. Eventually, she hopes to help pass an assault weapons ban. She’s grateful for any forward movement on the issue, no matter how radical, and regardless of the supporters’ political affiliation.
DeWine, a Republican, released a 17-point gun policy proposal on Aug. 6 that includes expanded background checks and “red flag” laws that would allow guns to be taken from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. While Whaley said the proposal does not go as far as she would like, she has endorsed it.
After the shooting, she developed a close partnership with DeWine. At McNichols’s visitation, Whaley went out of her way to find him. They hugged. She chatted with DeWine’s wife, Frances, about a pair of shoes that are good for long days on the job. Whaley and DeWine met, talked or texted every day that first week.
“She has done a phenomenal job,” DeWine said. “People look to the mayor for strength, they look to the mayor for compassion, they look to the mayor for leadership, and she has demonstrated all three of those.”
Others have sent support: South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic presidential candidate and longtime friend, texted and called her often, sending a basket of chocolate from his hometown. Other White House hopefuls, including former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke (D), have checked in by phone. Whaley keeps a running list, now spread over three pages, of all the mayors who have wished her well.
Above all, she said, it is her husband, Sam Braun, who gives her the strength to get through each day. Braun, who works as a community services director for the county and is known among his friends for his “political nose,” has joined Whaley at every funeral and every visitation. He is always right behind her, intermittently squeezing her hand or rubbing her shoulder.
“I could not do this job without Sam,” she said, driving to another news conference . She turns away, visibly emotional.
Now, back in her office, Whaley looked over the piles of mail on her desk, wondering when she will find time to reply. She sat down, reminiscing about the first speech she gave during her campaign for mayor more than six years ago.
She recalled the first line — “the mayor of Dayton should matter” — and got back to work.