The two Democrats trying to unseat first-term Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine took turns Tuesday criticizing the governor and his party for overseeing years of corruption and decline across the state.
Meeting in their first primary debate, ex-Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley blamed DeWine for enabling the $60 million statehouse bribery scheme, failing to pass meaningful gun reforms and flip-flopping on mask mandates.
“We’ve had the same guys in charge at the statehouse,” Whaley said. “They’ve gotten rich and Ohio families have fallen further and further behind.”
The result, Cranley said, is that Ohioans are falling behind most Americans. “Guess what, the average person is poorer,” he said.
Ohio’s unemployment rate has rebounded from the pandemic and is slightly lower than what it was two years ago, but the workforce has shrunk by about 190,000 people.
DeWine wasn’t around to defend himself after Republicans pulled out of plans for a debate ahead of the May 3 primary, which still could be delayed because on the ongoing battle over redistricting.
The governor, whose home is a 10-minute drive from the debate site at Central State University, declined to participate, prompting former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci to withdraw as well.
A message seeking comment on the debate was left with DeWine’s campaign.
Whaley and Cranley blistered the governor at every turn throughout their hourlong debate. Whaley said DeWine was unwilling to stand up against “radicals in his party” when it came to gun reform.
Following a 2019 mass shooting that left nine dead in Dayton, Whaley and the governor pledged to work together on gun laws, but that soured after the Republican-controlled Legislature blocked their efforts. DeWine later signed a “Stand Your Ground” law and another eliminating the requirement for concealed weapons permits.
“Never in my my worst nightmare did I think that the thing he was going to do would actually make it worse,” Whaley said.
Cranley said DeWine signed what is the most corrupt legislation in state history — the $1 billion of the state’s nuclear plants now mired in a corruption scandal involving FirstEnergy Corp. that took down one of the state’s most powerful Republicans.
Cranley promised that his first act as governor would be to fire the state’s public utilities commissioners and appoint new leaders who support clean energy policy and protecting consumers.
The two Democrats, who consider each other friends and worked together as mayors, stayed away from talking about each other during the debate hosted by the nonpartisan Ohio Debate Commission.
Just once did they spar, even slightly, over abortion.
Whaley said she was the only Democratic candidate for governor who has been pro-choice her entire career while saying that Cranley only announced he was pro-choice before he entered the race.
Cranley, a Roman Catholic, has said in the past he personally opposed abortion, but he also considers himself pro-choice. He said on Tuesday that he would protect reproductive freedom and that government should have no role in reproductive issues.
Both pledged to bring new green energy jobs to Ohio, fight for social justice and protect those who have been discriminated against based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Cranley has proposed using tax revenue from legalizing recreational marijuana, now legal in 18 states, to pay for programs improving roads, water systems and broadband networks.
Whaley wants a $15 minimum wage, universal preschool and better access to child care.
Both talked about creating more opportunities for young people so they don’t feel they need to move out of state to find work.
Cincinnati has seen a comeback and is growing again because the city has embraced racial justice, diversity and inclusion, Cranley said.
“These things matter to young people, to retaining young people,” he said. “Too much of Ohio thinks we can’t grow again. I know we can.”
Whaley said the state should invest in its communities and small businesses and adopt a jobs plan for all of Ohio instead cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations.
“Folks that are running the statehouse right now are more interested in lining their pockets than helping places like Marietta and Mansfield,” she said.