COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — In the Democratic primary for Ohio governor, it’s a duel of former big-city mayors: Cincinnati’s John Cranley and Dayton’s Nan Whaley.

Both candidates are touting their mayoral tenures from 2014 through 2021 as examples of how they would govern. Cranley, 48, has framed his time in office as Cincinnati’s “comeback,” while Whaley, 46, has leaned on leadership through major moments.

Cincinnati was the only Ohio metropolitan area other than Columbus to increase its population over the last decade, according to the 2020 census. The Queen City grew 4.17 percent over 10 years, and Cranley points to some of his policies helping that trend.

“The future used to happen here. But after 30 years of one-party, corrupt rule, the average Ohioan is making less money than the average American,” Cranley said of Republicans in the race’s only debate three weeks ago. “We need a comeback.”

Whaley was most notably mayor of Dayton during two nationally-known events in 2019: A mass shooting that killed nine people and injured 27 and a tornado outbreak that injured 166.

“You don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘That’s not my problem,'” she said Wednesday during a discussion at the Columbus Metropolitan Club hosted by NBC4’s Colleen Marshall.

Cranley was born and raised in the Cincinnati area, and he has degrees from John Carroll University and Harvard Law. He co-founded the Ohio Innocence Project in 2002, which seeks to exonerate wrongly-convicted people. He was a lawyer and a Cincinnati city councilor before being elected mayor.

Whaley is originally from Indiana, but she stayed in Ohio after graduating from the University of Dayton. She also has a master’s degree from Wright State. She was a Dayton city councilor before being elected mayor, and in 2021 she served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Cranley and Whaley’s top issues

On the issues, Cranley has highlighted jobs, clean energy, and civil rights as priorities.

Cranley’s jobs plan, 120,000 in his first four years that pay least $60,000 a year, would be financed by legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana. Eighteen states have already legalized pot, including Michigan.

John Cranley, former Mayor of Cincinnati, running for Ohio governor, speaks to reporters following a debate against Nan Whaley at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

He also wants to increase taxes on energy companies to fund a $500 annual dividend for families making less than $75,000. Alaska does something similar with oil profits. On social justice, Cranley would outlaw discrimination in state employment and work on criminal justice reform.

Last week Cranley also unveiled a plan of voluntary summer school to make up for learning losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whaley’s top policy proposal is her jobs plan, which would invest in new technologies, raise wages and try to spread growth to struggling corners of the state like the northeast and Appalachia.

“The answer to Ohio’s young adults can’t be, ‘If you want a good job, move to Columbus,’” she said in the March debate.

Nan Whaley, former mayor of Dayton, responds to a question in the Ohio Gubernatorial Democratic Primary Debate with John Cranley, former mayor of Cincinnati, at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Meg Vogel/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP, Pool)

Other policy priorities on her campaign website include ethics reform in state government, protecting abortion rights, and universal preschool.

Whaley has also been vocal about gun reform since the 2019 Dayton shooting, and she has said Gov. Mike DeWine has broken promises on the issue and has not stood up to more rightward Republicans.

“Our communities are now less safe because of extreme, radical agenda items like stand your ground and permitless concealed carry, which actually makes our police officers less safe,” Whaley said in the March debate, adding she would push for universal background checks on firearm purchases.

Polling, endorsements and running mates

Only two independent polls have surveyed the race, and both have it wide open with a majority of voters still undecided.

A University of Akron poll released March 15 found Whaley (23 percent) leading Cranley (18 percent) with 54 percent undecided. And an Emerson College survey commissioned by NBC4 in late February had the candidates tied at 16 percent with nearly 7 in 10 voters undecided.

Both polls, however, surveyed likely voters before the race’s lone debate in late March at Central State University.

Cranley’s endorsements are a mix of community leaders, local officials and state lawmakers. Whaley’s endorsements include a similar mix, along with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the only statewide-elected Ohio Democrat currently in office.

The two candidates have already chosen their running mates. Cranley’s lieutenant governor would be longtime state lawmaker Teresa Fedor of Toledo, and Whaley’s would be Cheryl Stephens, CEO of the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation and former mayor of Cleveland Heights.

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