Grassroots Candidates Run for Dayton City Commissioner Seats in Crowded Race
It’s a Monday night, and residents of the Historic Huffman neighborhood are gathered at St. Paul Methodist Church for a political forum. Spaced six feet apart in the church’s pews, residents heard from candidates for the Dayton city mayor and commissioner seats.
It’s a crowded field this year. The Montgomery County Democratic party says it’s been about 30 years since this many people have run for commissioner seats. There are three people running for mayor and seven people running for two open city commissioner seats.
Candidates for mayor are Gary Leitzell, Jeffrey Mims Jr., and Rennes Bowers. For commissioner, incumbent Darryl Fairchild, Stacey Benson-Taylor, Valerie Duncan, Jared Grandy, Scott Sliver, Shenise Turner-Sloss and Jordan Wortham are all running.
But Grandy and Turner-Sloss have emerged as grassroots candidates, pushing for more progressive policies. They are prioritizing police reform and investment in neglected communities of color — like West Dayton. Both Grandy and Turner-Sloss are from there.
Grandy worked for the city as a coordinator for community-police relations, but he resigned last May. He says it was frustrating to see the city and police leadership resistant to change.
“Unfortunately, especially in cities with large black populations, they don't trust our humanity,” Grandy said. “I think the assumption is that black people will fall into complete criminal behavior. That's a racist ideology. And again, it has tied our hands for centuries at this point.”
About 40 percent of the Dayton population is Black, according to 2019 Census data - the majority of whom live on the West side.
Grandy wants to work with as many community leaders as he can to spur redevelopment there. And one of those leaders is Shenise Turner-Sloss. She grew up in Residence Park, a neighborhood located in the heart of West Dayton.
In February, she held a campaign kickoff event not too far from there. Next to the podium where she spoke was a row of chairs reserved for her biggest fans. And Grandy was sitting in one of them.
“Some of you may be wondering what is the significance of us being here and having the launch here?” Turner-Sloss said. “My answer is simple, it's good to be in the neighborhood.”
Like Grandy, Turner-Sloss was a city employee before resigning. She worked in community development for seven years before leaving to co-found Neighborhoods Over Politics, a nonprofit that pushes for policies that revitalize neighborhoods. She says she was frustrated that her ideas were falling on deaf ears.
“It’s past time for us to combat those issues that we have faced with systemic racism to close the divide in the city of Dayton and start making it equitable for each and every one of us,” Turner-Sloss said.
Neither Grandy nor Turner-Sloss received official endorsements from the Montgomery County Democratic party. The party endorsed Stacey Benson-Taylor and Scott Sliver instead, saying they had better overall experience working within the city.
“I was just talking to Shenise yesterday and we were both commenting on how much of an uphill battle this is,” Grandy said. “This is her third time running, which to me signifies a commitment to her city to her people and people in general. And there's no way I can't support that.”
They were, however, endorsed by the Miami Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, receiving the group’s first ever political endorsements.
Christopher Devine is a political science professor at the University of Dayton, who specializes in American political parties and elections. He says there’s been a recent, national trend of “grassroots” candidates running and winning office. People like Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“It's often you see more of an emphasis on community organizing, going outside the political structure I think because you have a lot of marginalized groups that are kind of outside the typical power social power structures,” Devine said. “So they can't necessarily rely on people in political power to be receptive to their demands.”
After the political forum at St. Paul’s Methodist Church, Liz Velasquez and her three young kids decided to stick around for a little bit- even though it was 9 p.m. on a Monday night.
“I was really interested in how, I believe his name is Jared, talked about the social impact and about how it's all connected,” Velasquez said. “Education, policing, poverty, it's all connected, so I’m kind of drawn to that.”
Velasquez has lived in Dayton for 11 years, but this is the first election she’s been following closely. Her seven year old daughter was tugging on her arm to go home, but Velasquez wasn’t ready to leave. She was inspired to get involved.
“The only person to do it is you, the individual working together with other individuals, which makes up communities,” Velasquez said. “I think that we just kind of all have to get used to feeling a responsibility to do that.”
On May 4th, voters in Dayton will have the chance to select two mayoral and four commissioner candidates to move on to the November general elections. The Montgomery County Westside Democratic Club hosted a virtual debate Thursday night.