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Cincinnati's mayor enters Democratic race for governor of Ohio, pitching legal weed

John Cranley will face his friend Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, in the primary.
Image: John Cranley
Mayor John Cranley in Cincinnati on July 16, 2020.Andrew Cenci / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

CLEVELAND — Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley launched a long-expected campaign for governor of Ohio on Tuesday, setting up a potentially discordant and expensive primary for Democrats in a state they have led for only four of the last 30 years.

Cranley is pitching his candidacy around a push to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, either through the Legislature or by a ballot initiative.

Tax revenue from the sale of legal weed would go toward promoting clean energy, building roads and expanding broadband access — efforts that he said could create 30,000 new jobs paying at least $60,000 a year. Cranley also wants to use state revenue collected from the energy industry to award $500 annual dividends to every Ohio household.

"I expect to accomplish those three things in my first four years," Cranley, 47, said in an interview.

He said that if he wins and falls short of those goals, he would not run for re-election as governor.

Cranley will compete against Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, 45, for the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, Gov. Mike DeWine plans to seek a second term in 2022. DeWine's science-based mandates during the pandemic and his administration's ties to FirstEnergy, the Ohio-based electric utility at the center of a federal corruption investigation, have emboldened primary challengers, including former Rep. Jim Renacci.

DeWine hasn't been implicated in the scandal, but his appointee to chair the state's Public Utilities Commission, who has since resigned, has been. Cranley and Whaley also are pressing the issue.

"For most of the last 30 years, state government in Ohio has been a rigged system, led by one party," Cranley says in the introductory video produced for his campaign launch. "In that system, Republicans get to stay in power as long as they push an agenda that favors the wealthy few — welfare for big corporations, paid for by tax and energy hikes on you and me."

Whaley struck similar themes in her launch video in April.

Cranley, a lawyer who co-founded the Ohio Innocence Project, frames his run around a "Cincinnati Comeback" that emphasizes the city's growing population and other metrics that compare favorably to those of other cities in Ohio, including Dayton. Such talking points will test the friendship he and Whaley developed as ambitious Democrats in the state's southwestern region.

Whaley, in her four months as a declared candidate, has racked up endorsements from Emily's List, several labor groups and a majority of the Democratic members of the Legislature. Cranley technically has been running longer. He established a gubernatorial committee last year to raise money for what he often described as exploratory work, an approach that until recently created doubts about his intentions. Whaley has outraised him this year, according to the latest campaign finance reports. She also had slightly more cash on hand entering August.

Ideologically, there have been few opportunities for the candidates to distinguish themselves from each other. Cranley, his legal weed plan notwithstanding, is viewed in state and local Democratic circles as more moderate than Whaley, given his business-friendly reputation and past anti-abortion views. (Cranley told The Cincinnati Enquirer this year that his views have evolved and that, despite his personal and moral beliefs about abortion, he doesn't believe government should "legislate against it.")

"Nan's a friend, and I know she's worked hard," Cranley said this week. "And, and I agree with many of her policies, but at the end of the day, in my opinion, we need a governor who's delivered results."

Asked about their budding rivalry in April, Whaley waved off the idea of tensions.

"We have very, very different leadership styles," she said. "But I made this joke, because our cities are a bit different. He's got the best chili. We have the best pizza. This is going to be fine."