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Commentary: Actions, Like Words, Matter In Times Of Tragedy

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, joined by Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley (right), talks to reporters in Dayton's Oregon District following a mass shooting there that left nine dead and 27 injured.
Nan Whaley
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, joined by Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley (right), talks to reporters in Dayton's Oregon District following a mass shooting there that left nine dead and 27 injured.

How you are judged as an elected official has much more to do with how you respond in the worst of times than in the best of times.

Ohio's Republican governor, veteran politician Mike DeWine, is finding that out right now.

When tragedies strike – such as the senseless, insane mass murders by demented people with powerful weapons in Dayton and El Paso – if you are a mayor, a senator, a governor or even the president of the United States, people will be looking to you and at you.

You have any number of choices of how to respond.

You can be like President Trump and try to use it to your personal advantage by shunning the traditional press pool and instead taking a private film crew with you to hospitals in Dayton and El Paso – one might guess – to record footage for your re-election campaign. You can stand in a hospital, as Trump did, next to first lady Melania holding a baby whose parents were killed and flash a big smile and a "thumbs up." 

You could do that, but it would rub many the wrong way, and wondering who would stand and smile and flash "thumbs up" when standing next to an infant who was orphaned by a mad gunman. What is there to smile about in that? 

(For what it's worth, the family of the deceased are supporters of the president and were eager to meet with him.)

Or you could be like Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who was a rock of comfort, reassurance, accurate information and love for her city after nine of its citizens were shot dead in the middle of the main street of the Oregon District, a place where Dayton goes for entertainment and good times.

You can be like DeWine, who came to a Dayton park near the Oregon District the night after the shootings to speak words of sympathy and understanding. You are governor but also a human being, and you were speaking on the 26th anniversary of the death of your daughter, Becky, in a car crash in nearby Greene County, so you know the emptiness and sense of loss that the Dayton victims' families feel, as does DeWine's wife, Fran.  

And then you find yourself unable to continue speaking because hundreds of people in the audience are drowning you out with an anguished chant: Do something! Do something! Do something! 

So, less than 48 hours later, if you are Mike DeWine, you roll out a 17-point package of gun reforms that you say everyone – Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, gun control advocates and the anti-gun control people – should be able to support.

The list includes what he calls "safety protection orders," which is actually a "red flag" law, a term that is hated by the National Rifle Association and many guns rights groups. It would allow judges to remove weapons from potentially dangerous people and get them the mental health treatment they need.

DeWine's proposal also includes expanded background checks, increased access to psychiatric services and increased penalties for illegally possessing firearms.

It's a remarkable proposal, considering that during his long career, DeWine has drifted in and out of favor with the NRA and gun owners in general.

"He's stuck between a rock and a hard place, yes, but he's also stuck between 'old Mike' and 'new Mike,' that one that came along after he became (Ohio) attorney general,'' said David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

The NRA was enraged in 2004 when then-Sen. Mike DeWine co-sponsored an amendment to renew the federal assault weapons ban. Then, in 2006, when he was running for re-election against Democrat Sherrod Brown, an outspoken gun control advocate, DeWine became the first senate candidate to be endorsed by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence – something that was also anathema to the gun lobby.

He ended up losing a close election to Brown.

In 2010, he was elected as Ohio's attorney general and, over time, he became more and more friendly with the NRA and the Buckeye Firearms Association, to the point where the NRA endorsed him for governor in 2018 over Democrat Richard Cordray.

"DeWine does seem to be a problem-solver and seems to want to find solutions, but he is going to run into pushback from both sides,'' said Mack Mariani, professor of political science at Xavier University.

"The challenge in getting something done is that it is not going to happen in an atmosphere of problem-solving,'' Mariani said. "This is all about confrontation."

Jim Irvine, the long-time president of the Buckeye Firearms Association, said his organization advised DeWine on his plan.

"But we did not write any legislation,'' Irvine said. "My understanding is that the legislation hasn't been written yet.

"We have for many months – many years, long before Dayton – we have worked with DeWine on many issues involving Second Amendment rights,'' Irvine said.

Irvine said that when DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted unveiled the plan in a press conference last week, "I was glad to hear both of them say, 'I want to focus on the person, not the gun.' We need to be focusing on the individual, not the tool he uses to commit crimes."

"There is almost uniform agreement by everyone that we have a big problem with mental health that has to be dealt with,'' Irvine said.

But Irvine said there are major pieces of DeWine's package his organization will never go along with – a "red flag" law and expanded background checks.

A May Quinnipiac poll showed 61% of Americans support universal background checks for gun purchases at gun shows and other private sales.

Supporting universal background checks should be a no-brainer for any politician, Niven said.

Still, it will be an uphill slog for DeWine getting his reforms passed, because of the hold the NRA has had on the legislature through campaign money and hard-core lobbying.

On the other hand, it is pretty clear that most people in Ohio – certainly most people in Dayton – want to see it happen.

Last week, after Trump made his visit to Miami Valley Hospital with Whaley and Sherrod Brown and moved on to El Paso, Whaley was asked if Trump should have visited the Oregon District.

"I think it was a good idea for him not to stop in the Oregon District,'' said the Democratic mayor. "A lot of the time his talk can be very divisive and that's the last thing we need in Dayton."

"A lot of the time his talk can be very divisive, and that's the last thing we need in Dayton." https://t.co/1qolkv4lN3 pic.twitter.com/jTCdgV6k4J— ABC News (@ABC) August 7, 2019

The next day, DeWine showed up with Whaley in the Oregon District where they ate lunch together. Fran DeWine came along wearing a #DaytonStrong T-shirt.

The DeWines were welcomed to the neighborhood.

As politicians should be in times of crisis and tragedy. If they know how to respond.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit .

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.