DAYTON, Ohio — First, the Ku Klux Klan came to town. Two days later, tornadoes destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and obliterated entire neighborhoods in and around the western Ohio city of Dayton.
Then last weekend, a gunman stormed onto a crowded sidewalk in the entertainment district — an area of town typically swarming with revelers who stay until the bars close in the early morning — and fired at least 41 shots into the crowd, killing nine people before he was shot dead by the authorities.
“Something just keeps happening,” said Amanda Hensler, an owner of a store, Heart Mercantile, that is across the street from where the massacre took place.
The day after the mass shooting — the second within a 13-hour period in America — residents flocked to Hensler’s store to buy T-shirts that read “Dayton Strong,” which has become something of a motto for this grieving, shocked city. The customers knew that the store would have them in stock because they had been printed three months earlier, after the catastrophic tornado outbreak.
Indeed, Dayton has been through a brutal six-month stretch, even before the Klan held a rally at the city’s downtown Courthouse Square. Since the beginning of February, the city has also endured a large infrastructure failure and federal indictments at City Hall.
Seeing the city through all this has been Mayor Nan Whaley, 43, a blunt and outspoken second-term Democrat who is believed to have political ambitions beyond Dayton — a city with about 140,000 residents who have endured more trauma this year than many larger cities experience in a decade.
Since Aug. 4, when she first appeared before a throng of reporters, Whaley has found herself in the biggest moment of her political life — and at the worst moment of her city’s modern history. She has been a whirlwind presence across the city, too, talking to victims’ families, briefing reporters and working with the state’s Republican governor to form bipartisan alliances on gun policy.
And then there is the Twitter feud with the president of the United States.
“She’s going to be governor one day,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. Brown was not speaking of Whaley’s presence solely over the past few days, but over the whole, bad year.
“There have been these three big things, two of them tragic,” he said, “and then you put all that in the context of the past 30 years, with globalization. It’s sort of been one thing after another.”
In February — after a water line break left tens of thousands without water, but before the federal indictments of current and former local officials — Montgomery County granted the Klan a permit to come to town on the last weekend in May. Afterward, the city sued, arguing that a paramilitary-style rally would present serious public safety concerns. Officials ultimately agreed to a consent decree that limited the weapons the marchers could carry.
The rally cost the city at least $600,000 in security costs, but in the end, only nine Klansmen showed up. They were hemmed in by more than 700 law enforcement officers and were easily drowned out by the shouts and chants of the hundreds who had come out to oppose the march. When the rally ended uneventfully, it seemed that the potential for serious violence had passed.
Two days later, the tornadoes hit.
“It was almost as if it was a metaphor of a divine nature,” said the Rev. Renard Allen Jr., the pastor of St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, one of the larger churches in Dayton.
That tornado outbreak on May 27 devastated suburban communities and littered city streets with fallen trees. For weeks, residents lifted branches off strangers’ homes and served meals at temporary shelters.
“I think the tornadoes really brought the community together in a really bizarro kind of way,” said Shelley Dickstein, Dayton’s city manager. “We were very much still in the process of healing from the tornadoes when the mass shooting hit.”
When Whaley was elected to the City Commission at age 29, Dayton, like much of the industrial Midwest, was struggling to recover from a prolonged decline. Over the decades, factories and Fortune 500 companies had left Dayton. So had nearly half its residents.
But during her nearly six years as mayor, Whaley has presided over a downtown revival. Buildings that had long been vacant are being redeveloped. Some neighborhoods that had been emptied are seeing an infusion of new residents.
And during this time, Whaley has steadily built a larger profile for herself, taking on a leadership role in a national mayors’ organization, speaking openly about the toll of the opioid crisis on the state and briefly seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
“People see that she’s striving for a higher political level,” said Gary Leitzell, her predecessor as mayor, who said Whaley’s ambitions have been seen by some as overshadowing the concerns in some neighborhoods.
At a vigil on Aug. 3, Whaley talked about joining an unfortunate fraternity of mayors whose cities had been the site of mass shootings. The crowd roared with approval for the mayor. A moment later, they drowned out the Republican governor, Mike DeWine, imploring him to push for tighter gun laws with chants of “Do something!”
Whaley said in an interview that she was not sure how DeWine would react. “After that I said to him, ‘I’m sorry, people are just wound up,’” she recalled. “He said to me, ‘Nan, that’s part of the job.’”
Since that vigil, the two have spoken every day, she said. They have effusively complimented each other at news conferences and tried to put on a bipartisan front for gun control proposals.
“She’s done a great job,” said DeWine, who grew up about 20 miles from Dayton. “Communities always look for leadership from the mayor when you have a crisis, and she’s stepped up.”
Last Tuesday, DeWine proposed expanding background checks and enacting a version of a “red flag” law that would allow guns to be seized from people deemed dangerous. But feisty exchanges between Whaley and President Donald Trump have not made a bipartisan alliance very easy.
Before Trump visited the city on Wednesday, Whaley said she planned to tell him “how unhelpful he’s been” on gun policy. She also would needle him about mistaking Dayton for Toledo in a national address on Monday about the shooting.
After leaving Dayton on Wednesday, Trump said on Twitter that Whaley’s characterization of his visit was “a fraud.”
For her part, Whaley said on Thursday that she was relieved he had left town.
“We’ve got to get to the work of grieving and bringing our community together,” she said. “All of the national drama about what President Trump is thinking and what he’s not thinking, it’s not helpful to our community.”