DAYTON, Ohio — Desiree Tims moved back home on a Tuesday. That Saturday, the Ku Klux Klan marched on Courthouse Square. Two days later, devastating tornadoes whipped through the area. A few months after that, a mass shooting in a popular nightlife district left nine dead.
During her decade away in Washington, DC, Tims completed a White House internship, worked for two prominent senators, and earned a Georgetown Law degree by taking night classes. If she left with one takeaway, it was that so few of those she observed in power — and so few of her peers close to power — had life experiences remotely comparable to hers.
Black. Born to a teenage mother. Raised by her grandparents in a neighborhood many political professionals obsessed with labels would simply identify as working-class if white people lived there. First in her family to attend a four-year college, but after easy A’s at public schools, a mental grind at a private university. The question she was always sure everyone was asking: Can this little Black girl from West Dayton do it?
It’s a question that now underpins her campaign for Congress in Ohio’s 10th District. When Tims returned last year, her name on the deed of the brick ranch she grew up in, she hadn’t planned to seek office so soon. But the tragedies that had visited Dayton accelerated the timeline. And this moment, 2020, groaning under the weight of crises that have magnified the injustices put upon people of color, has the makings of upheaval that could carry someone like Tims.
She won her primary in April with 70% of the vote, but without the national progressive energy or attention that recently lifted young Black congressional candidates such as Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones against white, establishment-aligned choices in New York. The victories encouraged Tims, who would be the district’s first Black representative. As the country confronts the truth that for so long, so much has been decided by so few people who are too alike, she frames her run quite literally as a fight for representation.
“I get very passionate about it, because it's very frustrating when you see that up close, the neglect that is consistent in the halls of Congress,” Tims, 32, said in an interview at her childhood home. “So instead of begging and advocating people to do the right thing, let's just replace them.”
Unlike Bowman and Jones, who are running in safe Democratic districts, Tims is attempting to unseat Rep. Mike Turner, a nine-term Republican. Democrats have targeted him for years without success, but Turner’s margin of victory was cut by more than half between 2016 and 2018, from 31 points to 14. Black turnout in the district dropped from 73% to 59% between the two previous presidential elections and was 43% in 2018, according to data provided by Tims’ polling team. Her advisers see a path where the combination of a young Black candidate and a base motivated to defeat President Donald Trump — who carried the district by 7 points last time — turns out enough votes to win.
Tims announced her candidacy days after the shooting last August. Dayton hasn’t had much of a rest since. The coronavirus pandemic has hit hard, with a recent spike in COVID-19 cases prompting the mayor, and days later the governor, to require masks in public places. The national outrage over systemic racism after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor also has been profound in a city where the 2019 KKK rally, which attracted only nine members, was an emotional and financial burden. Tims participated in the anti-racism protests here in May. And she views several disturbing incidents — like the six bullets fired through the storefront of a local Democratic Party headquarters where a Tims sign and Black Lives Matter sign hung in the windows — as a threat to her.
“Sometimes when you're living in the whirlwind of history, you can’t appreciate the fact that you're in it,” said Bob Mendenhall, a Tims supporter and co-owner of Blind Bob’s, a tavern in the neighborhood where last year’s shooting occurred. “Like, the old world is dead, and the new world hasn't arrived yet. And we are in this transformational period. I try to find a silver lining. Maybe COVID-19 can make us all slow down for just a second, and reflect on what we want this country to be.”
Tims has scored nice endorsements from the senators she worked for, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand. And Gillibrand has joined forces with two other senators with national profiles, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, to raise money for her campaign. Tims, though, is largely unknown to voters here — a point the National Republican Congressional Committee, in defense of Turner, stressed in an April memo. Before the primary, her name had never appeared on a ballot. She hadn’t been preparing for this her entire life. Her middle school language arts teacher, now the head of a local teachers union and excited about her candidacy, recalled Tims as a “bright and enthusiastic” student, but never pictured her as a politician. Nan Whaley, Dayton’s mayor and one of the savviest Democratic activists in the state, has known Tims for barely a year. To her supporters, this only reinforces that Tims has the fresh eyes the district needs.
“Symbols and substance rarely have an opportunity to be handmaids for each other,” said Rev. Peter Matthews, Tims’ pastor at the McKinley United Methodist Church. “The fact that she would bring a Georgetown Law degree back to West Dayton and offer herself for service, that’s a pretty big deal. For other young kids, not just African American, but kids of all stripes in a city desperate for hope, she’s putting herself out there front and center.”
Tims’ grandfather — Papaw, she called him — loved watching Wheel of Fortune. He would try to play along, but guessing the words was especially tough for him. He hadn’t made it past the first grade in Opelika, Alabama. There were fields to work, a family depending on any ounce of income he could contribute. Eventually he’d be part of the Great Migration from the Deep South to the Midwest, from sharecropper to steelworker, settling first in Middletown, Ohio.
“I always remember him sitting at the table, spelling the words out,” Tims said. “He was always still learning the language of English. All of the time he was like, ‘What is this word? How do you spell this word?’ And, you know, I’m doing something else, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, add an E.’ I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but not everyone was sitting with their grandparents or their parents, teaching them English, and how to spell, and how to say things.”
Tims’ mother and father were 18 and 20 when she was born and divorced not long after that. She grew up in the tiny ranch, with her mom and her maternal grandparents — Papaw and Grandma — and for a while her great-grandparents. “My grandmother was the matriarch, and her word meant a little more,” Tims recalled. There were few kids her age on the block. She would cut through the backyards of the cul-de-sac to go play with friends at the Y or walk to visit her dad, who lived nearby with his parents.
They were a family of workers. Tims’ mom went back to school to be a nurse. Papaw worked at a steel mill in Middletown for years, commuting a half-hour each way after moving to West Dayton. “When they talk about the Midwest and Middle America, they show this white guy with Popeye arms, like toot toot, like coal mines and steel mills,” Tims said. “And I’m like, yeah, there are Black people in the steel mills. There are Black people who are coal miners.”
Middletown, coincidentally, is the hometown of J.D. Vance, whose 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy tapped into a white working-class zeitgeist that surrounded Trump’s election. The book became highly politicized — Vance used it to promote a conservative point of view. But Tims sees him as somewhat of a kindred spirit. “Until the end of it,” she said, “that book is amazing. I thought he nailed it.” She recalled the part where, while studying at Yale, Vance panicked over which fork to use at a fancy dinner. “I was like, I feel seen.”
Politics was always in the background. Grandma paid close attention. And Tims recalled accompanying family to civil rights marches, but not quite processing the experience. “I was like, Oh, we’re going to a festival or a parade. I didn’t get it.”
Tims excelled at Paul Laurence Dunbar High, named for the Black poet and playwright from Dayton. For college she chose Xavier, a Jesuit school in Cincinnati — close enough to family, but far enough to have her own life. She was soon in another world. “I got a D,” she said with a gasp. When she asked classmates who were coasting how they got by, she learned how their time at private or wealthier public schools prepared them, or how a paper they wrote in 10th grade could be recycled for college.
“I was pissed because I felt like I got cheated,” she said. “I missed a lot of parties in college because I was in the library. And a lot of times it was the dictionary to the left of me, an actual reading assignment to the right.”
The lesson was not lost on her. She would think of Papaw playing Wheel of Fortune with his pencil, writing down the words he didn’t know.
“How,” she would wonder, “can I drive back up I-75 to Dayton and say it’s too hard?”
Tims graduated from Xavier in 2010 — and into the aftermath of the Great Recession, a period of slow recovery that was particularly hard on millennials like her.
“I’m seeing people who graduated in 2009 working at the mall,” Tims said. “That wasn’t the deal. I could have worked at the mall in high school, which I did. The deal was that I get a good-paying job after traumatizing myself through nights and nights of library studying.”
She thought she had that job, or that she was at least on the path to it, as a credit manager for Wells Fargo near Cincinnati. But the company was restructuring after its 2008 acquisition of Wachovia and laid off Tims after only a few months. She had just bought a new car, just signed a new lease. “Talk about a quarter-life crisis,” she said.
Tims spent her nights browsing CareerBuilder. Her grandmother spent hers watching MSNBC, tuned into the young presidency of Barack Obama, and picturing her granddaughter as part of it. Tims had knocked on doors for Obama in 2008, but the family had no Washington connections to work, no favors to call in. Grandma, though, insisted she try for a White House job. “I was like, ‘You need to clasp your pretty little hands together and get on your knees and pray for Procter & Gamble or General Electric,’” Tims recalled. “She just kept nagging me about it.”
It wasn’t until months later, after Wells Fargo had rehired and relocated her to Virginia, that the White House called Tims to follow up on the internship application she had completed in five minutes and long forgotten. She was so sure a friend was playing a joke that she hung up the first time. But the timing was convenient. She was miserable in her new job as a personal banker. She had accepted the posting because she figured she’d at least be closer to Virginia Beach, a favorite vacation spot. In reality she was more than 200 miles away in McLean, an affluent DC suburb.
Things in Washington were like that for Tims. Her surroundings could be disorienting, if not intimidating. On the first day of her White House internship, she had no idea she was sitting next to Valerie Jarrett, the Obama confidant, until starstruck colleagues made a fuss. Her work included a rotation through the Office of Presidential Correspondence, where she “read all of Obama’s hate mail,” and through the Office of Public Engagement, which Jarrett ran.
“I was never much enamored by people like Valerie Jarrett,” Tims said. “I was inspired by them … but it wasn’t like ooh and aah, because I was on a mission to get the information, to bring it back home.”
Tims had opportunities to stay at the White House after the internship ended but wanted to learn more about policy and legislation. She said she submitted her résumé to Brown’s Senate office at least five times before being hired to work on civil rights, judicial, and education issues. She later moved on to Gillibrand’s staff, where she specialized in agriculture and women’s issues. Eventually she was elected president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, but she could not shake the same feelings she had at Xavier: that her life experiences, not just her skin color, placed her squarely in the minority.
“What I found was most of those people are from privileged backgrounds, regardless of race or sexual orientation,” Tims said. “How are you relating to someone who said they can’t afford groceries on Friday? They don’t understand what it’s like to ration out gas, because you can’t take all of your trips, because you need to make sure this full tank lasts two weeks.”
Tims’ point of view was beginning to align with her own political ambitions, but first she wanted to get away from Capitol Hill. She took a job at a childcare advocacy group while studying law at Georgetown and thinking of all the ways she would use what she learned in Washington to help Dayton.
“It’s a challenge, because she didn’t come to it the way some do,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “But it’ll make her a better public official, because she’s seen it from the outside [and the] inside that way.”
The Oregon District, one of Dayton’s oldest neighborhoods, is a particular point of pride in the city. The brick-covered East Fifth Street features buildings dating to the 1800s and a lineup of establishments known for solid pub food, craft beer, and live music.
Early the morning of Aug. 4, 2019, a 24-year-old man opened fire outside Ned Peppers, a western-themed bar, killing nine and wounding more than a dozen. The people of Dayton barely had time to process this — another tragedy after the Memorial Day tornadoes that damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings in the region and plunged Dayton’s drinking water system into chaos — when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican who as the state’s attorney general had courted the gun lobby, visited that evening.
“Do something!” Mendenhall, the proprietor of Blind Bob’s, cried out as DeWine spoke, starting a chant that became a demand for tougher gun safety measures.
It also fit into the broader theme of Tims’ soon-to-launch congressional campaign.
Turner, the Republican incumbent, has won high National Rifle Association ratings, thanks to his staunch opposition to gun control. His views, though, began to shift after his daughter and a family friend found themselves across the street from Peppers when the shooting began. A few days later, Turner announced his support for several measures, including magazine limits and a “red flag” law. But suddenly Tims’ case against him had a fresh angle: He had come late to something that was good for Dayton. “It’s not an easy district,” Brown said, “but they’ve had so much pain in the last two years.”
The Ohio 10th includes all of Dayton and surrounding suburban and rural areas. (Comedian Dave Chappelle lives in the bucolic village of Yellow Springs.) Whaley, the mayor, sees the race as tough but winnable. “I think she'll need tremendous turnout out of Dayton, particularly West Dayton and Trotwood and Jefferson Township,” she said. “This could be an interesting year for this district.”
Turner, 60, has waffled a bit in the Trump era. Unlike other Republicans, he labeled the president’s Twitter attack last summer against four Democratic women of color in Congress as “racist,” but then toed the party line by voting against a House resolution to condemn it as such. He called Trump’s telephone call asking Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, “alarming.” Then, at a hearing during the impeachment inquiry, Turner defended Trump, earning the highest political currency the president can offer: an approving tweet. Turner did not respond to requests through a spokesperson to comment for this story.
The Ohio Democratic Party and other allies, such as the abortion rights group Emily’s List, are helping Tims litigate Turner’s voting record and paint him as too close to Trump. Unlike other young progressives who’ve risen in politics in recent years, Tims’ candidacy is not defined so much by one or two policy demands. Her primary opponent, a young scientist from the suburbs, aligned himself with Bernie Sanders by promoting ideas like Medicare for All. Tims advocates for a public option and expansion of Obamacare. She briefly worked for the League of Conservation Voters, which has endorsed her, but the words “Green New Deal” don’t appear in the two sentences she dedicates to the environment on her website. She speaks more passionately about local concerns, such as the food deserts in Dayton neighborhoods. If you’re searching for comparisons among her would-be generational peers in Congress, she’s neither Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New Yorker who has embraced Sanders’ democratic socialist agenda, nor is she Abby Finkenauer, the Iowan who practices a Midwest pragmatism.
Tims’ campaign is more centered around education and other institutional failures — and grounded in her perspective that the system presents a cycle of barriers to all but a privileged few. “I often feel like I got lucky, and I don’t think you should be lucky to get into a White House internship, to work on Capitol Hill,” she said. “I certainly worked hard, but I see so many people I went to school with at Dunbar who are also hard workers, and they didn’t get those same breaks.”
The message transcends race, but she understands her race is relevant — sometimes unpleasantly so — to the conversations happening right now.
After attending a Democratic presidential debate near Columbus last fall, Tims and a Black aide were stopped by suburban police while trying to find late-night food. The officers said the car, driven by the aide, was suspicious because it had pulled away from a business that had been closed for hours. They ran the plates and found that the owner had an expired driver’s license. Tims, the passenger, interrupted several times as one officer questioned the aide and another approached her side with a flashlight, according to dashcam video and audio obtained by the Dayton Daily News. The encounter never escalated beyond Tims asking for the first officer’s badge number. In a tweet she sent while they were pulled over and later deleted, Tims asserted she was being “harassed for being a brown woman who knows her rights.”
At home last month, Tims said she still believes she and her aide were racially profiled, but that after seeing the video she drove the hour to Genoa Township to meet with the police chief and express regret for how she handled the situation. “I was like, look, obviously there’s bias on both sides,” she said. “We were looking for directions, I’m super hungry, it was a very long day, and I apologize for my perception of what I thought was bias.”
Chief Stephen Gammill stood by the officers in a telephone interview this month, saying he didn’t believe they could have known the driver’s race before approaching the car. He added that he appreciated Tims’ visit.
“I’m chalking it up,” Gammill said, “to a long night at the debate and maybe other experiences she’s had in her life.”
And that, really, is the point of the campaign. The experiences of Desiree Tims — this little Black girl from West Dayton, as she internalized it for all those years — form the core of every argument she makes to be the next representative for West Dayton.
Putting herself out there carries a cost. Her campaign manager says they have “taken appropriate steps to document threats with law enforcement.” Tims sees and hears more nasty and racist vitriol than ever on social media and in her community. The burden of speaking out fell on her when a local state senator asked if COVID-19 rates are higher among Black people because “the colored population” does “not wash their hands as well as other groups.” As a child, marches were fun, a chance to follow. As a Black candidate, protests over systemic racism and police brutality bring an expectation to lead.
Tims worries that a Facebook post advertising her plans to participate in a May 30 protest in downtown Dayton made her a target. As she drove to the protest that morning, she noticed her car, which had been parked in her driveway, had a tire losing air. The problem? Several screws had spiraled their way in. “That’s what stuck with me — it’s not a nail,” she said. When she left the protest that afternoon, she received the call that the Greene County Democratic Party headquarters in nearby Xenia, where signs for Tims’ campaign and Black Lives Matter are prominently displayed, had been shot up overnight.
A month earlier someone had chucked a piece of concrete through the storefront window. There have been no arrests, and the cases are closed. An official with the Xenia Police said there was “no overt indication” of a racial motive or hate crime. Doris Adams, the party chair, believes otherwise, recalling arguments she’s had at parades with those who criticized the party’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement. “They didn’t leave a calling card saying it was that,” she said. “But that was the window they hit. Both times.”
Rev. Matthews, Tims’ pastor, drove her to survey the damage from the bullets after she realized the screws had ruined her tire. “Obviously I was full of dismay, but I had to remind her that heroes live with courage out loud,” he said. “I think these instances have reminded her that she’s doing the right thing.”
They have. So, too, have the instances that reward Tims’ hope that voters, not just in the Ohio 10th but around the country, are ready for new representation, whether that’s Jamaal Bowman or Mondaire Jones in New York, or Cameron Webb in Virginia’s 5th District. Webb, who won a four-person primary last month, would be the first Black doctor to be a voting member of Congress. Like Tims, he is trying to pull off an upset in a Republican-leaning district that Democrats see as competitive.
“It’s certainly inspiring to see people in my generation, millennials — to see Black people, to see gay people, to see people whose great-great-grandfather wasn’t a state senator go run for Congress and win,” Tims said.
Tims points to her large margin of victory in the primary, a contest where she was able to win white, Black, and Latino votes across the district’s urban, suburban, and rural areas.
“The common denominator is we all want opportunity,” she said. “We all want access to the American dream. And that is the best language that I can speak: opportunity. So people definitely are taking a look — Can this little Black girl from West Dayton do it? And the answer is, I've already done it.” ●