Are you fascinated by the news? Perhaps you enjoy discussing local, state, national and international affairs. Maybe you’ve considered running for elected office, but wonder how to get started.
Dan Foley used to stand in your shoes, but now he’s an experienced public official. He’s been elected twice as Montgomery County Clerk of Courts and three times to be a Montgomery County Commissioner. His current term expires in 2019. I asked Dan how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow. If you want to read more, go to the long version.
How did Dan get his start?
Dan learned about public service early. His father, Patrick J. Foley, was a Trustee of Madison Township, now Trotwood, Ohio, and then a Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judge. When Dan was little, he helped him with elections, whether he wanted to or not.
In classes at Bowling Green State University, Dan recognized his interest in public policy. As the president of the campus Democrats during his senior year, he started building relationships around Ohio.
When Dan returned to Dayton, Ohio, after graduation, he wasn’t 100% sure of his path. He spent a year as a VISTA volunteer in a MetroParks community garden program, Grow with Your Neighbors. Through that program, he met U.S. Representative Tony Hall and became his staff assistant in the Dayton office. Working for Congressman Hall was like getting a Ph.D. in government. He met a lot of people, learned about constituents’ problems, and soaked up stories about what was happening in Congress.
After a stint as the head of Operation Food Share, a nonprofit partnership to feed the hungry, Dan knew that he needed a bigger paycheck so he could start a family.
How did Dan feed his growing family?
Dan had built a lot of relationships in the Dayton area, so he let people know he was looking for a job. A friend referred him to an opening as the Montgomery County Assistant County Treasurer. Dan landed the job and spent the next six years in that position.
What happened when Dan got itchy for a new challenge?
After six years as the Assistant County Treasurer, Dan tried to get elected to the Ohio legislature, but he didn’t make it through the Democratic Party process.
Then he got creative. Embracing his Irish heritage, Dan and his wife decided to explore living in Ireland. Knowing he needed a job first, Dan hired a head hunter and flew to Ireland for interviews.
As Dan was about to board the plane, Mark Owens, the Democratic Party chair, called to ask if he’d be interested in running for the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts. Dan said, “I’m about to get on a plane to Ireland and if I get a job there, no. But if I don’t get a job, yes.” Finding a job in Ireland as a noncitizen was virtually impossible, so Dan came home and entered his first race for Montgomery County Clerk of Courts.
Did he win?
Dan’s his years of cultivating relationships and his knowledge of Montgomery County processes helped to put him across the finish line. He was first elected as the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts in 2000 and reelected in 2004.
What does the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts do anyway?
The Montgomery County Clerk of Courts is a multi-faceted organization composed of 120+ employees serving
- Common Pleas Court, General Division
- Domestic Relations Court
- County Municipal Courts
- Second District Court of Appeals
- Auto Title Division
What did Dan do during his six years as the Clerk of Courts?
Dan accomplished several things:
- Managed a system of 120+ employees
- Ensured the administration of the criminal justice system across Montgomery County
- Spearheaded development of JusticeWeb
What’s important about JusticeWeb?
JusticeWeb is a data system, which makes court and arrest information from area courts available to all levels of the justice system. Dan started working with ten court systems in Montgomery County. Since then JusticeWeb has grown into a regional data system used by 12 Ohio counties, enabling police and probation officers, judges, jail officials, and Children Services staff members to use real-time information about offenders instead of spending hours on the phone. Now they can easily
- Manage the County’s jail population
- Learn if a foster parent is a risk to their foster children
- Determine if a domestic violence offender is escalating abuse
Creating JusticeWeb was a major feat. Handling turf conscious court systems, and managing the integration of separate computer systems required an ability to bring people together to solve hard issues. Dan approached the project with curiosity, asking how participants might use all the data and how best to bring it together. Starting with curiosity developed buy-in and lots of listening cemented it.
“Foley won the respect of myriad people in the trenches who credit him with taking on a devilish project that required not just turf-conscious people, but also computer systems, to talk to each other. They saw stick-to-it energy and passion.” (Dayton Daily News, November 3, 2006)
Sounds like Dan turned the backwater Clerk of Courts job into a dynamic position. What else was he doing?
At the same time, Dan began working on his Masters degree in race relations at Wright State University. Taking one class at a time, he completed it after eight years. Dan highlighted the impact of the material, which exposed him to African-American history and experience.
After six years, Dan was ready to face new challenges. What was next?
In 2006 Dan ran for County Commissioner. He wanted to focus on job creation, and he believed he brought important strengths to the position – his abilities to
- Bring people together to solve problems as demonstrated by his leadership in developing JusticeWeb
- Work effectively with the Montgomery County budget
Running for County Commissioner required raising money. “Not fun, but necessary.” He emphasized that it takes discipline. “You have to sit down and literally keep dialing. And keep dialing.” And successful fundraising requires a network of relationships. “The more relationships you build over time, the more people have a stake in supporting your work – particularly if those relationships were formed around shared beliefs, attitudes and projects that helped the community.”
Dan won that election, as well as subsequent elections in 2010 and 2014.
What did Dan do as a County Commissioner?
When Dan began his first term, the economy was going downhill. First NCR moved its headquarters to Atlanta, then the full impact of the Great Recession hit. Dayton lost major manufacturers like General Motors and Delphi. Unemployment climbed and the rate of housing foreclosures skyrocketed. Dan felt like he was “bringing in the bad weather”.
Dan and his fellow Commissioners, Debbie Lieberman and Judy Dodge, had to make tough decisions to downsize County government, finding 20 different ways to say “no”.
Did he do anything beside say “no”?
Among the many issues that Dan has dealt with as a Commissioner, economic development has always been on his mind. When he first took office, he knew that Montgomery County needed to “figure out a way to have more eggs in more baskets” so the economy wouldn’t rely so heavily on a few employers. After the County identified four major strategies for economic development, Dan went to work.
Dan collaborated with a team from the County, the City of Dayton, the State of Ohio, Clayton and Brookville, to persuade Caterpillar Logistics and Payless Shoe Source to locate distribution centers in the Dayton area. Dan enjoyed working with the group to present the proposals and then bring them into reality.
Dan is excited about the collaboration between Montgomery County, the City of Dayton, the Dayton Development Coalition, and the Municipality of Haifa, Israel, which launched the Dayton Region-Israel Trade Alliance (DRITA) office to promote business development activities between Israeli and Dayton area technology-based companies and organizations. Dan said it is beginning to show results as companies like Projects Unlimited, Woolpert, and Woosh Water LLC start projects.
Dan is also gratified to see recent economic development initiatives that haven’t included governmental assistance. He said it makes him “realize that the economy is starting to take on its own strength”.
Is being a County Commissioner all sunshine and roses?
When he became a County Commissioner, Dan already had a strong belief in the effectiveness of regional collaboration to make services more effective and efficient, including a passion to try a metropolitan form of government like Louisville, Kentucky in Montgomery County. In 2014 he assembled a group of community leaders to build a model of a possible consolidation of Montgomery County and the City of Dayton. The result was Dayton Together, proposed in July 2015.
By late 2015, however, Dayton Together had foundered on strong opposition from the Mayor and City Commission of Dayton, Dan’s fellow County Commissioners, and the NAACP, among others. Discouraged, the group withdrew the proposal in May 2016.
Dan remains a proponent of metropolitan government, believing consolidation can boost the economy, increase cost efficiencies and address population loss. The Wright State University School of Public Policy is cataloging the model, so the work is not lost.
Does he have any other dreams for Montgomery County?
Dan would like to develop a regional economic development system using data mining and analysis to
- target companies that fit the area
- link prospective companies to partner with existing area companies
- solve companies’ workforce needs by connecting people who are ready and able to work with jobs
What’s around the corner?
Dan said he doesn’t have to decide about the next election for a while. “For me right now I’m pretty darned happy doing what I’m doing. This job feels like it’s a good fit.” His has seen that focusing on doing a good job can result in unexpected opportunities. Reflecting back, he said “I didn’t know I was going to get here and, oh my gosh, I can’t believe that I was trying to get a job in Ireland and I ended up being the Clerk of Courts.”
But what if your father isn’t a local elected official and you want to get into government? What do you do?
Dan recommends that if you want to serve in public office, you should:
- Build relationships around shared beliefs, attitudes and projects that help the community
- Listen, listen, listen
- Cultivate an active sense of curiosity
- Engage a variety of different people in conversation
- Remember: “Government can play a decent role in people’s lives. If you’re in this line of work you ought to believe that it has some value.”
Commissioner Dan Foley