In the land of high ceilings the floor is often barren but for a gravelly-coarse carpet of rock.
But if Montana’s big sky is the limit to what any American may theoretically achieve, the persistent bitterroot plant – scratching and struggling to survive in that scrabbly, sandy soil – is the gritty reality of where most Americans begin.
Jay Breneman is one of those Americans. You remember Jay – he’s the political neophyte, the first-timer who stunned much of Erie by unseating popular two-term incumbent Erie County Councilman Ronald “Whitey” Cleaver in the Municipal Primary Election last spring. And no, I’m not going to run through this piece comparing him to a flower, although the bitterroot is the state flower of his home state of Montana, and it does heartily persevere through difficult-yet-enriching conditions like he did, and it does eventually blossom into an Erie County Councilman like Jay Breneman has.
Breneman grew up in mountainous western Montana, in a family well below the poverty line, but you won’t find a trace of anger, regret, or shame on his 31-years young face. Jay’s a slim guy, mostly calm in his mannerisms, and could probably pass for 21; he’s a good listener, and when he talks, his body language suggests a certain kind of openness, like when he elaborated on his childhood.
At times, he said, dinner for his family – including 6 siblings – consisted of ketchup sandwiches on white bread. Other times, the canvas Army surplus tent they occasionally called home was devoid of such precious victuals. However, the rugged and self-reliant attitude of the people who call that rocky region home rubbed off on a young Jay Breneman, and he eagerly displayed a willingness to get his hands dirty for the greater good from a very young age.
“My stepfather did cowboy work, some of the most dangerous…” he pauses, his eyes figuratively looking westward as though he’s right back there with the mud and the blood and the sweat and the ketchup and the tent. He speaks with a somewhat high-pitched, slightly twangy cadence when he gets excited, but is otherwise very measured and calm in his speech. “I helped him. Even though we weren’t paid extra, I still went out and helped him to do the work.”
This Spartan lifestyle clearly left its mark on Breneman, and as he reached the age of majority, he struck out on his own looking for a way to make a living for himself.
“In Montana, it was either lumberjack, cowboy, or panhandler,” he said. “There weren’t too many jobs out there. You’re either rich, or you’re poor.”
So at the tender age of 18, Breneman moved to Ohio in search of economic opportunity.
“I found a job, a great-paying warehouse job. That was 2000 or 2001. Then 9-11 happened,” he said, again fixing his gaze a thousand yards off into the distance. “I was working second shift; I had just got into a new apartment, and I set up this 13-inch black-and-white TV with rabbit ears. I happened to be up early that day, and was just watching whatever channel I could get.”
Like many on that fateful day, Breneman watched the temples of American consumerism come down, bringing almost 4,000 innocents with them. “I was 18, and it had a huge impact on me. I felt like I had to do something,” he said.
He got his affairs in order, contacted an Army recruiter, and a year later was preparing to ship off to basic training.
“Growing up in Montana, we listened to AM radio all the time,” Breneman said.” I am very well-versed in Libertarian philosophy; I grew up around loaded weapons, learned how to fire just about everything. We had to hunt for our own food sometimes, because we couldn’t afford it.”
With a curriculum vitae that includes growing up around firearms in a deeply red state and serving in the Army, Breneman has the perfect pedigree to position him as a conservative extremist; in fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see someone with a background like Breneman’s starting a militia, establishing a fortified rural compound, and printing his own money. However, there’s just one problem with that scenario – Breneman’s a staunch Democrat.
“I was 18 during the 2000 elections, and I didn’t even participate in that,” he said. “At the time, I had a lot of libertarian or anti-government [feelings]. I was like, ‘Oh, why would I even bother with that?’”
But Breneman’s service in the Army – as a long-range telecommunications specialist – opened his ears to the predicament of humans halfway across the planet and, at the same time, transformed his worldview.
“Some of the things I’ve seen – starving children, orphans, communities decimated, I started to see the plight of the people of Iraq. And of course in the Army you meet all kinds of people – from Compton or from way out in the boondocks, and one of the recurring themes I heard about was poverty, poverty, poverty. So as far as being a Democrat, I think it just spoke to me the most, and my experiences in the Army solidified it.”
Upon being honorably discharged from the Army as a staff sergeant after six years of duty – including two tours in Iraq – Breneman’s journey then led him to Erie. “My wife Jamie [Stubenhofer] and her family are strongly rooted here, and I fell in love with the Erie area,” he said.
That love for the area soon turned into a passion for improving it, and Breneman likewise got the itch to improve not only his community, but also himself. He completed his bachelor’s degree in social work from Mercyhurst University in an astonishing two years, earned his master’s degree in social administration from Case Western Reserve University in just one, and started eyeing opportunities for public service.
“I was kind of frustrated with the way things were moving in Erie – the attention and focus our leaders were putting on certain issues. Somebody told me that my county council seat was open, so I went and did my homework right away. I pulled 13 years of voting and legislative history. And in a matter of maybe a week or two, I made my decision [to run for Erie County Council], then I talked to my wife, and she was behind me,” he said.
“At the time, I was nervous as hell,” Breneman explained. “But going door to door, I started to get the feeling that there was a still a greater opportunity that existed.”
However, the local political community’s reaction to a first-timer – an outsider – challenging a popular incumbent was mixed, at best. While some were enamored with the promise of a dynamic, progressive young leader contributing to the vitality of our community, others tried to dissuade Breneman from running.
“[County Executive Barry] Grossman hinted at me dropping out, and said, pretty much my chances were nil.”
And Grossman’s not the only one who felt that way. In the March 20 edition of my regular column, Upfront, I predicted Breneman’s defeat at the hands of Cleaver.
“I got home from work and I had picked up the Reader, and I was going through it, and I saw the article, and I was like, [laughing] ‘Oh boy, here we go. What’s this guy gonna say?’ I didn’t expect it to be glowing – I loved the humor in it, and I was chuckling to myself, but I actually read my section last. I saw my name, blanked it out of my mind, and read the sections on all the other races first.”
Expecting the worst, Breneman came to his portion of the article, read it, and reacted.
“I looked at it, and I said, ‘That is a very fair assessment,’ because this was early March; at that point, I had been to maybe a few hundred households, and so I knew that I had a strong chance, but I didn’t know what my opponent was doing, so I had a significant unknown,” he said. “So when I read the article, I didn’t… it’s not that I was fraught with distress, but I got like 2 hours of sleep that night because I stayed up revisiting my strategy from square one. I revisited everything. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh he’s 100 percent wrong, I’m gonna just keep on keepin’ on,’ and it wasn’t like, ‘Oh he’s totally right, I’m gonna throw up my hands and give up.’ It was, ‘He’s right if I don’t do the right stuff.’ So I refined my strategy two or three times that night, and I hit it even harder.”
A few days later, Breneman sent me a private message on Twitter, calling me out – albeit in a good-natured, bust-your-chops kind of way. He told me that I was about to meet my “Dewey defeats Truman” moment, and I told him that if he won, he would indeed have his Dewey defeats Truman, or rather, Cleaver defeats Breneman moment.
“I thought about it, and I wanted to acknowledge that I had read [the column], and my response to you was more of a challenge to myself,” he told me. “The names ‘Cleaver,’ ‘Dewey,’ ‘Breneman,’ and ‘Truman’ came to my mind, and I was like, ‘Well, that’s a challenge for myself while at the same time letting you know not to count me out.’”
Sometimes the people who have the privilege of having a platform such as the one I have can be incorrect in their suppositions and predictions. It doesn’t happen all that often, but it is a chance we all take every time we write anything. And in this case, I was wrong. Way wrong. And as the returns began to roll in on election night, because of his military-like persistence and precision throughout the long campaign, Breneman immediately jumped out to a healthy lead – a lead he would never relinquish.
But Breneman was elected as much for his hard work as for his stance on the issues; chief among them is the creation of a domestic partnership registry in Erie County, which would allow county employees involved in same-sex relationships to finally achieve a level of equality with their heterosexual peers by conferring upon them the same benefits opposite-sex couples currently enjoy.
“I know employment and the economy are number one on a lot of people’s minds,” he said, “but there are a lot of issues that garner people’s attention, and of course how you feel welcome in your own community is very important.”
Of the registry, Breneman said that “It can be done. We have the legal capacity to do so, so let’s do it. For me, that is a no-brainer.”
Another no-brainer for a newly-elected official is to get the lay of the land, so to speak. Breneman says he’s been meeting with local authorities, county agencies, and nonprofits to focus on employment and economics, and as a result, he’s developed an interesting perspective on the fate of Erie County.
“I hear far too often that you have to entice businesses to come to Erie, but I read something somewhere that really stuck with me – it’s not about new ingredients, it’s about new recipes with the ingredients you have. So my focus, heavily now, is on those recipes.”
As Breneman grows into his office and matures, it will be hard to watch his progress without thinking back to that persistent bitterroot plant, scratching and struggling to survive in the scrabbly, sandy soil. But this is an exciting and particularly hopeful time in Erie politics. A new crop of leaders – from city to county – has been sown and will affect the landscape of Northwestern Pennsylvania for generations to come; if but half of these newly sprouted leaders bloom the way the man from the big sky has, we’re all in for a more beautiful, much less bitter future.
Cory Vaillancourt can be contacted at cVaillancourt@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Vlncrt.
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