Erie at Large: Municipal Elections
Nov. 7 presents ample opportunity to correct course
There has never been a better opportunity — or a greater need — to correct the course of county government than there is now, at this moment, with this election.
Nov. 7 is election day. Voters have an opportunity in this municipal election year to elect a majority of Erie County Council, with four seats on the ballot, and to reset the system of checks and balances on a roughshod riding county executive. Voters will select a county controller, the person who serves as a fiscal watchdog in county government ensuring that light is shed on corrupt or corrosive practices. And voters will put a new judge on the Erie County Court of Common Pleas, a court that grinds judiciously in the background of our community, until one requires an intervention of justice, whether the victim or the accused. And across Erie County you'll elect school board members who respect the traditions of public education in our country and our communities, or you'll give those seats to people who will radically transform our schools by banning or burning one book at a time.
At the state level, we'll elect a new justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, two new judges of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and a new member of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. If you care about abortion access, the future of school funding, and the administration of free and fair elections — these races are key because the United States Supreme Court, most strongly in the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, has shifted the mandate of formerly federally protected rights back to the states.
Each election in the past few years has felt more consequential than the one before. For the reasons outlined above, November 2023 is no different.
The county executive likes to tout his bipartisan leadership and wrangling of the current county council, which, by party registration, has a Democratic majority. But as we've documented previously in the Erie Reader, that majority is a fickle figment of our imagination. "Democrat" Jim Winarski has voted almost exclusively with the Republican minority to secure control of council leadership and to advance the policy whims of the county executive, an election denier, against the will of Erie County taxpayers. Among those caprices: a proposed Fairview business park, which spawned a bipartisan coalition against the project and spoiled what goodwill the county executive may have enjoyed in western Erie County; and the EMS Authority, a proposal that has largely been met with an abundant lack of support by the municipal stakeholders who bear the burden of financing and executing the plan. These are county issues that loom large at this moment, and this election could very well be a referendum on the actions, not the rhetoric, of the county executive and his minions on county council.
Perhaps no one fits that bill better than Council President Brian Shank, who is running for a second term in the Fifth Council District. Shank has a long history of election denialism and was the lead conductor of the Trump train during and after the 2020 election. If re-elected, Shank would serve on, and possibly lead, the Erie County Board of Elections — a body composed of members of council not on the ballot this year. In previous years, the unsubstantiated claims he's made about election security have largely been dismissed by the cooler heads of previous administrations and the model work and processes of our Erie County Election Office staff.
On Nov. 7, voters can remove that threat with just one vote.
Shank is challenged by first-time candidate Chris Drexel. He is a graduate of Gannon University, a local businessman and area manager for Verizon locations throughout Western Pennsylvania, including Harborcreek, where he lives with his wife and their children. Drexel says that "honesty and transparency are essential to building trust and accountability in government" — qualities that have been lacking during the past few years.
In western Erie County, a historically Republican seat in the council's Seventh District may be up for grabs as a bipartisan coalition of residents in Fairview and Girard, the district's largest voting blocs, united against the county executive's proposed Fairview Business Park, which would have replaced a large parcel of farmland with new industrial space. The incumbent, Republican Ellen Schauerman, would have been gifted a guarantee of re-election had it not been for that proposal and her support of it.
Now Schauerman faces Democratic challenger Lorraine Dolan, the former president of the Erie chapter of the League of Women Voters and chair of the local chapter of Fair Districts PA, who ran a write-in campaign in the primary to ensure that the incumbent didn't run unopposed despite the voter registration disparity in the district. Dolan's presence on the ballot this fall is fortuitous given the wholesale rejection of the county executive's Fairview plan and the ire directed at those who rubber-stamped it without the advice and consent of West County constituents. If West County voters remain angry, as it seems they might, the Nov. 7 election may prove to be a referendum on the county executive and those, like Schauerman, who do his bidding.
In Millcreek, First District incumbent Terry Scutella faces a challenge from first-time Republican candidate Cody Foust (no relation to the Foust political dynasty in eastern Erie County). After 12 years on the Millcreek School Board and spending the past two years trying to negotiate some calm on Erie County Council, Scutella is a known and trusted entity to Millcreek voters giving him a distinct edge with Millcreek's swing voters.
In the Third Council District, which includes areas in Millcreek township and most of southwest Erie City, Democrat Rock Copeland will face Republican Kim Hunter, an acolyte of Shank and Davis who has largely campaigned on disinformation and manufactured outrage over heavyweight topics like whether or not Rock is actually Copeland's real name. It is. Copeland was nominated by the Erie County Democratic Party after former councilwoman Mary Rennie resigned her seat and removed her name from nomination following the May primary. Copeland, who has proven himself to be a deft campaigner and someone who speaks with wonkish authority on county budget matters, holds a decisive upper hand in this historically Democratic district.
The only row office on the ballot this fall is for the Erie County controller, an office that former County Councilman Kyle Foust won four years ago by just 33 votes. Foust ran for re-election on what he sees as the non-political victories of his office. Foust isn't flashy or full of himself when it comes to the office, but often notes that his predecessors too often used the office to fight and diminish their political enemies. His, he would say, has been an era of good government in which the office functioned for the best interests of county taxpayers rather than in the service of a cause.
Foust faces Republican Wade Root, who has worked in various appointed capacities within the county executive's office and previously served as the treasurer of the county executive's campaign committee. He says he's running to ensure transparency in the controller's office. One can't help but wonder what the definition of transparency is amongst the county executive's inner circle.
Perhaps someone should ask the residents of Fairview and Girard?
And in the race for Judge of the Erie County Court of Common Pleas, attorneys Pete Sala, a Democrat, and Eric Mikovch, a Republican, both of whom cross-filed for both party nominations in the May primary, vie for an open seat on the county bench. While voters may have some ideological motivation to vote for one candidate over another, in races like this there are few endorsements that matter more than judgment of the candidates' professional peers. Both candidates participated in a rigorous review by the Erie County Bar Association in which 53 percent of the Bar's 403 members participated.
In that review, Sala was "Highly Recommended" and Mikovch simply "Recommended." Additionally, Sala outscored Mikovch in all four ratings of professional qualifications: competence, integrity, temperament, and experience. Those ratings, coupled with Sala's strong showing on both the Democratic and Republican tickets in the May primary — just 233 votes shy of winning both party nominations — make a strong case for Sala's candidacy heading into the general election.
This is just a snapshot of all that rests on your ballot. The people we elect this year will control the offices that oversee our elections. We'll elect the person who will hear the arguments about right versus wrong, and in the statewide races our candidates will make the decisions that will ensure that a woman's choice matters and that your vote counts, and they'll decide what version of history is told in our schools.
Municipal elections matter, perhaps more than we've ever acknowledged. Make sure you know what your vote supports on Nov. 7.
Jim Wertz is a contributing editor. He can be reached at jWertz@ErieReader.com and you can follow him on X @jim_wertz.