Erie at Large: Real Bipartisan Leadership
Recent censure of Erie County Councilman Jim Winarski prompts reexamination of the term
The Erie County Democratic Party voted on January 21 to censure Erie County Councilman Jim Winarski, a registered Democrat. All voting members were in favor of the censure, although four members present at the meeting abstained.
Winarski was elected to the 4th District County Council seat in 2021, unopposed in the general election. Earlier that year, he won the Democratic primary with a plurality of the vote in a four-way contest.
That victory made Winarski the fourth member of a Democratic majority on council when he took office in January 2022 alongside incumbents Andre Horton, Mary Rennie, and Terry Scutella. Three Republicans — Brian Shank, Ellen Schauerman, and Charles Bayle — made up the council's minority bloc, whose mandate would be the unholy task of carrying out the misanthropic agenda of the incoming county executive, Brenton Davis.
The expectation of many was that the Democratic majority would continue to lead council with the efficacy and transparency it had shown during the previous term when, at times, members of council — Democrat and Republican — would spar with the administration of Kathy Dahlkemper and, at times, with members of their own parties when the interests of the county demanded rigorous debate regardless of party affiliation.
Council leadership is elected annually by the members of council and historically the role of council president rotates amongst members of the majority party.
What happened next, however, shocked observers of the council who expected Winarski to serve as an occasional swing vote on the seven member body.
In his first votes as a member of County Council, Winarksi voted against his colleague, Mary Rennie, for council president. Rennie, at the time in her third year on council, had proven herself to be deft and capable in navigating the machinations of county government and the collection of personalities that comprise the leadership throughout the county courthouse. Neither ideological or overtly partisan, Rennie appeared to many to be an ideal independent voice in what was expected to be the start of an era of inexperienced executive leadership.
Winarski instead voted in favor of Councilman Brian Shank to hold the gavel for the 2022 session. Shank had led the Erie County Trump Trains in 2020 and was an outspoken election denier before making an unsuccessful bid for county sheriff in 2021 after just one full year on council. He was an ardent supporter of Davis' campaign for county executive and was anticipated to become Davis's puppet, even if there was a minority vote on council.
With Winarski's help, Shank quickly moved from lapdog to attack dog, controlling the council agenda, the gavel, and the tone of council meetings, and ensuring that Davis would face few checks and balances in his efforts to dismantle county government.
During the first year of the Davis administration, Shank led council to undo appropriations made by the previous council, to deconstruct the membership and leadership of the newly charged Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission, and advanced a host of rogue executive actions that undermine the day-to-day operations of county government.
Fast forward to January 2023, a new session of council and an opportunity to shuffle the deck chairs and elect new council leadership.
For a second year in a row, Winarski failed to support his colleague, Democrat Mary Rennie, casting the fourth vote against her leadership.
Shank was nominated to serve as council president for a second year by his Republican colleague, Charles Bayle. That nomination was seconded by ... you guessed it: Jim Winarski, who again joined the minority bloc on council to cast the fourth vote in favor of Shank.
Following a series of questionable policy votes during the 2022 session that punctuated his initial support for Shank, Winarski's vote to retain Shank as council president for a second term was a step too far for Erie County Democrats.
A motion made at the January meeting of the Erie County Democratic Party executive committee asked that the party censure Winarski for his votes on council leadership. After significant discussion the motion passed, moving a resolution from the executive committee to full body for consideration at its January 21 meeting.
It bears some importance to note that although many folks have watched with dismay as Winarski has cast policy votes against the interests of the community often supported by his Democratic constituents, those policy votes did not guide this resolution. Those votes will have to be adjudicated by the voters of the 4th Council District when Winarski is up for reelection in 2025.
While Winarski himself has said little about the censure, the county executive has shown less restraint. In social media posts, Davis has lauded the "bipartisanship" of this County Council, which has largely supported his interests even when there is little evidence that such support is in the best interest of Erie County.
Bipartisanship means that members of opposing parties work collectively together to seek solutions and to resolve conflict. Bipartisanship is more than the effect of one rogue legislator defying his caucus in favor of minority rule.
But unfortunately, that's politics. And one vote separates stalemate and victory.
For the time being, we'll remember what real bipartisanship looked like. It was a bipartisan effort that unanimously allocated American Rescue Plan funds now rescinded by a 4-3 vote. It was a unanimous bipartisan effort that created the DEI commission, now shaken by a series of 4-3 votes.
Real bipartisanship takes more than one vote.
But in politics, particularly partisan politics, one vote matters.
So this year as we head to the polls to elect our municipal leaders at all levels of local government, remember that your one vote matters.
It might just help shape the next council majority.
Jim Wertz is a contributing editor and Chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. He can be reached at jWertz@ErieReader.com and you can follow him on Twitter @jim_wertz.