Erie's Municipal Primary Elections Set for May 18
Mayor, County Executive, City and County Council races see new faces
When it comes to voting in Erie, voter participation doesn't come in one-size-fits-every-election. Just as elections may be categorized three ways — presidential, midterm, and municipal — so can the levels of voter engagement.
Illustrated on a line graph, an elementary rendering of two-dimensional crags and canyons takes shape. The highest, Rocky Mountain-style peaks represent the elections during which the nation chooses its top executive — the president — while the lowest represent when communities elect those seeking to fill their local offices.
Since 2000, presidential elections have drawn, on average, just over 124,000 voters in Erie County to the polls (out of the over 177,000 total registered). With 2000 marking the lowest turnout in modern history, at 112,355, and 2020 notching the highest, at 137,944, there have been ebbs and flows within those 20 years, with an overall upward trend.
The same undulation holds similar for midterm elections. Falling two years following a presidential election, on average, midterm election results find just shy of 85,000 registered voters casting ballots.
Last in voter turnout in Erie County, but certainly not civically least, lie the municipal elections. With similar ups and downs, a paltry average of about 51,500 voters voice their decisions in local elections.
In percentage terms of those voting compared to those registered to do so, the numbers declined from more than two-thirds to less than half to around a third or less, respectively.
But for the first time, in the 2020 election, thanks to 2019's PA Voting Reforms Act 77, voters could mail in their ballots, no questions asked. A decision pre-dating the pandemic, it came as a welcome one during times of pandemic-induced social distancing restrictions.
Will these measures designed at making voting an easier exercise in which to participate — which delivered a historic uptick of votes in the 2020 general election — carry through to the 2021 municipal election in Erie? Time will tell, but in looking at the lead-up to the 2021 primary municipal election, there are plenty of races and plenty of new — and relatively new — names along with familiar faces vying for various offices.
File Under: Even third-party voters have a say!
Pennsylvania, still a closed primary state, restricts voters to making choices only within their registered party. Have only one candidate carrying your party's banner? Little incentive to pull the lever for the presumed victor. Registered to a party that doesn't have a candidate running? Why show up to not have your voice heard?
This time around, however, even third-party candidates will have cause to cast ballots, as four questions are on the ballot, three of which are proposed constitutional amendments. It may not appear to be much, but it is.
File Under: Not Quite as We Might've Expected
Four years ago, 2017 featured two marquee races, both for top executive positions — Erie County Executive and City of Erie Mayor. This year, they're both in play but in ways we may not have expected.
For the mayoral race, Erie's current Joe lacks the electoral victory security luxury of Erie's former Joe. Erie's previous mayor, Democrat Joe Sinnott, emerged victorious from a crowded field when he, amongst others, challenged incumbent Democrat Rick Filippi, who was coming off the heels of a Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office investigation into real estate deals. Acquitted on all charges of using insider knowledge to his benefits, Filippi sought a second term but lost. Sinnott went on to win two more four-year terms in 2009 and 2013 and left office due to term limits. During neither of his reelection bids did he face primary opposition.
For first-term Democratic incumbent Joe Schember, it's a different story. Two candidates filled their bids for May 18's primary: Erie School Board member Tom Spagel and Sydney Zimmerman, local activist and Erie County United member.
Schember, after rising up out of a pack of seven Democrats in 2017's primary, faced Republican opposition in the fall. He defeated John Persinger, who had bested Jon Whaley in the Republican primary. No Republican filed for the 2021 mayoral election, meaning whoever wins in May this year has an all-but-certain lock on being mayor come January 2022.
The other marquee race in 2021 has all eyes on it not because the incumbent faces primary challengers, but because the incumbent has decided to step down, guaranteeing that new leadership will be sitting in the Erie County Executive seat.
While eligible to seek a third four-year term — which would be her final, if elected, due to term limits — current County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper decided not to seek reelection. The former congresswoman defeated Democratic incumbent Barry Grossman in 2013 and later Republican Don Tucci in the general election. In 2017, she defeated Republican challenger Art Oligeri, becoming just the second County Executive in Erie's history to serve more than one term. The other, Democrat Judy Lynch, served five terms in an era pre-dating term limits.
Six candidates are vying to become Erie's seventh County Executive. Both the history (there have been four) and voter-registration edge (86,453) favor Democrats. Two Republicans — Russell Robison, the first Erie County Executive, from 1978 to 1982, and Richard Schenker, the last Republican County Executive, from 2002 to 2006 — have held the office. Current records report 66,922 registered Republicans throughout the county.
Four Democrats — all familiar names in Erie's civic arena — seek the seat: Carl Anderson, the first-term county councilmember representing District 4; Rita Bishop, who sought the 7th District county council seat in 2019 but lost to Republican Ellen Schauerman; Dylanna Grasinger, who's seeking elected office for the first time but who's served as the Executive Director of the International Institute; and Tyler Titus, current President of the Erie School Board in their first term and the first openly transgender person elected in Pennsylvania.
Two Republicans are squaring off on the other side of the ticket. Brenton Davis, the first to announce his candidacy in this race, sought the office once before in 2017 but was upended in an automatically triggered recount by Art Oligeri. This time he faces first-time candidate Shawn Wroblewski, a paramedic with East Erie County Emergency Medical Services.
While May will, in all likelihood, close the chapter on deciding Erie's next mayor — Will Schember win a second term? Will Erie voters elect to plot a new course? — things will continue to heat up in the County Executive race. Will the defeated back the victors of their parties? Will the trend line continue to be drawn in blue, or will red reemerge into the ledge for the first time since the early 2000s? Time — and the voters — shall tell.
File Under: Even So, It's Looking Odd
In Erie County, there are seven council districts, for which elections are alternated in even and odd seats. This election is for the even districts: 2, 4, and 6.
In the second district, incumbent Democrat Andre Horton faces zero opposition. No Democratic challenger, no Republican challenger. Barring the unlikely, congrats, Councilman Horton — we can, with confidence, call your race.
Change will be guaranteed in the fourth district, as Carl Anderson, who's seeking the County Executive seat, is legally prohibited (as would any candidate be) from holding two offices at once. This paves the way for one of four Democrats — Julia Ann Calipo, Angela Euell McNair, Kevin E. Pastewka, or Jim Winarski — to square off against Republican Timothy E. Gostomski.
First-term incumbent Republican Scott Rastetter faces a primary challenge from Samuel Charles Bayle IV. Whoever emerges there will face the Democratic victor from the Lydia Laythe v. Herbert Riede race. While Riede held prior offices — McSherrystown Borough Councilmember, in Adams County, Pa., and as a former Mayor of McSherrystown — Laythe holds a current office: Washington Township Councilmember. Laythe won her seat in 2019 and looks to build on that momentum as she seeks higher office.
Also seeking higher office: Kim Clear. Clear won her seat as Erie County Councilmember representing District 1 also in 2019. She is now vying to become Millcreek Township Supervisor, challenging first-term Democratic incumbent John Morgan in the primary. Either Clear or Morgan will face one of two Republicans in the fall: either James A. Lindstrom or Kirk McCaslin for the six-year post.
For County Council, this is significant, because if Clear does win, her District 1 seat will be up for re-appointment, meaning yet another change to County Council. Also potentially at place: Erie County Council District 5.
File Under: What's the Total Reach of that Social Media Post?
Like Clear in District 1, who filled the seat vacated by Democrat Kathy Fatica, who decided not to seek reelection — as well as Ellen Schauerman in District 7, who filled the vacancy left by the Republican Councilmember Carol Loll, who also opted not to seek reelection — Republican incumbent Erie County Councilmember Brian Shank, who represents the 5th District, won his seat in 2019, unseating Democratic incumbent Kyle Foust. Shank filed his bid for Erie County Sheriff and is unopposed in May's primary.
Outgoing Erie County Sheriff John Loomis has endorsed Democrat and Deputy Captain Chris Campenelli, who faces a challenge from Anthony J. Sanfilippo. Campanelli has also received support from Erie County Democratic Chairman Jim Wertz, who explained his rationale in an op-ed for the Erie Times-News published Thursday, April 29, and in another, printed in this edition of the Reader.
Social media posts Sanfilippo engaged with — from liking, to commenting, to sharing — link him to "un-Democrat and bigoted sentiments on social media," as Wertz put it. Sanfilippo has since issued an apology on his social platforms and in an op-ed appearing the same day as Wertz's.
Adding to the tensions of the race, A.J. Rao broke the story for Erie Times-News on April 27 that Campanelli "posted Facebook images that attacked illegal immigration and the Democratic Party's supposed willingness to support 'illegals' and refugees as opposed to soldiers and homeless veterans."
Campanelli distanced himself from the posts "insisting they do not reflect his 'ideals' and that he is a proud son of immigrants," according to Rao's report.
To detail these posts, too, gives oxygen to a hate-fueled social media fire best left extinguished. But for the curious here, a quick Google search will scratch this itch, as well.
"My father and his parents came to this country in 1957," Campanelli told Rao. "They came here legally and made a wonderful life for us here and they believed that this was the land of opportunity," adding that he takes "full responsibility" for the content on his page, even though he didn't recall posting certain images, according to Rao.
Wherever this race goes in the coming days — let alone weeks — Erie voters will be watching.
File Under: That's Not All, Folks!
These races are amongst just a few on the 2021 Primary Ballot. There's the Erie City Council race, where, again, Erie voters will see a three-person slate of candidates advertised (this one supported by Erie County United). And they'll see familiar names, like first-term incumbent Democrat Liz Allen (who won handedly in 2017 and ran as part of a slate then but was the only one to emerge victorious) as well as folks who came up short in prior elections trying to gain a seat at the table once again.
And there's Erie School Board — where candidates can cross-file under both parties, which puts the onus on the voter to know who belongs to which party. And with four open seats — as is the case with city council — a vacancy is certainly being left, as current President Tyler Titus is not seeking reelection here since they're seeking election to become Erie's next County Executive.
And there are other mayoral races left uncovered here, as well supervisor races, and council positions to be filled — some unopposed, but not all.
Now that voters have additional ways to cast their ballots — as they did in the historic, record-breaking voter-turnout election of 2020 — will the records show an uptick in Erie's municipal elections? Time will tell. And as the time between when this story is published to election day, there are a few key dates to be aware of:
May 11: The final day to apply for a mail-in or civilian absentee ballot.
May 18: Final day for county board of elections to receive voted mail-in and civilian absentee ballots by 8 p.m. Which is also the day to cast your vote in-person between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., with the friendly reminder that if you're in line to vote before 8 p.m., you cannot be turned away.
And in Pennsylvania, it's still legal to hand someone waiting in a line a drink of water, which should give participants in this democracy of ours, regardless of their home state and home municipality, something else to think about in addition to these local offices and why it matters that we vote for them.
Because after all, it takes a lot more to run for an office than it does to show up to vote or put a ballot in the mail for someone running for office. And it takes even more to hold office and to hold those once in office accountable.
And if you needed any more incentive to value the selection of and holding accountable of locally elected officials in the democratic process, the forthcoming pandemic relief aid from the Biden administration's American Relief Plan should give
voters in Erie County $275 million-worth of reasons.
For an official list of candidates running, or to view your sample ballot, go to eriecountypa.gov.
This story has been updated. Prior, it reported that candidates could not seek multiple offices concurrent. The correction reflects that candidates cannot hold multiple offices concurrently.
Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.