Will the Real Brenton Davis Please Stand Up?
The Erie County Executive-elect on his past, present crises, and the future of Erie County as his administration prepares to take office in January 2022
While voters determined exactly who would take the seat as the chief executive at the county level of government Erie, Pennsylvania in the November 2021 election, it's been a known outcome since December 2020 that Erie County would have a new leader come January 2022. That new leader is Brenton Davis, a 38-year-old Republican, whose victory has made local history.
Davis is the youngest candidate ever elected to the Erie County Executive office. The same history, however, would've been made had his Democratic opponent, Tyler Titus, who's 37, had won. The 2021 election came down to Davis-versus-Titus after each emerged victorious from the 2021 primary — which made history in that it did not feature incumbent Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper even though she was eligible to seek one more four-year term.
Erie County Exec 101
Erie County residents have known since December 2020 that they'd have a new county executive in 2022 because Dahlkemper, a Democrat, announced she would not seek reelection for a third term. Had she decided to mount a reelection bid a second time, she would've been only the second county executive in Erie's history to do so. Still, she made her own history in 2017 — proving that winning more than one election as county executive wasn't an anomaly.
In the years prior to Dahlkemper's reelection to a second term in 2017, Erie County had a history filled mostly with "one-and-done" when it came to county executives. From 2002 to 2006, there was Richard Schenker, a Republican. Following his one-term reign, Mark DiVecchio, a Democrat, took over at helm in 2006. Four years later, while the Democratic party kept the post, it was Barry Grossman leading the county's executive branch. And in 2014, Kathy Dahlkemper, also a Democrat, began her first term. That same year, Erie County voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of imposing term limits, limiting incumbents to three four-year terms, despite it having been more than a decade since Erie elected an incumbent to serve an additional 48 months.
In the 2017 election, Dahlkemper, just as those throughout the 15 years before her had done, sought a second term. But unlike them, she won her first reelection bid — something only one person had done before during the 20 years between 1982 and 2002 when it was a different story with Erie County and its top leadership.
For two decades, and in an era well before term limits, Erie County had just one county executive: Judith Lynch. A Democrat, Lynch served as Erie's second county executive after Republican Russell Robison held the post for only the first four years. Since 1978, Erie County has been governed by its home-rule charter — a measure adopted by voters as a referendum on the ballot in 1976 that converted its form of government to an executive-legislative structure. Lynch won reelection for her second term, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth — governing just four years shy of the rest of Erie County Executives combined.
With Democrats having held the post for the past 16 years, Davis' victory marks the first time since 2002 a Republican has been elected to the office. And while twice as many Democrats — four — have held the post than Republicans prior — two — Democrats have led the county 36 years to Republican's eight.
The Challenges Ahead
In the time since his election victory, Davis has built and named a transition team that includes bipartisan support. As Matt Rink wrote in the Sunday, Nov. 21 edition of the Erie Times-News, Davis "vowed to usher in what his campaign wordsmiths called 'a new era of two-party cooperation.'"
Rink also points out the obvious that cannot be overlooked: "Davis will adopt a county government navigating its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, still nurturing the infant Erie County Community College, and responsible for distributing tens of millions of dollars in federal American Rescue Plan funding.
"And that's on top of the monumental task of running county government."
In other words: Governing during times not of crisis is difficult in and of itself. Davis, who's never held an elected position before, will take over in just a few weeks, as both crisis and opportunity abound with the pandemic continuing to rage on with new variants while at the same time a historic amount of federal resources are on their way.
Tom Petty once sang that "the waiting is the hardest part." Right now, we find ourselves in the interregnum — the chunk of time after which an election has been held, its outcome certified, and when the victor takes office. During this time, we wait. And in our waiting, it's not uncommon for questions to outnumber answers.
So we ask:
Is Davis ready to lead?
Will he really usher in a new era of bipartisanship?
Has he truly evolved his position on critical issues, such as the community college, toward which he was once a vocal opponent but now says he's a cautious optimist?
Can Erie County residents expect, in January, to be led by the Brenton Davis who's calling for that new era of bipartisanship, or will they see more of the candidate who built a reputation as a, in his own words, "firebrand?"
Asked another way: As he's about to take the seat as the highest executive at the county level, will the real Brenton Davis please stand up?
How Davis Got Here
The Friday before the week of Thanksgiving, Brenton Davis is a man on the move. We connect over a Zoom call that turns into a phone call from his truck immediately following a call he had just had with a renowned urbanist and economic development expert and before he has the second meeting of the day with one of the members of his transition team. While the interregnum can be more easily measured in days if not weeks, it wouldn't be surprising to find Davis has done the calculations to know the minutes.
A newcomer to elected office, Davis isn't fresh to the campaign trail. Four and a half years ago he saw his chance to lead in Erie County within grasp only to see it slip away. He'd thrown his hat into the political ring and fell just over 200 votes shy of earning the Republican nomination for County Executive in 2017's primary election, losing to Art Oligeri, who incumbent Kathy Dahlkemper went on to to defeat by just over 300 votes in the general election.
After that race, in a post-election follow-up piece for the Reader, I wrote:
"A surprise to some was how tight the Republican candidate race for county executive ended up being. Just 214 votes separated 64-year-old Oligeri from Brenton Davis, a 33-year-old private contractor. Although Oligeri took an early lead and held it throughout the night, the top three returns shuffled with Davis, Ed DiMattio, and Tim Sonney remaining in the mix.
Davis, a newcomer to Erie politics, surprised some, rocketing upwards in the vote tallies late into the night, drawing in strong support from Erie County's outlying districts. DiMattio, a current county councilman representing the 6th District, took third after Davis, earning 1,695 less votes than Davis did."
In the short-term, Davis endorsed Oligeri and pledged his campaign's resources to Oligeri. In the longer-term, Davis went back to work, worked on earning a master's degree, and ultimately plotted a new path to the county executive's office.
Fast-forward to just three weeks after incumbent County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper announced she wouldn't seek reelection: Davis announced his candidacy. He was the first of two Republicans and four Democrats to do so.
Davis' candidacy wasn't without controversy. There was a sharp pivot in his stance on Erie County Community College. His COVID-19 vaccination and military service records came under scrutiny, as first reported by the Erie Times-News. And, as also reported by the Erie Times-News, Democrats criticized some of his comments on social media as misogynistic and anti-democratic.
"Verel Salmon, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party, emphasized the right of free speech in America but added that Davis has displayed 'wonderful growth' over the years," A.J. Rao reported.
In His Own Words
"I'm not proud of everything I said — you know, 'F Biden' and all that other stuff," Davis said about his lightning rod social media posts. "I was a young guy that lost an election, and I was pissed off."
Then came a self-realized moment of reckoning, he said. "I just looked at that, and I realized, like, 'What the hell is this helping?'"
So he stopped posting, he says, deleting his accounts. He likens walking away from them and the anger to an alcoholic putting down the bottle.
"I don't have any social media accounts," he said. "I have one social media account — that's my official account, and I don't have access to it. And I don't manage it. I type what I want to put out to my constituents and send that to a media manager, and they handle it from there."
While he's not shy about acknowledging the vitriol expressed in posts prior to his latest political run, Davis remains reserved as to how deeply he's willing to dive into discussing his social media past in the present. He did, however, on record, advise me to visit LinkedIn, where visitors would find an impostor account riddled with inaccuracies about him and his past. As of the time of filing this story, that page still existed, suggesting that Davis, once accused as being an internet troll has himself become the trolled.
"I'm just trying to keep all that at arm's length and focus on doing my job as the county executive-elect and making the mature decisions and really showing people that government doesn't have to be tumultuous — and I never thought I'd be the one saying that," he said. "I've had this reputation of being a firebrand. But I see now on the other side, starting out as an elected official, just from the emails that I get and the conversations that I have with private citizens, I understand why I was the way that I was back then. And a lot of it comes out of frustration. The other part of it comes out of just not necessarily understanding the complete capacities and complexities of governance. And I don't profess to even know them completely myself, getting started. I have a lot to learn."
It's one thing to hurl comments out into the ether. It's another to be on the receiving end.
"I've come to realize that my words, even as a candidate, have impact. And you know, when I woke up one day, I'm like, 'wow, you're no longer the Erie Working Man (Davis' self-given brand) just leading a small charge of like-minded people; you're really swinging a pendulum that can hurt people, you know, or that could hurt an initiative that could help a lot of people.' I've realized now that my words carry great weight, as crazy as it sounds. I take that seriously."
While there can be a hopefulness in leaving the past in the past, a present threat will persist into the future that includes a Davis administration in Erie: COVID-19. At his campaign announcement in early January, Davis was initially focused on the economic response to the pandemic. Now, he's facing new variants, a rising case count, and filling a soon-to-be-critical vacancy. Just hours before he and I spoke, Melissa Lyon, director of the Erie County Health Department, announced she'd be leaving the post effective Jan. 3, 2022 to head up the Delaware County Health Department.
Davis acknowledges that he's not a medical expert and that he'll take advice and guidance from the experts as to his administration's response to the crisis.
"We've already been in the process of looking for who the next health director is going to be," Davis said. "I've got all three hospital systems engaged, I've got other health systems, people that I know that are making recommendations."
Back in January, when Davis stood in front of the defunct-but-still-county-owned Pleasant Ridge Manor, he stressed his vision for the future of the Erie County Community College to not be a duplication of services. That remains his point today, while also acknowledging the process and the potential in the institution's future — which should be to "make sure it's the community college of 2050, not 1960," he said.
"The reality is this. It's here, it's the democratic process, you know, it went through a due process, it was challenged in court, it's been approved, it's here, it's operating," he said.
"The people," he added, "have spoken." Just as the people have spoken in electing him county executive.
"We need a community college that is innovative, outside the box, collaborative — that works with the private sector, for jobs in high-demand areas," he said. "We need to make education affordable and accessible to people to help lift them out of poverty. You know, I would be lying if I didn't say I was skeptical in a lot of areas. But the benefit is now as the county executive-elect, in the coming years, the areas in which I'm skeptical, I have the power to fix."
Waiting for the Answer
Come January, Brenton Davis will have power as the seventh county executive in Erie's history. Is he ready to lead? Will he usher in a new era of bipartisanship? Has he displayed "wonderful growth" over the years that's continuing to evolve? Can Erie County residents expect, in January, to be led by the Brenton Davis who's calling for that new era of bipartisanship, or will they see a return of the firebrand?
Too, voters who voted for him must ask: Will they blindly follow wherever he leads even if it's off the path of progress simply because he waves the same team flag that they do?
And voters who voted against him must ask: Will they be willing to follow him if his path does lead to progress even though he waves a team flag different from their own? Will they champion his success as a leader? Be willing to overcome his past comments they found objectionable? Abhorrent?
To root actively against an elected official's success — since it should, in its purest form, mean the success of the place and people over which they govern — is antithetical to democracy. To root fervently no matter the message or course of action, too, is antithetical to democracy.
So, as we march through the interregnum and into the governing period in which Davis takes his seat, we'll watch to see who stands up, who follows, who doesn't, and where words turned to action take Erie County over the next four years that will likely have implications measured in decades.
Ben Speggen can be reached at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.