Galvanized by gun violence, Pa. lt. the gubernatorial candidate set to make history
Democratic state Rep. Austin Davis may be set to make history as Pennsylvania’s first black lieutenant governor, but the Allegheny County native remains tied to his blue-collar roots .
“I’m the proud son of a union bus driver and a barber,” Davis, 32, said in a recent interview with PennLive.com.
With the support of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, state attorney general, Davis won the race for lieutenant governor with 63% of the vote in a three-way race.
The official duties of the lieutenant governor, including chairman of the state Senate and chairman of the Board of Pardons and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Council. And the incumbent is first in the line of succession if the governor dies or resigns.
In the general election, Davis and Shapiro face Republican gubernatorial candidate and state senator Doug Mastriano and lieutenant governor candidate Carrie DelRosso, an Oakmont State representative in Allegheny County.
Growing up in the economically struggling town of McKeesport along the Monongahela River, Davis said her parents worked “extremely hard” to get her and her sister through college.
“It wasn’t easy, and it should be a little easier for working-class Pennsylvanians to get ahead,” said Davis, a political science graduate from the University of Pittsburgh.
Davis interned at the State House and worked for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald before winning a special election in 2018 to replace Democratic State Representative Marc Gergley, who resigned in November 2017 after pleading guilty to conspiracy and accepting charges of illegal campaign contributions.
His victory made Davis the first black state representative in western Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh.
If he and Shapiro are successful in November, Davis said he would strive to be a “working class champion” while being “a strong governance partner” for Shapiro.
Davis ticked off a long list of priorities, including creating an economy “that works for everyone”, making communities safer, raising the minimum wage and fully funding schools.
On June 24, at a joint press conference with Shapiro the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Davis also put the right to abortion on this list.
Davis said he was thinking of his wife, sister and other women “who have fewer rights than they had when they woke up this morning. It’s devastating.
He and Shapiro will block any attempt by the Republican-controlled legislature to restrict abortion rights in Pennsylvania, Davis said.
“This decision is especially dangerous for black women in Pennsylvania,” he said, pointing to the black maternal mortality crisis.
Both Shapiro and Davis said on the campaign trail that they would bring a different approach to governance, with the lieutenant governor having a bigger role, although Davis acknowledged that current lieutenant governor John Fetterman, a candidate Democrat in the U.S. Senate, expanded the scope of the position, particularly with his work reforming the pardon system.
Davis said he and Shapiro were going to govern in a “very different way”, adding that he would be more active “in the day-to-day governance of our Commonwealth”.
In a recent op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Davis wrote about the scourge of gun violence and how a shooting in his neighborhood when he was 15 prompted him to get involved in local government.
“It was the first time that this kind of gun violence had hit my neighborhood, my community so hard,” Davis said of the incident, which happened two doors down from her family’s home.
Davis said he went to the next city council meeting to see what the response to the shooting would be. Instead of taking action, Davis said no one discussed gun violence and there were no young people or black council members there.
“It kind of inspired me to get involved,” he said. “If I wanted to see a change in my community, I couldn’t wait for someone else to do it, so I decided to roll up my sleeves and get involved.”
From there, Davis eventually created a Mayor’s Advisory Council to reduce gun violence in the community.
Coincidentally, the mayor of McKeesport at the time is now Davis’ colleague in the state legislature, Senator Jim Brewster.
Brewster, who also served as a city councilor for 10 years, recalled that Davis and two friends visited him to talk about getting involved in the community, and he took them out to lunch.
“When you’re that age,” Brewster said, “everyone has something they want to focus on, and they happen to have chosen government.”
Shortly after that meeting, Brewster said he nominated Davis for deputy mayor, a largely ceremonial role but one that he said would inspire young people in the community.
“He wanted to learn,” Brewster said of Davis. Brewster was happy to show his protege the ropes of being mayor in a diverse, recession-hit city with a crime problem.
What Davis learned, Brewster said, was to listen and help residents, not criticize them. “I think he embraced those things,” Brewster said.
Davis has the experience to succeed as a lieutenant governor after serving in the Legislative Assembly, Brewster said. He also said Davis understands that people are different and offer varying perspectives on issues and life.
“I saw the potential that was his strength,” Brewster said.
Brewster alternately described Davis as classy, a hard worker and a good listener, and said he had no doubts his former deputy mayor could succeed as lieutenant governor.
“I’m confident his work ethic will win out,” Brewster said.
After working in the county executive office for six years, the opportunity presented itself to run for the House seat in the special election. Again, Davis said he didn’t see anyone young or who looked like him come forward, so he took a chance…and won.
“I thought government should be representative of the people it is meant to serve,” he said, “and the people who are often closest to pain should be closest to power.”
Although there are two Allegheny County lawmakers on the ballot for lieutenant governor, that’s where the similarities end.
Oakmont sits along the Allegheny River northeast of Pittsburgh and is home to toney Oakmont Country Club, which has repeatedly hosted the US Open and PGA Championship golf tournaments. It has a median household income of nearly $68,000, according to US Census data.
The borough’s poverty rate is just 3.6% and its population is 95% white, with black residents comprising less than 1%.
McKeesport, however, is like many other former factory towns scattered across southwestern Pennsylvania that are still struggling to revitalize their local economies after the steel industry collapsed decades ago.
Its population is 55% white and nearly 38% black, according to census data, and the median household income is just under $29,000 while more than 30% of its residents live in poverty.
Davis’ experience and knowledge of issues facing struggling communities was noted by Shapiro, a Montgomery County resident, when he endorsed his running mate in January.
“Pennsylvanians — from Westmoreland to West Philadelphia — deserve leaders who understand the issues they face and who can bring people together to get things done,” Shapiro said.
“Throughout his career,” Shapiro said, “Austin Davis has fought for the people of western Pennsylvania, standing up for families who work hard to make ends meet and communities who have been left behind. “
The campaign statement on the endorsement said Davis “would bring significant geographic and racial diversity to a Democratic ticket led by Shapiro, and if elected, he would be the highest-ranking black elected official in the history of Pennsylvania”.
Davis said he has supported efforts to reclaim old factory sites for new uses and economic development, such as helping medical marijuana producer PurePenn come to McKeesport.
Florida-based Trulieve, the nation’s largest marijuana retailer, has since acquired PurePenn and announced last fall, according to nextpittsburgh.com, that its new cultivation and processing facility would create 800 jobs in the city of Davis.
Davis said he helped with the state grant that supported the company’s plans. “It’s something I’m really proud of,” he said.
In addition to that project, Davis said he worked to secure funds to improve transit in the district and reduce gun violence, and fought for tax credits to allow economically challenged communities to demolish dilapidated buildings so that new investments can be made in the business districts.
“The choice is clear in this election,” Davis said. “Josh and I clearly have an achievement record for working-class Pennsylvanians.”