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Austin Davis announces bid for lieutenant governor, backed by Josh Shapiro

Austin Davis announcing his campaign for lieutenant governor on Jan. 4., 2022.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Austin Davis announcing his campaign for lieutenant governor on Jan. 4., 2022.

Allegheny County state Representative Austin Davis formally announced his bid for lieutenant governor Tuesday morning — and he enters the race with the backing of prominent Democrats that include the party’s all-but-certain gubernatorial nominee, Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

"I'm going to focus on the things that I've been fighting for in the state House for creating family sustaining jobs, making sure every child has the ability to receive a quality education ... and ensuring that as a state, we're creating ladders of opportunity for folks to lift themselves up," pledged Davis at a kick-off event in his hometown of McKeesport.

"Pennsylvanians want leaders who care about families like theirs and understand the problems that keep them up at night," he said. "Leaders concerned with standing up for the well-being of the working class, not the well-heeled and the well-connected."

Davis said he did not intend to give up his House seat just yet, and that he would be a candidate in both races going forward.

"I've dedicated my life and my career to public service," he said. "And I want to continue that service either way, so I will be a candidate for both."

The event, held in a parklet outside steel pipe-making facility whose customers include the natural gas industry, was attended by a roster of supporters, including several of Davis' House colleagues, newly installed Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Congressman Mike Doyle.

"We're gonna make history again this election," said Doyle, referring to Gainey becoming the city's first Black mayor. Davis would be the state's first Black lieutenant governor and, Doyle said, "is going to be a great addition to this ticket."

But the most notable supporter on-hand was Shapiro, who hailed Davis as "someone who will never forget where they came from, someone who will help me take on the big fights and get things done."

"In order to get things done, you need a strong team behind you," Shapiro said, "That's the kind of leadership I want to bring to the governor's office. ... I need Austin by my side."

Davis would bring geographic and racial balance to the party’s ticket: Shapiro is from Montgomery County, and while Philadelphia and its adjoining “collar counties” have increasingly become the bastion of Democratic strength in the state, Allegheny County is a key to the party’s hopes of victory.

Depending on who Democrats choose to be their nominee for Senate, Davis may also be the only Black candidate to run statewide in November.

He also brings youth: Davis is just 32 years old and was elected to the state House in a 2018 special election to replace Marc Gergely, who left office amid prosecution for accepting illegal campaign contributions. Davis, a lifelong McKeesport resident, was the first Black state legislator to be elected from the district — and in fact the first Black legislator from Allegheny County to be elected anywhere outside the city of Pittsburgh.

And in a joint statement put out prior to the event, Shapiro pointedly noted that Davis is just one of four Black legislators in the state representing a district in which voters are mostly white.

After the event, Davis told reporters the moment was "humbling": "I think represent the millions of hopes and dreams from working-class Pennsylvanians who believe that if they get a good education and work hard, they can succeed here in Pennsylvania."

Locally, Davis has arguably drawn less attention than his House colleague from the district next door, progressive Summer Lee. But he has pursued a number of similar causes, including criminal justice reform initiatives and is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and other bodies.

Davis stuck a pragmatic note in a brief discussion with reporters after his speech. Asked how he would handle his duties presiding over the Senate — a task that has brought current Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman into conflict with Republicans — Davis said, "Part of the partisanship in Harrisburg is that a lot of folks just don't have any relationships any more. So I'd spend a lot of time trying to build relationships and consensus across the aisle. To really get to know your colleagues, because that's ultimately the best recipe for success in Harrisburg."

Another task for the lieutenant governor is presiding over the state's board of pardons — a position in which Fetterman expansive approach to clemency has sometimes clashed with Shapiro. Davis said that he viewed the board "from an overarching philosophy that people deserve second chances, and we should be making the board as efficient and effective as possible to help deliver on those."

He declined to say whether he and Shapiro had discussed the issue specifically, saying the two "have had a number of conversations but those are private."

Shapiro’s preference is not the final word on the matter: In Pennsylvania, lieutenant governors must run their own race to be their party’s nominees. And governors sometimes don’t get the running mate they want: Outgoing Governor Tom Wolf, for one, was saddled with Mike Stack for his first term, despite obvious tensions between the two. Philadelphia state Rep. Brian Sims, the first openly gay representative in the state House and a fiery critic of Republicans, is still seeking the lieutenant governor's post.

Still, despite his youth, Davis is steeped in Democratic politics, having served as a top aide to County Executive Fitzgerald and volunteered for a youth council under McKeesport then-mayor Jim Brewster, who is now a state senator. Davis also chairs the county’s House delegation. And he goes into the race today with the backing not just of Shapiro but a number of prominent Democrats, including Wolf, Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa, House Democratic leader Joanna McClinton and more than three dozen of his House colleagues.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.