By Ivey DeJesus for Penn Live
Austin Davis, a 32-year-old state lawmaker from Allegheny County, made history Tuesday night.
With the gubernatorial election called by the Associated Press for Democrat Josh Shapiro, Davis, who is on the ticket with Shapiro, becomes the first African American elected lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. He also becomes the highest ranking Black elected official to serve in the Commonwealth.
The significance of that accomplishment is not lost on Davis, who has propelled forward in his political career in relatively swift time.
“Pennsylvania has elected its first Black lieutenant governor in commonwealth history,” said Davis at the Shapiro/Davis victory party. “I can’t even put into words what this moment means to me… and the message it sends to millions.”
Davis was among approximately 11 Black candidates nationwide who ran for Senate; five who ran for governor; and about eight who ran for executive offices such as attorney general, lieutenant governor and secretary of state.
“For me being elected lieutenant governor is extremely humbling,” the Allegheny County native said. “To be the first African American to occupy that space is deeply humbling but it’s the result of generations of hard work by Black and brown people who’ve come before me who helped lay the groundwork so somebody like me could be elected to as high an office one day.”
Official election results in Pennsylvania may not be known for days or weeks as election officials by law only began processing absentee and mail-in ballots on Election Day.
Another barrier was broken Tuesday with the election of a second Black candidate from Allegheny County, Democrat Summer Lee, who won the race in the 12th Congressional district, becoming the first African American woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania.
Until now, the highest office a Black woman had achieved in Pennsylvania was state House floor leader for the minority party, now held by Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Democrat of Philadelphia.
“I am deeply mindful that this is my opportunity but it’s not an opportunity I paid for,” Davis said. “It was paid by the sweat equity and work of people who came before me. It is my responsibility to view it as while I may be the first, I’m not the last and that I blaze a trail for other minority candidates to follow in my footsteps.”
Darryl Thomas, an associate professor of African American Studies at Penn State, points to figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the influence he had on former President Barack Obama’s political career; and in turn, the former president’s impact on the careers of Black politicians from Illinois such as Roland Burris, who succeeded him in the Senate. Burris was the sixth African American to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Austin has the potential of laying the groundwork for future Black elected officials as well as redefining and empowering an important voting coalition, Thomas said.
“It’s very impactful,” Thomas said of the Austin election. “He can set a framework that becomes part of a voting coalition that could empower voters throughout the state, particularly Black voters. Those voters could become part of a coalition in the Democratic Party that could win statewide elections and play an important role in national elections.”
Kadida Kenner, who devotes herself to engaging new and young voters, particularly of color, said the Davis election to the second highest office in Pennsylvania stands to energize an important voting bloc.
“For quite some time now Black voters in Pennsylvania have thought that the Democratic Party has taken them for granted,” said Kenner, founding executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, a voting rights organization modeled after the successful New Georgia Project founded by Stacey Abrams in 2014.
“This is an opportunity for us to see our fellow politicians represented in some of the highest levels of executive leadership in the state and it’s important for Black voters, and Black children and all people to see that we can have someone in one of the highest offices of the state.”
Davis joins Democrat Wes Moore, who on Tuesday swept the gubernatorial race in Maryland to become that state’s first Black governor.
Until now, only two Black men — Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia — had ever been elected governor in this country. Wilder, who served as Virginia governor from 1990 to 1994, was the first African American to serve as governor of a U.S. state since the Reconstruction era, and the first African American ever elected as governor.
In fact, Davis was among the two dozen Black major party candidates who in this midterm cycle vied for some of the highest offices in the country, including U.S. Senate and governorships.
The roll call of high-profile Black lawmakers in this country has ticked up over the years, albeit at a ponderous pace. Up to now, the nation has seen seven Black senators and two governors elected in the nation’s history since Reconstruction. At least 28 states have had a Black representative in Congress, and Black Americans hold 56 seats in the House.
“Pennsylvania has a lot of work to do to be more representative in our Democracy in terms of elected officials,” Kenner said. “We’ve had very few Black candidates ever to win statewide elections. It’s pretty telling.”
As is the case with Davis, many of Tuesday’s Black candidates who are poised to emerge victorious once results are certified, would become the first Black person to hold that office in their respective state.
“For every African American who breaks a new glass ceiling there’s a group of African Americans who are coming up that are inspired,” Davis said. “I was inspired myself to run for public office because of what I saw Barack Obama do in 2008. For me to be elected lieutenant governor sends a strong message that Pennsylvania is a place where everyone can succeed regardless of what you look like. We’ve made significant progress as a society that an African American can serve in as high a level of government.”
Davis has in short order propelled his political career from the county level to the state House. He worked for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald before winning a special election in 2018 to replace Democratic state Rep. Marc Gergely, who resigned in November 2017 after pleading guilty to conspiracy and accepting illegal campaign contributions charges.
Davis was the first Black state representative in western Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh.
The son of a union bus driver and a hairdresser, Davis has remained tethered to his blue-collar roots and thanked his parents Tuesday night for the sacrifices they made to get him where he is today. He grew up in the economically distressed city of McKeesport, where, he said, his parents worked “extremely hard” to put both he and his sister through college.
“We’re in a critical moment particularly as an African American,” Davis said. “I often say that the people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power. The decisions we make every day in state capitals and in Washington D.C. disproportionately affect Black and brown people, and working class and poor folks. That’s who ought to be seated at the table helping to make those decisions. I take all those values with me not just being African American but as a working class person. I take all those values and struggles with me to office.”
Davis graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a political science degree.
He has vowed to be a strong governing partner to Shapiro. Both have championed the working class, a more equitable economy, safe communities, education funding and raising the minimum wage.
Both Davis and Shapiro have vowed to take on gun violence and tackle the root causes of violence.
“It’s really important at this time knowing that no elected official can win Pennsylvania in a statewide race without the Black vote,” she said.
The Austin election, Thomas said, positions Black voters in Pennsylvania to play a more influential role in the democratic process – and in particular, the Democratic Party.
“It’s very important,” Thomas said. “Especially down the road.”