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Capital-Star Q&A: Lt. Gov. nominee Austin Davis aims to be ‘strong governing partner’ for Shapiro
‘The people who are closest to the pain should be closest to the power,’ Davis said
Austin Davis at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, PA on 9/20/22 (Capital-Star photo by Daniella Heminghaus)
Austin Davis, 32, is the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor on the ticket with gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro.
After working in Allegheny County government, Davis was elected in a special election to fill Allegheny County’s vacant 35th District state House seat in in 2018 and has been re-elected twice.
He entered the three-way Democratic primary for lieutenant governor with unprecedented support in an endorsement from Shapiro, the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
The Capital-Star sat down with Davis last week to talk about his record as a state representative and his goals if voters send him and Shapiro to the top offices in the commonwealth. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and accuracy.
Q: First off, why are you running for lieutenant governor?
Austin Davis: There are two primary reasons that I’m running for lieutenant governor. One because I want to be a strong governing partner for Josh Shapiro to really help him take on those big fights that I know we’re going to have in the months and years ahead to lead Pennsylvania forward, but to also be a champion for working class families here in Pennsylvania. That’s something that’s deeply important to me. I’m the proud son of a union bus driver and a hairdresser.
My parents, like millions of Pennsylvanians, worked extremely hard to ensure that my sister and I had every opportunity to succeed. And Pennsylvania should be a place where everybody has the opportunity to succeed with the American dream.
Many working class folks now are struggling to deal with rising costs due to inflation, rising bills, and concerns about how they’re going to put their kids through college, or whether their kids are going to receive a quality education here in the community. And they’re worried about whether their communities are safe. So I want to fight for them here in Pennsylvania as Pennsylvania’s next lieutenant governor.
Q: What was it that steered you into politics in the first place?
A: When I was 16 years old, I was living in the city of McKeesport and somebody got shot on my block. I decided to go to a McKeesport City Council meeting, and when I went to that meeting, there were two things that I noticed.
One, there was nobody talking about the issue of gun violence. So at 16, I started a violence prevention organization with a group of my peers to help combat violence in our community. And then the second thing was there was nobody that looked like me serving in government. And that ultimately led to me running for the state House and becoming the first African American to ever represent my legislative district or any legislative district in western Pennsylvania outside of the city of Pittsburgh.
It’s not lost to me that if I’m elected, I’ll be Pennsylvania’s first Black lieutenant governor. I think government should look like the communities that it’s meant to serve. The people who are closest to the pain should be closest to the power, and I think you get an advocate in me who speaks to those issues.
Q: How did you take the first steps toward running for public office?
A: Before I was a state legislator, I spent roughly five years as a senior advisor in Allegheny County government working for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. So I worked on every public policy issue that relates to the county, from economic development to jail oversight policy, to policy around the Kane Regional Health Care Centers, which are our county-run nursing homes. So it really gave me a good perspective in public service, and how an office of an elected official operates and how it can be a force for good.
After spending five years there, there was an opening. My predecessor in the state House resigned his seat, and I decided to run because I represent a fairly diverse community. But there had not been an African American serving in significant elected leadership positions ever.
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I thought [I should run], one, not just for African Americans, but for younger folks because my community is an older steel mill town, So a lot of younger people have moved away. And so I thought, you know, it was my future, my wife’s future, we were living in that community and wanted to stay in that community.
And so I thought if I was going to be here, I needed to roll up my sleeves and work to make it the best place that it could be. And so that’s what ultimately led to me jumping into [running] for state House.
Q: In your three terms, what have you accomplished that you’re most proud of?
A: There’s a number of things. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done to connect McKeesport, an old steel mill industrial town, to new and emerging economies. For example, when the state legalized medical marijuana, I worked to secure a license for a grower in the city of McKeesport.
So we have a plant that grows medical cannabis in McKeesport right now. When that first started, it started with about 130 jobs. They just announced an expansion due to an [Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant] that I helped secure. They’re going to expand to 800 jobs in McKeesport, and they are on track to become our largest employer going forward, and so I’m really proud of that.
I’m proud of the work I’ve done to revitalize my community, particularly our main streets in our downtowns. I helped work to secure funding to redo the McKeesport Transportation Center to make sure my community has access to mass transit, which is a lifeline for many folks in my community.
I helped secure [Pennsylvania Housing Financing Agency] financing to create a new development in downtown Clairton, which is the first major investment in that community in over a century to create, I think, roughly 50 affordable housing units, as well as seven new storefronts for existing businesses in the community and a new home for the Clairton library. I’ve been really focused on helping to rebuild my community, a community that’s often been forgotten.
Those are the communities I want to fight for as Pennsylvania’s next lieutenant governor, to help make sure we’re investing in the places like McKeesport and Aliquippa and Chester and Pottstown, the places that have often been forgotten and have been under-resourced and undervalued. We want to make sure that we’re investing in those communities, and making lives better for the folks who live there.
Q: The office of lieutenant governor is often seen as one that has as much power as the governor will allow. Have you talked about that with Josh, and can you talk a bit about what your working relationship is in light of the extremes that we’ve seen in the Wolf administration?
A: If you look at my campaign for lieutenant governor and [Shapiro’s] campaign for governor, we have done it very differently than previous governors and lieutenant governors have done it in the past.
When I launched my campaign back in January, Josh was standing directly by my side.
He has said he wants a lieutenant governor who’s an active partner.
But in terms of our history, Josh and I go back to when I was a senior advisor in Allegheny County government, and he was a Montgomery County commissioner.
My boss and Josh were very close at the time and worked very closely together on county-level issues. When I became a legislator, and he, as attorney general, we worked to pass the police officer misconduct database here in Pennsylvania, to track officers involved in infractions. We have a long history of working together and getting things done for the people here in Pennsylvania.
That’s going to continue as we enter, hopefully, to be Pennsylvania’s next governor and lieutenant governor. People here in Pennsylvania are going to get a team who are gonna work together to address and tackle our biggest most pressing issues to deliver real results for them.
Q: What do you feel the day-to-day role is going to be for you as a lieutenant governor?
A: I think I’ll be very active in the day-to-day governance of our commonwealth and helping to manage the departments, helping to craft policy, and [to] help Josh carry out his agenda and to help him carry some of the loads of being governor.
Being governor is a big job. Running the state is a big task. And I’m gonna be a partner for him to help share that load. And to help make sure we’re delivering results for people here in Pennsylvania to make sure we’re taking on the biggest, most pressing issues that people care about.
Q: [Current Lt. Gov] John Fetterman has used the office of lieutenant governor as a bully pulpit for criminal justice reform and clemency. Do you have a particular issue that you will champion through the office?
A: Obviously Josh and I are very concerned that Pennsylvania communities are safe. I believe there isn’t an and-or situation when it comes to safety and the work of the Board of Pardons. I think they can go hand in hand. Obviously, I will be, as chairman of the Board of Pardons, the first person of color to chair that board.
I think that’s extremely meaningful given a lot of the folks who come before that board and, quite frankly, look like me. I plan to make sure that the board is operating effectively, efficiently, making sure that it has the resources it needs to carry out its mission.
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I also want to be a champion for communities that have often been left behind and forgotten – communities like mine – to help make sure that we’re driving economic development issues, helping make sure that we’re helping those communities to revitalize.
Safety, as an overarching theme, I think will be a focus of my term as lieutenant governor. Gun violence is an issue that brought me to public service.
It’s an issue that is plaguing many communities across Pennsylvania, and it’s an issue that I want to work directly on to help stem gun violence, from helping to put more police officers on the street [and] getting more resources to law enforcement, to helping community based agencies who are doing good violence prevention work get the resources that they need to continue to grow and do that work and to bridge the divide between police officers and our communities.
Q: What do you see as the path to getting meaningful gun control legislation passed?
A: There are a number of things we have to deal with in terms of gun violence in our communities. One is universal background checks. Lost-and-stolen [gun] legislation is important legislation to get done.
But we also have to look at the root causes of violence, like making sure we’re fully funding our education system here in Pennsylvania so every young person has the opportunity to succeed here in the commonwealth, making sure young people have a pathway to success.
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If that young person wants to go to college, we want to make sure it’s affordable. But if they want to go to the workforce, we want to make sure that they can connect to an apprenticeship program, join a union and join the middle class through a union job, whether it’s carpenter, electrician, or plumber.
We need to make sure there are multiple avenues for success for these young people. The quickest way to take a gun out of somebody’s hand is to put a paycheck in it. That’s what we’re going to continue to focus on hopefully in the Shapiro-Davis administration. If we do all of those things it will help bring down gun violence in our communities.
Q: We are seeing a backlash across the country against progressive prosecutors. How can we change the paradigm that being tough on crime is the way to reduce crime? How do you get past that persistent idea in America?
A: We have to deal with the root causes of why we’re seeing crime. It kind of goes back to my response earlier. We’ve got to give people the ability to get a quality education here in Pennsylvania. We have to give them a ladder of hope to get to have a successful future, whether that’s going to college and making sure that’s affordable, whether they want to join the workforce, making sure there are clear pipelines for them to do it.
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Some of these folks just tend to take an easy way out and look for a political soundbite. I know Josh and I are actually interested in dealing with the root causes that lead to some of these issues of crime that we see.
If we invest in education, if we invest in workforce development programs, if we work to make sure Pennsylvania has an economy that lifts everyone up where folks can make a livable wage and have a family sustaining job here in Pennsylvania, we’re gonna see less violence in our communities and we’re gonna see less crime. And we’re going to make sure our law enforcement officers have the resources that they need to do their jobs and our communities.
Q: What do you see as the most important steps to making sure that the economy grows and jobs are created?
A: The next governor and lieutenant governor are gonna really have to be salespeople for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We’re going to go out and really work to attract businesses here.
Josh and I have proposed a plan to cut the corporate net income tax. We proposed a plan to cut red tape in Harrisburg, to help make it more efficient for businesses to set up here, and I think those are two really important components to helping make Pennsylvania a very viable place for businesses to want to locate here.
We want to hang a big “open for business” sign here in Pennsylvania and attract as many companies who want to come here, but we also want to grow as many companies and help people that want to start a business here set up shop. We need to make sure they have an opportunity to succeed and that means having robust programs to the Department of Economic Development that helps small businesses build capital, connect with capital and have technical support.
If we do all those policy things, we will create a strong environment for a strong economy here in Pennsylvania. And that’s something we’re laser focused on.
Q: There’s been a lot of pushback against the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and a lot of support for reduced regulation on oil and gas drilling. Do you believe there’s a place where the gas and oil industry can grow in Pennsylvania while keeping environmental goals in sight?
A: Josh and I have been really clear we want to be an “all the above” energy administration here in Pennsylvania, because we are lucky as a state to have so many energy resources … and we need to be protecting the jobs today but also investing in the jobs of tomorrow.
As it relates to RGGI, we’re going to see if it meets the test of lowering costs for consumers, protecting jobs, making sure we have a sustainable environment from clean air and clean water and we’ll see if it meets that test.
But Josh and I have been very clear that we want to be an all-of-the-above energy administration. We believe we can create more clean energy jobs and a bridge to the future without closing the door on jobs today.
Q: Are there any other topics that you would like to mention in closing?
A: I really do think my run for lieutenant governor is very historic here in the Commonwealth. If I win, I’ll be the highest ranking Black elected official in Pennsylvania and in Pennsylvania’s history, and I think our leadership here in the commonwealth should look like the communities we seek to serve.
That is going to be an extremely powerful thing that comes along with a lot of responsibility for me to be a voice for the voiceless and to speak for marginalized communities all across this commonwealth. It’s a huge opportunity and it’s a huge sign of the progress we’ve made here and the progress that we’re going to continue doing.
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