Wertz: Local politics becoming ‘savage,’ campaigns must focus on values, policy instead

Politics is a tough business. I was consistently reminded of that truism during my 5½ years as chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. Nevertheless, I look upon my time leading Erie County Democrats as one of the great chapters of my life — I’m proud of the party’s accomplishments and the people who stood up for our values as candidates, volunteers, and donors.  

In 2018, the Erie community (and the ErieDems) were still in the spotlight following the 2016 presidential election. Professional pundits and local politicos wondered if the era of Democratic politics in Erie had come to an end. I was confident it had not. The party simply needed to spend its time reconnecting with old friends in the farthest reaches of Erie County, and investing in avenues for people to engage with the party even if they didn’t want to live within the party as members of the Democratic committee. If we’re a big tent party, as people like to say, then we needed to build a bigger tent. So, we did.    

We didn’t win every race, but we fielded honorable candidates in tough races up and down the ballot in every race in Erie County. Erieites can even reflect proudly on the PA-16 congressional races in 2018, 2020, and 2022. In each case, our candidates — Ron DiNicola, Kristy Gnibus, and Dan Pastore — won Erie County and outperformed the folks at the top of the ticket, even though it wasn’t enough to offset the Republican stronghold on the southern part of our congressional district. It’s a testament to the people who comprised our committee, to the thousands of volunteers who joined us at your front doors, and the unwavering democratic values of the people of Erie.

Despite those successes and the positive issue-based campaigning of many candidates, the sharp edges of politics continue to elbow good people out of politics.

As I actively consider my own run for public office with the encouragement of my family and friends, as well as the candidates and committee people I’ve worked alongside for the past decade, I can’t help but wonder how my values will be characterized by my opponents and the people they enlist to shape an image of me to voters.

For those who prefer to cut the competition rather than compete on policy positions and records of civic engagement, local politics is becoming more savage. As party chair I often counseled candidates on how to survive the sharp edges of local politics — now more reflective of the nation’s anger games, in which candidates and incumbents pit themselves squarely against an opponent rather than on the issues that affect voters’ daily lives. It’s discouraging and keeps good candidates away from running for public office — the most honorable pursuit.

As difficult as politics can be on the candidates and campaign staff who invest their lives in the outcomes of our contests, it is even more burdensome on our families and loved ones. Every day I as consider this run, above all, I think about how it will affect my wife of 17 years as well as our son and daughters.

For example, my wife and I planned to divorce nearly a decade ago because we had lost sight of what was important between us. We moved on from each other and planned to live our lives apart, with other partners — a low point in our relationship that is already being weaponized against me as I consider a run for public office.

Thankfully, for us, that period in our relationship was not an end, but instead a new beginning — our daughters are thriving, and we welcomed our now 3-year-old son. The process of separation forced us to see what we would lose if we were apart and it put politics in its proper place in our loving household — always second to family, always.

Today, I’m looking ahead to an enriched commitment to advancing the democratic ideals that helped build Erie County. I’m confident that my strong record of service and the consistent, value-driven leadership I’ve displayed will serve me well, especially as I watch many incumbents adrift in the political tides, changing direction depending on their audience and national political trends.

I encourage Erieites invested in our collective future to embrace politics as a healthy way to advocate for the issues you care about and engage in healthy, constructive debates. It’s time discuss our values and our ideals. I will continue to advance the democratic values my party has sought to preserve, whether as a candidate or as your neighbor — a strong democracy, personal rights, and unfettered access to health care, education, and opportunity.   

Erie is the perfect place for our nation to begin to cut loose these sharp edges of politics and to walk together toward a quieter and more prosperous future that waits on the path ahead.  

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