But on Nov. 7, 37-year-old Braxton White, an Army veteran, school board director and community volunteer, won election as the sole Democrat on the county three-member Board of Commissioners. White points out that, in Pennsylvania, the commissioners serve as the board of elections in each county. “These are the folks who are going to certify the results of the 2024 election,” he says. “We need Democrats in the room to keep people honest.”
How did he do it? Through relentless, ongoing grassroots organizing, and campaigning on the local issues a county commissioner can affect, such as funding for local 911 services, Internet access, and boosting tourism.
The Road to 2023
Braxton was inspired to get into politics by John Fetterman’s 2016 campaign for the Senate. “I was cynical about politics back then, but he was so genuine and willing to get his hands dirty to get stuff done. He didn’t win the primary, but he beat expectations, and I stayed involved because I knew what was at stake.”
“I got linked up with our local committee and after getting to know everyone, I knew I wanted us to focus more on getting younger people involved and direct outreach to voters,” he says. “We’ve worked with the advisor of the Clarion College Democrats to pave the way for students to attend the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee and linked students up with internship opportunities. They are truly a part of our team, and we are stronger for it.”
With the help of the students and other motivated volunteers, “We knocked thousands of doors for local and statewide candidates. We cut the loss margins here for our statewide candidates and elected some good people to local positions, too. Along with my own victory, we currently hold a Democratic majority on a borough council Trump won 3-1, put some Democrats on the school board, and elected a Democrat as mayor in Clarion for the first time in over 30 years. This has been a team effort, and it is a testament to what we can accomplish, even in the reddest of counties, when we organize effectively and together.”
A Platform for Rural Victory
“I have the reputation here in Clarion County of being Mr. Democrat,” says White. “I’ve earned that honestly, and when politics comes up, I won’t pretend to be someone I’m not.”
“But when it came to running for county commissioner, I found voters cared about funding our first responders, funding children protective services, reducing blighted properties, and investing in tourism and broadband access.”
In Pennsylvania’s county commissioner races, each party nominates two candidates in the primary election, meaning two Democrats and two Republicans appear on the ballot in the fall. In the general election, voters choose two candidates, and the top three vote-getters are elected. “Despite Clarion County losing 1200 Democrats since 2019, I won more votes this cycle than the retiring Democratic got 4 years ago,” says White. “Which means we earned the trust of a not-insignificant number of Republicans who ignored the letter beside my name because my message resonated.”
“My friend Mitch Kates, the executive director of the PA Dems, will tell you that all politics is local. When candidates message with this in mind, they win. Our path to winning in 2024 will be a local one as well,” he says. “When I’m encouraging people to vote for Joe Biden and Democrats next year, the message will be about how the President’s American Rescue Plan sent money to our municipalities and our schools to overcome the economic effects of the pandemic. The message will be about Senator Fetterman appropriating almost $2 million to renovate our courthouse. It will be about how Senator Casey ensured local veterans got the benefits they earned. The message will be about finishing the good work Governor Shapiro started as Attorney General with the opioid settlements. It will be about electing a Democratic Auditor General to hold cyber charter schools, which have been wrecking our school budgets and raising our property taxes, accountable.”
While national messages around abortion rights and democracy are also deeply important, and the urgency around those issues is high, “If we fail to sell the local messages alongside the national ones, we will lose,” he warns.
“Our goal in Clarion County is to get Biden and our other statewide Democrats to 27, 28 percent of the vote. We’ve got some work to do.”
The greatest need he sees in Clarion County is raising extra money to rent a physical county headquarters. “It can be intimidating to be a vocal Democrat around here and a headquarters sends the message to folks that they aren’t alone. With a headquarters, we can distribute yard signs, give volunteers a space to make calls, write letters, and kick off canvasses.”
“Pundits often fail to mention that Joe Biden won in 2020 despite Republicans organizing in person while Democrats largely stayed home. Biden’s margins would’ve been much stronger here and in other swing states if we had been on a level playing field. We will have that in 2024 and with Donald Trump’s revenge tour already in full display, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Rural Democrats have spent the last 7 years preparing for this moment, and we are going to do what we’ve always done: Work our asses off.”