Democratic nominee Tyler Titus seeks to transcend gender in county executive race – GoErie.com
Turning to supporters at a recent fundraiser in Erie, Tyler Titus, in full campaign mode, invoked the power of the possible.
From anyone else, the speech would have been formulaic, even predictable. The familiar overtures of equal opportunity and public investment that typify Democrats running for office.
But from Titus, the words carried a certain weight, an authenticity borne of someone who not only benefited from what they preached but whose own struggles with identity fostered a kind of reassuring empathy.
“I know what it’s like to be left behind, to be pushed out, to be ‘othered,'” Titus said. “I also know what it’s like to fight your way back.”
Breaking barriers:The race for Erie County executive: Titus aims to break down socio-economic, equity barriers
Wolf endorsement:Gov. Wolf endorses Democrat Tyler Titus in historic run for Erie County executive
Titus, who sported jeans, a nose ring and a giant forearm tattoo of a chinchilla, was hardly the image of the humdrum, cookie-cutter politician. And maybe that was the point.
For the dozen or so supporters who gathered that day, the message was clear: this was someone who’d defied the odds and someone who could do it again.
Since May, Titus, 37, has emerged a budding political star for local Democrats, becoming not only the party’s youngest nominee for Erie County executive but potentially the first openly transgender person in the nation to lead a county.
Running on a platform of inclusion and equity, Titus — who uses the pronouns they/them/their — believes their personal and professional journey offers unique insight into the barriers facing working families.
With millions of federal recovery dollars slated for the county, Titus envisions a heavy emphasis on human services, on fostering healthier, safer communities, where sturdy ladders of opportunity can expand access to education, health care and good-paying jobs for the middle class.
“My whole life has been spent on figuring out how to make the system work better for everybody — not just some, but everybody,” Titus said. “Because when you lift up the most vulnerable, the whole community rises.”
On Nov. 2, Titus will face Republican Brenton Davis, a combat veteran and entrepreneur, in a race to succeed Democratic incumbent Kathy Dahlkemper, who announced in December that she would not seek a third term.
Dahlkemper announcement:Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper won’t seek 3rd term
Republican endorsement:Erie Voice: I’m the Republican who ran against Brenton Davis, now, I’m supporting Tyler Titus
Already, news of the Titus campaign has swept across the country and attracted a swarm of out-of-state staffers and donors from as far as Beverly Hills, California.
Many see the race as a major step forward for the trans community. Others see it as a vital political barometer for the swing state of Pennsylvania.
As Titus puts it, “Where Erie County goes, the state goes.”
Noting that some might find their gender identity a deal-breaker — or at the very least, off-putting — Titus has relied on a simple mantra: don’t dwell on gender, transcend it.
“So often, my journey is clouded by my gender identity. But when people sit down and connect with me, they find there is so much more that we have in common,” Titus said.
The strategy has proved effective.
Prior to capturing the nomination for county executive, Titus made history in 2017 when they became the first openly transgender person in Pennsylvania elected to public office — in this case, the Erie School Board, which Titus now presides over as president.
Primary victory:Titus wins primary, moves step closer to becoming 1st openly transgender county executive
School Board victory:Tyler Titus, 1st openly transgender person elected to public office in Pa., is new Erie School Board chief
During the campaign, Titus refused to be labeled as merely “the trans candidate,” but someone whose years of experience as a therapist and as a caseworker at the Erie County Office of Children and Youth could lift up those students being shut out or left behind.
Darlene Feeney, vice president of the Erie School Board, said Titus’ leadership has been “admirable.”
“I appreciate Tyler’s openness and willingness to hear from all constituents including those with differing opinions,” she said. “As board president, Tyler listens to (their) fellow members, contemplating, before expressing an opinion.”
Leah Manino, president of the Greater Erie Alliance for Equality, further called Titus’ nomination “historic” and “extremely meaningful” to the local and national LGBTQ community.
“Members of the LGBTQ community seek to find representation at all levels of government and community,” she said. “Tyler’s campaign is a sign of ongoing progress.”
Titus, while aware of their campaign’s historic role, said the real history-making will be Erie County putting forward a “true progressive” who listens, represents and ultimately delivers to the community they serve.
“People feel safe with this campaign because they feel seen, they feel heard,” Titus said. “It’s not about my gender but Erie County believing in the possibility that things can get better.”
Titus was born in Titusville to teenaged parents, who by the time Titus was 5 years old were already divorced and remarried to other people.
Titus’ stepfather, a logger, and mother, a nurse, were in many ways the archetype of the rural working class, a lifestyle that became all the more unstable as industry left and despondency arrived in its wake.
“A good life did not come easy,” Titus said. “We grew up in a very rural area, surrounded by poverty, drug addiction, hopelessness and desperation. It was all we knew.”
Titus’ parents would later become foster parents and invite nearly a dozen foster children into their three-bedroom home.
Titus, then 16, said the change was “overwhelming,” both in terms of supporting household income through side jobs and being exposed to the traumas that afflicted children in the foster care system.
“There were times when the kids would be aggressive or have anxiety or serious depression,” Titus said. “I remember thinking, ‘Clearly, there is something behind all of this,’ and I wanted to understand it.”
Outside of home, Titus faced another drama.
“Growing up in a rural area with pretty conservative views, there wasn’t a lot of talk about anything outside of heterosexual cisgender,” Titus said. “I watched the kids who were identifying as queer get picked on, so I knew whatever I was feeling on the inside wasn’t OK and I shouldn’t talk about it — so I didn’t.”
The silence came at a cost, as bouts of self-shame and self-hate culminated in two suicide attempts while a student at Titusville High School.
As Titus recalled, “I didn’t have the words to describe how I was feeling.”
Only after graduating high school and moving to Erie to attend Mercyhurst University did Titus find solace, connecting with others who identified as LGBTQ and finding that clarity and sense of belonging so desperately needed.
“It was like seeing the world for the first time,” Titus said.
Titus, who came out at 19, said their focus suddenly shifted from being more “inward-looking” to outward-looking, and stoked a passion in helping others overcome their own struggles.
Earning a master’s degree in community counseling and later a Ph.D. in social work from Edinboro University and the University of Southern California, respectively, Titus would devote his life to social work and community advocacy.
This included working at the Erie County Office of Children and Youth, where Titus advanced from intern to caseworker to supervisor and eventually administrator of the intake department, as well as becoming co-vice chair for the Pennsylvania Commission of LGBTQ+ Affairs.
Titus later began a private therapy service called Journey to A Trauma-Informed Life and devotes time to the Pittsburgh-based Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation.
Titus is married to 38-year-old Shraddha Prabhu, a professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, and is the father of two biological children Zen, 8, and Cy, 12, and a 17-year-old adopted son, Chance.
“When you’re not afraid to be who you are,” Titus said, “you can stop thinking about it and focus on all the other things that really matter.”
Running for county executive, a job that earns an annual salary of $107,118, and oversees 1,200 employees, was not always on Titus’ to-do list.
In fact, politics was never an ambition.
But after four years at the Erie School Board, addressing inequalities in public education, Titus felt their knowledge — and first-hand experience — with systemic social ills could be valuable at a higher level.
“Being able to understand a person — a trauma, what that looks like, how that plays out in human behavior — is absolutely critical when it comes to being in the county executive role,” Titus said.
For Jim Wertz, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, Titus’ experiences are uniquely relevant.
“The vast majority of the budget in county government are funds that are directed toward human and social services — and that’s Tyler’s strength,” Wertz said. “In that way, Tyler is clearly the most qualified candidate.”
Issues:The race for Erie County executive: Titus aims to break down socio-economic, equity barriers
For Titus, whose life has been spent searching for a voice, the halls of county government are not just a place to make history but an opportunity to help a new generation find their own voice and “not suffer the same struggle.”
And with many in the county still reeling from the impact of COVID-19, Titus — the counselor, the healer — hopes to be the one at the helm, mending the community back to health.
As Titus put it, “My whole life has led me to this moment.”
A.J. Rao can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ETNRao.