David Ermold faces Democratic primary Tuesday.
By Adam Beam
MOREHEAD, Ky. — Shelly Phillips works in an office at the First United Methodist Church in Laramie, Wyoming, and rarely donates to political candidates.
But in December, she sent a small donation to David Ermold, who wants to be the next clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, about 1,200 miles from where she lives. She’s one of more than 5,000 people from at least 48 states who have donated in increments of $10 and $20 to Ermold, giving him more than $200,000 for an election that could require as few as 900 votes to win.
It’s not likely Phillips will ever need anything from the Rowan County clerk’s office, which handles such matters as local vehicle registrations and elections. That doesn’t matter. Her interest in the far-flung campaign is less about specific needs than a general principle: The LGBTQ activist wants to see a gay candidate defeat the clerk who denied him a marriage license.
It was three years ago when Ermold stood in disbelief as the current clerk, Kim Davis, told him “God’s authority” prevented her from giving him a marriage license. Davis would eventually go to jail for her stance, making her a hero to some and a scofflaw under the U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
Phillips remembered Kim Davis from news coverage in 2015. When she saw Ermold was running against her, she and thousands of others decided to donate to his campaign, helping him raise $160,000 in one week. Most is from small donors such as Phillips, but big names including Susan Sarandon and Amy Schumer also contributed.
“The story that I read, a lot of people were commenting and giving their support to him and hoping he could defeat her, and I just felt compelled to throw some money at him to help him out,” said Phillips, who described herself as an advocate for the LGBTQ community.
Before Ermold can run against Davis, he must first survive a four-person Democratic primary Tuesday, May 22. The money — more than three times the amount Republican Auditor Mike Harmon raised to win a statewide race in 2015 — has allowed him to run a professional campaign in a race usually defined by yard signs and fish fries. He has radio ads, a paid staff of 11, and a wood-floored office that has cost him more than $6,700 in rent since February. That’s more than his closest competitor has raised for the entire election.
But Ermold’s candidacy troubles some in Rowan County who worry it would revive the news media attention the area endured in 2015, when satellite trucks filled the courthouse parking lot and protesters shouted on the lawn. Recently, Ermold allowed a reporter to accompany him as he canvassed for votes but asked him to hang back as much as possible. One woman recoiled when the reporter tried to take her picture.
Ermold doesn’t mention Davis in his campaign materials or radio ads, aside from saying a vote for him would “reaffirm Rowan County as one of the most welcoming communities in Kentucky.” But many people ask him about her. Of the four people who answered the door when Ermold knocked, two asked about Davis.
“It is about Kim. You don’t want it to be, but it is,” a woman who asked not to be identified told Ermold as they talked in her doorway. She said she wanted Davis out of office but didn’t commit to voting for Ermold.
Ermold both does and does not want the race to be about Davis. He’s still angry about what happened three years ago. But he’s sensitive to the community’s reluctance to relive that drama — he’s reluctant to relive it himself.
“I can’t not talk about it,” he said. “You have to address the elephant in the room. I’m the one who was refused service. I feel obligated to make this right. (Voters) can’t pick a middle-of-the road candidate and think this issue is going to go away.”
Davis has remained mostly quiet, but there are signs she’s preparing for a campaign against Ermold. She published a book this spring titled Under God’s Authority, a reference to the line she uttered to Ermold in the clerk’s office in front of TV cameras. Her book is filled with references to Ermold and his husband, David Moore. She calls them “the two Davids” and says their demands for a marriage license with dozens of reporters watching were “all for show.”
“For me this has never been a lesbian or a homosexual issue,” Davis said in an interview. “I was standing up for something. I wasn’t standing against someone.”
Davis won the Democratic primary by 23 votes in 2014, something she said she achieved without knocking :on one door during the entire race.” This year, she’s running as a Republican and doesn’t have a primary challenger. But a race against Ermold could bring lots of money and attention to the campaign. When she was released from jail in 2015, two Republican presidential candidates were there to greet her. She says that’s unlikely this year.
“I’m just a county clerk. I want to run for re-election,” she said. “I’m ready for the race no matter what comes.”
Ermold says he’s ready too. He just has to persuade voters to give him the chance to face Davis.
“People have asked me over and over, am I running out of revenge, just to get even,” he said. “It is not revenge. This is about, you know, really just making sure that the people of this county are served well.”