David Ermold knows that being a county clerk is “pretty much administrative.”
But he believes his race for the position in Rowan County, Kentucky, can send a message.
That’s because he’s running against current county clerk Kim Davis, who went to jail in 2015 after she had refused on religious grounds to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, including Ermold and his husband David Moore.
Davis, an Apostolic Christian, became something of an anti-gay folk hero following the incident: Mike Huckabee hoisted her hand in the air when she was released from jail. Ted Cruz came to visit her. Even the pope met with her, although the Vatican later claimed the face time didn’t amount to an endorsement.
For some, this 2015 incident is ancient history, already buried under thousands of even more scandalous politics news cycles.
“But it’s not to me,” Ermold told The Daily Beast, noting that he was “disgusted” by the way in which politicians like Huckabee and “little tagalong Ted Cruz” latched onto the small county in northeast Kentucky to fuel their own national political ambitions. (Both Huckabee and Cruz ran in the 2016 Republican primary.)
Ermold, who signed up to run as a Democrat last week, would like to see the county clerk’s office go back to being just that: a county clerk’s office—not a flash point for political point-scoring in the ongoing culture war over LGBT issues.
If he survives the Democratic primary and then replaces the Republican Davis, he hopes politicians in Kentucky and elsewhere will take note. “We’re going to restore a little bit of integrity in that office and hopefully send a message to the rest of the politicians that are a little bit higher up the ladder that they can embrace real issues, they can embrace equality, they can embrace diversity and unity, and that should be what they’re after,” he told The Daily Beast.
Currently, Ermold is an assistant professor in the English department at the University of Pikeville. While he has “always been interested in politics,” running for office is still new to him.
In most photos released of Ermold since he announced his county clerk run, he is sporting a dark fleece vest that is already becoming something of a signature look.
Asked about the vests, Ermold laughed.
“Yeah, I can tell you about that,” he said. “I like them. And a friend of mine said, ‘You know what? If you’re going to do this, you need to start wearing vests because they look good on you.’”
If he wins, Ermold will probably have to give up his university job—but he argues that his time in the academy has prepared him for the county clerk role.
“Running an office like that is no different than running a classroom,” he said. “You still have to manage people. You still have deadlines. You still have paperwork that you have to do. And you have to be at your professional best.”
His campaign website makes no mention of Kim Davis, or of the marriage license denial, focusing instead on issues like making voter registration more accessible, and making sure the county clerk’s office is “cost efficient and avoid[s] unnecessary expenses.”
But of course, to run for the office, Ermold had to file paperwork with the current county clerk: none other than Davis herself.
The HuffPost and dozens of media outlets noted—and often relished in—the irony of Ermold running against the woman who denied a marriage license to him and his now-husband.
It was only two years ago, after all, that the couple filmed the county clerk’s office as they were repeatedly refused a marriage license, even though the Supreme Court had legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. By the third time Ermold and Moore went to the office, they were surrounded by a gaggle of press as Davis once again refused a license.
“I’m not being disrespectful to you,” Davis told the men.
(She was jailed for being in contempt of court just days later.)
Ermold, Moore, and five other couples sued for their right to a marriage license, kicking off a lengthy legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court level, where the justices spiked down Davis’ request for an appeal. As of October 2017, as the Lexington Herald-Leader reported, taxpayers in the state may end up paying nearly a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees that are now owed to the couples who had to sue.
Suffice it to say, Ermold and Davis have history. Ermold told The Daily Beast that chatting with Davis as he filed the paperwork was “tense,” but not heated.
“It was more pleasantries, I think, than anything,” he said, agreeing that the conversation could best be described as “terse.”
The Associated Press reported that Davis “smiled and welcomed them, chatting with them about the state retirement system and the upcoming Christmas holiday,” adding that she was humming the hymn “Jesus Paid It All” as she entered the paperwork and that she shook his hand as he left.
Ermold told The Daily Beast that Davis is “friendly enough” but he doesn’t want to make the race overly personal or, worse, an elaborate form of revenge.
“It’s not settling a score,” he said. “In fact, I’ll tell you exactly what it is: This is going to bring closure. Whether I win or lose, this brings closure to everything. It puts a period at the end of this story.”