Produce-company owner credits Friendswood win to grassroots campaign

May 9, 2019

Brent Erenwert isn’t a politician, and he vows to keep it that way.

The 39-year Friendswood businessman defeated Position 6 City Council incumbent Carl Gustafson in the May 4 election.

Erenwert, who has never held political office, won with a margin of more than 13 percent. He received 978 votes to Gustafson’s 760 — beating the odds against a veteran incumbent, a rarity in Friendswood elections. Gustafson, a 55-year old engineer, was seeking a third term.

The last time a Friendswood City Council incumbent who ran for re-election was defeated was in 2011.

“What made this such a strong win is that I beat a professional politician with a very creative marketing campaign,” Erenwert said.

Gustafson declined to comment on the election other than to say, “I didn’t win.”

While numerous signs supporting Gustafson were posted throughout the city, Erenwert said he only put up a few at businesses and other public areas.

That, he said, was emblematic of an overall strategy to run a grassroots campaign in which he met voters face-to-face and used interactive social media tools.

While he admits it was a “tough matchup,” Erenwert said he believes a commitment to staying positive and bring his message to voters resonated in the community.

“Why fit in when you can stand out?” he likes to say, drawing on a quotation from children’s author Dr. Seuss, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”

“What you see is what you get, that’s who I am,” he said. “This was a very low-budget, high-energy campaign that brought out a lot of voters who had not voted before.”

That strategy included attending community meetings, holding low-key, meet-and-greet events at coffee shops and talking to people “eye to eye and on a level playing field,” he said.

Erenwert built his campaign message around promoting sustainable growth, addressing flooding issues, creating more senior centers, expanding public parks and developing community gardens.

Erenwert owns and operates Brothers Produce Houston, which distributes produce nationally. He said he believes city government could use more business acumen in leadership and less political savvy, which he says dilutes representation.

“We need more citizens on council, not more politicians,” he said. “I have plenty of friends; so I’m not worried about going up against anyone (if it’s for the best interest of the citizens). I’ll be there to serve the citizens, not groups.”

Friendswood officials are pondering whether to stage a bond referendum in the fall to help address needs such as drainage in a city that was hit hard by flooding during Hurricane Harvey. During the campaign, Erenwert expressed caution about the idea, saying, “When I get on council, I can look at each and every angle in order to determine if a bond is what this city needs to address this issue.”

While he praises members of the current council and city staff, Erenwert sees much of local politics as familiar figures serving consecutive and multiple terms.

“We need to inject some energy (in council),” he said. “I also want people to keep me on my toes because we need checks and balances.”

In 2018, Erenwert ran against unsuccessfully for the Position 4 seat held by Robert Griffon. Griffon faced no opponent when he was re-elected on May 4.

Erenwert likens his entry into local government to breaking through a wall and hopes his win sets a precedent for future candidates and particularly for representation by younger leaders.

“I’m the ball that’s going to open the floodgates to newer faces coming through,” he said.

Erenwert, who is married with two children who attend Friendswood ISD schools, said he’s ready to get to work.

“I think I can bring a different energy and work hand in hand with the council as a team,” he said.