Note: the print edition of this article contained the wrong photo of Mike Fleck, the Democratic political consultant who pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. Due to an editorial error, a photo of Mike Fleck, the former Republican PA Rep. from the 81st District, ran instead.
When the FBI raided Allentown’s City Hall last year, the feds brought an end to one of the Lehigh Valley’s most powerful political operations. Mayor Ed Pawlowski has been at the head of the third-largest city in Pennsylvania for 10 years and, until it became clear that his right-hand man had been wearing a wire, he reigned as arguably the most influential Democratic politician in the region. Today, Pawlowski has been humbled, although not indicted, and his uncertain status has contributed to the sense of a power vacuum in the Lehigh Valley.
The region has long been a bastion of the kind of politics largely alien to Pennsylvania. The region is composed of two counties, Lehigh and Northampton, which are genuine swing districts where the parties actually have to compete in general elections – a rarity both in the state and nationally. The winners usually govern in a relatively clean and scandal-free fashion, which is (lamentably) worth noting.
The Lehigh Valley is a region apart in other ways as well. For most of the 20th century, it shared a similar character with much of the rest of Pennsylvania, dominated by concentrations of heavy manufacturing and small industrial cities. But as the state fell from third- to sixth-largest in the nation in terms of population, the area distinguished itself by continuing to add residents.
Today, Allentown, its largest city, is more heavily populated than ever before, while Bethlehem is just a few hundred residents shy of its 1960 peak. The region’s economy performed better than that of its counterparts after the Great Recession, creating 12,200 jobs since December 2007 – a 3.5 percent increase (the state as a whole gained 1.05 percent).
For all of the Lehigh Valley’s economic success, much of it driven by its proximity to the New York metropolitan area, its politics are much less clearly defined than its counterparts in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or the largely rural vastness of central and northern Pennsylvania. The region’s political culture is not dominated by any particular institution or power structure. Unlike, say, Philadelphia, there are few generational political families. The labor movement is not as strong as it once was, and neither are the political parties. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is the first prominent politician from the area in generations.
In the wake of the FBI investigations that have implicated numerous Allentown officials – centered around key Democratic Party operative Mike Fleck – the area’s political class has been receiving far more attention than usual. The scandal involves alleged pay-to-play regarding city contracts, which revolve around Fleck and “Public Official No. 3” (who is generally assumed to be Pawlowski) demanding campaign contributions for doing business with the city. Pawlowski had been considered a contender in the Democratic primary races for governor in 2014 and senate in 2016.
“We are a small world that’s getting bigger every moment,” said Tony Iannelli, CEO and president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. “This was always a very small-town environment that’s now growing up at a much more rapid pace, so we’re in a much larger fishbowl than we were in the past … FBI investigations in the Lehigh Valley are not the norm – it’s brought in a ton of attention.”
The region’s scandals have largely focused on Allentown, a city of more than 118,000, and one that is unlikely to slip from the Democratic Party’s control anytime soon. During much of the 20th century, the mayor’s office swung back and forth between the two parties, with the last Republican holding it in 2002.
Since 2000, the Democratic voter registration advantage in Allentown has become overwhelming. In municipal elections last year, Republicans weren’t able to wrest away a single city council seat, while the Democratic city controller was re-elected with over 60 percent of the vote – before resigning in early January and then pleading guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud.
“Last year, we had contested elections for controller and city council where the Republican Party spent a fair amount of money letting voters know they had a choice in that election,” said Dean Browning, a former head of the Lehigh County Republican Party and former Lehigh County commissioner. “Voters in Allentown basically said, ‘Well, we don’t care.’”
Democratic control of the city has coincided with a large increase in its Hispanic population, from 12 percent of residents in 1990 to 42.8 percent in 2010. (2014 U.S. Census Bureau estimates peg its Hispanic population at 46 percent.) The vast majority of this demographic is Puerto Rican, not foreign-born, which eliminates a barrier at the ballot box.
In the age of Trump, these voters likely won’t be leaving the Democratic column in the foreseeable future. That’s a big part of the swing toward the Democratic Party in Lehigh County, which, at the beginning of the millennium, saw a rough parity between the number of voters registered with both parties. Not anymore. Today, the Democrats have over 109,000 registered voters (with 40,000 in Allentown according to Browning), compared with over 76,000 registered Republicans (12,000 of them in Allentown). In Northampton County, there are almost 95,000 registered Democrats to almost 69,000 Republicans.
The growing Hispanic population isn’t the only base of support for the Democratic Party. Since the Pennsylvania section of Interstate 78 was completed in 1989, white-collar professionals working in North Jersey and New York City have flocked to the region for cheaper housing and lower property taxes. While their political allegiances are more diverse, their numbers have helped the Democrats compensate for the decline of the Lehigh Valley’s manufacturing sector and the industrial labor unions that were once the party’s backbone.
That’s not to say the region is a lock for Democrats. “I think you see the impact of (the influx of Hispanic residents) in presidential elections,” said Browning. “I have yet to see a dramatic upswing of Hispanic turnout in off-year elections. They haven’t been galvanized into a political force for those elections.”
A good indication of the Republican Party’s continuing vitality in the region is its ability to pull off surprise victories with candidates who can attract voters beyond the traditional Republican base. In 2013, the mayor of the small town of Bangor, John A. Brown, defeated the vastly better-known and better-funded mayor of Bethlehem, John Callahan, for executive of Northampton County. His victory surprised everyone except Brown himself, who is now the Republican candidate for state auditor general.
Brown was no anomaly. Outside the cities, elections are far more competitive. President Barack Obama may have won both counties in 2008 and 2012, but the area’s principal congressional representative is a Republican: U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent. In Lehigh County, the Board of Commissioners has a Republican supermajority and a Democratic executive, while Northampton is completely controlled by the GOP. The row offices are usually split between the parties.
Both counties have a higher than usual number of voters registered outside the major parties. In Lehigh 16.3 percent and in Northampton 17.7 percent are unaffiliated, compared with 13.1 percent statewide and 10.2 percent in Philadelphia.
“We don’t compromise anymore because state and federal districts are so gerrymandered, but the Lehigh Valley isn’t like that yet,” said Glenn Eckhart, controller for Lehigh County and a veteran of Republican politics in the region. “It’s a majority Democratic county, so you have to work with both parties, bring commonsense conservative issues and sell them to both Republicans and Democrats. I’m just as much a partisan Republican as anyone else, but I try to work with everybody.”
But the Lehigh Valley Republicans are in an awkward space as both the national and state parties become more partisan, and ideological ticket-splitting becomes increasingly rare. After decades where the counties voted for Republican presidential candidates, Democrats have won the Lehigh Valley in every presidential election since 1992. That hasn’t proved decisive in other races before, but with a candidate as divisive as Trump at the top of the ticket, voters may be less likely to vote for both Hillary Clinton and down-ballot Republicans this year.
Tellingly, Congressman Dent endorsed John Kasich for president and has yet to say if he is willing to support Trump. Even Toomey – the first U.S. senator from the Lehigh Valley – is working to distance himself from his party’s presumptive nominee and his polarizing rhetoric.
Attempts to bring a more conservative political bent to the region have had mixed success. Toomey is no moderate, of course, and the same year he was elected to the Senate, California native Wayne Woodman took control of the Lehigh County Republican Committee as chairman. Although he hadn’t been much involved in local politics before, Woodman was inspired to get involved by Obama’s victory. He brought a discipline and ideological commitment that the local party had previously lacked. In 2011, his candidates dominated the county-level races, even driving Browning from office for not being sufficiently anti-taxation. Once in power, they cut taxes and began questioning spending across the board.
“The county commission in Lehigh went from a pretty sleepy, ineffectual group to a group that over the last five years has really achieved some fundamentally outstanding results for taxpayers,” said Woodman, who stepped down in 2013 but is still involved in local politics outside the auspices of the local Republican Party.
Woodman’s team proved exceedingly controversial. After one of his 2011 candidates, Scott Ott, lost the 2013 executive race to a former centrist Republican-turned-Democrat, Woodman stepped down and moderates took over the party again.
Today, even Woodman, the former Tea Party-backed scourge of Lehigh’s moderates, has distanced himself from Trump. With the freedom that comes from not holding elected office like Toomey and Dent, Woodman wrote an op-ed in March for the Morning Call, in which he vowed to never support Trump. But as local Republicans edge away from the presumptive nominee, it remains to be seen if that will be enough to save GOP candidates in 2016 and in years to come.
Woodman himself isn’t willing to talk about the candidates he hopes to back in the near future, but his efforts seem to be apart from the Lehigh County Republican Committee.
“As of right now, we are focusing more on the lower offices – Congress and state reps and stuff,” said Trevor Waldron, the executive director and sole full-time employee of the Lehigh County Republican Committee, and an undergraduate student in political science and history at Muhlenberg College. “I feel that would make more of a difference than the presidency right now with the way things have been going. But anything could happen in the next several months.”
Political scientists believe that it will only get harder for local parties and local politicians to distinguish themselves from their national counterparts.
“People are paying less and less attention to local politics,” said Renée M. Lamis, a political consultant in Erie County and author of “The Realignment of Pennsylvania Politics Since 1960: Two-Party Competition in a Battleground State,” which was published in 2009.
“A lot of it (dates back to) the culture wars, when a lot of people who identify as moderate began to be really turned off by national attention on social issues that the Republican Party espoused starting in the 1980s,” Lamis said. “Now, with Trump as the Republican nominee, they’ve got a megaphone.”
In her book, Lamis shows that the state’s growing regions, like the Lehigh Valley and the Philadelphia metropolitan area, are becoming increasingly Democratic (especially in presidential elections). Shrinking regions, like much of the rest of the state, are moving toward the Republicans.
The Lehigh Valley is likely to keep on growing, according to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, which projects that the region will add several hundred thousand new residents over the next several decades. More to the point, if national political trends continue to subsume regional and local allegiances, then swing regions like these two counties may end up more firmly in the Democratic camp.
But natives on both sides of the aisle are skeptical of such an analysis.
“As Philly’s suburban counties have become more blue, we are seeing more progressive pressure in the Lehigh Valley,” said Geoff Brace, a Democratic commissioner for Lehigh County. “But there’s still a strong sense of the Lehigh Valley as a distinct region with distinct values. There’s still a lot of grey in the Lehigh Valley – or purple, if you prefer the red and blue (paradigm). That’s the reason it’s so interesting.” ■