Yesterday I had a lot to say about the direction in Northampton County, but I don’t want to neglect our friends to the west. On Tuesday, my friend Phil Armstrong will be sworn in as the new County Executive in Lehigh County. For full disclosure, yes I managed Phil’s campaign, and it is one of the most satisfying wins I’ve been a part of- the candidate was one worth being proud of, and the campaign was pretty much textbook. We got the 24,000 plus votes we felt we needed, stuck to a very straight forward message to get there, and sold a record of competency to the people. It worked.
Phil Armstrong is steady. That is the best word I can use for a local public official, period. He was the President of the Whitehall Township Board of Commissioners, and built a reputation for being reasonable, competent, and sane. His campaign message matched that. He talked about his record of not raising taxes in Whitehall. He talked about protecting and improving Cedarbrook, the county’s nursing home. He talked about protecting open space. He talked about economic development that brings good paying jobs, improving the county’s infrastructure, and taking a regional view of the Lehigh Valley’s future. He talked about things that were straight forward, and the public both understood and could agree with. It wasn’t pie-in-the-sky, and frankly that’s what the voters of Lehigh County like. This was the fourth consecutive Democratic victory for County Executive, and like Don Cunningham and Tom Muller before him, Armstrong sold himself as the quiet, competent, honest, and fair candidate in the race, not the crazy partisan that wants to govern ideologically. Lehigh County’s off-year electorate is considerably more Republican than it’s federal-year one, but they appreciate someone who wants to govern competently. Phil hit that mark well.
The next several months could be politically wild in Lehigh County. The legal situation surrounding Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski will come to a head with his trial. There will be a Congressional Primary on both sides for the departing Charlie Dent’s seat, if not a special election. There are likely to be several state legislative races, and probably some party leadership battles in the Spring. All of this could be quite disconcerting for Lehigh County voters to watch. While this is going on, they will have a steady, calm, competent, new County Executive leading a government that will spend roughly $400 million this coming year (over a million dollars a day) on essential services that protect everyone from the most vulnerable in our society to the most powerful within the business community. Amidst the chaos, that should make them feel good.
Democrats in Lehigh County would be wise to put aside any of their differences and rally around their new leader. Armstrong won a campaign that was surprisingly strong to a lot of insiders. He received more votes than Tom Muller did in 2013, against an arguably more difficult, and certainly more qualified opponent than the Democrats defeated four years ago. He obviously carried the liberal bastions in Allentown and Bethlehem, but also ran very strong numbers in his home of Whitehall, in his opponent’s home in South Whitehall, in traditional swing areas within the East Penn School District, and even in municipalities that Democrats traditionally lose. He ran on a generally positive message about what he would do as Executive, and the voters really seemed to like it. He starts out working with the Republican Commissioners without some of the history that had made negotiation very difficult.
The truth is that the Lehigh County Government has run pretty steady and well, ever since the days of 70% tax increases ended back in 2005. Phillips Armstrong does not represent a crazy change from Tom Muller, and that is probably good. Democrats have found the winning formula in Lehigh County, and now just have to be smart enough to ride that wave forward. While we’ve seen parties mess that up in the past, the truth is that this is a good time to not disrupt a good thing.