A Wonderful Day to Celebrate

Last year was one of the most successful years I’ve had working in politics. The fun part about winning elections is that you don’t get to really start seeing the fruits of your labor until January and the New Year come. For me, that day was today, as I attended the swearing-in of brand new Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong and Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure, and the new Northampton County Council.

I’ve written why Phil and why Lamont will both be very good at these jobs. I have the highest confidence in both. The new council people we elected in Northampton County are wonderful, smart, and very different people in their backgrounds, which I think will be a huge benefit to the county, over time. In Harrisburg, another person I did work for, Jeanne McNeill took office as a new State Representative, replacing her late husband after a special election, and I have complete faith that she will carry forward his work, and build on his great legacy. I’m not just happy because I got people elected last year- I’m happy because the people I helped to office are quality people. These are quality people representing my local community in the Lehigh Valley, people who I literally believe are best suited to represent my friends, family, and neighbors.

No one gets into politics just for something to do. This year marks sixteen (16!) years I’ve been doing campaigns. As time passes, your reasons for being involved may expand, but ultimately you get in because you want to see certain outcomes. These new local elected officials will face great challenges in the year(s) ahead. Both counties could face grave issues related to Medicaid cuts, dollars that are often used to pay for their seniors to receive nursing home care. Our state leaders will grapple with the challenge of funding our public schools. We need major infrastructure improvements. We need to protect our open space, and be more eco-friendly in our use of natural resources. The challenges are steep, but I support these people because I trust them to address the great issues facing us. It’s why I do what I do. I thank them for their service.

Lehigh County, You’re in Good Hands

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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.

A New Dawn, a New Mandate in Northampton County

It would be fair to say that John Brown’s 2013 win over John Callahan for Northampton County Executive was both shocking, and a pre-cursor for Donald Trump’s win in the county in 2016. Callahan lead in just about every metric- money raised, money spent, polling, name recognition, and governing experience- but still lost, much like Hillary. Sure, he was running in a tough climate, sure he made some mistakes as a candidate, but it was still rather stunning for Democrats.

It would be fair to say that against the backdrop of those two crushing losses for Democrats, Lamont McClure’s 2017 victory for County Executive should be both viewed as impressive and a God-send for Democrats here. Had he come up short in 2017, one might have had to grapple with the reality that a county that went Democratic in every Presidential race from 1992 through 2012 was moving away from us as Democrats. He not only didn’t come up short, he won big, with coattails. The evidence is convincing- his message took what might have been a close win in the climate we had, and made it a blowout.

John Brown got more votes in 2017 than he did in 2013. Lamont McClure got the most votes in raw votes and percentages that any candidate for County Executive has received this century, a victory unlike any we had seen since the 1980’s, a time when the county was a “blue” bastion of liberal, union dominance. He won big in Nazareth and Upper Nazareth, where the debate over a Gracedale Prison was fiercely fought. He won precincts in Lower Mount Bethel and Bangor, the back yard of John Brown, and where he talked of potential future economic development and open space protection. He won in Palmer Township and Bethlehem Township, where his highlighting of the Brown-Republican Council tax increase of 2015 was crucial. He ran traditional big Democratic margins in Easton and Bethlehem, areas that had been problems in recent past elections. He even pulled in Lower Saucon, a higher income community that seemed to be rebelling against Trump, and Northampton, a more blue-collar community that would have been described in 2016 as Trump Country. There was much debate about the message and direction of his campaign during the election- the results, the only evidence that matters, should put that debate to rest. I spoke to him almost daily during the campaign, I saw the polling, and I had confidence that his campaign plan was right. It turns out that solid polling and commitment to a message actually works. Not only did it work in this case, it pulled the Democrats from a 7-2 minority on the county council to a 6-3 majority. The four new Democrats were elected to work with the new Executive, and to get things done. If they do that, they can win again. If they don’t, they’ll all lose next time.

Yesterday he laid out his agenda for Northampton County over the next four years in a Morning Call Op-Ed. It’s ambitious, but needs to get done. He calls for keeping Gracedale County owned, improving services at the nursing home for seniors, and reviewing the management of the home from top to bottom. He calls for a modern view of the county’s Corrections Department, one that not only keeps the community safe, but also helps remedy the problems that some in our society face. He calls for filling the long-left vacant essential county positions that John Brown didn’t fill to help balance his budget. He calls for restoring morale and treating the work force of the county with dignity. He has spoken of preserving more open space, and being environmentally friendly with our land. He wants to do all of this, and more, while attempting to not raise taxes during the next four years. That will not be easy. It must be the goal of the Democrats who now control the Executive’s office, the Council, the Controller’s Office, and the DA’s office. The goal must be to come together at yes, whenever possible.

I have had the privilege of serving on this transition team, and seeing first hand the important work the county does. The county spends over $1 million a day, and the majority of it is on human services, literally protecting the elderly, the sick, children and families in broken homes, and literally anyone who needs a government. The county protects our open space locally, they administer our justice system at the ground level for those who’s lives hang on the edge of it. If you’re a liberal, this level of government should matter to you, so how we do here is a good barometer of what we are capable of as a party, and as a society. It’s imperative that we succeed here.

I would urge my fellow Democrats in Northampton County to support the new Executive. He is now our representative, and the administrators, department heads, and board and commission members he appoints will carry out the work we supposedly care about as a party. In this Trump-era world, the voters of this county gave us back the opportunity to lead and show we can govern again. How we do with that will go a long way towards determining how we are judged in 2018, 2020, and beyond.