In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, President Barack Obama’s political advisers had urged him to keep the federal rescue package to well under $1 trillion, lest the American people suffer from “sticker shock.” He did, and unemployment continued climbing throughout 2009 and a foreclosure crisis ripped through middle- and working-class neighborhoods. By the next winter, it was clear that a different type of suffering was underway and that the intervention had been woefully insufficient.
In December 2009, Obama was back before Congress, urging another round of stimulus. Days before, to beat the drums for more money for jobs, Obama headed for a city of maximal symbolism: Allentown, Pennsylvania.
As much or more than any other city, Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley had become a cultural stand-in for America itself. The story of the small, eastern Pennsylvania town and its hard-working, resilient people was the story of America. The great Bethlehem Steel had helped build the country and win World War II. Mack Trucks, centered in Allentown, stood for the rugged, anonymous working man, who gave everything, asked for nothing in return, and quietly kept the country running. Alpo, an abbreviation for Allen Products, the pet food brand founded in Allentown in 1936, represented the nation’s bounding spirit, the promise that a hard day’s work would be rewarded with a home, a garage, a fenced-in yard for the family dog, and a better life for the children.
The city’s decline in the 1980s was similarly a proxy for the collapse of America’s manufacturing base and, along with it, its middle-class dream. Bethlehem Steel lost billions throughout the ’80s and halved its workforce. In 1987, Mack Trucks moved production not to Mexico but to South Carolina in search of cheap, union-free labor. By the summer of 1992, at the peak of the recession that cost George H.W. Bush his presidency, unemployment was approaching 8 percent.
Over the next decade, the Lehigh Valley refashioned itself, like many other hopeful communities, as “the Silicon Valley of the east,” dreaming of wooing tech firms to the region, boasting of its low cost of living and easy access to New York City and Philadelphia. By the time Obama visited in 2009, it was ready to be a story of American perseverance and reinvention. “The folks in Allentown — and in all the Allentowns across our country — are the most dedicated, productive workers in the world. All they’re asking for is a chance and a fair shake,” Obama declared. “And that’s exactly what I’m working to give them.”
A year earlier, the Lehigh Valley had helped deliver Obama the presidency, despite an all-out push there by GOP nominee John McCain. Obama carried Lehigh County (57-42) and Northampton County (55-43), while even winning the small, rural, white working-class slice of the valley, Carbon County (50-48), on his way to winning the state’s 21 Electoral College votes by a 10-point margin. Just eight years later, the state would flip red for the first time in close to three decades, ushering Donald Trump into the White House. Northampton went 50-46 for Trump, while Lehigh County turned a lighter hue of blue, with Hillary Clinton winning just 50-45.
“Pennsylvania is emerging as a place that could quite possibly become ground zero — what Florida was in 2000.”
Pennsylvania threatens to be just as consequential this year. Democratic strategists and polling analysts at FiveThirtyEight have said that the winner of Pennsylvania, whether it be Scranton native Joe Biden or Trump, will then have more than an 80 percent chance of winning the White House. An analysis of election returns over the last 100 years from Lehigh Valley Live, a local Easton paper, in September put Northampton at the center of that equation, showing that the county has backed the winning presidential candidate all but three times since 1920.
As the election nears, Biden’s advantage among Pennsylvania voters has continued to grow. Early fears that Biden would be hurt by the Democratic Party’s slightly-less-friendly posture toward fracking than the GOP’s have not been borne out, said Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who had earlier raised the alarm on that issue. Biden, he said, is much less disliked than Clinton and hasn’t had a problem consolidating the support of the progressive base, as she did. There will be no Green Party candidate on the ballot. Combined with the realignment of the state’s suburbs and its elderly population, both of which have swung dramatically, Biden is in a strong position to overwhelm the upsurge in voter registration and excitement among white, working-class voters over the age of 30 without a college degree. Polls have begun to show clearly that if everybody who plans to vote is able to, Biden has the upper hand. But particularly in Pennsylvania, that’s far from guaranteed, and Republicans have been working overtime to make sure it’s not the case. That could turn Pennsylvania’s election into a street brawl, and it’s one that progressives worry the state party simply isn’t built for.
Democrats, said Jonathan Smucker, a co-founder of the group Pennsylvania Stands Up, are playing an asymmetrical game, taking a wait-and-see approach to the coming election chaos, while Republicans are mounting an all-out war to win Pennsylvania by any means necessary. “Pennsylvania is emerging as a place that could quite possibly become ground zero,” said Smucker, “what Florida was in 2000.” The state’s rickety, slick-palmed Democratic Party isn’t ready to handle what’s coming.
In the crucial Lehigh Valley, the Democratic Party functions in significant ways as an arm of the Republican Party, said Greg Edwards, an Allentown pastor who ran for Congress in 2018, losing in a primary to an establishment-backed opponent. “The Allentown Democratic Party and the Lehigh County Democratic Party are tied to the Republican Party not by name, but by political expedience and funding,” said Edwards, whose campaign was boosted by a 2018 rally in Allentown headlined by Sen. Bernie Sanders. “The Democratic Party in Lehigh County could give a shit about Democratic voters.”
Organizers in Pennsylvania say they’re operating with little help from the local Democrats or the Biden campaign. But a new constellation of grassroots progressive organizations is hoping to fill the gap left by the party. Realizing the feebleness of local Democrats, residents of Lancaster, the seat of the state’s Amish country, were among the millions of Americans who mobilized politically after Trump’s 2016 win. Smucker and a handful of others founded Lancaster Stands Up, which has since grown to nine chapters statewide, including Lehigh Valley Stands Up and an umbrella group called Pennsylvania Stands Up. The group recently teamed up with a nationwide effort to persuade former Sanders volunteers to not just vote for Biden, but to also get active for him.
“The descent into authoritarianism, or even the possibility of a shift into what could be described as fascism, is on the horizon, and we have to take that seriously,” Smucker said of the effort dubbed #NotHimUs. “We can’t leave this to the Democratic Party. We have to suck it up and do it ourselves.”
Photo: Hannah Yoon for The Intercept
Pennsylvania’s race was already shaping up to be intense, but in September it became much more apparent that it would bear the consequences of the GOP’s campaign to delegitimize mail-in voting. A top election official from Philadelphia went public with concerns that antiquated ballot rules that require not one, but two envelopes for each ballot could disenfranchise some 100,000 voters, after the state Supreme Court ruled that so-called naked ballots would be rejected. The Republican legislature had time to fix the issue but was disinclined to do so, apparently persuaded that the snafu will disproportionately hit Democratic voters, as Democrats are more likely to vote by mail.
Then, on September 24, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced that FBI agents had discovered nine military absentee votes for Trump had been wrongly discarded, a development that raised far more questions than it answered, particularly given the prosecutor’s extraordinary decision to note publicly that all the ballots had been cast for Trump (which turned out to be an exaggeration). Election experts say the incident — which local officials said was caused by a poorly trained worker, not “intentional fraud” — is evidence of the politicization of the Justice Department’s work during an election and a weak attempt by Trump and the GOP to buttress false claims about mail ballot fraud. The announcement was later removed from the DOJ website.
The president and his campaign spread misinformation about the incident in the following days: Trump tweeted about it the next day, falsely claiming that it was an example of widespread fraud, and referenced it again during the first presidential debate on September 29. “They cheat! Hey, they found ballots in a wastepaper basket three days ago, and they all had the name — military ballots, they were military — they all had the name Trump on them. You think that’s good?”
The biggest assault, however, has been Trump’s ability to convince Democrats that mail-in voting isn’t safe. More than 2.9 million absentee ballots have been requested in the state, with 1.8 million of those requests coming from Democrats, according to the Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office. If those voters, spooked at Trump’s undermining of the Postal Service, show up in person instead, but don’t bring their absentee or mail-in ballot and the return envelope it came with, they’ll be blocked from voting. They should be able to request a provisional ballot instead, but the chaos and long lines the GOP wants will have been sparked, Fetterman has warned.
Meanwhile, the number of registered Republicans in Pennsylvania has surged since 2016, with the party adding 198,000 voters to its rolls in that period of time, compared to Democrats, who’ve added some 30,000, Politico reported last month. Those numbers don’t necessarily mean that Republicans are gaining traction, as many Pennsylvanians have long been registered as Democrats but voted Republican, holdovers from pre-realignment days. Democrats in Pennsylvania still have about 700,000 more registered voters than Republicans, with about 1.3 million independent voters.
The biggest assault has been Trump’s ability to convince Democrats that mail-in voting isn’t safe.
More concerning for Democrats, though, is the number of registrations specifically among white voters without a college degree. In 2016 in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, 16 percent of newly registered voters were white people without a college degree, and 25 percent were from a rural area. This time, 22 percent are white and non-college-educated, and 33 percent are rural, a major spike that reflects the anecdotal evidence of a proliferation of Trump signs in rural areas compared to 2016. The spike is also showing up in the share of non-college-educated white voters requesting absentee ballots relative to people of color without college degrees. What scares Democrats about that data, which has circulated among party leaders, isn’t the raw number of voters, but the possibility that it represents broader, undetected enthusiasm among similar voters who are already registered but didn’t vote in 2016 or 2018. There is a huge well of those voters for Trump to draw on. In Pennsylvania, of those who didn’t vote in the last two elections but are registered and eligible to, more than half are white people without a college degree. And if the trend appears in Pennsylvania, it’s likely to be seen in Michigan and Wisconsin too.
All of that means Pennsylvania could be closer than the polls suggest, making the state’s eccentric politics all the more important. Ever since Obama’s election, the political realignment in areas similar to the Lehigh Valley — a region with a significant minority population and sprawling suburbs — has favored Democrats, yet in 2016 the Lehigh Valley went in the opposite direction and, arguably, took Pennsylvania and the White House with it.
The Lehigh Valley both reflected and amplified the trend that led to Trump’s election. Lehigh County’s population grew by 20,000 between 2008 and 2016, yet Obama’s lead dropped 12,000 votes in 2012, and Clinton got 4,900 fewer votes than he had in 2008, dropping Democrats’ margin of victory from 24,000 to less than 10,000. The presidential cycle erosion had begun in 2012, when Obama carried the county by just 11,000. In Northampton, known as “Swing County, USA,” Obama’s 12-point win in 2008 became a 5-point victory in 2012. In 2016, Trump carried it over Clinton 50 to 46 — a 16-point swing in eight years. Where Obama had carried Carbon County’s roughly 25,000 voters by just over 500 in 2008, he lost it to Mitt Romney in 2012 by more than double that, and Clinton was wiped out by just under 10,000 votes. Northampton is one of three counties in the state that voted twice for Obama before flipping for Trump.
The Democratic candidate for Senate in 2016, Katie McGinty, barely won Lehigh County; was beaten worse than Clinton in Northampton; and crushed in Carbon County, going on to lose statewide by 1.5 points — a critical loss in a chamber that sits on a razor’s edge. Sen. Pat Toomey announced his retirement earlier this month, setting up an open seat in 2022.
On Wednesday, Obama returned to Pennsylvania to get out the vote for Biden, his first in-person campaign event of the 2020 cycle. “We’ve got to turn out like never before. We cannot leave any doubt in this election. We can’t be complacent,” the former president said in Philadelphia. Trump, meanwhile, traveled to western Pennsylvania, where he told rally attendees on Tuesday that the only reason he was visiting Erie is because his campaign is struggling.
Overall, in 2008, Obama won the Lehigh Valley and nearby Carbon County by more than 40,000 votes. In 2016, Trump took the area by nearly 6,000 votes. Trump won the state by 44,292 votes. What happened?
After his trip to Allentown, Obama talked it up during his weekly address. “I stopped by a steel company called Allentown Metal Works and spoke at Lehigh Community College,” Obama noted. “I visited folks at a job placement center and stopped by a shift change at Alpo. The stories and concerns I heard mirrored the countless letters I receive every single day.”
Alpo is now owned by the Swiss firm Nestle and is going strong in Allentown. The metal works shuttered in 2011, during the pit of the recession. The previous year had been a disaster for Democrats nationally, with the tea party wave sweeping Democrats out of the House and effectively ending Obama’s legislative agenda. Toomey, then a Republican representative, won a narrow race for U.S. Senate against then-Rep. Joe Sestak, a former admiral. Sestak had been effectively sabotaged by the party. In 2009, Sen. Arlen Specter, who had begun his electoral career in the 1960s as a Democrat who ran for district attorney on the Republican ticket in Philadelphia, switched back to the Democratic Party, with the promise that Democrats would support him for reelection.
Sestak wasn’t a party to that agreement and successfully challenged him in a primary. Out of spite, the national party abandoned Sestak in the general election, and a GOP game of musical chairs ended with Toomey in the Senate. He had previously served three terms as the Lehigh Valley’s congressional representative, losing a Senate bid to Specter in 2004. His seat was taken that cycle by Republican Charlie Dent, who moved up from the state Senate. That made room for state Rep. Pat Browne to move into Dent’s state Senate seat, where he remains today. Dent retired in 2018, seeing a blue wave headed his way, and endorsed Biden in August, one of a number of prominent Republicans who came forward to support the Democratic nominee during the Democratic National Convention.
The tea party wave in 2010 also left the GOP newly in control of the governor’s mansion and the state House, in addition to the state Senate, which it had controlled since 1994. A five-seat Democratic majority in the state House turned into a 21-seat minority, and Republicans held on to their majority in the state Senate. The GOP used its new power to radically redraw congressional and state legislative districts. In 2012, Obama carried the state again, and Democrats won more votes statewide for U.S. House seats than Republicans, but thanks to the gerrymander, the GOP came out with 13 seats to the Democrats’ five, and in the state House, Republicans held on to a 17-seat majority. It wasn’t a typical swing-state majority that hewed close to the center, either. Since 2010, the tea party faction of the GOP, which draws its power from the rural center of the state, dominated Harrisburg, pushing an extreme ideological agenda that included opening the state to tax-free fracking, gutting public education, and crushing teachers unions.
Now in the swing county of Northampton, Democratic state House candidate Tara Zrinski, a Northampton County council member and environmental advocate who’s fought against expansion of fracking in the state, is running to flip the district back to blue.
“There was no reason for Democrats to come out in the primary, but they did.”
Backed by Lehigh Valley Stands Up and the Pennsylvania Working Families Party, and with a recent endorsement from Sanders, Zrinski will face Republican nominee Ann Flood in November. Zrinski ran unopposed in the June primary, when she received more than 7,300 votes — just under the total numbers of votes both Republican candidates received in total in the GOP primary. Zrinski and Flood are competing to replace Republican state Rep. Marcia Hahn, who announced last year that she would retire after almost a decade in office. Zrinski is running on health care for all, a $15 minimum wage, and protecting small businesses, and is backed by an array of progressive and labor groups including Pennsylvania Stands Up, PA AFL-CIO, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1776 Keystone State. Zrinski also has support from environmental groups including Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, the Sierra Club Pennsylvania chapter, and the local Sunrise Movement.
“There was no reason for Democrats to come out in the primary, but they did,” Zrinski told The Intercept. “So we’re hoping that they do that again.” In her district and those nearby, numerous Democrats ran unopposed in primaries, including Zrinski herself and Democratic Reps. Susan Wild, Mary Gay Scanlon, and Madeleine Dean.
Zrinski said her campaign is hoping to win over voters who lean Democratic but are supporting Trump, along with people who typically vote Republican but plan to vote blue in November. “I would characterize it as flying blind,” she said. Her campaign said she’s raised more than any candidate for the district in recent history with 1,000 individual donors.
Pennsylvania’s fracking boom began in 2007, under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and expanded under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who took office in 2011. Corbett, a moderate who governed as a tea partier, signed a 2012 oil and gas law that welcomed a spree of tax-free drilling to the state. Parts of the law also kept local governments from imposing drilling restrictions more harsh than those levied by the state. Instead of taxing based on extraction, as adopted in most other states with major such industries, the law imposed an impact fee on companies in proportion to how long the wells were in operation. Under the system, Corbett’s administration said the state collected some $150 million in fees each year he was in office. The state is still one of the few in the country that doesn’t tax drilling.
The fracking boom brought many different things to Pennsylvanians living on top of and nearby part of the Marcellus Shale, one of the largest natural gas deposits in the world. The deposit reaches underneath about 60 percent of the state’s total land mass, across its western and northern halves. Prospective developers looking to drill offered land leases worth anywhere from the low thousands to $500,000 to residents. Some of those same clients later had family members become sick and pets die, and eventually came to suspect it had something to do with pollution from the fracking process, which releases heavy metals into local water sources and produces toxic wastewater. Pennsylvania is still waiting on the completion of a new Shell plant in Beaver County, which will use ethane, a byproduct of fracking, to mass produce plastics.
A grand jury report released in June said the state Department of Environmental Protection failed to protect the public from the effects of fracking. Last month, following the report, the state Department of Health announced that it would take steps to look further into the health impacts of fracking. The department said the “vast majority” of issues highlighted in the report occurred under Corbett’s administration, WLVR reported.
Under pressure to implement a severance tax like most other states, Republicans moved instead to just rename their impact fee a “severance tax.” When Democrats took back the governor’s mansion in 2014, electing Tom Wolf over Corbett by 10 points, it marked a swift rebuke to the free pass the Republican gave to the oil and gas industry.
Launched in January by Greg Edwards and backers of his 2018 congressional campaign, Lehigh Valley Stands Up is a grassroots 501(c)(4) group working to engage working-class voters in the area, to fill the gap left by the local party. It’s one of nine other regional chapters of Pennsylvania Stands Up, a coalition of groups working across the state in places that drifted from purple to deep red in recent years, and in solidly blue and overwhelmingly poor areas from York to Philadelphia. PA Stands Up brings together progressive organizations including Lancaster Stands Up, York Stands Up, Keystone Progress, Reclaim Philadelphia, local chapters of Indivisible, and former members of Jess King’s 2018 congressional campaign in Lancaster.
Part of their core mission is reengaging voters in the local political process, in the hopes that they’ll find a reason to vote in November. That work includes talking to voters who feel that politicians have left them behind, educating people on the impact of the tea party’s state-level sweep at the turn of the decade, and focusing on corruption and forms of economic development that favor corporations over working people. Those messages have proved salient in struggling areas where multiple mayors were indicted on corruption charges in recent years, and rural residents feel the impacts of climate change, frustrated by Republicans who largely refuse to acknowledge it exists.
Much of the work of Lehigh Valley Stands Up boils down to phone banking and registering voters, but a large part involves educating the public about corruption in Allentown. One of its ongoing issue campaigns is focused on gentrification in the region and the NIZ, or Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone, an area designed to attract developers to the area. The group says the zone has “been gentrifying Center City Allentown for eight years” with little oversight.
While Obama was touring the Lehigh Valley, the region’s state senator, Republican Pat Browne, was putting the finishing touches on his own economic plan for Allentown, the NIZ. It would be an extraordinary piece of legislation, which, from a distance, mirrored the type of “opportunity zone” bills that give some tax advantages to businesses that set up shop in certain hard-hit areas. But this would be different: Instead of a small subsidy, Browne’s NIZ would use state and local tax revenues generated by businesses within the zone, including employee income taxes, to fully pay the mortgages of developers who did business inside a 127-acre section of the Valley. If you built something, the state would effectively pay for it, but it would be yours to keep.
Browne tucked the plan into a massive, 300-page revenue code, and at the time it received little outside scrutiny. Though it was billed as a project to revitalize a struggling downtown area, those set to gain the most from the 30-year taxpayer-funded NIZ plan were developers. Namely people like J.B. Reilly, a longtime area real estate planner who happened to grow up just across the street from Browne. He’s the CEO of City Center Investment Corp., one of the biggest developers in both Allentown and the NIZ, which projects more than $1.3 billion in tax subsidies from the NIZ over the next 20-plus years. City Center is one of the largest beneficiaries of tax subsidies in the state’s history, the Morning Call reported, raking in 90 percent of the total $36 million distributed under the scheme last year, and 92 percent of the total $33.5 million in 2017.
“The NIZ is working — for developers trapping millions of public dollars to pay off private debts. But it is not working for our neighborhoods,” local activist Christopher Woods wrote in a column last June for the Morning Call. Woods chaired the Allentown Coalition for Economic Dignity, part of POWER Lehigh Valley, or Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild, a grassroots advocacy group. “We’ve had persistently high poverty and unremarkable improvements in wages and employment. The city hasn’t seen the promised ‘revitalization.’ Comparable Pennsylvania cities have all out-performed Allentown economically, without massive taxpayer financed corporate welfare.”
While developers have capitalized on the opportunity for subsidized building, consultants close to the NIZ and its authors have also benefited. In 2015, federal agents carried out a series of raids on city hall and the home of Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who at the time was running for U.S. Senate and had briefly run for governor in 2014, with warrants to probe corruption in city contracts. Pawlowski suspended his Senate campaign within days of the FBI raid and resigned from the mayorship in 2018, after being convicted on 47 corruption-related charges.
According to retired FBI agent Scott Curtis, the lead investigator on that case who now works in the private sector, concerns around business transactions in the NIZ are what originally drew investigators to Allentown. “The NIZ is a good example of a shiny light, right, a beacon, that could easily draw corrupt officials to it,” Curtis told The Intercept.
“The NIZ is a good example of a shiny light, right, a beacon, that could easily draw corrupt officials to it.”
The FBI’s inquiries into the NIZ led them to a web of improper payments between contractors and city officials, which they prosecuted, Curtis said. The Philadelphia division of the FBI declined to comment on the investigation.
In an investigation similar to Pawlowski’s, Vaughn Spencer, the former Democratic mayor of Reading, some 60 miles outside Philadelphia, situated between Allentown and Lancaster, was sentenced last April to eight years in prison on corruption-related charges. According to the Morning Call, Spencer and Pawlowski both used H Street Strategies, a consulting firm run by Mike Fleck, a political consultant a longtime friend of Pawlowski’s, on their campaigns. Fleck was caught allegedly trying to defraud the state by falsifying estimated tax revenue from a plan proposed by undercover federal agents. Fleck dissolved his firm the day Pawlowski’s offices were raided and moved out of his home shortly after. He later pleaded guilty on charges of tax evasion and conspiracy to commit bribery and extortion. Former Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright pleaded guilty to similar charges last summer and was sentenced in early October to seven years in prison on federal corruption charges.
This crew and the inner-circle that remains, organizers warned, is simply not built for political combat with Republicans, the type of bare-knuckled battle over ballots the state may be headed for. They simply have a different idea of the purpose of politics. Recall that Browne, after all, is a Republican, despite his close alliance with the city’s Democratic power players. In 2012, while Reilly was knee-deep in NIZ construction with City Center, his major firm, one of his other companies, East Penn Real Estate, hired several lobbyists from the firm Pugliese Associates. Among them was Heather Browne, Pat Browne’s wife. In the preceding months, two of Reilly’s partners at City Center had also hired Browne for their companies: Lehigh Gas, headed by Joseph Topper, who co-founded City Center with Reilly; and Vaughan Communications, owned by Jeff Vaughan, who handles public relations for City Center. While City Center is the NIZ’s biggest developer, Vaughan also bought several properties early on. The Pugliese firm, Lehigh Gas, Vaughan, City Center, and Browne all had offices at 702 Hamilton Street, a property Reilly owns through East Penn. Browne worked for Reilly’s firm from 2012 until 2015, according to lobbyist registration files. Reilly did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2012, a committee was formed to nominate board members for the zone’s board, the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority, known as ANIZDA. Committee members included Pawlowski; Browne; and former lobbyist and Lehigh Valley state Democratic Rep, Jennifer Mann, who was a member of the General Assembly when the NIZ was first approved. Mann was one of the nine people who they named to ANIZDA. Democratic state Rep. Mike Schlossberg, Mann’s former staffer who replaced her in the House, also served briefly on the ANIZDA selection committee. Mann’s former chief of staff, Allentown Democratic state Rep. Peter Schweyer, is now part of the group of legislators who approve board nominees. Mann and Schweyer did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2015, Pawlowski, Schweyer, and Schlossgberg formed a political action committee, Citizens for a Better Allentown, along with Fleck, Pawlowski’s longtime political consultant, to fund a slate of candidates for school board and city council, targeting incumbents who had opposed Pawlowski in the past. The PAC shut down during the FBI investigation into Allentown.
In 2013, Reilly and Topper, his City Center co-founder, formed a PAC, Citizens for Urban Renewal, to support candidates for local and state office. The PAC gave just under $10,000 to campaigns for Browne, Schweyer, and Schlossberg before shutting down in 2016. Reilly and Topper are two of Browne’s biggest donors and were the top two individual donors to Browne’s last campaign, contributing more than $50,000 each since 2015. They each gave $2,500 to Schweyer’s campaign this cycle. The Democratic Party brass didn’t put up a challenge to Browne in 2018, as it often hadn’t, but progressive Mark Pinsley challenged him —the first major effort by progressives in the city to take on the bipartisan cabal. With the local party leadership effectively backing Browne, Pinsley fell just short, losing by less than 3 points.
Former ANIZDA member Alan Jennings resigned from the board in 2015 and said the council lacked interest in helping the city’s low-income communities. That year, Allentown’s City Council passed an anti-“pay-to-play” ordinance. The next year, Browne wrote a clause into the Pennsylvania budget that officially separated NIZ operations from the city council, banning the board from using city employees or contractors for NIZ-related work.
In January, local officials blocked Allentown pastor Gred Edwards’s nomination to the board, and he withdrew his name from consideration. In a letter to O’Connell, who supported his nomination, Edwards said he had knowledge that Browne and Schweyer had said they would withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding from the city if he were nominated, a claim both Browne and Schweyer denied, the Morning Call reported. O’Connell nominated Edwards again in February. The board still has an open position.
The breakdown in governance in local towns scattered through and near the Lehigh Valley didn’t happen overnight. It’s not clear that Democrats have taken useful lessons from the damage, but local organizers are tackling the issue head-on.
Lehigh Valley Stands Up met in January with Allentown Mayor Ray O’Connell and about 20 clergy members to discuss concerns regarding NIZ financing, where O’Connell scoffed at the notion that the NIZ was corrupt, according to Ashleigh Strange, regional organizer for Lehigh Valley Stands Up. “One of the things that we had put out in our press release about the NIZ saying that it’s corrupt,” Strange said. “And the mayor got very flustered, very upset. And he was like, ‘There’s no corruption in this. There is no corruption.’”
“You don’t have to have Pawlowski-level corruption in order for something to be corrupt,” Strange added.
“Corruption is a very serious allegation in Allentown,” O’Connell said in a statement to The Intercept. “The previous mayor is serving a 15-year federal prison sentence for pay-to-play activity. There is zero evidence of corruption in the NIZ which has brought hundreds of jobs to Allentown and has resulted in $1 billion in completed and planned projects in the zone,” O’Connell said, adding that the zone is “closely scrutinized” by the state Department of Revenue. Asked about concerns from residents that the zone has primarily benefited developers and contributed to gentrification in the area, O’Connell said the zone “is doing exactly what the state legislature adopted it to do” and that NIZ money can’t fund community programs. “A site must be vacant (not generating any taxes) prior to being redeveloped using NIZ,” he said.
Shortly after, the organizers had a call with Democratic Sen. Bob Casey about all of the issues they’re focusing on, including the NIZ. “He was kind of shocked when he heard about what was happening in the NIZ with this kind of extreme gentrification and a lot of kickbacks going to large businesses, and not into the community.” Casey asked if they reached out to their local representatives, Strange said, “and we all kind of laughed. We were like, ‘They wrote the law! They designed the NIZ. They’re the ones that created it and are upholding it.’” Casey’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement to The Intercept, Browne said, “No elected officials have any decision-making authority in the NIZ with regard to who or what projects get approved,” adding that the ANIZDA, an independent body, makes those decisions. The allegations of corruption in NIZ projects are “baseless,” Browne said, describing them as “a reckless effort to prevent needed commercial investment in the city’s urban core and improvements in the city, school district services, residential property values, economic opportunity and the overall quality of life for the city’s residents.”
“The entire city benefits from the program,” NIZ Executive Director Steve Bamford said in a statement to The Intercept, adding that the zone provides a significant source of tax revenue for Allentown’s public school system. “The development projects completed to date generate over $5.3 million in annual real estate taxes for the Allentown School District. That number will grow as more development is completed.”
“You don’t have to have Pawlowski-level corruption in order for something to be corrupt.”
The perception of corruption surrounding the NIZ has led people to distrust politicians, Strange said. That creates a problem for potential voters, and areas in the Lehigh Valley — particularly Northampton — are already known for issues with voting. “In the same way that in voting, if there’s corruption in the county, even if someone has a problem voting, who are they going to report this to? And it’s the same with the NIZ. Where are you gonna go? It’s the same with the police. When the police are the ones out there killing people, who do you call?” she said. Curtis, the former FBI investigator agreed. “After sitting through that investigation, I didn’t want to have to vote ever again. Knowing what I know now, it’s very disheartening, the whole system.”
That’s already been the case in Schweyer’s district, where voters had issues at polling places during the June primary. There was a showdown over ballot tampering and election integrity in Allentown after Schweyer came within 55 votes — 1 percentage point — of losing his seat in the June primary to lifetime city resident and public housing facility manager Enid Santiago. (Schweyer is one of several NIZ architects and allies up for reelection in November, including Schlossberg, who is running unopposed.)
The pro-immigrant group Make the Road Action in Pennsylvania has made Allentown and Reading its twin focuses, hoping to reach Hispanic voters the party has historically suppressed from the process. Santiago is a member of the group. “It went from this small town to this large city but hasn’t adjusted to the new people,” said Make the Road Action’s Maegan Llerena of the surge of Puerto Rico residents into Allentown and also Reading. There’s little enthusiasm for Biden, she said, and the campaign has done little outreach, but her group is making the case that the effort Republicans put into suppressing Hispanic votes is all the evidence needed of how important they are. The question she says most resonates: “If our votes didn’t count why are they trying so hard to suppress them?”
Santiago, who announced her campaign in January and ran with help from Lehigh Valley Stands Up (they did not officially endorse her campaign), called for Lehigh County to decertify the election after results showed 29 more votes than were actually received, which they say puts the results within the margin to trigger an automatic recount and investigation. That includes votes from two polling locations, one where she witnessed an election judge tampering with ballots, Santiago told The Intercept. In early October, that judge was arraigned on criminal charges related to the incident. An online petition to decertify the election posted by Santiago’s campaign earlier this summer has around 700 signatures, with progressive groups shying away from the effort, worried about giving Trump ammunition for his claims for voting irregularities. The county denied her request to decertify the election in August and opted to conduct an independent audit. She announced plans to run a write-in campaign that day. There is no Republican on the ballot in the majority-minority district, whose population is 60 percent Hispanic.
But Santiago worries that the mishandling of her election could discourage turnout for some Allentown voters in November. “If you guys cannot get the 22nd District right, where is the trust for the November election?” she said. “That’s the scary part. How many people are not going to come out to vote because they believe their vote does not matter? Which is something that we keep hearing, very often.”
Photo: Hannah Yoon for The Intercept
Since launching just before the start of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Lehigh Valley Stands Up is focusing most of its current efforts on supporting registration for vote-by-mail, virtual organizing, and recruiting volunteers to be election judges, poll watchers, and poll workers, Strange said. “I’m just kind of sequestered away in my attic trying to get people moving, get people motivated,” she said. The group has about 40 active volunteers, and they’ve made thousands of phone calls so far.
The coalition is supporting a number of candidates running populist campaigns in areas it thinks have the potential to flip from red to blue, including Zrinski in Northampton. Following the tea party’s insurgence in local and state office, a number of progressive Democrats have joined the legislature in recent years, including several who successfully challenged incumbents from the left in 2018, like state Reps. Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato in Pittsburgh. Groups working with PA Stands Up are supporting candidates in the state’s redder areas, too, where the party is wont to expend resources. A number of them advanced in June primaries and will appear on the ballot in November.
Shanna Danielson, a music teacher, narrowly won her primary in Cumberland and York for state Senate District 31 and will face the incumbent, Republican Mike Regan in November. Danielson is running on universal health care, gun violence prevention, universal background checks, and funding public education. She’s backed by York Stands Up, Run for Something, Pennsylvania Working Families Party, and the PA AFL-CIO.
In York County, write-in candidate Fred Owens launched a last-minute run in May with the help of York Stands Up. He won just over 500 votes in the June Democratic primary, more than 66 percent of those cast, advancing him to the general election. Owens is running on investing in public education, holding environmental polluters accountable, and revitalizing local infrastructure.
In areas like Northampton, Republicans and Democrats are competing for independent voters, who comprise about 9,000 of the district’s 52,000 registered voters. (There are roughly equal numbers of registered Republicans and Democrats.) “That’s where these progressive entities come in, like Lehigh Valley Stands Up and WFP,” Zrinski said. “Independent voters are more working class, they’re working families. Some of them might have very strong libertarian ideals, but then some of them are just people who are disenchanted with either the Democratic or the Republican Party. And they’re looking for a progressive candidate who will stand up. And so that’s been a strong message that we can send to that whole independent group of people — and hopefully there are more independents with which that message resonates.”
Republicans may have a partial advantage in some respects because they’ve been continuing to knock doors and hold in-person events, while Democrats like Zrinski put those activities on hold at the onset of the pandemic. “We’re not actively drawing people out of their homes, because of Covid,” Zrinski said. “In some ways, I feel like the playing field is not necessarily level. It’s a crapshoot.” The campaign held an in-person event in July at a farm with more than an acre of space, and people were hesitant to show up, she said.
The pandemic has influenced the race in other ways as well. Small-business owners, including Democrats, are angry with Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor, for shutting down the state, a step that was taken in line with guidance from public health officials. “You have to kind of distance yourself from Wolf” in talks with Lehigh Valley residents, said Zrinski. While handing out literature in her district last month, Zrinski said she saw Democratic houses with Trump signs and later found that many belonged to small-business owners.
There’s a common, simple theme when talking to residents of the Valley, Strange said: frustration. “One of the things that we notice is that when we’re talking to people from all over the Valley is that corruption is really everywhere,” she said. “And a lot of times, this corruption is legal.”
Update: Oct. 26, 2020
This article has been updated to clarify Pennsylvania’s absentee ballot procedures.