For three open seats in Legislature, Lehigh Valley picks two Democrats, one Republican

The region’s Harrisburg delegation now includes eight Democrats, six Republicans

By: - November 10, 2022 9:59 am
Pennsylvania Capitol Building. May 24, 2022. Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).

Pennsylvania Capitol Building. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

(*This story was updated at 3:50 p.m. on Thursday, 11/10/22 with additional reporting)

In November 2021, Republican Jarrett Coleman, an airline pilot from Upper Macungie, won a seat on the Parkland School Board after running on an anti-mask platform that drew support from parents who said they were exhausted by school policies enacted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the course of a year, the 32-year-old ousted long-time incumbent state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, from his 16th Senate District seat in the May primary, and then went on to win Tuesday’s general election, defeating Democrat Mark Pinsley, Lehigh County’s controller, 66,770 to 54,811.

Coleman is among three new Lehigh Valley lawmakers who will be headed to Harrisburg, according to unofficial vote totals that don’t include some mail-in ballots still being counted.

Their victories came courtesy of redistricting that left two seats with no incumbents and Coleman’s surprise primary win.

The others are:

  • In the 14th Senate District:  Democrat Nick Miller, 27, an Allentown School Board member,  defeated Republican Dean Browning, 66,  a former Lehigh County Commissioner from South Whitehall,  45,944-40,202.
  • In the 22nd House District: Democrat Joshua Siegel, 28,  an Allentown City Council member, who defeated Republican Robert E. Smith Jr., 60, of Allentown, 6,536-3,641.

Coleman and Siegel did not respond to requests for comment.

“I’m honored to be the next senator for the Lehigh Valley,” Miller said, “I’m committed to fighting for good schools, a strong economy, and safe communities.”

Meanwhile, all of the Lehigh Valley incumbents with challengers easily won reelection, whatever their party.

Miller and Siegel’s election adds to the Lehigh Valley’s Democratic  legislative delegation, giving them eight elected officials in Harrisburg versus six for the Republicans.

The Democratic delegation will now include two senators – Lisa Boscola in the 18th and Miller in the 14th – and the following House members – Siegel and incumbent Reps. Mike Schlossberg (132), Peter Schweyer (134), Jeanne McNeill (135), Steve Samuelson (135) and Robert Freeman (136).

Republican members of the Lehigh Valley delegation include Coleman in the Senate and incumbent Reps. Milou Mackenzie (131), Joe Emrick (137), Ann Flood (138), Zach Mako (183) and Ryan Mackenzie (187).

How this new makeup translates in Harrisburg remains to be seen, as final votes are still being tallied statewide. Democrats, who need a net gain of 12 seats to retake the House, are already claiming victory.  The Senate, which already has a GOP-majority, should remain in Republican hands.

Here is a look at the three new lawmakers and their races:

14th Senate: Democrat Nick Miller said he and his volunteers knocked on thousands of doors in the sprawling, twister-shaped district that spans Lehigh and Northampton counties, covering both Democratic strongholds and Republican enclaves.

Those party registration differences led to his lost in Northampton County with 14,093 unofficial votes to Browning’s 18,343. But he won big in Lehigh with 59 percent of the vote and a tally of 31,891 votes to Browning’s 21,859.

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It’s the second win of his young career, having won a seat on the Allentown School Board in 2019 at age 24.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Miller said Wednesday. “It was a very competitive race.”

His victory came after a protracted primary against Democrat Tara Zrinski, a Northampton County commissioner, with results stretching until June after a voter-led lawsuit was filed over disqualified ballots that lacked secrecy envelopes, or arrived after 8 p.m. on Election Day. He ultimately won by 42 votes.

Next up for Miller is setting up a transition team and meeting with community leaders “to talk about issues I can help with,” he said. The swearing in will take place Jan. 3.

Miller said he was inspired to run for office by his mother, Lehigh County Judge Michelle Varricho. A self-described “moderate Democrat,  Miller,  in contrast to Browning, supported abortion rights, fair funding for school districts, and gun violence reduction laws.

A real estate agent and property owner, Miller has a finance degree from Penn State University, a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania  and expects to earn a master’s in law from the Pennsylvania in December.

Browning’s loss adds to a string of defeats that include running for reelection as a Lehigh County commissioner, running for Lehigh County executive, and two congressional bids.

16th Senate: Coleman defeated Pinsley, 52, of South Whitehall Township, by nearly 12,000 votes –  a much larger margin than the 24 votes that separated him in May from Browne, the chairperson of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and a member of the Senate GOP’s leadership team.

Coleman captured 53 percent of the vote in the district’s precincts in western Lehigh County, and nearly 56 percent in the upper Bucks County precincts.

Coleman’s victory was powered by a campaign war chest that included $432,035 in in-kind contributions and $280,741 in monetary contributions, according to recent campaign finance filings. More than half of the in-kind money came from The Commonwealth Leaders Fund, which spent $252,685 on production and cable television advertising, records show.

The PAC says it “recruits, endorses, and raises money for candidates for state office who champion and lead on the fundamental American principles of free enterprise, limited government, and personal responsibility.”

Citizens Alliance PA PAC, the group linked to Pennsylvania’s richest resident, Jeffrey Yass, gave $146,985 in kind-contributions for mailers. In addition, Citizens Alliance also gave $50,000 in cash. In this spring, the group gave $360,053 in in-kind services for mailers and media buys.

Also, for the fall campaign, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee spent $32,300 in in-kind contributions on polling.

Pinsley’s own political experience includes election to the South Whitehall Board of Commissioners, and the ouster of Republican Glenn Eckhart as Lehigh County controller in 2019.

During his campaign, Coleman called for instituting term limits, banning gifts and ending what he called a “Cadillac pension.” He said he would not support any tax hikes and would look to create tax relief programs.

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On other major issues, Coleman said he supported allowing abortions in cases of rape and incest or when the life or health of the mother is at risk. He also favored school vouchers, which would give basic education dollars directly to parents instead of school districts. He had a 100 percent rating from Gun Owners of America.

While he did not respond to Armchair Lehigh Valley’s request for an interview, he gave a statement to The Morning Call in which he thanked his supporters and said he “will focus legislatively on the issues that I discussed in the campaign and the many issues that come before the Senate.”

Pinsley, in an email, thanked his volunteers and wished Coleman success.

“I wish him and his family well on their new journey, Pinsley said. He went on to say, “There are many things to work on to make Pennsylvanians successful. Mr. Coleman now has a relatively safe seat, one of the things that I would hope he would work on is getting big money out of politics. His seat gives him the opportunity to be a leader in this regard. Mostly I just wish him success.”

*22nd House District:  Siegel defeated Smith with 63 percent of the vote in the district that includes parts of east and center city Allentown and parts of Salisbury Township. Both are familiar names in the city but Siegel had the edge with Democrats making up nearly 70 percent of the voters.

Even so, Siegel said he and his team did a lot of door knocking and reaching out to the Latino community, talking to voters about his goal of making life more affordable to everyone.

“I think that resonated with everyone whatever their party affiliation, whatever their background,” he said.

Siegel said one of his first goals is to build relationships and network and learn from senior members of the House. He said there is a tremendous sense of energy and urgency to deliver on campaign pledges that were made.

As for himself, he will be promoting an agenda to improve public safety, housing affordability and youth engagement.
If the Democrats manage to flip the House, he said, that would send a strong message to the Republican controlled Senate about working together on issues.

Siegel describes himself as a “fearless, proven, progressive.” At age 25, he was elected to Allentown City Council where he has advocated for progressive causes, including sponsoring a unanimously passed bill that grants six weeks of paid leave to non-union employees who give birth, father children or adopt children as long as they have worked for the city for a year. Labor contracts prevented the law from extending to union members.

During his campaign, Siegel advocated for fair funding for school districts, gun violence reduction laws and abortion rights. Smith, a former Allentown School Board member, said he knew he was up against a Democratic majority, but wanted to give voters a choice.

Katherine Reinhard is a reporter for Armchair Lehigh Valley, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.

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Katherine Reinhard
Katherine Reinhard

Katherine Reinhard, a veteran journalist, is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Lehigh Valley Correspondent and a co-editor of Armchair Lehigh Valley, a Substack newsletter focused on politics in the Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton region.