GOP Sen. Pat Browne, of Lehigh County, reacts to Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).
Jarrett Coleman, an airline pilot, and Parkland School Board member, on Wednesday, emerged as the top vote-getter in the GOP primary race for the 16th Senate District, knocking incumbent state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, from his 28-year reign in Harrisburg in what was the Lehigh Valley’s most stunning election outcome.
Both Lehigh and Bucks counties on Wednesday posted unofficial results from the May 17 primary that were sent to the Department of State on Tuesday.
In Lehigh County, Coleman had 10,326 votes, including 4 undated mail-in ballots. Browne had 9,229, including one undated mail-in-ballot.
In Bucks County, Coleman had 6,723 votes, including 4 undated, mail-in ballots. Browne had 7,796, including 2, undated, mail-in ballots.
The undated ballots accounted for 11 votes in all, not enough to change the outcome.
“Excluding those mail-in votes, our campaign still has secured the nomination,” Coleman, 32, of Upper Macungie, said.
Coleman called on Browne to concede. “We think it’s the appropriate thing to do and will help to unite the party. We need to be united going into the General Election,” he said.
Coleman will face Democrat Mark Pinsley, who is Lehigh County’s elected controller.
Browne, 58, of Allentown could not be reached for comment. He told The Morning Call of Allentown that he was considering asking for a recount.
Coleman thanked Browne for his years in service and for “running a very tough admirable campaign.”
Coleman also thanked his supporters and voters.
Coleman’s stunning victory, once certified, would mark the end of Browne’s 28-year career in Harrisburg, first as a state representative then as a senator – a career that saw him become chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and a member of the Senate Republican leadership.
Browne hadn’t faced a Republican challenger in the 21st century. But redistricting opened the door when all but a speck of Allentown was removed from the 16th.
In its place, western Lehigh County and upper Bucks were added, places where voters may be unfamiliar with his name.
In addition, Coleman’s anti-mask and anti-CRT stances put him more in lock-step with Republican primary voters who also gave the GOP gubernatorial nod to state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who has vowed to make abortions illegal at conception if he wins in November and has cited CRT and masks in his campaign.
The outcome of the 16th race has been a nail-biter, because of the time it takes to count mail-in ballots and the legal uncertainty surrounding those lacking handwritten dates on outer envelopes.
Under state law, mail-in ballots must contain dates on ballot envelopes, but on May 20 a three-judge panel for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that 257 ballots without the required dates from the November 2021 election in Lehigh County must be counted.
That led the Department of State, which oversees elections, to issue guidance Tuesday, telling counties they must count undated ballots.
Those ballots, the directive said, should be segregated from other ballots pending litigation – which includes a lawsuit filed by David McCormick, a GOP contender for the U.S. Senate who is in a head-to-head race with Dr. Mehmet Oz and is now part of a state-mandated recount.
In addition, the state Supreme Court is still weighing a lawsuit to make no-excuse mail-in ballots illegal.
The State Department’s directive left county election offices scrambling to post results with and without the undated ballots and candidates in close races on edge.
Coleman grew up in the Parkland School District and lives in Upper Macungie with his wife and their two children.
An airline pilot for JetBlue Airways, he studied to be a pilot at Lehigh Carbon Community College then went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical science and a master’s degree in business
Coleman calls himself “a conservative reformer.”
In November, as a political newcomer, he won election to the Parkland School Board by building a campaign around criticism of the Parkland School District’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Coleman argued that by forcing children into remote learning and then mandating masks for in-person classes, the district was robbing families of their ability to make decisions.
When the Parkland Area School District adopted a policy in February allowing the superintendent to make masks optional, Coleman was the only school board director to vote against the plan. He said it was because it allowed for masks to be implemented in the future.
Coleman railed against school administrators and incumbents, saying they had introduced critical race theory into the district by disguising it as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Program. He vowed to remove both CRT and DEI once elected. Prior to his school board election, he co-hosted a forum on CRT.
His Facebook page and website for the Senate race make no mention of these stances.
Instead, Coleman called Browne a “career politician” who should be removed from office. He hit him for prior votes on pensions and salaries for elected officials and for voting in favor of the gas tax hike in 2013.
He vowed to decline pensions and “lavish” perks and to push for term limits. He said he opposes tax hikes. He also called Browne a “liar” and accused him of being behind a mailer that painted him as being in favor of masks in schools.
Browne served in the House of Representatives from 1994 to 2005 and has been in the Senate since 2005.
Browne has been popular in Allentown, even among Democrats. He wrote the law that created the Neighborhood Industrial Zone that led to the city’s Center City revitalization.
He’s been a champion for Allentown, helping secure grants and funding, most notably for the Allentown School District, bringing millions in additional money to help the financially troubled district close funding gaps.
Browne has largely backed Republican causes. He supports legislation that would roll back mail-in voting; like every other Republican state senator, Browne supported the expansion of mail-in voting in 2019. However, he turned against the law after it drew criticism from President Donald Trump and his supporters.
Browne is a co-sponsor of a recent bill that would require persons delivering mail or absentee ballots to deliver such ballots only at their county’s primary office, located in the county seat.
Similarly, Browne has backed efforts to limit gun control in Pennsylvania and abortion, including 2017’s Senate Bill 3, which would have prohibited abortions beyond 20 weeks of gestational age. Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the measure.
Counties have until June 6 to certify the results.
Correspondent Katherine Reinhard covers the Lehigh Valley for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @KMReinhard.
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