Meet the 7 Democrats running for Lehigh County commissioner

Four in the running on Republican side in May 16 primary for four at-large seats

By: - April 20, 2023 7:13 am
A week out from Election Day, outside groups have reported spending $7.7 million on behalf of Democratic and Republican candidates. (Photo by Daniella Heminghaus for the New Jersey Monitor)

(Photo by Daniella Heminghaus/New Jersey Monitor)

In Lehigh County, four at-large seats are open on the nine-member Board of Commissioners – a number that on its face doesn’t represent a majority but is enough to swing control of the board back to Republicans.

That’s because three of the five Democrats who make up the board majority aren’t seeking reelection – Bob Elbich, Dave Harrington and Zakiya Smalls.

Only incumbent Democrat Dan Hartzell is running again in the May 16 primary.

Six other Democrats are running as well in the primary, including Sheila Alvarado, Michael Blichar Jr., Jon Irons, Victor VJ Martinez, April Riddick and Joe Setton.

With enough candidates for all four ballot spots – Jacqueline Rivera, Rita Sisselberger, Gary S. Fedorcha and Paul Moat – there will be no contested primary on the GOP ballot.

The Board of Commissioners is the legislative branch of county government whose powers include adopting ordinances, passing budgets and levying taxes.

In the fall, the board unanimously adopted a $522 million budget for 2023 that kept taxes at 3.78 mills.

In October, the board voted unanimously to give $3 million for upgrades to Coca-Cola Park in Allentown. That was in addition to $1.5 million that was previously committed. Major League Baseball said about $10 million in upgrades were necessary to keep the IronPigs team in Allentown. The request drew controversy across the Lehigh Valley with Allentown turning it down and Northampton County pitching in $200,000.

Last fall, the board raised the salaries of the four row elected officers and the elected county executive.

Most recently, the board unanimously gave first-reading approval to an ordinance that would create a volunteer service tax credit of up to $150 for eligible members of volunteer fire companies. A second vote is expected on April 26.

Here is a look at the Democratic candidates based on campaign websites, Facebook pages, Linkedin sites, newspaper articles, League of Women Voter guides and board minutes.

The Republican candidates will be profiled in the fall.

Dan Hartzell – Incumbent
Hartzell, 72, of South Whitehall is a former reporter and Road Warrior columnist for The Morning Call who retired in 2014 after 38 years. Hartzell graduated from Whitehall High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Kutztown University in 1973. Hartzell was first elected in 2015, coming in second place. He was reelected in 2019, coming in first place in an election that saw Democrats take control of the board for the first time in decades. When he first ran, Hartzell was part of a slate of candidates critical of the board’s decades-long delay in deciding the future of Cedarbrook, the county’s outdated nursing home/rehabilitation facility. Hartzell has served as chair of the board’s Cedarbrook committee, providing board oversight to a $67 million upgrade to the facility that includes a four-story, 240-bed addition and renovations of the D wing.  In January 2021, Hartzell joined Lehigh County Executive Phil Armstrong, Cedarbrook Administrator and Director Jason Cumello and Cedarbrook resident Jean Larison in receiving the first covid vaccines administered at Cedarbrook.

Sheila Alvarado
Alvarado, 37, of Allentown is a legislative assistant to state Rep. Peter G. Schweyer. She is a LANTA board member and former neighborhood manager of the Community Action Development Corporation. She has volunteered as an interpreter at the polls. Alvarado earned a bachelor’s degree in office systems administration from the University of Puerto Rico in 2008. On her Facebook page, she said she wants to protect services at Cedarbrook, promote fiscal responsibility to balance the budget, preserve open spaces and promote programs offered by human services. “I am a wife and mother of two wonderful kids and I am an engaged parent of the Allentown School District community,” Alvarado said. “Just know, I am committed to my community, and I have great joy in helping people without being noticed.”

Michael Blichar Jr.
Blichar, 28, of Allentown is assistant director of Student Life & Leadership Development at Northampton Community College. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2017 and a master’s degree in higher education administration in 2020 from Kutztown University. Bilchar is chair of the Allentown Human Relations Commission and served on the Kutztown Planning Commission from 2018-20. He unsuccessfully ran for state representative in the 187th District in 2018 and 2020. On his Facebook page, Blichar said he believes the time for the next generation to lead has come. He said he believes “positive change can happen when work is done at the local level.” He believes investing in communities can improve lives. “A commissioner should understand the unique challenges all the residents of our county face regardless of ZIP code and actively work with them to create positive solutions with community wide impact. From mental health to infrastructure there is great work being done and I plan to support that work and continue to add to it, particularly in the area of human services.” He said he will seek to ensure greater transparency and access to local elected officials.

Jon Irons
Irons, 36, of Bethlehem works as a manager of data and evaluation at Communities in Schools of Eastern Pennsylvania. He earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 2009 from Butler University in Indiana and a master’s degree in arts and anthropology from the University of British Columbia in 2012. He previously worked as a case manager at Whitehall Middle School and as the teen center director for the Boys and Girls Club of Allentown. “I’m running for Lehigh County Commissioner because I want to live in a sustainable Lehigh County that uplifts our neediest residents and puts people first.”  A community advocate, he has spoken at county commissioner meetings. In October, he questioned giving money for renovations at Coca-Cola Park, saying the American Rescue Plan money being used is supposed to go for public relief, according to WFMZ-TV. On his campaign website, Irons says Lehigh County has a responsibility to keep residents safe and healthy by addressing the root causes of poverty and pain. He said this includes working to provide affordable housing, food, health care, clothing, internet access and a livable wage. Irons has a Twitter account where he comments on national and local issues. In one tweet, he said, “Walmart had $611 billion in revenue for the year. But they’re cutting 35% of their workforce in Bethlehem. All the industrial [development] is supposed to bring jobs to the Lehigh Valley, but corporate greed leads to predatory layoffs that affect our working families. Make it make sense.”

Victor VJ Martinez
Martinez is president and CEO of VP Broadcasting, which airs the Spanish language station La Mega. He also is the program director and morning show host. He earned a bachelor’s degree in justice studies from Florida Memorial University. He previously worked as a program director at CBS Radio and iHeartRadio and was a news reporter for WFMZ-TV. Martinez was an advocate for Latino representation in the Census-based redistricting process that saw new state legislative districts go into effect this year, according to a Spotlight article. The process saw Allentown gain a new state House seat (the 22nd).  “As soon as the census came out, leaders in the Hispanic community, in Allentown and Reading, started calling each other and talking to each other on [how] we need to make sure we involve ourselves in every district conversation,” Martinez was quoted as saying. Martinez, who has helped Latino candidates run for office, told that he wants to be a voice for Latinos on the Board of Commissioners. “I want to be able to make a statement,” he told the news site. “I want to walk in there and say, ‘I have my base, I have my community,’’

April Riddick 
Riddick, 55, of Allentown is project manager, event coordinator, photographer and marketing consultant with I Thrive. She is a volunteer and board member at the Allentown Athletic Association. She is a board member of Lehigh Valley Area Dress for Success Worldwide. She earned a certificate in cosmetology at Star Beauty School and took paralegal, business and accounting courses at Northampton Community College. She is involved in community engagement. In May 2022, she was among seven people from Lehigh County elected to the Democratic State Committee. She is a founding member of the Pennsylvania Democratic Latino Caucus.

Joe Setton
Setton, 71, is a broker and owner of Setton Realty in Orefield, which handles commercial and residential sales and rentals and also offers auction services. He has a degree from Leicester University in England, according to the League of Women Voters of Lehigh and Northampton County’s 2021 Voters Guide. Setton was appointed to the South Whitehall Board of Commissioners in 2019 to fill a vacancy created when Democrat Mark Pinsley was elected Lehigh County controller. Setton ran for a full four-year term in 2021 but lost, along with board President Christina “Tori” Morgan, amid anti-development sentiment among voters. At the time, he told the League of Women Voters that his experience as a small business owner and township commissioner qualified him to understand the needs and hopes of the community. He recently told LehighValleyNews that he wants to find a solution to truck traffic caused by development and to improve and expand affordable housing.

This story first appeared in Armchair Lehigh Valley, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. 

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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.