The 16th District state Senate primary campaign of Republican Jarrett Coleman was funded largely by a few wealthy individuals (
By Tom Shortell
Jarrett Coleman’s portrayal of state Sen. Pat Browne as a Harrisburg elite who needed to be removed from office appears to have powered him to a shocking upset in the Republican primary for the Lehigh Valley-based 16th state Senate District.
But that message appears to have been fueled by a smattering of wealthy donors who funneled more than $410,000 in contributions to Coleman, campaign finance reports show.
The vast majority of that funding is linked to Jeffrey Yass, a Montgomery County billionaire and the richest man in Pennsylvania. Another $100,000 came from William Bachenberg, who was subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 House Select Committee, and his wife Laura.
Unofficial results out of Bucks and Lehigh counties show the incumbent Browne, one of the most powerful men in Harrisburg, trailing by 24 votes to Coleman, a recently elected Parkland School Board director. While Coleman has declared victory, Browne has told The Morning Call he may call for a recount.
Coleman attacked Browne on the campaign trail as a career politician who enriched himself while raising people’s taxes. He rallied Republican support behind calls for greater parental control over their children’s education and expressing outrage that local school officials are introducing critical race theory into their districts. Officials at Parkland denied the claim.
During his 28-year tenure in the state House and Senate, Browne had never faced a conservative challenger at the polls.
He became arguably the most powerful member of the Lehigh Valley’s delegation to the General Assembly, where he served as chairperson of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. The position helped him land critical funding for the region and create the Neighborhood Improvement Zone that supporters credit for revitalizing Center City Allentown.
And while Coleman’s message helped win the day, it would have been hard for him to broadcast it without significant help.
Campaign finance reports from March 29 to May 5 show Coleman, a pilot for JetBlue, received more than $376,885 in donations and in-kind contributions from the Citizens Alliance for Pennsylvania, a political action committee that works “to restore the Constitutional principles of limited government, economic freedom, and personal responsibility,” according to its Facebook page. Most of those contributions went toward mailers and ad buys, campaign finance reports showed.
Reports in the state’s campaign finance database show the $376,885 most likely originated from Jeffrey Yass, co-founder of the Susquehanna International Group and, with an estimated value of $12 billion, making him Pennsylvania’s wealthiest resident. Some $1.2 million of the $1.26 million Citizen Alliance raised in recent months came from another political action committee called Students First PAC. Since late last year, Students First has been funded to the tune of $16 million by a single donor — Yass.
Yass, of Lower Merion Township, is known for his secretive nature and his support for Republicans on both sides of the party’s growing ideological divide. Forbes reports his PACs have backed such supporters of former President Donald Trump as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, of North Carolina, as well as moderates who kept the former president at an arm’s distance, including U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
Before the primary, Yass’ supporters told Spotlight PA that he’s a single-issue donor who cares about school vouchers and charter schools. Leo Knepper, political director of Citizens Alliance, told the outlet last week that the PAC targeted Browne for his willingness to negotiate with Gov. Tom Wolf over the budget in recent years. As chair of the Appropriations Committee, Browne had considerable power over shaping the state’s spending policy. Evidently, Browne’s willingness to negotiate with Wolf didn’t sit well with Yass and his supporters.
Coleman’s other main backers were the Bachenbergs, owners of Lehigh Valley Sporting Clays in North Whitehall Township. Campaign finance reports indicate the couple contributed $100,000 toward his campaign against Browne with at least $70,000 of that being a loan. The remaining $30,000 was filed late, and it was not clear if it was a loan like their other contributions.
The Bachenbergs have become notable conservative supporters in recent years, hosting rallies and fundraisers at their business. U.S. Senate candidate Dave McCormick and Cruz stumped at Lehigh Valley Sporting Clays earlier this year, while Donald Trump Jr. campaigned there for his father in 2020.
William Bachenberg drew headlines earlier this year after the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection subpoenaed him to testify about his involvement in the effort to overturn the 2020 election. The committee said it learned Bachenberg chaired a meeting of Republicans who prepared a signed list of alternate electors to be appointed to the Electoral College in the event that Trump won his court challenges.
Another would-be elector was a less significant donor to Coleman. Tom Carroll, a former candidate for Northampton County district attorney and judge, donated $500 to Coleman. A Morning Call investigation found Carroll resigned his position as an assistant district attorney in Northampton County in 2007, days after he left a monkey doll on a black colleague’s desk.
Between expenditures and in-kind contributions, Coleman’s campaign utilized more than $410,000 in mailers, ads and media buys between March and early May. By comparison, Browne utilized $222,750 over the first five months of 2022; the veteran legislator still had nearly $500,000 in the bank at the time of his apparent defeat.
Browne hasn’t hurt for funding in years; the last time he had less than six figures in his war chest was 2013. He entered 2022 with $387,775 on hand and raised another $329,215 through the first five months of 2022.
Browne had a pair of billionaires in his corner, too — just not nearly to the same extent Yass indirectly backed Coleman. Charles J. Koch, one of the most prominent Republican donors in the last two decades and among the world’s richest men, donated $1,500 to Browne in March. Edward Roski Jr., the president of Majestic Realty who is worth an estimated $5.2 billion, donated $25,000 to Browne.
Instead, 93 different organizations or individuals donated $1,000 or more toward his reelection. The diverse group of donors ranged from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers ($1,000 donation) to Richard Koze Jr., the president of Kay Builders ($5,000) and Operators for Skill PAC, which advocates for unregulated gaming devices that operate similar to slot machines ($1,000).
Browne’s largest donor was Pugliese PAC, an arm of the Harrisburg lobbying firm Pugliese Associates. The firm names Browne on its website as a critical ally in its efforts to create economic development legislation in Pennsylvania, specifically the Neighborhood Improvement Zone in Allentown and similar City Revitalization Improvement Zone programs that exist in Bethlehem and Lancaster. The PAC provided him with $52,500 this year.
Another $20,000 came from Northwest Leaders PAC, an arm of the lobbying firm Allegheny Strategy Partners. Among the firm’s leaders is Joe Scarnati, Pennsylvania’s former Senate president pro tempore, who served with Browne on the Republican leadership team for years. Nick Varischetti, another founder at Allegheny Strategy Partners, donated $2,500.
Should Coleman’s lead withstand any challenges, he’ll face Democrat Mark Pinsley in the November election. Pinsley was unchallenged in the Democratic primary and has $7,555 in his campaign coffers, according to his most recent campaign finance report. Pinsley has proven to be a capable fundraiser in the past, drawing in more than $191,000 when he nearly defeated Browne in the 16th District race in 2018.
That amount didn’t include about $360,000 of in-kind contributions he received from the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. At the time, the 16th District was entirely within Lehigh County and favored Democrats, but Browne drew significant support from outside the Republican Party.
Since then, the district has been redrawn to include portions of Lehigh and Bucks counties and has 10,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. It remains to be seen if Pinsley will draw the same level of party support given Coleman’s stark advantage in the district.
Tom Shortell is a reporter for Armchair Lehigh Valley, a political newsletter, where this story first appeared.
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