(Photo by Daniella Heminghaus/New Jersey Monitor)
By Robert H. Orenstein and Katherine Reinhard
In Tuesday’s primary election, Lehigh Valley voters can weigh in on a smorgasbord of important contests, starting at the top of the ballot with state judicial races and continuing down the ballot to countywide, municipal and school board contests.
Voter turnout is typically lower in odd-year elections. In the primary two years ago, 23.2% of voters turned out in Lehigh County and nearly 21% in Northampton County. And that turnout was boosted slightly by a statewide ballot referendum about limiting the powers of the governor during an emergency. Non-affiliated or minor-party voters were allowed to cast ballots on that question.
By comparison, more than 32% of voters in each county turned out for last year’s primary that included U.S. Senate, congressional and statewide races in addition to local state House and Senate contests.
The top race in the Lehigh Valley, in terms of money raised and spent as well as back-and-forth accusations, is the Democratic primary for Northampton County district attorney between first-term incumbent Terry Houck and challenger Stephen Baratta, who resigned his county judicial post to seek the office. Houck is also mounting a write-in campaign on the Republican ballot, which has no candidate.
Baratta’s resignation created a vacancy on the court, which has led to a spirited primary battle between hopefuls Nancy Aaroe and Brian Panella that has revolved around their experience.
School board contests draw much interest
Across the Lehigh Valley, school board races have become battlegrounds, with factions fighting for the soul of their districts.
Dozens are running for school board with many districts fielding nine or more candidates. In places such as the Southern Lehigh and East Penn school districts, what could be a full slate of five incumbents running has led most to bow out from reelection.
That has left the door wide open for a full majority takeover of boards.
It’s not just a clash between incumbent versus newcomer or Republican versus Democrat, however. Districts are also seeing a contest between traditional incumbent Republicans and some who are calling themselves “true Republicans.”
This can be seen in the Lehigh County Republican Committee’s endorsement of specific slates in the Parkland, East Penn and Southern Lehigh school districts – none of whom include incumbent Republicans. Moms for Liberty-Northampton has endorsed eight Republican candidates across the county.
The situation has led incumbent Republicans to join forces with Democrats to run as a ticket.
Driving these races, some of which are being waged with zeal on Facebook, is a faction of Republicans – many of them with children still in school – whose civic engagement arose over frustrations with school closures and mandated masking policies during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some have since expanded their platforms to include culture war touchstones – transgender sports, bathroom and locker room policies and school library books they deem inappropriate. They are also decrying what they say is a lack of transparency by school boards, tax hikes that occur while districts carry what they perceive as high fund balances and academic performance, which dropped during the height of the pandemic but has begun to recover.
In many of the races, opposition to the culture war platform is not only coming from the challengers but also from groups dedicated to exposing them.
These groups see the school board races as determining who controls the future of the district. They fear vulnerable students will suffer and solid district reputations will be ruined. As an example, they point to the Central Bucks School District, where board meetings have become acrimonious affairs as the board has passed policies on removing books and LGBTQ displays and is now facing lawsuits over its decisions.
Rather than culture wars, opponents say, school boards should be focused on academic excellence and student safety.
Aaroe said her 30-plus years of experience in a private law practice with her husband, Paul, and also her work as a public defender and assistant district attorney qualify her to be a judge.
Panella is solicitor to Bethlehem City Council and son of Jack Panella, a former county judge and current president judge of the state Superior Court. He counters that his seven years of experience, including quasi-judicial duties, provide him with a better understanding of what a judge does.
Aaroe, a Republican, and Panella, a Democrat, have cross-filed and appear on both party ballots. It’s possible that the primary could decide the winner, or the two candidates, if each one captures the nomination of their respective party, could campaign once again in the November election.
In Lehigh County, the Democratic primary for the board of commissioners features seven candidates seeking nominations for four at-large seats. Only incumbent Dan Hartzell is seeking reelection as three other commissioners – Bob Elbich, Dave Harrington and Zakiya Smalls – are not running. The other six candidates on the Democratic ballot are Sheila Alvarado, Michael Blichar Jr., Jon Irons, Victor VJ Martinez, April Riddick and Joe Setton.
The Republican primary is settled with only four candidates – Jacqueline Rivera, Rita Sisselberger, Gary S. Fedorcha and Paul Moat – on the ballot. Democrats hold a 5-4 majority on the nine-member board, and the balance of power could shift to Republicans if they capture at least one commissioner seat in the November election.
The other county offices in play this year are:
- Controller: Democratic incumbent Mark Pinsely and Republican Robert E. Smith Jr. are unopposed in the primary and will face each other in November. Pinsely is seeking a second term.
- Coroner: Democrat Daniel Buglio, who was appointed interim coroner in April 2022 after Coroner Eric Minnich resigned, and Republican Joseph Zitarelli will be on the ballot in November.
- Other row offices: With no primary opponent and no Democrat on the ballot, Republican Gavin Holihan, first assistant district attorney, has a clear path to become the next district attorney to succeed Jim Martin, who declined to seek reelection after 25 years in office. Lehigh County Sheriff Joe Hanna, a Republican, is unopposed in the primary for reelection to a third term and no Democratic candidate is on the primary ballot. With Andrea Naugle retiring as Clerk of Judicial Records, Democrat Michelle Graupner, a clerk in the office, is poised to take over. She is unopposed in the primary and no Republican is on the ballot.
In addition to the judicial and district attorney contests, another countywide primary involves Democratic candidates for controller – Tara Zrinski, a county commissioner and unsuccessful candidate in last year’s Democratic primary for state senator from the 14th District, and Nadeem Qayyum, who has worked in finance and business management. The winner will face Republican John Cusick, also a county commissioner, in November.
The Democratic primary contest for District II County Council, between council President Kerry Myers and Kelly Keegan, dissolved after Myers was knocked off the ballot because his nominating petitions did not contain sufficient valid signatures. Myers, the first Black county council president, has since registered as a Republican and is mounting a write-in campaign. Myers needs 250 votes to get on the ballot in November. Easton, Glendon, Stockertown, Tatamy, West Easton, Wilson and the townships of Forks and Palmer comprise the district. Candidates in the other primary district council races are unopposed.
Easton, Allentown, Bethlehem
The Lehigh Valley’s three cities have primary contests for city council; Easton also has a mayoral primary this year.
Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr., with 23 years in office, is being challenged by city Councilman Peter Melan. No candidate is seeking the GOP nomination.
Seven Democrats are seeking three at-large seats on Easton City Council, while no candidates are on the Republican ballot.
Incumbents Kenneth Brown and David O’Connell are joined on the ballot by Frank Pintabone, Ken Greene, Crystal Rose, Kurt Carlson and Lance M. Wheeler.
In Bethlehem, five Democrats are vying for three spots on the November ballot: incumbent Michael G. Colón, Celeste Dee, Ricky Butler, Colleen Laird, and Bryan Callahan. Democratic council members Paige Van Wirt and Wandalyn Enix did not seek reelection. Two Republicans are on the ballot – Devin Brunges and Thomas Ginthner.
Joseph J. Marx Jr., president of the township board of commissioners, and Michael Cocca, a sales consultant, are on the Democratic ballot. Tina Jo Koren, the elected tax collector/treasurer, and John C. Hersch, an account executive, are on the Republican ballot.
All township voters, not just just those registered as Democrats and Republicans, can vote on a township referendum. They’re being asked whether Whitehall’s Home Rule Charter should be amended “to eliminate the position of an elected treasurer and replace that position with a finance director who would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the board of commissioners.”
Robert H. Orenstein and Katherine Reinhard are reporters for Armchair Lehigh Valley, a politics newsletter, where this story first appeared.
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