Allentown elects first Hispanic mayor; rejects removal of English-only charter provision

Democrat Matt Tuerk, the grandson of a Cuban immigrant, who speaks Spanish, won the night, unofficial tallies showed

By: - November 3, 2021 9:59 am

Allentown Mayor-elect Matt Tuerk (Tuerk campaign)

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — This Lehigh Valley city will have its first mayor of Latino descent, but by the same stroke voters resoundingly rejected a vaguely worded ballot question  that would have scrapped language in the city charter making English the city’s official language. 

Democrat Matt Tuerk, the grandson of a Cuban immigrant, who speaks Spanish, won 8,098 votes – 64% of those cast, unofficial tallies showed. . He defeated Republican Tim Ramos, the son of Puerto Rican parents, who captured 4,262 of the votes or 33.69%, according to  Lehigh County’s unofficial vote tally. 

With his election, Allentown, where 54% of the population is Hispanic, now has a mayor, police chief and fire chief with Hispanic backgrounds.

Meanwhile, city residents voted 6,695-3,624 to reject the ballot question, according to unofficial results. The results, however, could have been more dependent on the language of the referendum than voter sentiment.

The ballot question itself simply asked, “Shall paragraph B of Section 101 of the City of Allentown Home Rule Charter be removed from the Charter?”

It is only with the accompanying plain-language explanation that voters could find out what they would be saying “yes” or “no” to. The plain language, however, is not listed on the ballot, but appeared on signs at polling places.

In addition, mail-in ballots did not contain the plain-language explanation until after Oct. 18, a week after a first round was mailed out.

For Allentown Latinos, ending English as city’s official language would excise a hateful legacy

City Council President Julio Guridy, who was a prime sponsor of the referendum, has said he was not sure how the question came to be worded so ambiguously.

“They didn’t know what they were voting on, so they said no,” city Council President Julio Guridy said on Wednesday.

But Timothy Benyo, chief clerk of registration and elections in Lehigh County, previously said Allentown sent his office a copy of the resolution, which specifically directs the county to place a referendum on the ballot using the exact words now on the ballot. The resolution also mentions the English only provision twice. 

Benyo also said the city signed off on the wording. But under state law, the county board of elections is charged with framing the question.

Supporters had predicted the ballot question could go down to defeat over the wording.

But they also were hoping the city could end what they describe as a legacy of racism that began in 1994 when then-council member Emma Tropiano, who died in 2001, first proposed a resolution that would direct that city business be conducted in English.

The provision, though legally unenforceable, was enshrined by voters in the city charter two years later.

Legally, the question could be resubmitted by council next year.

Meanwhile, Tuerk, former vice president of economic development and marketing at the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, has vowed to make Latinos a key piece of his governing.

“I am aiming to bring good opportunities to all parts of our city, to lead an administration that reflects the diversity of all parts of our city and to foster collaboration between our own people to solve the challenges the city faces,” Tuerk said during a campaign victory speech that aired on WFMZ-TV. 

Correspondent Katherine Reinhard covers Allentown and the Lehigh Valley for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @KMReinhard.

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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.