*City of Allentown
Sitting on the front porch of my Harrisburg apartment, the quiet serenity of Memorial Day was interrupted by shouts of “bitch, where’s my money,” and strings of profanity. Hearing the beginning of a domestic dispute, I look for the source of the screaming and prepare to call the local non-emergency number, a skill I picked up from my father. It didn’t take long for the argument to head outside, where the man from whom the money was being demanded tried to get into his car and drive away while the woman demanding the money accosted him. Fortunately, it never became physical and the man successfully drove away. But the event immediately reminded me of my hometown of Allentown, just an hour and a half to the East, where such scenes are perfectly ordinary.
A few weeks ago, Pennsylvania had its primary elections for municipal races, normally a rather tedious affair for even dedicated political activists. But Allentown, with a critical mayoral election, was the exception this time around. Ed Pawlowski, the three-term incumbent Democrat despised by most of those in the city who care to pay attention, was running for a 4th term despite an FBI pay-to-play investigation with city contracts which had already brought down seven of his associates, all of whom pointed the finger squarely at Ed Pawlowski himself. Smelling blood in the water, previously complacent local Democrats finally moved to challenge him, apparently only waking up to the damage Mayor Pawlowski had done to the city once FBI officials raided city hall.
Allentown has long been a city in decline. A former economic hub next to Bethlehem, once the home of Bethlehem Steel, Allentown was once a gorgeous city, with thriving schools, a strong middle class, some of the best parks in the country, and a prime location (it’s less than three hours from several major metropolitan areas). But like so many cities in what we have come to call the Rust Belt, Allentown’s fortunes gradually changed. In 1982, Billy Joel wrote the song “Allentown,” which, while actually about our neighbor Bethlehem, matches up with our history just as well with its talk of lost jobs and creeping hopelessness. Within 30 years of the song’s release, Allentown had become a fundamentally different place from the idyllic all-American city some of the older residents still remember. It is now one of the poorest cities in the country, with a critically distressed school district, widespread blight, a pension crisis, and crumbling infrastructure on streets and in historic neighborhood parks.
Ed Pawlowski was not the sole cause of our dysfunction, but he served to cement it. He doubled down on policies to increase the availability of low-income housing, bringing a wave of low-income residents in, while at the same time rejecting policies that would have held slumlords accountable. The massive influx of poor residents from New York shifted the demographics firmly in his favor, and the local Republican Party, with its voters fleeing the rising crime and collapsing schools, eventually ceased to function as an effective political force. With a one-party monopoly established, Ed Pawlowski, who of course hails from Chicago, was free to build his political machine and cement his power, installing political cronies throughout city government. He made shortsighted but politically expedient decisions that benefited his career in the short-term, but set the table for greater dysfunction down the road, such as selling off revenue generating assets to balance budgets as he bragged of solving the city’s financial problems while not raising property taxes. The truth is, of course, that Pawlowksi did this because he had no plans to stick around, always looking ahead to more powerful offices. Unfortunately for Pawlowski, but fortunately for the state, he is devoid of the kind of political skills or name-recognition necessary to achieve success in either his run for Senate or Governor, not that it stopped him from trying. And so, Allentown appeared to be stuck with Mayor Pawlowski for the visible future.
That is, until the FBI investigation inspired six Democrats, with starry-eyed ambitions of saving the city (and probably some less public hopes of kick-starting political careers), to enter the race and challenge Pawlowski.
I spent Election Day helping a candidate for County Executive by handing out palm-cards at one of the largest voting precincts in Allentown, and watching volunteers for each mayoral candidate line up to hand their literature to each voter whenever they happened to show up, sometimes with 15 minute gaps between arrivals. When I arrived at 11 in the morning to hand out cards, only 80 voters had shown up to the polling location. This is a precinct that is majority Democrat and has well over 1000 registered voters. Local news outlets spent the day reporting on the pathetic turnout and talking to dejected poll workers. The numbers were the same throughout the city, with roughly 10% of people turning out by the end of the day. In one precinct in the downtown, only 50 of about 500 registered voters turned out. Many were surprised, but they shouldn’t have been.
Allentown, like so many places in the rust belt, is a city in perpetual crisis. But when its residents faced what very well may have been the most important and impactful decision of their lives, they stayed home. Yes, Presidential votes are important, but in reality the impact of one person’s vote and voice is beyond negligible. But in a city election where the deciding margin was less than 350 votes, one person’s voice and work do have a legitimate impact. It is this irony- that it is when the voters’ actions matter most that they care the least- which has damned Allentown.
Ed Pawlowski, in a city of 120,000, managed to corral 1682 voters, representing a little over one percent of the city’s population and 28% of the Democrats who voted, to press a button with his name on it. Helping him were several self-interested Democratic candidates who refused to drop out when it was clear they would lose, even as they preached the singular importance of ensuring Pawlowski’s defeat. And just like that, Ed Pawlowski all but guarantees that he will continue as mayor, barring a miracle on the part of the Republican or the handful of naïve write-ins.
There are many stories to be told here. But perhaps the most important and most disturbing is the increasing unwillingness of the residents of Allentown to govern themselves. On Election Day, one frequently hears the old “if you don’t vote, don’t complain” cliché. This gets to the crux of the problem: too often, the people of Allentown not only don’t vote, but don’t care enough to complain either. Poverty is now standard, blight is standard, dysfunction is standard, corruption is standard, and now apathy is standard. More and more, it seems as though Ed Pawlowski is not Allentown’s biggest problem. Rather, there is a more pernicious force at work: the attitudes and sentiments of the people themselves.