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Embattled Allentown Mayor Seeks Re-Election Despite Federal Probe


Providence, Rhode Island had Buddy Cianci. Bridgeport, Connecticut had Joe Ganim. Washington, D.C. had Marion Barry.

Will Allentown mayor Ed Pawlowski join the list of mayors re-elected despite federal corruption charges?

Pawlowski hasn't been charged with a crime, but his lawyer has said an indictment is imminent in a federal corruption investigation that has gripped Allentown City Hall for the last two years. Also imminent? The primary election for mayor on May 16.

Despite the investigation, Pawlowski is seeking a fourth term.

"What cloud?"

In July 2015, the FBI raided city halls in Allentown and Reading, saying officials in both cities were exchanging city contracts for campaign donations.

Court documents state the ringleader in Allentown is a figure identified only as "Public Official #3."

Seven city officials have pled guilty to charges associated with this "pay-to-play" scheme and they've also pointed the finger at "Public Official #3."

It's an open secret in Allentown that "Public Official #3" has to be Pawlowski. He's the only person who fits the description of a city official who has control over contracts and has run for statewide office.

Pawlowski maintains his innocence, citing a "few bad apples" at City Hall who participated in a scheme he was ignorant to.

At a recent mayoral debate — just a few hours after Pawlowski's top aide pled guilty to corruption — the mayor shrugged off the idea that his administration was corrupt.

According to a recording from the Allentown Morning Call, when other candidates mentioned a "cloud" of allegations over the city, he replied, "What cloud? We are growing, we are getting new jobs, we are getting new development. I don't see any cloud that has stopped this city from progressing."

Downtown development

Pawlowski's biggest talking point is the growth and development Allentown has seen during his 12 years as mayor.

Lehigh County is among the fastest growing in the state and Allentown is at the heart of that. The city has a growing Latino population, an urban core that's starting to attract employers and easy access to other major cities.

It also has a Neighborhood Improvement Zone, a state-backed tax incentive program. In addition to building the PPL Center, a minor league hockey arena, the NIZ has encouraged downtown development in the form of luxury apartment complexes, storefronts and mixed-use projects.

Downtown Allentown "has improved tremendously, especially since the NIZ zone was created," said local business owner Josh Tucker. "The hockey arena, everything that has come with that has been absolutely terrific. As mayor, I think [Pawlowski] has a tremendous amount to do with that."

It's this growth and development that makes it hard for people to write Pawlowski off, said Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College.

"People see the good that Pawlowski has done for the city, but they're also aware of the controversy," he said. "It's rare these days, when everything in politics is so black and white, to see people expressing these more nuanced views on a candidate. But it also means we don't know how they'll necessarily vote based on that."

Borick conducted a poll on behalf of the Allentown Morning Call that found 54 percent of Allentown residents think Pawlowski has had a positive effect on the city. But only 33 percent think he deserves another term.

Wide field, low turnout

Borick's poll surveyed all Allentown residents, not just likely voters. Low voter turnout in local races makes it hard to get an accurate prediction of how the race will go.

But Pawlowski may not need a decisive victory to get the Democratic nomination. He's running against five other Democrats, and though there's some local star power on the ballot, none of them are as well known as Pawlowski.

"I think there's a scenario where they all split the vote and he cruises in with 20, maybe 25 percent of the vote," said Bill White, a longtime columnist at the Morning Call.

White has called for Pawlowski to step down multiple times, but he foresees a situation in which the embattled mayor will win a fourth term.

"There are people in this city who are real grateful for his leadership in different areas that were important to them over time," said White. "I expect that they will vote for him."

How to indict a mayor running for re-election

It's unlikely that Pawlowski will be indicted before the May 16th primary, according to Peter Vaira, an attorney and former federal prosecutor in Philadelphia.

"Technically, [the election] is supposed to be irrelevant," said Vaira. "But you have to look at the fact that the prosecutor has common sense and says, look, one week away, two weeks away from an election, or a primary, I'm not going to add that to the mix."

Though they're supposed to remain neutral by charging when they're ready, regardless of the election cycle, the controversial role of the FBI in the 2016 presidential election means prosecutors will likely proceed with caution.

That worries White.

"People still don't know if he's going to be charged with anything," he said. He imagines a scenario where "he's nominated by the Democrats, and now we indict him for corruption, and now where are we?"

An indictment is not the same thing as a guilty verdict, though. Pawlowski could stay in the race — and in office — through an indictment, a trial, and even all the way up until sentencing if that happened.

If an indictment torpedoes his campaign, a Republican may be able to win the majority Democratic city for the first time since 1998. But White says he knows enough about Pawlowski and Allentown politics to know even criminal charges might not be enough to lose him his seat. 

As White imagines it, "We could be talking at Christmas time next year about Mayor Elect Pawlowski for his fourth term facing trial."

Eleanor Klibanoff was WPSU's reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide reporting collaboration that covers the problems and solutions facing Pennsylvania's cities. Previously, Eleanor was a Kroc Fellow at NPR in DC. She worked on the global health blog and Weekend Edition, reported for the National desk and spent three months at member station KCUR in Kansas City. Before that, she covered abortion politics in Nicaragua and El Salvador, two of the seven countries in the world that completely ban the procedure. She's written for Atlanta Magazine, The Nicaragua Dispatch and Radio Free Europe.