“I Am Not a Secret Callahan Employee”: An Interview With John Blankstein on Lehigh Valley Politics

Political consultant and friend of the blog John Blankstein agreed to an email interview on Lehigh Valley politics and the 2013 municipal races. Here is the first half:

Jon Geeting: What do you think are the big LV races to watch this year?

John Blankstein: This spring I’m very focused on the Bethlehem mayoral race.  I’ve been informally discussing city issues with Willie Reynolds for several years now and I recently joined his campaign as General Consultant so I’m far from unbiased in picking this as the most interesting contest.   This is an exciting race because six or eight months ago people were saying Donchez was unbeatable…and here at the beginning of March nobody is saying that anymore.  I’m more certain each day that Willie will be the next Mayor of Bethlehem.

The races for Executive in both counties might not prove to be as exciting this spring, but there is no question they are important and it will definitely be interesting to see how they develop this fall. As a West Bethlehem resident I’ve been impressed so far by Juan Camacho who is running for the District 4 seat here.  I’m hoping to attend his campaign kickoff this week and learn more about him and his campaign.

And it’s a little unusual, but the Magistrate race in Easton strikes me as very interesting.  Usually these races don’t attract a lot of attention, but in this case the district covers a substantial portion of the city.  I’ll be watching to see how it turns out and whether the candidates–win or lose–are able to parlay this run into a bid higher office in the not too distant future.

JG: What do you think Willie is going to run on? Do you know any specific ideas he’ll get behind?

JB: I don’t want to get to deep into the specifics, because as you reported in this blog last week John Morganelli has discovered the internet and he might tell Bob all about it. (Just kidding, guys)  Seriously though, we are up against a candidate with establishment backing and who has been building a war chest for 3 years, so executing a well-timed earned media campaign is important for our success.  And a big part of that is keeping details of message and policy proposals close to the vest until we’re ready to formally roll them out.

Willie and our whole team are hard at work putting the final touches on his Winning Our Neighborhoods plan, which will be rolled out in a speech in a couple weeks.  This package of Willie’s specific ideas and plans will form the core of the final two months of the campaign and will also be the gameplan for a Reynolds Administration if he does indeed take office in January.

What I can say is that this plan combines Willie’s desire to protect and strengthen our city’ neighborhoods with his commitment to preserve and enhance the special way that Bethlehem thrives on diversity across the board, be it race, ethnicity, age, gender, or sexual orientation. And here’s the great part:  the method he wants to use is actively increasing citizen participation in city government, neighborhood life, and the society of the city in general.

JG: What issues do you think are at stake in the Easton judicial contest, and judicial elections more generally? I’ve always found it weird that judicial candidates aren’t actually allowed to take issue positions. How can voters make good choices when the candidates can’t advertise their positions?

JB:  Yeah, judicial elections in general are somewhat new to me.  Before coming to Pennsylvania I had done most of my political work in New Jersey–where the Governor appoints judges–and Massachusetts where there is a merit selection system.  And I haven’t been deeply involved in one here although I have gotten a couple of calls about them this year.

Without being able to separate yourself from your opponent on the issues candidates need to focus on the other two key pillars of campaigns:  direct voter contact and crafting and disseminating their personal story.  For higher level judicial seats the candidates must be attorneys, but that’s not necessary for a Magistrate.  Yet you see folks running for Magistrate talking about their experience as a lawyer giving them the best preparation for the job.  Career law enforcement officers will also play up that angle of their biography.

But that’s another really interesting thing about the Easton Magistrate race:  someone will represent I think roughly 60% of the city without having had to take an issue stance.  That could give them tremendous flexibility in coming elections.

JG: The flexibility to avoid taking or campaigning on issue positions is something politicians (and campaign staff) might appreciate, but I tend to think it makes municipal politics uncompetitive. I find it frustrating how little policy content there is in these races. Do you have any ideas about how to make local elections more about the set of issues candidates will actually make decisions about in office?

JB:  To step back for a minute–in the previous question we were talking about races where the candidates were not permitted to discuss issues that might come before them if they did end up on the bench.  In most elections candidates can and definitely should address issues.  I don’t subscribe to the notion that voters don’t care about the issues.  But they do have very limited time in their day to focus on government in general, and even less on local government.  But a candidate who can demonstrate that he or she has a command of the broad range of issues will find that to be a good path to building trust and rapport with the voters.

But here’s the tricky part–elections are about the future and candidates are aware that what they say today will be weighed in the light of different circumstances down the road.  The best local example I can think of is Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (for whom I briefly worked in 07 and 08).  In my mind one of the top achievements of his tenure is the Valley-wide host fee sharing agreement for the Sands Casino, which he threw his full weight behind. It is really a remarkable achievement for regionalism.  He knew this type of commitment would lower the level of direct cash flow to the City of Bethlehem, and make it unlikely if not impossible for him to deliver on an earlier statement in which he said he hoped to lower property taxes with that host fee revenue.   He’s taken his lumps for this “broken promise,”  and I think that’s unfair.  Callahan didn’t let his existing on-the-record statement hamper his ability to reach a creative solution to a broader problem, but many office holders do.

The scarier example of this is at the federal level where more than half the US House of Representatives and much of the US Senate is on the record pledging to never raise taxes.  That’s turned Grover Norquist into a power player and left the Congress unable to properly deliberate.

So I guess I’d have to turn the question back around Jon:  How do you see the press and the blogosphere creating an atmosphere where politicians can speak freely about their projections of the future without fear of being held to their statements verbatim even when circumstances change?

JG: I think the press has a tendency to be especially aggressive when there are charges of broken promises, or issues that can be shoehorned into that frame, because they’re relatively easy to verify. The candidate said this thing was going to happen, and we can check if it happened or not. It doesn’t require any policy analysis from reporters, which they tend to be uncomfortable with. 

The casino example is tricky because Callahan’s opponents’ argument is so simple to make: He said property taxes would go down, and they didn’t. You can respond, with complete accuracy, that the regional distribution of host fees was a good idea, that we had this monster recession that depressed city revenues, and so on. You can persuade reporters to include that crucial context in every article. But I don’t know that any amount of explanation by the media or the candidate is going to make Callahan’s position win the political argument.

JG: What do you make of Callahan’s chances in the Northampton County Executive race? It’s looking like this could be a banner year for Democrats in Northampton, judging by most of the at-large Republican incumbents dropping out and the huge list of candidates lining up on the Democratic side. How do you think the Council primary will impact the Exec race? Is Callahan going to endorse any candidates?

JB:  I expect John to win the primary quite easily.  He’ll have big advantage in the Northampton portion of Bethlehem and with two other contenders in the race neither will be able to close the gap.  Even if it had been–or becomes–a two person race I think each of his opponents has a couple questions they need to answer:  Reibman has been out of elective politics for a while McClure has only been elected in one council district and by fairly small margins there. So far neither one has shown that he’s ready to make a charge.

I generally feel it’s a strong move to put a slate together but I don’t know if that’s what Callahan’s campaign is thinking about.  I hope they do and they include my friend Jason Toedter among their endorsements.

As for November I agree that Northampton Republicans seem to be in a bit of disarray.  I’m not sure why.  I pulled the numbers earlier this year, and while it’s true that there’s a Democratic registration advantage it actually comes very close to matching the national average and is not the kind of margin that typically scares away the GOP.  I don’t really know anything about the Mayor of Bangor so its tough for me to project what might happen in November–Republicans used to be better at shelving their infighting for general elections than we are but I’m not so sure that’s true anymore.  John certainly deserves a year with the wind at his back after being the Valley’ Dem standard bearer in 2010.

I should clarify something here:   I worked for Tony Hanna and Mayor Callahan in 2007 and 2008 in a policy role as a contract employee of the Bethlehem Economic Development Corporation on some specific issues involving extra workflows related to construction of the first phase of the Sands facility and on some intergovernmental issues regarding PennDot’s work on 412.  I had previously had the screwball idea that being a college professor would be better than continuing my work as a sometimes construction manager/sometimes political operative.  But as I was finding that grass wasn’t greener in academia as a PhD student the opportunity to get involved this major project came around and I grabbed it;  especially because Tony Hanna is as knowledgeable about urban design and as much of a visionary thinker as anyone I was studying under at UPenn.  As it turned out, the people at the Butz Corporation handled the buildout so expertly that the amount of extra work wasn’t as staggering as  Tony had projected, so I began to help out on writing some speeches for Tony and the Mayor and other officials and assisting on other economic development  work before moving on to go back to return to independent consulting in mid-2008.

So despite the claims of one of your blogging colleagues: I am not a secret Callahan employee nor do I post anonymous comments at 3 am spinning events in his favor.  Anytime I post anything anywhere I sign my own name. From time to time someone from the city will ask my opinion on something and if I have the time I’ll let them know what I think via email or over a beer.

That said I am a Callahan supporter.  I think he’s been a great Mayor and if I lived in Northampton I’d vote for him.  But as I described above I think he’ll be fine without my one vote.

JG: Of the Democratic candidates who’ve been mentioned for Northampton County Council (announced or rumored), who do you think are the strongest? I suppose that would depend on which issues you think are the most important in the County right now, so feel free to elaborate on that too.

JB: I don’t follow Northampton County politics well enough to really answer either of these questions with great confidence. As I recall there were nearly a dozen mentioned as possible candidates, but I don’t really remember more than a few.  There was a rumor that Stoffa would run for a council seat but now I hear he’s not.  The ones who are active around Bethlehem or on line seem to be Kerry Myers, Bill Wallace, Christen Borso, and as I mentioned Jason Toedter who is a good friend of mine.

To be honest if the election were tomorrow I’d vote for those four and pick another name.  I don’t think that’s too different from the average voter, and I think a crowded field will tend to make the competition more about name recognition than anything else.  But its entirely possible there’s a strong candidate out there I’ve yet to notice.

As far as I know all the Democratic candidates are pledging to keep Gracedale open, which I’m personally quite happy about. The continuing provision of high quality social services in this era of budget constraints will to be an issue, and of course that brings up the importance of economic development and providing the opportunity for more jobs.  Because unlike most Pennsylvania counties Northampton has an appointed Sheriff rather than an elected one, I’d be interested to see the question of Sheriff’s sales taken up by a candidate on some level.  The real estate market now seems to be stabilizing so I think it’s time for an after action review looking at whether the policies in place served the public well.  Also, how many homeowners are still underwater on their mortgages and can county government leverage some sort of deal with lenders to help these people get their finances back on track.  Unfortunately the Great Recession is not over for everyone.

Speak Your Mind