The reason outgoing Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan’s endorsement of Willie Reynolds as his successor is a pretty big deal is that until now he’s conspicuously avoided endorsing anyone. He’s been pretty open about being a Reynolds partisan privately, and most people paying attention to Bethlehem politics already know who he supports, but there seemed to be no upside for his County Executive career in taking sides. Why risk straining relations with Bob Donchez if Donchez has any shot at winning – especially since Donchez was long been presumed to be the frontrunner? And why take sides so late in the race?
Here’s my guess at the factors that convinced Callahan:
– He thinks Donchez would be a bad Mayor. Callahan is (rightfully!) proud of his legacy. Bethlehem is a much better city today than when he took office, across a variety of metrics. One thing Callahan always comes back to when he talks about his record is the importance of bold leadership. Doing what you think is right even when it’s unpopular. Bob Donchez has the complete opposite approach to politics. As Callahan put it to me once, Donchez is “constitutionally incapable” of making decisions. The man has no leadership instincts. Get a group of 10 people to go to a City Council meeting and you can get Donchez to agree to literally anything. That kind of weak leadership is a threat to Callahan’s legacy of accomplishments.
– He thinks Bob Donchez has a mistaken agenda. I know that Callahan doesn’t think much of Donchez as a political leader. I don’t know exactly what he thinks about Bob Donchez’s platform, but I can assure you that it sucks. John Callahan has to live in Bethlehem too, and you can’t govern him like this. The next Mayor is really going to need to keep pushing the envelope to keep the momentum going on economic development and neighborhood quality of life, and the Donchez plan is just incredibly weak in these areas. Willie Reynolds is no Bill Peduto but he has quite a few good concrete ideas for strengthening neighborhoods and growing the city’s tax base.
– He thinks Reynolds is within striking distance. I don’t know what the internal polling looks like, but if I were on the Callahan campaign I would not be doing this unless I thought Willie was very close. Either they saw some internal polls they liked, or the Express Times endorsement persuaded them that Willie’s in a strong position. John wouldn’t be going public with his support unless he thought there was a good shot.
– There’s little risk in supporting Reynolds. Callahan is at 52% in the three-way primary for Northampton County Executive. He’s got it locked down. There aren’t enough Donchez partisans who will abandon Callahan over his support for Reynolds to keep him from winning the primary. There’s also very little damage that a Mayor Donchez could do to County Executive Callahan in practical terms. The Bethlehem Mayor needs a supportive County Executive more than the Exec needs a cooperative Mayor.
– Donchez’s negative campaign hit close to home. Donchez’s rap on Reynolds has been that he’s too young and immature to lead, and that he should wait his turn. Remember, Callahan was quite young when he won the Mayor race. Surely this line of attack must rankle. He just proved that a young Mayor with leadership skills and the right priorities can be very successful. Donchez insisting that only an old guy can do the job, at the same time as he’s running on such an unambitious platform, is perfectly calibrated to bait Callahan into defending the younger candidate.