Lehigh Valley

Mayoral candidate blasts opponents for staying silent on Pawlowski

One candidate calls criticism a 'political stunt'

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The chorus of criticism for Mayor Ed Pawlowski coming from his opponents now that election season is in full swing is too little, too late, according to one Democratic challenger.

“Leadership is speaking when it’s needed, not when it’s convenient,” mayoral hopeful Siobhan “Sam” Bennett said.

With less than two weeks until the May primary, Bennett on Thursday took some of her Democratic opponents to task for the timing of their decision to distance themselves from Pawlowski, whose administration is under fire from on ongoing FBI probe.

Federal prosecutors have indicted seven people, including the mayor’s former campaign manager and four city officials, tied to alleged pay-to-play politics in city hall. All seven have pleaded guilty, and authorities link them all to Pawlowski. The mayor, however, has neither been named in court papers nor indicted.

Speaking from her campaign headquarters inside the Traylor Hotel, Bennett said she knows and likes all her opponents, but said this election isn’t about the voters hiring the person they like. It’s about hiring the right person to run city hall that lacks a “cause for concern,” she said.

Bennett has publicly spoken about her early criticism of the mayor.

Bennett criticized Charlie Thiel for taking money from a Pawlowski political action committee – Citizens for a Better Allentown – that “handpicked candidates,” while running for Allentown school board in 2015. She called out city council President Ray O’Connell for publicly criticizing the mayor only after deciding to run for the seat himself.

O’Connell served on city council with former Councilwoman Jeannette Eichenwald, who was the only council member at the time to openly criticize the mayor, Bennett said, adding he was quoted at one point that he was sure Pawlowski would be vindicated.

And she criticized Lehigh County Commissioner David Jones for lambasting the mayor at a recent candidate forum after remaining largely silent about the issue.

As for the mayor, he’s surrounded by a “cloud of concern” that Bennett insists is slowing development in the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

“It’s ridiculous,” Pawlowski said. “We just did the announcement of a $250 million development and a new event center.”

Developer J.B. Reilly last week detailed plans for Five City Center, which will include a 24-story office building, event center, park and apartments.

As he’s done in the months since announcing his candidacy for a fourth term, the mayor pointed to hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in the city, drops in unemployment and crime and 10 years of a steady property tax rate.

“If that’s a downturn, I’ll take it,” he said.

As for the investigation, Pawlowski continues to insist he wouldn’t be running for mayor and knocking on doors if he believed he did anything wrong or was harming Allentown in any way.

“We do have a process in this country. It’s called ‘innocent until proven guilty,’” the mayor said.

In a statement critical of Bennett’s news conference, Thiel said most of the candidates in this year’s primary have supported Pawlowski over the last 12 years, including giving donations to his campaigns. That includes Bennett, who donated to Pawlowski and endorsed him during his mayoral, gubernatorial and Congressional campaigns, according to Thiel.

“As a concerned citizen and candidate, I believe we need to stop this kind of divisive, negative finger pointing and move Allentown forward with strong, steady leadership,” Thiel said in his statement. “We should let the legal process continue around Ed Pawlowski without comment and without cheap political stunts.”

Regarding the PAC, Thiel noted that state Reps. Michael Schlossberg and Peter Schweyer were also involved and that he held a fundraiser that donated about $11,000 to the group. The money went toward a slate of candidates that paid for things like mailers, he said.

Thiel said he didn't receive a monetary donation from the PAC.

Bennett acknowledged that she donated $2,600 to Pawlowski’s 2015 Congressional campaign that was cut short by the FBI probe. As the former chair of the Allentown Democratic committee, she said she was happy to support the local candidate for office, which was before the FBI investigation became public.

Pawlowski’s PAC also donated to Thiel’s campaign before the probe was announced.

Neither O’Connell, nor Jones were immediately available for comment.

If the mayor prevails in the primary, Bennett said she will not publicly support him, but will not work to undermine him either. The municipal primary will be held May 16.

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