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Continued economic development is the focus of Bethlehem Democratic mayoral primary

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: May 19 2013 09:04:31 AM CDT

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Bethlehem Star on Main Street

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

The two candidates facing off in the Democratic mayoral primary in Bethlehem have both built their campaigns around continuing the economic development of the city.

J. William Reynolds spoke extensively about "building up our tax base as a way to keep property taxes down" during a recent interview with WFMZ.com.

His opponent, and fellow city councilman, Robert Donchez, in a separate interview with WFMZ.com, stressed the importance of "marketing Bethlehem to attract new businesses [and] retaining businesses that are already here."

Both men are vying to replace term-limited Mayor John Callahan, and the winner will likely be Bethlehem's next mayor, because there are no Republican candidates running for the office. 

Reynolds' plans are encapsulated in a program he calls "Winning Our Neighborhoods" -- "Neighborhood development is one of the ways to attract middle-class families to Bethlehem," he believes -- while Donchez has made "streamlining the process at City Hall for businesses" a key plank in his platform.

Reynolds, who has been a council member for six years, said Bethlehem has undergone an "economic renaissance" in the last decade and a half, and if it is to continue, the next mayor must know how to "attract jobs and investment to the city." He noted there are "great employees in City Hall," with untapped talents that could be used to keep the city's economy growing.

Donchez, who has been on council since 1996, said he would appoint a "point person" in the community development department so that business owners "could get the same answers to their questions whether they call on a Monday or Thursday." Also, Donchez said it's very important to make sure every department knows what's happening, because the competition for business if fierce, especially with the ongoing comeback of Easton's downtown and Allentown's new Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

Reynolds said one of his goals is "delivering services to taxpayers at the most cost effective prices." As examples, he suggested the possibility of a centralized office in City Hall for accounts receivable and payable, and using LED lighting in street lamps. "The world is becoming more and more technology based, and I would move City Hall ahead in that way," Reynolds said.

Donchez said he will gather a group of financial experts and business leader "to review the workings of city hall … to make government more efficient," adding he would expect a report from the group soon after he took office. The City Hall department haven't been reorganized since Don Cunningham was mayor [in the late 1990s and early 2000s].

Donchez said he wants to explore using a two-year budget as some cities have. "I don't have all the answers, but I'm not afraid to ask the questions."

Reynolds, 31, a social studies teacher at William Allen High School in Allentown and a former legislative aide to State Rep. Steve Samuelson, was asked what special quality sets him apart from Donchez, 63, who is chief of staff to State Rep. Dan McNeill and a retired teacher who spent 35 years behind a desk at William Allen.

"I've built my campaign around empowering residents," said Reynolds, who estimated he's knocked on about 4,000 doors during this campaign. "There are people bringing an energetic, positive vision to the city to keep us competitive with other municipalities. There are exciting things are happening in the city, and my personality can really bring that to the table."

Responding to the same question, Donchez replied, "My father [a Bethlehem police detective] instilled in me the importance of public service, and I've done so by serving on a lot of city boards and nonprofits and being a teacher, even paying for [some students'] AP tests. Giving back is what I've tried to do my whole life. … I lost my dad at an early age [from a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1968, when Donchez was 18]. That changed my life in a split second. … I had to grow up fast, help take care of my mom and help raise my brother. I'm tougher than people give me credit for."

The ages of the candidates has been a steady undercurrent in the campaign. Reynolds brushed off suggestions that he may be too young to be mayor. "We have  a history of young mayors in Bethlehem," pointing out that outgoing Mayor Callahan and former mayors Don Cunningham and Gordon Mowrer were all about his age when they were elected.

"The campaign should be about ideas, where the city needs to go," Reynolds said. "It's unfortunate that Bob looks at my age as kind of a negative thing. It's not what I'm hearing from people when I'm going door to door."

When the age issue was brought up, Donchez said, "My leadership and experience throughout the city and really knowing the history of the city would service us well.

He bristled, however, when asked about claims that he believes he is entitled to be mayor. "I totally disagree with that, that as the senior member of city council I am entitled to be mayor. I want the public to judge me on my record on council [and] what I'm offering … I don't like when people say that to me … I feel I have to be the better candidate. I want people to evaluate my platform, my ideas and my vision."

Both candidates were asked if this campaign will affect the usually harmonious way city council does business.

"I think city has government has always been concerned about doing the best thing for the city," Reynolds responded. "I take a lot of pride in being the same guy before election as after election. People respect that about me. After [the] May 21 [primary], business will move forward. … We're running with our own ideas. When we've disagreed, it's always on a policy basis. It's not personal."

Donchez said, "It's been a spirited campaign, and you have different members [of council] supporting Reynolds and me. … But when the election's over on May 21, the politics is over."

Asked if, as a member of council, would he be able to work with a Reynolds administration, Donchez said, "The answer is yes, and I hope he'd say the same thing of Mayor Donchez. … I consider Willie a friend. I've had him over for picnics and to watch TV in my house. I even offered him my notes on teaching."

Asked if he would have any difficulty working with a Donchez administration, Reynolds answered, "I don't think I'm going to lose, so I haven't really thought about it."