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Who will be the next Northampton County Executive?

By Joe McDonald, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Nov 01 2013 08:25:08 AM CDT
John Callahan v. John Brown
EASTON, Pa. -

The two men running for office to become the next county executive of Northampton County share the same title: Mayor.

One is from a large city with a casino; the other from a hamlet tucked in the Slate Belt.

John Callahan, the mayor of Bethlehem, and John Brown, the mayor of Bangor, each share similar views on a number of issues, including keeping Gracedale, the county’s home for senior citizens, in the county’s hands, not selling it, and looking for ways to run government more efficiently while creating a job-friendly economy and holding the line on taxes.

But a deeper look beyond the campaign slogans reveals two candidates with different experiential backgrounds.

Callahan, a Democrat, has been Bethlehem’s mayor for 10 years, a time that saw the resurrection of the hulking, rusting remains of the old Bethlehem Steel into the creation of the Sands Casino and ArtsQuest.

Before winning the mayoral election in 2003, he was on City Council. He ran for Congress and lost in 2010.

Brown, a Republican, is a newbie in the political world. He’s been in public office for only about a year, though he says that he has learned all the skills required for the county executive position from his 30 years’ experience in private industry.

Brown, 52, says his resume is “essentially a description of what the executive role (of county executive) is all about.”

His work on startups and turnarounds of businesses, domestically and internationally, in the pharmaceutical industry all revolved around leadership, he says, and that boils down to “bringing people along with you,” and that can only be achieved through integrity and keeping promises.

Though they agree on many issues, Callahan says he has the hands-on experience in government that Brown, who he points out is a part-time mayor, lacks.

Calling himself a “full-time, strong mayor,” Callahan, 44, says he led the city through its revitalization after Bethlehem Steel closed, to the revitalization of the largest brown field site and through the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008.

All told, Callahan says, he left the city with $2 billion in new investments, more than 5,000 new jobs and back-to-back surpluses in the city for the first time since 1993.

On top of that, he says, the city has $100 million less debt than when he took office in 2004.

“The difference between John and I is I have the experience of having done it,” Callahan said.

Callahan described Brown as a marginal player in running the borough, unlike himself, who he described as “the one who makes these decisions.”

Brown believes all those years Callahan has spent in public office may turn into a headwind when voters go to the poll on Nov. 5.

“Look at the basic dynamics,” Brown said. “He’s got huge name recognition.
He raised a half-million dollars. Yet I’m still here.”

The way Brown sees it, Callahan is “very unpopular.”

“Residents and taxpayers who have experienced him for 10 years as mayor, five as a councilman, are my biggest supporters,” Brown said.

While admitting the Sands Casino was a “great investment” that created thousands of jobs, Brown said there is another side of town that looks a little down on the heels.

“Look at Main Street in Bethlehem,” Brown said. “It’s beginning to deteriorate. Talk to small business owners and seniors. They will tell you they were forgotten about.”

As for the new life at the old Bethlehem Steel site, Brown said, “Dig deeper behind the shiny glitz of the casino – the 75,000 taxpayers have not benefited one dime.”

If elected, Callahan said the best hope of the county’s future is to “get back into the economic development and job creation business.” He said that was not the focus under current County Executive John Stoffa, who is leaving office.

“I have laid out a very clear plan, just as we’ve done in Bethlehem,”
Callahan said.

The general election is Tuesday, November 5. Poll open at 7 a.m.