Temple administrator Ken Lawrence will be sworn in as Montgomery County’s newest county commissioner Wednesday afternoon.
Generally, county residents elect members of the three-person panel, but Lawrence was chosen by a panel of Montgomery County judges to replace new Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s vacancy. Lawrence will phase out of his job at Temple and serve the three remaining years in Shapiro’s term.
It’s no small appointment. With more than 800,000 residents, Montgomery is the third largest county by population and second wealthiest in terms of per capita income. The county commission oversees everything from land preservation to public health to child welfare.
And, the position can be a springboard.
In recent decades, Montgomery County voter enrollment and government offices have flipped from largely Republican to the Democratic Party. Former commissioners have jumped into higher office, Shapiro to Attorney General and former Commissioner Leslie Richards to Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation, under Governor Tom Wolf.
NewsWorks spoke to Lawrence on the day before his swearing in, to get a sense of the newest Montgomery County commissioner’s background and priorities.
[The transcript has been condensed for clarity and brevity.]
NW: Can you highlight some parts of your experience that you’re especially proud of and that you think will be helpful in your experience as county commissioner?
KL: I’m a product of public higher education. I started my college career at Montgomery County Community College and then transferred to Temple University and graduated there with a degree in political science. I have 20 years of experience in public affairs, working with the government at the state, local and federal level. I have bipartisan relationships at all levels as well, which I believe will benefit the residents of the county.
NW: You’ve been active in the local democratic committee, right?
KL: I’ve been somewhat active. I was a delegate to the national convention in 2012 and 2016. Clearly, I’ve always been involved in politics and in government. My first internship was actually for the Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel back in 1992. I worked for Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, when she worked in Congress, as as district representative. And I’ve always been active in helping get Democrats elected.
NW: What do you think the priorities are now, going forward ,for the three years of the term?
KL: Well, we want to continue to be good fiscal stewards for the taxpayers of Montgomery County. There’s been a lot of hard work going on with transportation and infrastructure that I will want to work with and see continue, and economic development in the county, make sure we have jobs here for our residents.
NW: Can you talk more about the economic development you’d like to encourage?
KL: I’m a previous board member at the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, so tourism is actually a major industry in Montgomery County. I’ve worked previously at Merck and Company, which is the largest employer here in Montgomery County. Montgomery County has one of the largest manufacturing bases of any county in Pennsylvania, so we want to work with the employers here to make sure they have trained employees for their needs, but also working to bring new corporations to the county.
NW: Montgomery County is one of the most affluent counties in the state. Can you talk about economic [inequality] in the county? It’s been a big source of tension in the last election year.
KL: I think certainly we want to invest in our older boroughs and towns, to see how they can be revitalized. I think the Lafayette Street Project, coming into Norristown, which the County is spearheading there, will create new opportunities there. But yes, that’s certainly something that should be a priority and will be a priority. [To to make sure] the older boroughs aren’t left behind.
NW: What do you think are the challenges Montgomery County will face in the next three years?
KL: I think the challenges that Montgomery county faces aren’t going to be unique to Montgomery County. I think you’re looking at Pennsylvania, you’re looking at the national climate. I think jobs and education are critically important. No matter where you live. And I think the infrastructure needs, too. To address your [previous] question, I think people need to have mobility to move around the county as well. So that’s why public transportation is important too. Bridges, all of those things.
NW: There’s been some partisan tension on the commission, between [Commissioner Joe Gale] and his two democratic counterparts. How do you plan to manage those dynamics?
KL: Joe Gale and I have a blank slate. We share a Temple degree, we both live in Plymouth Township, so I want to focus on the things we have in common. I don’t expect we’ll agree on everything, but I hope that when we disagree, we can disagree in a way that’s civil and respectful of the process….and focus on governing.
NW: It’s been reported that you’re the first black man to hold this office, or first person of color, can you tell me if that’s true? And if so, how that’s significant?
KL: I can not tell you if that’s true [laughs]. People have been telling me that. My parents raised me to believe that I could be anything that I wanted to be, and that there’s opportunity out there for me and that’s how I tried to live my life and perform in my career. If there is somebody out there who did not believe this opportunity was available to them, and they look at me in this seat now and say that they can do it as well, I think that’s a wonderful thing. Montgomery County is a diverse place and I think it’s great that the government reflects the diversity of Montgomery County.