Allentown grapples with its identity as its indicted mayor begins 4th term while facing trial

Mayor Ed Pawlowski was reelected this month to a historic fourth term in a row despite a 54-count federal indictment hanging over his head.

Listen 5:19
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski won reelection to a fourth term despite facing a 54-count federal indictment. (Annette John-Hall)

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski won reelection to a fourth term despite facing a 54-count federal indictment. (Annette John-Hall)

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, dressed Friday-casual in khakis and an open shirt, sits in the office he’s occupied for the past 12 years, overlooking a downtown dotted with bulldozers and towering cranes.

He rattles off his accomplishments: controlling the city’s pension costs by leasing the water and sewer system, creating thousands of new jobs, and attracting a billion dollars worth of development — all without raising property taxes.

“People see our accomplishments. They’re tangible. Everybody sees them on the street, in their neighborhood. Everything’s getting improved,” Pawlowski said. “And they know me. They know who I am, and they know my character.”

Allentown, Pennsylvania’s third largest city, has been widely praised as a beacon of urban revitalization.

But the city has two faces: One of downtown progress and development; the other of neighborhoods where a quarter of residents remain in poverty.

In the middle sits Pawlowski, reelected this month to a historic fourth term in a row despite a 54-count federal indictment hanging over his head.

After a two-year investigation, in July the FBI slapped Pawlowski with the indictment on charges that he gave city contracts to donors in exchange for campaign contributions — charges that, indeed, have many questioning his character.

The investigation netted six of his closest administrators, left key positions in City Hall vacant, and made him persona non grata to the state’s top Democrat.

According to published reports, when Gov. Tom Wolf arrived in Allentown to sign a domestic violence bill in 2016, Pawlowski, who maintains his innocence, was told not to come because the governor did not want to be photographed with him.

Pawlowski, though, remains unfazed, and ran for reelection despite Allentown City Council unanimously calling for his ouster.

“We knocked on about 10,000 doors, I walked personally about 660 miles, I think I climbed about 300 stories of stairs,” he said. “We really connected with folks.”

A tale of two Allentowns

Allentown has been able to attract new business thanks to a state tax incentive that helps developers pay their debts if they construct new buildings in the city’s urban core.

The Neighborhood Improvement Zone, or NIZ, has produced a handsome new sports arena home to a minor-league hockey team, along with chic eateries and glassy new buildings that line downtown and the waterfront.

State Senator Patrick Browne (R-Lehigh) authored the incentive specifically for Allentown, and says it’s helped the city become recognized internationally as a model for revitalization.

He gives credit to Pawlowski, a Democrat, for being a pragmatic bipartisan.

“The mayor has been involved as part of our team, absolutely,” Browne said.

Crowds gather outside of the PPL Center in downtown Allentown for opening night — a sold out Eagles concert. The arena is home to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms hockey team and is the heart of the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

But, to some, this is the tale of two Allentowns.

Lehigh County Commissioner David Jones says the success of the city has been too focused on downtown business development, without providing tangible gains and middle-class jobs for the 26 percent of residents living in poverty.

“Those that have are getting more, and those that don’t have are getting less,” said Jones, who challenged Pawlowski in the primary and came in fifth. “The mayor gets credit for turning the city around, but the growth of the city hasn’t translated down into the communities and the neighborhoods.”

Residents have seen their city wage tax rise. And while crime has decreased every year since Pawlowski took office, the homicide rate has surged this year, with 17 so far in 2017, compared to 11 for all of 2016.

Pawlowski deflects criticism on that point, saying that for the most part, the homicides have stemmed from domestic disputes he can’t prevent.

“This is not Minority Report where we have some Precog on where crime is going to occur,” he said. “The problem is that there’s too much availability of weapons that are flowing into our streets.”

Even if the positive effects of Allentown’s revitalization haven’t transformed the city’s neighborhoods, Pawlowski remains a popular figure — despite the indictment — in the eyes of some who relate to his down-to-earth personality.

Los Compadres Barbershop owner Willy Castillo in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Annette John-Hall/WHYY)

Los Compadres Barbershop sits on the corner of a working-class Latino neighborhood. Inside, young men wait to get their haircuts while watching a gory Bruce Lee movie on a flat screen.

The people in the neighborhood are Pawlowski supporters. They’re willing to overlook the charges against him, partly because they don’t trust the legal system, but mostly because they know him — after all, he’s lived in the neighborhood for 20 years.

Barbershop owner Willy Castillo says Pawlowski came in for haircuts before anybody knew who he was.

“Some people in the government, you don’t see their faces, you don’t know who they are,” he said. “Ed takes a part in the city of Allentown. He shows up for different events. Even if your event is small, Ed Pawlowski is more than willing to show his support. Because everybody in the city does matter to him.”

Not everybody in the city, though, votes for him — or votes at all. Election day turnout was 17 percent, and Pawlowski eked out a win with fewer than 5,000 votes in a city of 120,000.

His fate may soon be decided by an even smaller number of his peers.  Pawlowski has filed a motion to dismiss all of the legal charges against him  — but his trial date is set for Jan. 16.

“I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Pawlowski said. “But a judge will decide that shortly and if he decides to move on to a trial, we’ll have a trial in the middle of January, and hopefully this will be over by February one way or another.”

The other thing Allentown voters did this election day: amend the city charter to prevent mayors from serving more than two terms.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal