FOGELSVILLE, Pa. ― Some 60 suburbanites, mostly women, gathered in a swim and tennis club outside Allentown on Sunday to hear from six Democratic candidates vying for an open Lehigh Valley congressional seat.
When it came time for the hopefuls to stake out their highest priority, two of the top candidates ― former Allentown city solicitor Susan Wild and Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli ― agreed that it was strengthening gun safety regulations.
“If we don’t do it with these high school students, with these millennials who are speaking out, then I fear that we will never do it, and it absolutely has to happen,” said Wild, a mainstream liberal.
Morganelli, a self-described moderate who complained in 2008 when the NRA gave him an “F” rating, now wears the gun group’s negative review like a badge of honor.
Greg Edwards, an African-American pastor running for the seat with the blessing of Bernie Sanders, identified a corrupt campaign finance system as a higher priority, because it lurked behind the lack of progress on a range of issues, gun policy chief among them.
The leading candidates’ comments reflect the national dynamics at play in Tuesday’s primary for Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District.
On one hand, all the candidates ― even Morganelli ― are clamoring to burnish their progressive bona fides for a Democratic primary electorate that has moved dramatically to the left from where it was as recently as 2016. For example, all three candidates claim they want steps toward a Medicare-for-all system, though Wild and Morganelli emphasize incremental moves.
At the same time, the three candidates’ substantial ideological differences make the race something of a microcosm of the factional battles that have consumed the Democratic Party since the 2016 presidential primary. Lehigh Valley Democrats will get the chance to choose from a cautious Clintonian, a Sanders-style populist and a conservative Democrat hailing from the margins of the contemporary party.
“This is a race that people around the country should probably be watching closely because it’s really a laboratory experiment for what happens when you get different candidates from different factions of the party,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic campaign consultant.
Susan Wild, 60, who was a corporate litigation specialist before taking her city post, fits most neatly into what might broadly be called the Hillary Clinton lane. She checks many of the policy boxes prized by the party’s base ― from abortion rights and legal marijuana to the $15 minimum wage ― and would likely have been the most progressive candidate in the district in a previous election cycle.
But in her rhetoric, Wild emphasizes professional experience and bipartisan cooperation, rather than burn-it-all down populism.
“A big part of my skill set is negotiation,” Wild told HuffPost before a candidate forum in Coplay. “Those are the kinds of skills that we need in Washington.”
Wild bristled when asked whether she would support House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) as speaker.
“That question has a lot of inherent sexism in it. If any other political official had done what she has done, but had been male, that question would not constantly be coming up,” she said, explaining that she would have to see who else was running.
Wild’s record as Allentown solicitor comes with its share of controversy.
During a 2015 arrest caught on camera, an Allentown police officer aggressively kicked a suspect who was already on his hands and knees, breaking the man’s jaw and knocking out three teeth.
When the man sued the city, Wild’s office determined that the officer’s actions were “appropriate” under the circumstances, and hired an outside defense attorney to represent him.
The defense attorney later decided that there was a good chance the plaintiff would win in court, so the city settled with the injured man for $160,000.
Wild stands by her handling of the case. “The fact that it was resolved in favor of the person who brought the claim speaks to my standards about what the police force should be held accountable for,” she said.
Greg Edwards, 48, who founded a social justice-minded church in Allentown’s center city, is the candidate who most resembles Sanders, his highest-profile backer.
The non-denominational pastor and community organizer, who peppers his remarks with the sayings of Shirley Chisholm and Abraham Joshua Heschel, is a vocal proponent of Medicare-for-all, debt-free college, universal pre-K, public campaign financing and protecting cities and states that choose not to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He is betting that the area’s energized and growing contingent of people of color, millennials and progressives will help propel him to victory. A majority of the roughly 120,000 people in Allentown, from where he hails, are people of color, including 49 percent who are Latino.
A group backing Morganelli has attacked Edwards over the day care center that he ran and questions whether he mismanaged it financially, which Edwards vehemently denies. Other critics have wondered whether Edwards is viable in the general election. The district’s population skews white outside Allentown and nearby Bethlehem and Easton, and has historically elected moderates from either party. Voters in all three counties in the district opted for Clinton over Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary.
But Edwards maintained that his populist message now has appeal across demographic and party lines.
“The message around how do we become financially solvent individually, in our families and homes, and really live a life that has economic dignity and retire with dignity ― that cuts across this very steep, rigid ideology that says, ‘I’m a Democrat; I’m a Republican,’” he said.
John Morganelli, 62, a two-time failed candidate for state attorney general, represents something of a throwback to the Blue Dog Democrats of the 1990s. Run-of-the-mill moderates still abound in today’s Democratic Party, but figures like Morganelli ― an abortion rights opponent and immigration hard-liner who has cozied up to Donald Trump on Twitter ― are a rare breed.
Morganelli famously wrote to Trump, in a now-deleted November 2016 tweet, that he was “waiting to hear from transition. Hope to serve.”
Morganelli told HuffPost on Sunday that he had applied to become U.S. attorney for Pennsylvania’s Eastern District, and withdrew his bid shortly after Trump’s inauguration when he grew disappointed with the president’s conduct. And he is keen to remind people that he was a public supporter of Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
But months into the president’s tenure, Morganelli continued to speak positively about Trump. In a March 2017 tweet, he even compared Trump’s proposed crackdown on sanctuary cities to former President Barack Obama’s use of federal funds to encourage states to allow transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice.
Asked whether he was too conservative for the district, Morganelli said, “It’s up to the folks to decide obviously. I’ve been in office 25, 26 years, so I’m not going to reinvent myself.”
The three-way battle between Edwards, Wild and Morganelli is contentious precisely because Pennsylvania’s 7th is a ripe pickup opportunity for Democrats.
In a year of sky-high Democratic enthusiasm, the historically moderate Lehigh Valley district would likely be on the party’s short list, one way or another.
Bu two unforeseen developments have made it even more attractive. Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate outspoken in his criticism of Trump, announced in September that he was retiring. That means Democrats are now contesting an open seat, rather than one occupied by a six-term incumbent.
And in February, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the state’s congressional districts, transforming the old 15th District, where Trump won by 8 percentage points, to the new 7th, where Clinton would have won by 1 point.
With two candidates sniping at each other … there’s an opportunity for a third candidate to shoot the gap and come out ahead. Mark Nevins
Seeking to avoid a bloody primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats to the House, initially signaled that it might be interested in reducing the number of candidates.
Tim Persico, a DCCC political operative, inquired with local Democrats whether Wild and Edwards would be interested in running in a competitive state senate seat where they both live instead of the open House seat.
However, Edwards got wind of the query and spoke to The Washington Post about it, turning the race into yet another flashpoint between the DCCC and a restive Democratic base wary of party meddling.
In the absence of a DCCC-anointed candidate, the primary has become a battleground for influential outside groups.
NextGen America, a millennial-focused group founded by liberal billionaire Tom Steyer that has not endorsed in the race, has spent $100,000 on digital ads and mail attacking Morganelli as a “pro-Trump Democrat.”
And EMILY’s List, which backs pro-choice Democratic women, announced last week that it was buying television ad time on Wild’s behalf in the Philadelphia and Allentown markets, as well as sending 250,000 pieces of mail to support her bid.
Meanwhile, United Together, a PAC affiliated with the centrist group No Labels, is backing Morganelli. The PAC has spent over $150,000 on digital ads blasting Wild, and an additional $137,000 on direct-mail literature attacking Edwards.
Still, most of the public blows have been traded by Morganelli and Wild and their respective allies. It’s a dynamic that could give Edwards an opening, according to Nevins.
“With two candidates sniping at each other … there’s an opportunity for a third candidate to shoot the gap and come out ahead,” he said.
The Democratic nominee will face the winner of the GOP primary, which features a local businessman and a county commissioner who won a cycling gold medal at the 2000 Olympics.
Edwards, who has benefited from the fundraising prowess of groups like the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, has thus far led the field in money raised. But unlike his competitors, he has declined to spend on ads or campaign mailers, focusing his resources instead on a massive canvassing and turnout operation.
In conversations across the district, there was evidence that some of the progressive voters Edwards should already have in the bag were still not sure who he was.
Karen Kratzer Shields, a home health care aide from Coplay who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary and ardently supports Medicare-for-all, had heard nothing about Edwards.
Although Shields remained undecided, she was tentatively planning to “bite the bullet” and back Morganelli, despite conservative positions with which she disagreed.
The prosecutor’s experience, she said, convinces her he’s “the one who can push our agenda the most.”
At the Fogelsville forum, organized by the local Democratic Party precinct, many attendees were deciding between Wild and Edwards.
Diane Visco, one of several friends helping clean up the swim club kitchen, was not yet set on a candidate. However, she had ruled out Morganelli, who she called a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” in light of his warm words for Trump.
“I’d be very, very concerned” if he were the nominee, she said, before acknowledging that she would nonetheless vote for him over a Republican in the general election.
Chuck Thomas, a local construction contractor, had been leaning toward Wild, but started giving Edwards a second look when he learned that Sanders was backing him. The pastor’s remarks at the forum had just about sealed the deal.
“He’s got a lot of charisma,” Thomas said. “He’ll rally people.”