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Ray O’Connell cruises to victory in Allentown mayoral Democratic primary

Allentown Interim Mayor Ray O’Connell comfortably defeated three challengers Tuesday to secure the Democratic nomination for a two-year term leading City Hall.Cheryl Johnson Watts, Patrick Palmer and Michael Daniels were unable to mobilize voters despite running against an unelected incumbent who in his single year in office raised property taxes 27% — the first increase in 13 years.With three-quarters of precincts reporting, O’Connell had 2,021 unofficial votes. Johnson Watts was a distant second with 952 votes. Palmer had 480 votes and Daniels had 371 votes.The four Democratic candidates for Allentown mayor. From top left, clockwise: Michael Daniels, Ray O’Connell, Patrick Palmer and Cheryl Johnson-Watts. (Rick Kintzel / The Morning Call/)The 69-year-old retired Allentown School District administrator and former city councilman in November will face Tim Ramos, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary. In a city with more than three times as Democrats as Republicans, O’Connell is the prohibitive favorite.“It’s obviously very rewarding that the people of Allentown have confidence in me,” he said. “Over the next seven months and then hopefully the following two years, I’ll work very hard to bring Allentown back as the vibrant city it once was.”O’Connell’s win came on a day of low turnout across most of the city.With 44 of 58 precincts reporting, 3,824 city Democrats had cast ballots in the race. That’s about 9.2% of the 41,760 registered Democrats in Allentown. Tim Ramos is running unopposed for the Republican nomination in the Allentown mayoral race has his portrait taken at The Morning Call Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Michael Daniels has joined the race for Allentown mayor. (Rick Kintzel/)Turnout in the city’s municipal primaries is historically low, ranging from less than 10% in an uncontested 2013 race to 22% in a crowded 2005 mayoral primary that included three Democrats and three Republicans. Two years ago, when then-Mayor Ed Pawlowski edged O’Connell and five other candidates in the Democratic primary, turnout was about 15%.Throughout the day Tuesday, voter counts lagged behind 2017 levels, particularly in Center City. As of noon, turnout was under 4% at more than a half dozen precincts and under 2.5% at least three precincts.O’Connell and Ramos are seeking to fill the final two years of Pawlowski’s fourth term. Pawlowski resigned in March 2018 after a federal jury convicted him on dozens of felony pay-to-play charges, finding that he gave away city contracts to donors of his political campaigns.Later that month, City Council selected O’Connell interim mayor among a field of more than two dozen applicants, including all three of his Democratic challengers this year. O’Connell had been serving as president of council, to which he was first elected in 2009, and argued his nearly 50 years serving the city made him the ideal person to help residents regain trust in their government.Allentown mayoral candidate profile: Ray O’ConnellO’Connell has defended the 27% property tax hike as necessary to begin rebuilding a cash reserve fund drained over Pawlowski’s 13-year tenure. The additional revenue is slated to cover a $6 million structural deficit for this year. For the previous two years, when O’Connell was still on City Council, Allentown used reserves to balance its budget.He reiterated Tuesday night that the decision to raise taxes was difficult but necessary in order to avoid cutting public services.O’Connell is also attempting to bolster revenue by levying the business privilege tax against city nonprofits, including several large health care networks. A number have sued.If elected in November, O’Connell says he’ll prioritize public safety and community and economic development over the next two years.Ramos, a 34-year-old truck driver and personal trainer who ran unsuccessfully for school board in 2015, has so far shown more willingness than the Democratic candidates to explicitly criticize the O’Connell administration for the tax hike and other policies. He says he would implement zero-based budgeting and force city administrators to more thoroughly justify every expenditure. He would also prioritize policies geared at increasing the city’s homeownership rate and strengthening community policing.WATCH: Allentown mayoral candidate Tim Ramos (R) makes his pitch to votersDemocratic candidates spent significantly less money on their campaigns than counterparts in previous races. O’Connell’s $6,543 in expenditures over the first four months of 2019 was less than half the $13,400 he spent over the same period in 2017, but still more than his three challengers spent combined.In 2017, Democrat Charlie Thiel spent more than $100,000 on a bid that landed him in third place. Pawlowski spent nearly $85,000.Morning Call reporter Andrew Wagaman can be reached at 610-820-6764 or
Source: Morningcall

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