Allentown mayor banks on credentials in race for top

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Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski's bid for the Democratic nomination for governor follows the lead of his party's last two nominees.

He portrays himself as a successful municipal manager who would bring to the state level the lessons of government overhaul and economic revival he has successfully implemented locally.

"I'm the only mayor in the race; I'm the only one running a government," he says of the eight current contenders for the Democratic nomination to challenge Gov. Tom Corbett.

That approach worked spectacularly well for Ed Rendell. But Dan Onorato's 2010 experience showed it brings no guarantees of success.

Mr. Pawlowski, a gregarious figure in public, quick to laugh at his own jokes, touts his Allentown record in a laptop slide show he's presented around the state. A sparse crowd gathered in the back room of Tolerico's restaurant in Monroeville this fall to hear one version.

"As I look at the state, there doesn't seem to be any economic development strategy," he said. "In Allentown, we're doing something different. We're doing something about it."

As he tabbed though his laptop, he touted the recent history of the city he's presided over since 2005. He said he balanced a budget that was $8 million in the red when he took office, added police officers while cutting the city's overall workforce, and attracted more than $1 billion in private investment in offices and sports venues.

In a state littered with underfunded government pension systems at every level, Mr. Pawlowski emphasizes in particular Allentown's unique initiative to wipe out its unfunded pension liabilities.

After a bidding process that also attracted three private-sector proposals, the city leased its water and sewer system to the water authority for the surrounding Lehigh County for 50 years. In exchange the city received an upfront payment of $211 million, and escalating annual payments starting at $500,000. Most of the upfront payment is to be used to wipe out the unfunded pension balance of roughly $160 million.

The deal has some critics. While it shielded the city taxpayers from the pension obligation, they are mostly the same people who are expected to pay higher water bills over the life of the deal. Various estimates have projected that by 2042, inflation-adjusted water rates would be significantly higher than current levels.

But a Moody's analysis of the transaction, quoted in the September issue of Governing, noted that those costs would be spread over a broader base as the city's large nonprofit community, which is exempt from property taxes, would pay a share of the higher rates.

Mr. Pawlowski does not hold the deal out as a precise template for solving the state's profound pensions woes, but he contends that it demonstrates the political will and policy creativity that he would bring to Harrisburg.

Mr. Pawlowski, 48, is the son of Chicago restaurant owners. He received a bachelor's degree from Moody Bible Institute, then a master's in urban planning and public policy from the University of Illinois. He worked with public housing residents as an employee of the Chicago Housing Authority before becoming executive director of the Lehigh County Housing Authority. Subsequently, he moved on to the post of director of community and economic development for the city of Allentown.

He won the mayor's office in 2005, and has been re-elected twice, including in November's election, which took place after he had announced that he would run for governor. He won both the Democratic and Republican nominations in May, and claimed his third term in a landslide against an independent challenger.

Despite that strong regional base, polls suggest that he, like most of his Democratic competitors, is unknown to most Pennsylvania voters. When Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, asked state voters in November whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the various candidates, 72 percent said they were "not sure" of their view of Mr. Pawlowski. But even with the best known of his rivals, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Montgomery County, 58 percent didn't know enough to express an opinion.

A Quinnipiac University survey in mid-December suggested that he would defeat Mr. Corbett, 41-39 percent, a narrow margin that was at the low end of the trial heat victories projected for the various Democrats.

Mr. Pawlowski assured one questioner at Tolerico's that he would be able to raise enough money to sustain a vigorous campaign.

"I wouldn't jump in if I didn't think I could be competitive," he said.

But he observed later that for him as for other candidates, "On the money side, a lot of folks are holding back, a lot of money is waiting on the sidelines."

But he argues that while he may be outgunned in the crucial Philadelphia media market, his competitors are "going to be chopping each other up in Philadelphia."

"I don't need to win Philadelphia," he said, predicting that he will be able to put together a winning total in a crowded field by picking up votes across the state.

Mr. Pawlowski describes himself as pro-life personally but emphasizes that he would do nothing as governor to restrict abortion rights in the state. On another often controversial issue, he says he is a supporter of the Second Amendment, but acknowledges a need for "common-sense gun regulations," crafted to accommodate the state's diversity.

"I'm a moderate Democrat, a [Sen.] Bobby Casey-type Democrat. That's what wins the state of Pennsylvania."

With a laugh, he added, "There are 20 Polish Clubs in Erie."

Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.

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