Pennsylvania 15th District
Allentown has long been derided by songwriters, from “42nd Street” back in 1933, in which it was scorned as the polar opposite of Broadway, to Billy Joel’s “Allentown” in 1982, with its grim picture of closed factories and joblessness. Though both contain nuggets of truth, neither is an entirely fair portrait of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley today. Allentown and next-door Bethlehem did suffer when big employers—Mack Truck in Allentown and Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem—closed down massive plants in the 1980s. But the Lehigh Valley around Allentown and Bethlehem in recent years had solid growth and low unemployment, thanks to a mix of regional health care networks, telephone call-centers for insurance companies and banks, and long-surviving industries, such as Air Products and Chemicals, energy utility PPL and the remnants of Mack Truck’s local operations. Its numerous small startups don’t earn the visibility of the big closedowns, but the fact is more new jobs have been created than those that were lost. In the Lehigh Valley, two-thirds of the employers have 10 or fewer workers.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
If the Lehigh Valley is off the main lines of traffic, it does have several features that make it attractive to people from the big city, which helps to explain why its population increased 7% from 2000 to 2007, in contrast to the stagnant growth in the Philadelphia area. Commuters seeking less expensive housing and lower taxes are connected by Interstate 78 to New York and by the Turnpike Extension to Philadelphia. It has a cluster of colleges—Lehigh, Muhlenberg, Moravian—and a strong regional newspaper—the Allentown Morning Call. It has both Dorney Park, one of the nation’s oldest amusement parks, and the delightful and child-friendly Crayola Crayon factory in Easton. Easton’s old industrial buildings, just across the Delaware River from New Jersey, have become something of a magnet for artists seeking inexpensive loft and warehouse space.
The 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania consists of the Lehigh Valley plus a small adjoining slice of northern Montgomery County, which has 11% of the district’s population. Some 11% of the population here is Hispanic, an increase from 8% in 2000 and higher than in any other Pennsylvania metropolitan area and a sure sign that the area is generating new jobs. In Allentown, the Hispanic share is 35%. Politically, this has long been a classic swing area, located at the intersection of heavily Democratic industrial precincts and the Republican farmlands of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. The valley backed Republican Ronald Reagan twice, Republican George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Democrat Bill Clinton twice. It voted for Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, respectively, by miniscule margins. In the past six governors’ races, it voted for the winner each time: twice for Democrat Robert Casey, twice for Republican Tom Ridge and twice for Democrat Ed Rendell. Again reflecting the national vote, the district gave Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama a 56%-43% win in 2008.