Based on the questions Thursday evening to the six Democrats running to represent the Lehigh Valley in Congress next year, young voters want to know how potential lawmakers would address college costs, immigration policies, marijuana laws — and whether they prefer to grab snacks at Wawa or Sheetz.
Since the 7th Congressional District contenders aren’t running statewide, Wawa was a safe answer for the field of contenders as they wooed potential voters at Fegley’s Allentown Brew Works.
It was among many areas of agreement during an evening in which the most contentious moment came on immigration — an issue where Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli’s position is at odds with the progressive crowd he was addressing.
He was booed loudly while responding that he believes local law enforcement should cooperate with federal immigration officials. The crowd — some shouting “abolish ICE!” — overpowered his response, prompting Morganelli to ask if they wanted him to answer the question.
“I’d like to explain … OK they don’t want to hear me,” Morganelli said, halting his answer. Afterward, he said he knew the progressive crowd wouldn’t agree with him, and that the issue is “fair game” in the race.
The rest of the Democratic field expressed support for keeping immigration enforcement activities separate from local law enforcement’s duties.
Thursday’s candidate forum was the first in a series being hosted in competitive Democratic races across the country by NextGen America, a group funded by billionaire and Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer.
The California-based group picked the Lehigh Valley district to kick off the forums due in part to the 7th District’s potential to flip parties with retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent not on the ballot for the first time in 14 years and a more Democratic-friendly constituency due to new district boundaries drawn as a result of Pennsylvania’s gerrymandering lawsuit.
The “youth-centric” event drew an audience Thursday evening that spanned several generations of attendees, who vocally engaged with the candidates and rose to their feet when Greg Edwards, an Allentown pastor with a background in local social activism, led them in a rally-style song.
Some questions came in a rapid-fire format, with the six Democrats giving a one-word responses — such as whether the traffic is worse on Interstate 78 or Route 22, or which Lehigh Valley hot-dog eatery they prefer — or simply raising their hand if they agree.
All of the candidates raised their hands when asked if President Donald Trump is not fit for office. Two of them — Morganelli and Rick Daugherty, who twice attempted to unseat Dent — both put their hands down on a follow-up asking if Trump is racist.
“I don’t know what’s in his heart and I don’t like making accusations without evidence since I’m a prosecutor,” Morganelli said afterward.
“I don’t want to throw a rock,” Daugherty said. “It’s easy to say, ‘You’re a this. You’re a that.’”
On a question about criminal justice reforms, several candidates cited their support for decriminalizing marijuana. Former Allentown solicitor Susan Wild said she would support legalizing marijuana.
Wild also said elected officials “should never, ever be allowed to hide behind a confidential quote unquote settlement agreement” regarding policy changes she would support regarding workplace harassment.
While he praised the #MeToo movement that has brought attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment issues in the workplace and touted his efforts to hire more women in the district attorney’s office, Morganelli also stumbled, drawing murmurs from the crowd when he referenced that in his office, “all of our clerical workers are female.”
On the cost of higher education, the contenders expressed similar interest in addressing the problem, but they varied in the specific solutions they offered.
Morganelli zeroed in on reforming refinancing rules for student loans. Ruggles, a professor at Lafayette College, called for free community college, as did Wild. And David Clark — who previously ran for Congress in 1992 — said his graduated income tax plan would provide more money for education.
“College is no longer a pathway out of poverty,” Edwards said, pointing to the levy proposed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wall Street trades to cover tuition costs at public colleges. “It’s a pathway into it.”
Proceeds from Thursday’s forum will be donated to Allentown’s Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center.