#childsafety | These Lehigh Valley candidates want to be your next state representative

Pennsylvania House of Representative races this year come at a time when Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly routinely butt heads.

House Republicans currently hold the chamber, 110-93, down from what had been a historically high number of 121 GOP members before Democrats shaved off 11 seats in the 2018 election. In the Senate, Democrats are expected to pick up at least one seat, but securing the five necessary for a clear majority is considered out of reach.

Many of the state House seats serving the Lehigh Valley are contested.

State representatives are elected for two-year terms and earn a salary of $88,610 a year.

Here are the candidates in the Nov. 3 election hoping to represent the Lehigh Valley:

131st Legislative District

Kevin Branco, Democrat

Milou MacKenzie, Republican

The race for a new face in the 131st District seat pits two newcomers to replace state Rep. Justin Simmons, who announced in December he was not seeking re-election.

Democratic gym owner Kevin Branco and interior designer Milou MacKenzie, a Republican, are vying for the district that covers communities in Lehigh, Northampton and Montgomery counties.

The 35-year-old Branco, who grew up in Hellertown and now lives in Upper Saucon Township, said running for public office is something he has always wanted to do, but what pushed him to do it this year was “I was tired of the leadership we had out of our district.”

He tells his gym’s clients if they don’t like something, fix it.

“I’ve got take my own advice,” he said.

The candidates’ experiences as small businesses owners give them unique insight into surviving the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 69-year-old MacKenzie, a former schoolteacher who lives in Lower Saucon Township, wants to safely restart the economy and spark job creation.

“The first thing we must do is allow small businesses to return to business – safely and while responsibly following health guidelines. Until we let them do that, nothing else matters,” she said via email. “After that, Pennsylvania must look at fair tax and regulatory reforms to make our state competitive in the national marketplace; we are simply losing too many current and new businesses to other states.”

Branco said his business, like restaurants and theaters, was hit head-on by the pandemic, and the state Legislature is sitting on $1.3 billion in federal CARES Act funding.

“Why hasn’t that been released?” he asked.

Federal and state programs have offered loans and grants to help businesses get through the pandemic, but “businesses don’t need loans, they don’t need more overhead. They need relief,” he said.

Branco said he’d like to see more grant-based funding to help business owners pay their mortgage or rent and pay employees.

MacKenzie said the Wolf administration should have built a coalition – of legislators from both parties, local officials, the medical community, the small business community, the education community and residents – and then made decisions transparently.

It would have allowed a more tailored response for local communities rather than “one size fits all,” she said. “Moving forward, that is how we should operate.”

Voting and how residents cast their ballots, particularly in Pennsylvania, has also become a campaign issue in local, state and federal races.

Both Branco and MacKenzie are voting by mail.

“I just think it’s important for everyone to vote, no matter how they do it,” MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie said she wishes the state Legislature would have taken action to allow counties to pre-canvass – open ballots but not tabulate them – before Election Day to cut down on the delay in reporting.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allows Pa. to count ballots up to three days after Election Day, and she said that is sufficient time to allow voters to get their mail-in ballots returned. Pennsylvania Republicans are continuing to fight the extension.

“Any longer and I fear testing the patience of the public to find out the results or, worse, playing into people’s worst fears about tampering,” she said.

Branco said Act 77 and allowing mail-in ballots is a great step in democracy, and the next Legislature should listen to the people actually counting the ballots — the county employees.

“Is (three days) enough time? That’s a question to be determined. We’ll see how this election goes,” he said. The mail-in ballot system is still in its infancy and “it’s going to have to be fine-tuned.”

The 131st district includes Coopersburg, Emmaus and Lower Milford, Salisbury, Upper Milford and Upper Saucon townships in Lehigh County; East Greenville, Upper Hanover Township, Pennsburg and Red Hill in Montgomery County; and Lower Saucon Township in Northampton County.

138th Legislative District

Tara Zrinski, Democrat

Ann Flood, Republican

After 10 years, a new woman will represent the 138th District in the state House.

Incumbent state Rep. Marcia Hahn will retire at the end of her 10-year run as state representative this year. That means one of two women running this fall will replace her.

Democrat Tara Zrinski and Republican Ann Flood seek the seat in the 138th district that includes a large swath of northern, central and western Northampton County.

Zrinski, a 45-year-old Hanover Township resident, is excited about the prospect of representing the district and working hard to sway voters.

“This seat has not been Democratic for 30 years. I really think that we’ve put together a great campaign,” she said.

Flood, a 46-year-old Moore Township resident, said she wants to serve her neighbors in Harrisburg.

“When the seat opened up, it gave me a bigger platform to advocate for the community I grew up in,” she said. “I truly care about the community and want to improve the quality of life here.”

Voters may recognize Zrinski’s name from her role as a member of Northampton County Council. She has served on that panel since 2017. She’s an adjunct philosophy teacher at Northampton Community College and has held various jobs in connection with solar energy, most recently as a consultant for SunPulse Solar.

Flood started the nonprofit Lauren’s Hope Foundation in memory of her daughter, who died in 2007 at age 4 due to a brain injury. The foundation aids young people with severe brain injuries and their families.

The all-female cast of characters isn’t the only thing that makes this race noteworthy. Campaigning in the COVID-19 era is also brand new for both of them.

“This is definitely a non-traditional election,” Zrinski said.

She’s going to neighborhoods to meet voters, although she has refrained from knocking on doors. She’ll approach residents if they’re outside and ask them if they want to talk, then ask before getting too close or handing over campaign literature.

“You have to find what people’s comfort levels are and meet them where they are. I think that’s important,” she said.

Flood said she always stands back from the front door she knocks on and always wears a mask. Most people whose doors she’s knocked on have been receptive to her message, she said.

“It’s really been a great way to meet people,” Flood said.

Zrinski’s COVID-19 recovery plan notes that the epidemic is more than a health crisis. It’s an economic and social crisis as well. People who lost jobs and small businesses need help, she said. “For far too long the middle class has been pinching their pennies trying to make ends meet,” Zrinski said. “COVID has just exposed this and exacerbated this.”

As president of the Bath Chamber of Commerce, Flood has directly helped small businesses affected by COVID-19 to find resources to keep their doors open.

“It’s so sad to see these generational businesses that are closing for good,” Flood said.

Flood said raising her special-needs child and then starting a foundation for sick children has put health care at the front of her agenda. She also favors controlling government spending and protecting the Second Amendment. She opposes abortion rights, her site says.

On her campaign Facebook page, Flood says raising a child with multiple disabilities has helped her recognize the need for resources for other families in similar situations. Her foundation has helped more than 100 families cope with the challenges of raising a special needs child, the Facebook page says.

The page says she partnered with Lehigh Valley Health Network to create a hypothermia therapy program that has helped more than 50 critically ill babies.

“My passion for driving positive change will ensure your voice is heard in Harrisburg,” Flood said on Facebook.

Zrinski favors health care for all Americans, fair funding in education, accountability from all elected leaders and property tax reform. She’s a champion for the environment.

In 2018, she formed an ad hoc committee for studying the economic potential of industrial hemp and to support farmers and industrial hemp business entrepreneurs.

She hosted an event in 2020 to educate farmers. Encouraging the cultivation of this cash crop could convince some local farmers to keep farming rather than sell their land to developers, she said.

Zrinski is a Bethlehem Township native and Freedom High School graduate who raised her three sons in the Bethlehem area. She holds master’s degrees in theological studies and pastoral counseling from Moravian Theological Seminary.

Flood is a Wind Gap native who graduated from Pen Argyl Area High School and earned a biology degree from Moravian College. She’s the college’s 2017 Haupert Humanitarian Award winner. She and her husband, Dan Flood, have two children.

The 138th district includes Bushkill, East Allen, Hanover, Lower Nazareth and Plainfield townships; parts of Bethlehem and Moore townships; Bath, Chapman, Pen Argyl and Wind Gap.

Other Pennsylvania House of Representative races

22nd Legislative District

Peter Schweyer, Democrat (incumbent)

Enid Santiago, Democrat (write-in)

Rep. Peter Schweyer narrowly bested Santiago in the June Democratic primary race that Santiago contested. Click on their names to learn more about their candidacies.

The 22nd district covers neighborhoods in Allentown.

132nd Legislative District

Michael Schlossberg, Democrat (incumbent)

Michael McCreary, Republican

Rep. Michael Schlossberg took office in the state House in 2013. He previously served as vice president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and vice president of Allentown City Council. His priorities are fair education funding and advocating for the most vulnerable in our society, particularly those who suffer from mental illness, according to his campaign website.

Michael McCreary owns the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix. He waged a write-in campaign leading up to the primary and wants to help create jobs and help small businesses recover, eliminate government waste and keep property taxes low, and provide a quality education for every child, his website says.

The 132nd district covers part of Allentown.

133rd Legislative District

Jeanne McNeill, Democrat (incumbent)

David Molony, Republican

Rep. Jeanne McNeill and David Molony will face off again in the general election for the 133rd seat.

The pair first squared off in 2017 for the special election to fill the term of late state Rep. Dan McNeill, Jeanne’s husband. He passed away in 2017 while serving his third term, and Jeanne was nominated by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to run as her husband’s replacement.

Jeanne McNeill was then elected to a full term in 2018.

Molony, who lives in Catasauqua and owns Lehigh Valley Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Centre, has repeatedly sought this seat. He was unsuccessful in three previous challenges to Dan McNeill.

McNeill, of Whitehall Township, previously worked at Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21 as a skills trainer teaching job skills, independence and life skills to young adults with disabilities.

During her time in Harrisburg, McNeill has worked on legislation to cap insulin costs and focused on the rights of veterans, seniors and animals, according to her campaign website. While the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be immense, McNeill said she will fight any effort to put additional burdens on our taxpayers.

Molony does not have a campaign website and did not respond to the League of Women Voters’ election questionnaire.

The 133rd district covers Bethlehem and Hanover Township in Lehigh County, as well as Catasauqua, Coplay, Fountain Hill, Salisbury Township and Whitehall Township.

134th Legislative District

Marc Basist, Democrat

Ryan MacKenzie, Republican (incumbent)

Marc Basist started a business in a basement concerning NASA’s special sensory microwave imaging spectrum, according to his campaign website. He sold the business in three years and has served as a business consultant for 16 years. He is an advocate for universal health care, property tax and education reform, and for small businesses.

Rep. Ryan MacKenzie started serving in the state house in 2011. He previously served as the director of policy at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. He advocates for creating jobs, protecting taxpayers, strengthening education, reforming government and has successfully passed legislation in these areas, according to his campaign website.

The 134th district includes Alburtis, Lower Macungie Township, Washington Township and parts of Salisbury, South Whitehall and Whitehall townships in Lehigh County; as well as Longswamp, Richmond and Rockland townships in Berks County.

135th Legislative District

Steve Samuelson, Democrat (incumbent)

Scott Hough, Republican

For the first time in eight years, longtime Rep. Steve Samuelson is facing a challenger for the 135th seat, newcomer Scott Hough.

Samuelson, a graduate of Liberty High School and Lehigh University, was first elected in 1999 and has held the seat since.

Before joining the General Assembly, he worked as a legislative assistant to former state Reps. Paul McHale and Karen Ritter, a newspaper reporter and as a staffer for the Lehigh County commissioners.

Samuelson has repeatedly run as advocate for government reform, the environment and education. He does not have a campaign website and did not respond to the League of Women Voters’ election questionnaire.

Hough provides venue and personal security services at locations around the world, his release says. He previously served as the director of security and events services for the company that manages the PPL Center in Allentown.

He is running on a platform to safely open the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, fully funding and supporting public safety personnel, property tax relief and eliminating what he called Pennsylvania’s “antiquated” school district tax system and addressing the opioid, according to his website.

The 135th district includes the Northampton County portion of Bethlehem and part of Bethlehem Township.

136th Legislative District

Robert Freeman, Democrat (incumbent)

183rd Legislative District

Jason Ruff, Democrat

Zach Mako, Republican (incumbent)

Jason Ruff serves as vice president on Slatington Borough Council. He’s a self-employed business owner, according to his campaign website. He has worked on borough council for smart neighborhood growth and curbing warehouse overdevelopment. He also works for public recreation enhancements and economic development.

Rep. Zach Mako, the incumbent, has served in the state house since 2017. He serves as a helicopter pilot for the Pa. National Guard and spent nine months in Afghanistan, according to his campaign website. He wants to eliminate property taxes, rein in government spending and get more value out of our public education.

The 183rd district includes Allen Township, Lehigh Township, North Catasauqua, Northampton Borough, Walnutport in Northampton County; and Slatington, Washington Township and parts of South Whitehall and Whitehall township in Lehigh County.

187th Legislative District

Gary Day, Republican (incumbent)

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Sarah Cassi may be reached at scassi@lehighvalleylive.com.

Rudy Miller may be reached at rmiller@lehighvalleylive.com.

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