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Election 2024: 3 Lehigh Valley races part of bid for party control of PA House

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With the political balance of the closely divided state House on the line, voters in three Lehigh Valley districts will head to the polls next month to choose their party’s candidate in contested primaries.

All 203 seats in the state House of Representatives are up for election in November. Currently, Democrats hold just a 102-100 majority.

On April 23, Democrats in the 131st and 136th districts will be asked to pick their candidates for the November election, while Republicans head to the polls to choose a candidate in the 183rd district.

Other seats in the Lehigh Valley are uncontested in the primary.

House members earn $106,000 in base salary.

첥Ƶ sat down with Democrats Meriam Sabih and Jay Santos, candidates for the 131st district; Democrats Robert Freeman and Taiba Sultana in the 136th; and Republicans Zachary Mako and Zachari Halkias, in the 183rd, to ask them about what they view as the biggest issues facing their constituents.

131st District: Sabih, Santos bidding to take on Republican incumbent

Meriam Sabih and Jay Santos are seeking the Democratic nomination for the 131st District House Seat. (Anthony Salamone/첥Ƶ)
Meriam Sabih and Jay Santos are seeking the Democratic nomination for the 131st District House Seat. (Anthony Salamone/첥Ƶ)

Two Democratic candidates want to unseat incumbent Republican Milou Mackenzie in the 131st District, which encompasses parts of three counties.

Jay Santos, a computer technical solutions engineer, was among four newcomers who ousted incumbents in the Saucon Valley School Board race in November. Now, the Lower Saucon Township resident said, he wants a larger, political prize as a state House member.

“I’ve been preparing to go into politics for the last 10 years,” said Santos, 32. “I’ve always wanted to help the community.”

Meriam Sabih, a freelance writer and mother of three boys with her husband, Shaqil Syed, has been active for years in Southern Lehigh Democratic political circles.

“I’m very passionate about our values and democracy, and protecting the rights we have,” said Sabih, who said she is in her early 40s.

Sabih said her biggest priority as a legislator would be to become “a strong advocate for constituents and listening to them.” They include her support on issues such as public education and women’s reproductive rights.

“I write about women, education and democracy in other parts of the world, and how lucky we are to have those freedoms, especially with what happened Jan. 6 [2021],” said Sabih, who has lived for more than 15 years in the Lehigh Valley.

Sabih sees the role of a state legislator as providing a voice for constituents and government services. Santos wants to push legislation he says could improve the district and state.

On his website, he lists three bill proposals that cover consumer data privacy, mental health facility “revitalization” and something he calls the “Better Roads, Stronger Communities Act,” which would provide construction job training to people experiencing homelessness.

“It gets our homeless back to work, and it repairs roads by having the homeless fix them,” said Santos, 32, who grew up in Allentown and graduated from Central Catholic High School.

A technical solutions engineer with French company Coface, Santos has been in other work roles, including as a paralegal, and in computer science with the U.S. Department of Defense while previously working at Dun & Bradstreet. He has had an interest in politics since watching State of the Union addresses as a boy. He said his “multiple hats” at jobs trained him to work together with private and public sectors

Sabih, who said she has knocked on doors in Lower Saucon and throughout the district, said she has heard from residents concerned with the ongoing dispute between Hellertown and Lower Saucon officials over funding of the Hellertown Area Library. “I would do everything in my power to make sure they are happy and we address their concerns,” she said. She also said she would like to study more about the proposed landfill expansion.

Santos took aim at the landfill issue, saying he would rather the community work to protect the land than expand the dumping ground. “I want business to thrive, and we have to have a balance between protecting the environment and unfortunate destruction of it when industry occurs,” he said.

He also said he understands the township does not need the landfill’s host fees to balance its budget. “Why expand something that is not necessary?” he said.

Besides Lower Saucon in Northampton County, five communities in Lehigh County help shape the 131st District: Lower Milford, Upper Milford and Upper Saucon townships, part of Salisbury Township and Coopersburg. The seven Montgomery County communities are Marlborough, Salford and Upper Hanover townships and East Greenville, Green Lane, Pennsburg and Red Hill.

136th District: Incumbent Freeman faces challenge in Sultana

State Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton and Easton Council member Taiba Sultana, a Democratic candidate for the 136th House seat. (Anthony Salamone/첥Ƶ
State Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton and Easton Council member Taiba Sultana, a Democratic candidate for the 136th House seat. (Anthony Salamone/첥Ƶ

State Rep. Robert Freeman last faced a Democratic primary opponent in 1982.

For the upcoming primary, Freeman, 68, is opposed by Easton Council member Taiba Sultana, 40, in what has become a heated contest for the Northampton County seat.

“I want to continue to serve the people of the 136th District,” Freeman said. “I think I have established a solid record of representing the needs and interests of the community, looking out for working families, looking out for seniors, protecting the environment, promoting good policies on housing, and in the revitalization of our older communities.”

Sultana has countered that Freeman has done “nothing out of the ordinary,” pointing to Pennsylvania’s continuing to lag behind other states in raising the $7.25-per-hour minimum wage.

“We cannot raise [the minimum wage] if we don’t ask them to raise it,” she said, referring to Republicans. “First thing we have to do is initiate it, and then press the issue.”

She also said if Republicans, who hold a majority in the state Senate, oppose legislation such as raising the minimum wage, the state could put .

Freeman said the single biggest issue facing the district is housing affordability. To that end, he has introduced legislation that would create a lease-to-own model of home ownership, based on a program run by area landlord Jeff Porter.

“It would be sort of a seamless transition from renting into owning,” Freeman said, “and it would give a family that entered the program through monthly downpayments home equity, which is critical. It also could help stabilize neighborhoods.”

Sultana, who said the most pressing problem is an overall lack of affordability, said what Freeman has proposed could place renters at the mercy of landlords. She supports handing such a program over to the state.

“We could buy property, fix it up and turn private housing into affordable housing.” she said.

Sultana has built a short resume of tenacity for taking on incumbents. She ran in 2019 against Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr. and lost. Two years later, she defeated longtime City Council member Sandra Vulcano. She has been contentious at City Council meetings, most recently when council failed to pass her resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

In March, a Northampton County judge approved her entering a program that will enable her record to be expunged of criminal assault charges against a family member, if she successfully completes its terms. She also has faced questions about forgery accusations pertaining to her nomination petition.

Sultana, a mother of six children whose full-time work is on City Council, said she takes pride in offering a “different perspective” on Easton’s board. Some of her resolutions have included condemning the Supreme Court’s 2023 reversal of Roe v. Wade and supporting women’s reproductive rights. Another council resolution creating a new calendar for more religious holidays passed unanimously, she said.

Freeman said he also can be dogged.

“I’m still tenacious in my own way,” he said. “I’ve never given up on the policy initiatives I have worked for. I am the kind of legislator who has created coalitions to advance policy and to collaborate with members to be able to be effective. I think that is one of my skill sets.”

But Sultana questioned Freeman’s record on breaking barriers on such issues as the minimum wage, health care costs and affordable housing.  “If my opponent is the only candidate who can work with Republicans to get things done, then why he hasn’t done anything in the last 40 years?” she said.

Both candidates said they have and would continue to work toward helping the Saucon Valley communities of Lower Saucon Township and Hellertown reach compromise. The 136th District includes Hellertown and the eastern portion of Lower Saucon that includes the Bethlehem Landfill.

Freeman has come out publicly against the landfill expansion, noting problems with land and air environmental concerns are not good zoning and public policy.

Sultana said if she were elected, she would pursue some of the $3 billion fossil fuel subsidies to help address the landfill issue, without providing specifics. She also said she has worked with township leaders, some of whom have appeared before the city council, to address their concerns over the possible expansion.

No Republican is running in the district, meaning whoever wins the primary will likely take the seat in November.

Besides Hellertown and Lower Saucon, the following communities comprise the 136th District: Easton, Freemansburg, Glendon, West Easton and Wilson, and the southern portions of Palmer and Williams townships.

183rd District: Slatington official Halkias vies to take Rep. Mako’s office

State Rep. Zachary Mako and Slatington Council member Zachari Halkias, a Republican candidate for the 183rd House seat. (Contributed Photos)
State Rep. Zachary Mako and Slatington Council member Zachari Halkias, a Republican candidate for the 183rd House seat. (Contributed Photos)

In the 183rd District’s GOP primary, Rep. Zachary Mako, 35, faces a challenge from 22-year-old Zachari Halkias, president pro tem of Slatington Borough Council.

Mako, who has represented the district since 2017, said his biggest issue is to lower the “crushing” property taxes that residents are facing. He wants to pass legislation where if a resident of over 65 years of age is making less than $60,000 per year, they would . The rebate would be funded with the Senior Citizen Additional Property Tax Rebate Fund, according to the drafted bill.

Another piece of legislation he’s working on is to amend the law that , striking potential defenses such as if the drug was combined with another substance before use.

Mako said he also wants to pass legislation so that parents can be more in the loop regarding what is happening to their child when the child is hospitalized for a mental health issues.

“I have a strong conservative voting record [and I] hope the voters will see that,” he said.

Other priorities for Mako include creating jobs and improving infrastructure, according to . He is a veteran who has been a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard and has been deployed to the Middle East twice.

Halkias said one of his biggest goals was supporting police departments, something he says he’s done as a Slatington council member.

Another priority for Halkias includes offsetting the rising costs, particularly for younger residents around his age, by cultivating the state economy.

“I want to make sure that we can address these issues … before it gets too out of hand,” he said.

He also wants to ensure the government is handling elections properly, pointing to the voting-related issues in Northampton County last year.

explains that additional stances of his include being “Pro-Life, Pro-2nd Amendment, Pro-School Choice, and Pro-Parental Rights,” as well as being in favor of making health care more affordable. He also wants to decrease taxes, support farmers and trade workers, lower energy costs and improve the quality of education.

Halkias was appointed to the Lehigh County Republican Committee in 2021.

The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Joseph Lenzi in November. Lenzi is unopposed in his party’s primary.

takes in part of Lehigh and Northampton counties, comprising the townships of Lowhill, North Whitehall, Allen, East Allen, Lehigh and parts of Moore, as well as the boroughs of Slatington, Bath, North Catasauqua, Northampton and Walnutport.

Morning 첥Ƶ reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at asalamone@mcall.com.
Morning 첥Ƶ reporter Graysen Golter can be reached at ggolter@mcall.com.

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