This political power couple wants Latino candidates to win. Can they make it happen in Allentown?

  • Anthony Orozco

(Allentown) — In an Allentown rowhome, Angel Figueroa and Isamac Torres-Figueroa attentively listened to the candidate they are working to make the next mayor of Allentown.

The couple traveled from their home just outside Reading for the day of campaigning for City Council President Julio Guridy.

Speaking in his native tongue, he reminded his crowd that they now make up most of the city.

“It is a shame that we do not have a Latino mayor and we are the majority,” Guridy said in Spanish.

Figueroa and Torres-Figueroa nodded in agreement and looked out to the dozen or so supporters, many doing the same. The couple said they see an opportunity to make Lehigh more similar to Berks in one specific way — making history in the city with its first Latino mayor.

witf · Is Allentown the next Reading? This politico couple hopes so.

 

Figueroa said Guridy is representative of Allentown, one of the most diverse cities in Pennsylvania.

“He understands the struggle as someone who came to this country as an immigrant, someone who put himself through school, someone who had language barriers,” Figueroa said.

As Guridy’s campaign manager, Figueroa is hoping to tap into support from all demographics but particularly Latinos, who make up 53 percent of city residents and 43 percent of eligible voters, according to U.S. Census estimates.

But the path to Democratic nomination is anything but clear. Incumbent Mayor Ray O’Connell has two additional challengers: City Councilwoman Ce-Ce Gerlach, former vice president of Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation Matt Tuerk.

Decades in the political arena

Figueroa was the first Latino to be elected to Reading City Council in 2001, the same year Guridy was first elected to Allentown City Council. Figueroa had an unsuccessful run for mayor of the city in 2007, but since that time, he and his wife have played a role in getting three big political firsts in Berks County.

Figueroa and his wife were political advisers for Mayor Eddie Moran in 2019, have been mentors to freshman State Rep. Manuel Guzman Jr. and were volunteers for Berks County Commissioner Michael Rivera, a Republican.

All three are the first Latinos to hold their positions.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Berks County’s first-ever Latino commissioner Michael Rivera speaks at the opening of the county’s mass vaccination site.

“Reading for far too long had the reputation, ‘Oh, you guys are so large and lack representation; you’re so large, and you lack that organization, you lack the ability to be able to get these people elected,’” Torres-Figueroa said. “Well, guess what — we did it.”

Torres-Figueroa was among the founding members of the Latino caucus of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party, which looks to identify potential Latino candidates around the commonwealth. She serves as a commissioner on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs and also had a stint on the Reading School Board.

Torres-Figueroa’s grandfather, Daniel Torres, is known in Reading as a pioneer leader for the area’s then-nascent Latino community in the 1960s. Reading’s Centro Hispano Daniel Torres is named in honor of him.

Torres-Figueroa said that her and her husband’s work continues that legacy.

“And my grandfather said, ‘The only way you can do that is that you have to give back to your community,’’’ Torres-Figueroa said after training people how to register others to vote at Guridy’s campaign event. “So what my grandfather planted in me 30 years ago has stayed.”

Finding candidates

Figueroa said he backs qualified candidates, not just anyone who happens to be the same ethnicity as him.

“It’s not just having Latino elected officials,” Figueroa said. “It’s having someone who’s qualified, someone who is passionate, someone who’s authentic, who’s transparent, who’s gonna fight for the people, that to me really made it even more special helping Eddie Moran become mayor, as well as [state] representative (Manuel) Guzman.”

Anthony Orozco / WITF

State Rep. Manuel Guzman speaks in his downtown Reading office.

Guzman and Moran served on the Reading School Board together, even running as a ticket in 2013. Both have listed Figueroa as a confidant and political mentor.

In his first weeks in office, Guzman said there is a need for people to guide hopeful Latinos into the political realm, where they may have been traditionally excluded or been a minority.

“It’s been a long time coming but I would say that we’re still not done and we’re still not finished yet,” Guzman said in his downtown Reading office. “I want Reading to be that kind of model but we have work to do in Lancaster, we’ve got work to do in Allentown, we got work to do in Bethlehem and York—and so the mission never stops.“

Guzman has become an active and visible figure in the community, pushing for wider COVID-19 vaccine accessibility for city residents, hosting food giveaways and conducting community clean-ups — sometimes alongside Moran.

Changing a city

At his campaign event, Guridy said among his top priorities is to make it a safe community that is open to development.

“I have a lot of developers that want to come over and they find it hard to work in the city because the city is not prepared to receive them,” Guridy said. “So we want to make it easy for developers and I know how to do that.”

Tuerk has promised to make regular calls and visits to businesses to continually assess the needs of entrepreneurs. His website says he plans to “leverage the relationships that he has developed over 12” as part of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation.

Gerlach has drafted policy papers around creating economic and housing justice in the city.

O’Connell told the Morning Call last month that he was better equipped than his challengers to bring economic development to Allentown. When asked why, he said, “Because I’m here. They’re not here. I’m sitting in the mayor’s seat.”

In Reading, Moran has made the phrase “Reading is open for business” a refrain in his more than a year in office. He, like Guridy, emphasizes putting people in community development offices that promote business and investments in the city.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Mayor Eddie Moran attends a ribbon cutting for a new convenience story and banquet hall in downtown Reading.

Moran’s approach to development starkly contrasts his predecessor’s administration, which was underscored with resistance toward outside developers.

And in a way, Figueroa has found himself in the middle of Reading’s transforming downtown.

Figueroa is the senior vice president of Institute for Leadership Education, Advancement, and Development, Inc., or I-LEAD. For nearly a decade the nonprofit organization oversaw Berks County’s sole brick and mortar charter school, I-LEAD Charter School. Figueroa was the CEO and chief operating officer of the school, designed for students struggling in the Reading School District.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

The building that formerly housed I-LEAD Charter School is still under renovation for Alvernia University’s CollegeTowne center.

After years of on-and-off friction and a federal lawsuit with the charter school, the Reading School Board voted to revoke the school’s charter in 2016 in a 7-2 vote, with then-board members Guzman and Moran voting “no.”

In 2019, a commonwealth court found the school was not exempt from paying around $2.8 million in local taxes on its building in the heart of downtown. In that ruling, the judge slammed Figueroa’s $240,000 salary. Then-Auditor General Eugene DePasquale did not cite the school’s pay structure as an issue.

Last year, I-LEAD sold the building, which was gifted to the charter school years prior, to the private Alvernia University for $1.14 million.

The 260,000-square-foot building is essential in Alvernia’s $20 million investment in their “CollegeTowne” plan, which will house students and open businesses in the center of the city.

Republican Candidate for Allentown Mayor

Regardless of the outcome of the May Democratic primary, there will be a Latino candidate for mayor. Republican Tim Ramos is running unopposed in the primary in his second campaign for mayor.

Ramos is running on a platform of lowering taxes through better budgeting, zoning that benefits residents before outside developers and more community-focused policing.

Ramos has also said he is running as a Republican in part due to years of Democratic corruption.

In 2017 a pay-to-play scheme that stretched from Allentown to Reading. Then-Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, then-Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer served prison time. As did then-Reading City Council President Francis Acosta and his then-wife and president of the school board Rebecca Acosta. The Acostas were the first Latinos to obtain their positions in just as Spencer was the city’s first Black mayor.

The last time Ramos ran in a special election in 2019, he lost to then-interim Mayor Ray O’Connell by a wide margin. In that race, O’Connell had promised to not run for the office again but reversed that decision and is running again this year.

The development has been heralded as a major victory for the city, while also stirring conversations and concerns that it will lead to gentrification of the area.

‘We have to be motivated’

While candidates work to earn the endorsements of influential figures and groups, Guridy has gotten plenty.

Perhaps most notably, Guridy is supported by Victor Martinez, CEO of the popular Spanish-language La Mega radio station in Allentown. The station also had a satellite studio in the I-LEAD Charter School building when breaking into the Reading market.

On air, Martinez has not only emphasized the importance of Latinos participating in elections and deserving more representation, but he has also railed against some of Guridy’s opponents.

Make The Road Pennsylvania Action is a political action group and a sister organization of the similarly named immigrant rights group. It is one of the most well-known Latino and immigrant advocacy organizations on the east coast.

While they endorsed Moran and Guzman in Reading, they are supporting Allentown City Councilwoman Ce-Ce Gerlach, a member of the organization, in the Democratic mayoral primary. Make The Road Action state director Maegan Llerena said Guridy didn’t follow through with filling out an endorsement questionnaire.

“I think there was a lot of assumption that because he’s the Latino Democrat running, that that’s who Make The Road had to endorse,” Llerena said. “He has all these things that make him relatable, and he can have conversations with community members, and he has not done so.”

Llerena said the organization supports Gerlach because of her consistent efforts to learn more about the needs of the community, her vocal support of protecting student information from federal immigration enforcement agencies. and her commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement and police accountability.

Guridy, who has been or is a part of myriad Latino organizations, said he has proven himself as an advocate for his community.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Democrat mayoral candidate and Allentown City Council president Julio Guridy campaigns in a rowhome in the city.

“I spent thousands of hours into the city, hours of my life into the city that never come back, thousands of hours helping people and developing legislation to make their lives better,” Guridy said.

Figueroa said he knows that a candidate cannot stand on ethnicity alone. He said he is also aware of the perception that Latinos are less active in elections.

His mission, he said, is to help inspire the Latino community of Allentown to realize the power they hold.

“We’re not who we were 20 years ago; we are registered voters, we are thoughtful voters, we’re engaged people,” Figueroa said. “And we have to be motivated to come out. Oftentimes you hear the rhetoric while Latinos don’t come out, well, motivate us to come out.”


Anthony Orozco is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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