Have you ever noticed that good-looking women are often trashed in the workplace? They're often portrayed as sluts or superficial bimbos, especially by their female co-workers. Although less noticeable, I think this happens to men, too. In fact, I think that's what Morning Call columnist and blogger Bill White just did to Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham.
I know what it's like to be exceptionally good-looking. I cry myself to sleep nearly every night, asking "Why, why do I have to be so handsome? I wish I could be ugly for just one day. What's it like, Bill?"
Cunningham, Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent and Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan all have the advantage and curse of being like me - youthful and relatively handsome. These qualities undoubtedly enhance their voter appeal, but it hurts them in other corners, especially among jealous columnists. Charlie Dent, for example, is often portrayed as an "empty suit." Yet it would be no easy task to find anyone in this area as knowledgeable about national issues and foreign policy. Cunningham and Callahan are similarly dismissed as lightweights who just rely on their good looks and pearly white smiles. It happens to me, too. You have no idea how many women I turn down daily. It's not easy.
As he does every year, Cunningham yesterday delivered a speech outlining Lehigh County's finances next year. (Full text here). That sounds like pretty dull stuff, but it was perhaps the best address I've ever heard from a local official, a beacon of light to people who've lost jobs and homes. Well over two hundred people listened to Don, a distinguished audience that included most of our community leaders.
I may have missed him because I was surrounded by women, but one person I did not see was Morning Call columnist and blogger Bill White. Come to think of it, I've never seen him at a Lehigh County Commissioners' meeting. Yet in his daily blog, White quotes from Cunningham's speech, repeating a pledge that there will be no tax increase next year. Then he goes on to claim that Cunningham is just one lucky guy. He's able to use a tax relief fund set up for specifically that purpose. This is Bill's polite way of saying that Cunningham is just sliding by, relying on his good looks and charm.
Cunningham is just lucky? Let's talk a little about his luck.
His mom died when he was 14. When he was Bethlehem's mayor, Bethlehem Steel pulled out and the city lost 20% of its tax base in one year. The country goes into recession when he is LC County Exec, drying up the tax base there. That's the luck of the Irish, Bill. It's why most of us left Ireland and moved here.
In reality, Cunningham is an exceptional public servant whose youth and charm belie a steely resolve. He has made his own luck. Yes, he draws on a tax relief fund specifically established by a Republican County Executive for that purpose. White neglects to mention that Cunningham actually put money into that relief fund when times were good. Now that times are tough, he is drawing down, which is exactly what a responsible leader is supposed to do. Is he supposed to impose a tax increase during a recession just so that he does not deplete the tax relief fund set up for that reason?
Cunningham does not touch another, $20 million, tax stabilization fund, set aside for rainy days. White predicts that fund is next.
White neglects to mention that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently ordered the State to fund court operations, which translates to $26 million in Lehigh County. When that money comes in, the county will be able to replenish the tax relief fund.
White also neglects to mention that Cunningham has limited government growth to just 1.03% per year during his first 4 years. That's well below the rate of inflation.
In addition to controlling growth, Cunningham has scrimped on the one item that really makes a difference in a county budget - personnel. Did you know that employment in LC is at its lowest level since 1990? Name one other local government that can match that. He has accomplished this without laying off anyone. He's relied instead on attrition and what he calls a "hiring frost," carefully scrutinizing whether each new hire is necessary.
The key to Cunningham's success is fiscal discipline, not luck. Dismissing his accomplishments as the product of mere chance, is inaccurate and reflects a bias against someone simply because he happens to be charming.