What’s next for Mark Pinsley?

Lehigh County’s new controller has become a leading voice in progressive politics for the region. Will it make a difference?

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari

Photo Courtesy of Mark Pinsley

Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley canvassing during his campaign for state senator.

Shoveling dirt in the backyard of his Allentown home, Mark Pinsley is gearing up to get dirty.

With his son, Grant, by his side, the two start filling in the ground around a lemon tree they just planted.

They are contrasts in age and stature. Grant, 13, already stands just as tall as his father and bears resemblance to a lean basketball player. While his father, at 50, has settled into the dad-bod looks that come from years of desk work as a business owner and father of two children.

As they work, Pinsley says I can talk to his son, but in jest tells Grant to be careful and avoid sounding harsh when discussing the last seven months since his father assumed the role as Lehigh County’s controller.

Grant thinks on what he could potentially say about his dad, the politician, and then smirks behind a pair of wayfarer sunglasses. “Your political career will be over,” he jokes, as he picks up his shovel and adds in more dirt around the tree.

That Pinsley should be worried about his life in politics seems counterintuitive. After all, in just two years he’s gone from city commissioner for South Whitehall to unsuccessful candidate in a close race for the state Senate, before winning an election last fall to become controller of Lehigh County, which includes oversight of Pennsylvania’s third-largest city, Allentown.

Pinsley laughs at his son’s joke, showing off a wide smile accentuated by a handsome dimple on his chin. He admitted to thinking a lot these days about his political career.

Joseph Darius Jaafari, PA Post

Mark Pinsley (standing) with his son Grant, 13, planting a tree in their home in the suburbs of Allentown, Pa. The Pinsley family has had to adjust being in the spotlight after Mark took up the controller position and started making headlines.

Just months into his job as the county’s financial watchdog, the businessman-turned-politician is considering what’s next. He says he thinks about what he’d do as lieutenant governor, for example.

“Does it really do anything?” he asks me, saying it seems more ceremonial than anything.

But Pinsley has learned through his current role as controller that certain elected offices wield much more power than the public might understand. Before last year, he didn’t even know what the controller did, he said.

In the seven months since Pinsley took over, he’s started headline-grabbing conversations about criminal justice and race. His first major announcement in March was a proposal to refund close to a quarter-million dollars charged to families for telephone calls made to loved ones incarcerated in the county jail. His most recent attempt to highlight the possible injustices of the county’s cash-bail system resulted in a face-off with multiple county leaders.

With each headline, he’s drawn the ire from some of the more powerful people in Lehigh County politics. The district attorney is not a fan of the controller’s dip into law and order. And the county executive has started to assume the role of mediator between Lehigh officials and Pinsley, who is (for better-or-worse) known to move forward with ideas before informing anyone of his decisions.

His actions and the resulting pushback combine to make Pinsley a major progressive voice in the Lehigh Valley’s push for criminal justice reform.

Compared to leaders in other parts of the country, Pinsley is not a remarkable progressive. But his support for universal medical care and his belief that the criminal justice system overburdens people of color and needs to downsize puts him at odds with many in Lehigh County – a historically “purple” corner of the state where voters in its largest city, Allentown, lean heavily Democrat while those in the suburbs and rural areas are more Republican.

That purple is becoming more blue in the Lehigh Valley and central Pennsylvania, thanks in part to a large influx of Latino voters.

Pinsley recognizes that shift, even possibly crediting it for his continued success with pushing progressive politics throughout the region. But he is wary of saying that the region is overwhelmingly ready for far-left policies.

That hesitation could be a holdover from his loss against Republican state Sen. Pat Browne, a political powerhouse in the region who had, until 2018, faced little opposition since taking office in 2005. By most measures, Pinsley’s campaign was successful by igniting a Democratic base in the county and went on to secure 48 percent of the vote.

“He gave Pat a run for his money,” said Ed Angelo, a former public defender and confidant of Pinsley, who he first met during the campaign against Browne. “But to Mark’s credit, he got right back in the saddle and immediately ran for the controller.”

Pinsley was approached by multiple friends and political insiders – including the chairman of the local Democratic Party, Ed Hozza – to run for the county’s controller position the next year. An effective and successful businessman, with one company under his ownership and years managing marketing and operations for other businesses, Pinsley said the role seemed to be a perfect fit.

But he was reluctant at first, he said. That was because up until then, Pinsley saw politics as one of direct influence, where officials pen laws to address voters’ problems and needs.

But he soon realized that the controller — a behind-the-scenes job charged with conducting financial audits — can have outsized influence on how the county spends its money merely by making that spending public.

“It’s the ability to bring issues to light,” he said, explaining the position as an opportunity to spotlight problem areas in the county budget. “While I can’t have specific influence on legislation, I believe in putting the information out to the people.”

In the 2019 November election, riding on the close win from his campaign against Browne, Pinsley unseated the incumbent Republican, Glenn Eckhart. In fact, the entire county saw a Democratic takeover, both with the County Board of Commissioners – the first time in history – and Pinsley’s win.

Pinsley’s downfall? He surrounds himself with people who are, politically, one-sided. That could be a problem, especially for a man who is famously referenced by his friends and family as “level-headed” and “open.”

Absent a scandal, the controller’s role in government is easily overlooked. There’s nothing sexy about crunching numbers and running spreadsheets. When he was in office, Eckhart wasn’t known for making headlines. His former colleagues described him as easygoing and never one to make a fuss. He was easy to communicate with. And he rarely took political stances on anything.

Pinsley took a different tack, observing how state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale used his platform to talk about big issues of public interest.

To Pinsley, the position offered a win-win situation. He said the best way to prove progressive policies worked was to show the financial benefit of social programs or criminal justice reforms.

“I’m a businessman, still. I want to cut wherever I can, sure,” he said. “But I’m going to be more for seeing how we can spend the money we have better.”

In Lehigh County, where Pinsley has lived in the suburbs with his wife and two children for the past 14 years, there were plenty of financial issues at stake. Specifically, he said, there were opportunities to address how the county spends its money on police, mental health services and incarceration.

Pinsley acknowledges that the county has been effective in reducing its jail population and focusing on diversionary programs to prevent some people from falling into the system. But criminal justice activists still argue that there needs to be changes to funding police, and shift resources to school budgets, job training, addiction treatment and other programs.

Even now, the arguments over police funding are center stage after an Allentown police officer was filmed putting his knee on the neck of a suspect. The district attorney later cleared the officer of any criminal charges, saying he correctly followed the department’s use-of-force policy.

Pinsley’s job – gathering information and analyzing data – is something ingrained in his past work running a cosmetics distribution company, DermaMed Solutions. His business partner, Ginger Downey, said Pinsley brought to the job a constant search for knowledge and expertise.

Other business leaders might take credit for a solution, she said, but not him: “If there’s a situation he doesn’t have experience with, he has no problem going out and asking experts. We have sustainability experts come to our meetings, and that’s because it’s one of our core values and he wasn’t comfortable talking on it.”

Similarly, Pinsley has now surrounded himself with an informal cabinet of people educated on criminal justice reform, including activists, defense attorneys and local civil rights advocates.

And though he’s reluctant to call them advisers of any kind, Pinsley says he talks regularly with them and approaches their conversations as a protege might.

But that cabinet is politically one-sided, especially for a man who is famously referenced by his friends and family as “level-headed” and “open.”

During his most recent public spat against the county’s use of cash bail, where he challenged Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin to release data on defendants, Pinsley got caught in the echo-chamber paradox many politicians find themselves in.

“What we have encountered is a system of obstruction and a complete lack of transparency,” Pinsley said in the press call on June 24, in which he said county officials – and more specifically the district attorney – were hiding the data from him.

Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley stands in his office in Allentown, Pa. on July 16, 2020. Pinsley is getting pushback within his county for trying to use his office to push for criminal justice reform. (Joseph Darius Jaafari, PA Post)

During that call, he was challenged by a reporter on why he didn’t invite Martin or other members of the county’s executive branch to the press conference. His answer: He told the reporter he hadn’t thought about inviting them.

And that seems to be Pinsley’s shortcoming – although he’s unafraid to publicly castigate his opponents, he’s not very good at wheeling-and-dealing in-person or behind the scenes.

“For the most part, Mark and I have been on the same page,” said County Executive Phil Armstrong, a more centrist Democrat. “When he did some of these things, like challenging Martin, he never talked to us. He never walked down the hall and told us. We’re definitely not adversaries. We’re on the same team.”

Martin, the district attorney, told us he wouldn’t comment on Pinsley. But responding to questions from a Morning Call reporter in June, he said Pinsley’s “job as controller has nothing to do with criminal justice in Lehigh County.”

Pinsley has also been accused of being too ambitious. One local blogger criticized Pinsley’s decision to run for state Senate without finishing his term as township commissioner, and for then jumping into the race against Eckhart for controller.

“Pinsley, quite obviously, is an opportunist,” wrote Bernie O’Hare, author of Lehigh Valley Ramblings, a popular online blog for locals.

Critics love to tell Pinsley that his job is to crunch numbers, not stir the political pot. That criticism, though, has turned into a bit of an inside joke between him and his wife, Nina, who works as a business analyst.

“Every now and then he’ll have an idea, and I’ll joke with him that, ‘you gotta stay in your lane, buddy. You’re out of your lane’,” she said.

At his home, when I asked him about his critics’ comments, Pinsley wiped his brow, crossed his arms, sighed and nodded

“I’ve been thinking a lot about that, and how I could do better with it,” he said, adding that he recognizes that he’s still new to politics. “I’m not opposed to hearing the other side, I guess I just don’t know a lot of people in that realm.”

To some degree, this is the kind of criticism Pinsley had expected. During his run against Browne, he got a taste of mud-slinging after his opponent’s campaign falsely accused Pinsley of lying on his business taxes. (The Browne campaign ended up having to remove the ad.)

The ensuing media coverage of that ad, though, made Nina question if being in the public eye was something she wanted for her family.

“When he ran for state senate, I was a little hesitant. I didn’t want to be so closely connected to politics. We had conversations around being supportive, but I was nervous about It,” she said.

The family has since settled into political life. During the pandemic, nightly dinners at their home usually includes some kind of conversations around politics or whatever subject Pinsley has stirred up in the local news.

“We sit down, and we just say, you know, ‘How was your day at work?’,” said Grant, Pinsley’s son. “It just happens to be his work is focused around this, now, which usually takes over the conversation.”

And just as his family has been able to acclimate to their life in politics, Pinsley says he’s excited about what he’s doing as controller to help push for a more equitable criminal justice system, while also keeping his sights on the future.

Back in the yard, as both he and his son fill the hole with soil and water the ground, Pinsley stands up, cranes his back and puts his hand on his hip and asks, as if to himself: “What’s next?”

» PA Post is an independent newsroom covering policy and government in Pennsylvania. For more, go to www.papost.org.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect spelling for state Sen. Pat Browne. We apologize for the error.

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