Three Democrats running in sprawling state Senate's 14th District
Nick Miller, Yamelisa Taveras and Tara Zrinski are on May 17 primary ballot
Pennsylvania’s 14th Senate District is a twister-shaped district that covers whole or parts of 20 municipalities that span Lehigh and Northampton counties.
There is no incumbent serving the district, which was redrawn as required by law every 10 years to account for Census population changes.
The opportunity has drawn six candidates – three Democrats and three Republicans – to serve what would be the Lehigh Valley’s third senate seat.
On the Democratic side, they are Nick Miller, an Allentown School Board member; Yamelisa Taveras, CEO of Counseling Solutions of the Lehigh Valley in Allentown, and Tara Zrinski, a Northampton County commissioner who lives in Hanover Township.
Republicans running in the May 17 primary include Dean Browning, a former Lehigh County commissioner who lives in South Whitehall; Omy Maldonado, management consultant from Allen Township, and Cynthia Miller, a Lehigh Township supervisor.
In this edition of Armchair Lehigh Valley, we are profiling the Democrats. Republican profiles appeared Monday and can be found here.
The 14th covers all of Hanover, Salisbury and Whitehall townships and Catasauqua, Coplay, Emmaus and Fountain Hill along with parts of South Whitehall Township and Allentown in Lehigh County. The Northampton County portions of the district are Allen, Bushkill, East Allen, Hanover, Lehigh and Moore Townships and Bath, Chapman, North Catasauqua, Northampton and Walnutport.
The website Dave’s Redistricting found the 14th District favors Democrats by nearly 11 percentage points.
Miller, 27, grew up in Allentown and graduated in 2013 from Allentown Central Catholic High School.
He went to Penn State Lehigh Valley then transferred to the State College campus where he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance in 2017.
Miller worked as a project management consultant for IBM from 2017 to 2021.
Miller, who is a residential and commercial property owner, became a part-time realtor with Full Circle Realty and Property Management in Allentown in January 2021.
Miller has been attending the University of Pennsylvania, and will earn a master’s degree in public administration in May 2022 followed by a master’s in law in December 2022.
Miller is a board member of the Penn State Lehigh Valley Alumni Society and an advisory board member of Lehigh Valley Launch Box, a small business incubator affiliated with Penn State.
He has been an ambassador for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce
An avid traveler, Miller has visited 48 countries, saying you need a global perspective to understand local issues.
Over the December 2021 holidays, he went to Tanzania in east Africa, where he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He used the trip to raise $25,000 to replace old and rusted equipment at the Allentown School District’s two high school weight rooms.
Foray into politics
Miller said he was inspired to enter public office by his mother, Lehigh County Judge Michelle Varricchio. His father, Patrick Miller, died when Nick was 9.
At nearly age 25, he won a four-year term in November 2019 on the Allentown School Board. With 18% of the vote, he finished second out of a field of six candidates for five open seats. Longtime incumbent Republican Robert E. Smith Jr. lost his seat. Smith is now running for the Republican nomination for the 22nd House District.
Miller served as vice president of the school board from Dec. 2020 to Dec. 2021. He has advocated for upgrading the district’s aging facilities, including building a new Harrison-Morton Middle School.
Miller said he decided to run in the 14th because he sees it as an opportunity to fight for fair education funding, advocate for small businesses and support economic development.
He also sees it as a chance for Democrats to gain a bigger voice in the Senate, where Republicans have an eight-seat advantage in the 50-member Senate.
“I see the need for the Lehigh Valley as a whole to have non-polarizing leaders moving forward,” he said. “I can be that effective unifying, leader in the Senate and represent the Lehigh Valley.
Education: Says he has seen the impact of underfunding firsthand. He feels all basic education dollars should flow through the state’s fair funding formula, which seeks to end funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts. Currently, 11% of education funds pass through it.
Minimum wage: Supports Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to increase it from $7.25 to $12 an hour on July 1, with increases of 50 cents an hour every year, until the minimum wage reaches $15 an hour.
Environment: Believes the U.S. needs to end its reliance on foreign energy. Says the state needs to do a better job incentivizing businesses to utilize renewable energy.
Housing: Supports a Senate bill that would allow renters to use special untaxed savings accounts to save money for down payments on first homes.
Women’s rights: Believes a woman has a constitutional right to make her own choices about her body. Supports paid parental leave.
Taveras, 36, was born in the Dominican Republic. She was an ESL student when she arrived in the U.S. as a child. She ultimately became an honor roll student, graduating from Allen High School.
She earned a dual degree in psychology and Spanish from DeSales University in 2007, followed by a master’s degree in Hispanic and post-colonial studies from Villanova University.
She and her husband have two young children and she is a co-parent of her husband’s two older children.
Taveras is a state board certified drug and alcohol counselor. She is the founder and CEO of Counseling Solutions of the Lehigh Valley in Allentown, which offers bilingual support for addiction recovery, treatment and prevention.
In February 2020, Taveras was invited by U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th, to be a guest to the State of the Union Address given by then-President Trump. Taveras has been a diabetic since she was a child and had been rationing insulin due to its high price. Wild wanted to highlight her plight.
Taveras was named a 2020 Bright Light honoree under PPL’s Bright Lights grant program, which awarded a grant to Unidos.
In March 2021, she was among the 14 women nominated by readers of The Morning Call as difference makers in the Lehigh Valley.
Taveras has established herself as a community advocate in the Lehigh Valley.
She is the founder of Unidos, a nonprofit organization that helps the underserved through efforts such as creating personal care packages for foster care children and raising money to buy Chromebooks for Allentown students during the pandemic shutdown of in-school learning.
She was part of the Pennsylvania Latino Convention held in Bethlehem in 2019, serving on the planning committee and on a panel.
Taveras was involved in helping form a Black Lives Matter coalition seeking systemic changes in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in May 2020. She said the group was all about “identifying the need to bring justice and equity into our community. It’s about fighting for human rights.”
Foray into politics
This is Taveras’ first run for public office, but she has been involved in elections, serving as a poll worker and interpreter.
She said the 14th needs a voice that understands what it is like to live there, whether it be Allentown or Allen Township. “I bring that intercession – the understanding of working with diverse populations,” she said.
She said her approach will be about reinvesting resources, not taking anything away from an individual community.
“When you take on a position of leadership, our duty is to look toward healing and understanding and creating safe spaces for all of the people who live there,” she said.
Economy: Wants to increase access to loans, grants and seed funding for small and family-owned businesses.
Mental health-substance abuse: Wants to increase access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment and increase funding for harm reduction initiatives.
Education: Wants fair funding and access to free higher education.
Housing: Wants to provide tenants facing eviction with access to legal representation.
Environment: Wants to reduce emissions, utilize renewable energy and invest in infrastructure.
Zrinkski, a 46-year-old single mother, graduated from Freedom High School. She earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English in 1997 from Drew University in New Jersey. She has a master of theological studies and master of pastoral counseling from Moravian Theological Seminary.
Zrinski is a consultant for SunPulse Solar, a company based in Bloomsburg, Pa., that sells solar panels.
She also is an adjunct professor, teaching a philosophy of Buddihsm at DeSales University, and, at Northampton Community College, sections of Introduction to Philosophy, Death and Dying, Ethics and Moral Problems & World Religions.
She was an apprentice labor organizer for the SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania from January 2021 to November 2021.
As a Northampton County commissioner, she is a member of the Lehigh Northampton Airport Authority, the Northampton County Conservation District and the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
In 2018, she formed the Industrial Hemp Ad Hoc Committee for Industrial Hemp to explore the economic development potential of the emerging crop and to encourage government support for farmers and industrial hemp business entrepreneurs.
Foray into politics
Zrinski, who was once a registered as an independent voter, first ran for office in 2017, placing third in both the primary and general election for five open seats on Northampton County Council. It was a year that saw three out of four Republican incumbents voted out of office with only Peg Ferraro being reelected.
Zrinksi ran for reelection to county council in 2021. She was the top vote-getter in the primary and in the general election, where she garnered 33,367 votes for five countywide council seats.
In 2020, Zrinski ran against Republican Ann Flood in the 138th House District, where incumbent Marica Hahn opted not to seek reelection after 10 years in office. Flood defeated Zrinski with 56.1% of the vote.
Zrinski said she decided to run for the Senate because she realizes that the county council is hamstrung by decisions made in Harrisburg.
“I feel like that is where the most change can be made in terms of energy, environment and land use,” Zrinski said.
Zrinski describes herself as an educator and activist, especially for the environment, who understands the struggles in Lehigh Valley communities from personal experience, and wants to put working families first.
“My own rent is going up 18% this year,” she said. “That’s astronomical. How much more do we have to make a year in order to have a sustainable life?”
She said the 14th needs “people like me who are going to dig deep into the issues and get to know the people that they impact. I think I’m that person.”
Health care: Believes health insurance should not be tied to employment. Wants to expand access to health care and allow choice in providers. Wants to reduce drug costs.
Environment: Says Pennsylvania must take the lead by transitioning to clean, sustainable energy like wind, solar and geothermal and creating goals to combat climate change. Supports entering the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative with surrounding states, which supporters say would create 27,000 jobs in the renewable energy industry but Republicans in Harrisburg say would kill jobs. In January 2019, at Zrinski’s urging, council adopted a non-binding resolution encouraging businesses not to use plastic grocery bags and plastic straws.
Voting rights: Is against Republican efforts to end no-excuse, mail-in voting and ballot drop-off. Has posted two videos on mail-in voting, one in which she is using a bullhorn at a protest and the other during the pandemic in 2020.
Education: Believes that 100% of basic education subsidies – not 11% – should flow through the state’s Fair Funding Formula, which seeks to end disparity between wealthy and poor districts.
Property tax reform: Supports targeted property tax relief for low- to moderate-income taxpayers. Says equitable state funding for school districts would also remove the strain from taxpayers in poor districts.
Workers’ rights: Supports a $15 an hour minimum wage. Supports tax increases on big corporations to close the budget gap, fair labor standards including paid sick leave, vacation and protection against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and sexual identity.
Reproductive rights: Believes in protecting women’s right to choose, saying her stance is also about protecting access to birth control and health care, advocating for abstinence-based sexual education and supporting survivors of rape and incest.
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