Although only 43-years-old, Don Cunningham has long been considered one of Pennsylvania’s Democratic rising stars.
Don is currently the elected county executive in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, one of the state’s fastest growing counties and one of only four counties of 67 in Pennsylvania that elect an executive to govern the county.
In 2009, Don will enter his 14th year as an elected or appointed official. He has served as a mayor, a city councilman, a state cabinet secretary and the president of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities.
Don is best known as the former mayor of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he led the economic renaissance of Bethlehem from a city that lost nearly 25 percent of its tax base with the closing of Bethlehem Steel Corp. to the city today with two flourishing downtown retail districts and $2 billion in new investment.
Last year, Money Magazine recognized that turnaround and named Bethlehem as one of the 100 Most Livable Cities in the United States!
Don Cunningham’s life story is one of beating the odds through perseverance and determination. After losing his mother at a young age, he grew up in a single parent home, the oldest son of a steel worker. He helped to raise his younger sister while his father worked shifts pouring hot metal in the Bethlehem Steel plant. After being the first in his family to leave the steel mills behind and go to college, Don came home to raise a family and, eventually, to run for office. At the age of 28, with no political background, he took on the stale leadership of his City’s political establishment and began what became a monumental change in Bethlehem’s history.
In eight years time, he not only turned around Bethlehem’s political status quo -- as the youngest mayor in Bethlehem’s history -- but he led an economic renaissance that continues today. Pennsylvanians will appreciate his proven record of success and leadership.
As Mayor, he inherited a city deep in debt, its principal employer bankrupt, its downtown hotel and department store mothballed and nearly 20 percent of its land fallow, vacant and unproductive after the plant closed. He faced this challenge at the young age of 32. The city of about 80,000 people now thrives with new shops, restaurants, industrial parks, revitalized industrial sites, arts centers and, soon, one of Pennsylvania’s newest casinos. Statewide crime data in 2006 ranked Bethlehem as Pennsylvania’s safest city of more than 50,000 people.
- For his work, his fellow mayors and city council members from Pennsylvania’s cities selected Don as the president of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities.
- Former Governor Ridge and national political and governmental organizations cited him for his innovative work in streamlining budgets, delivering creative services and progressive economic development. He was ranked as one of 100 Top Democrats to Watch in the United States in 2000.
- Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell also recognized Don’s turnaround work in Bethlehem. After being elected governor, Rendell asked Don to join his Cabinet to serve as Secretary of General Services, where Don oversaw nearly $4 billion of business operations in the Commonwealth’s budget.
- After modernizing many of the state’s business operations and leading a management and productivity effort, Governor Rendell credits Don with delivering $500 million in savings to the state-operating budget during the Governor’s first term.
- Don then returned to the Lehigh Valley and became the first Democrat in the history of Lehigh County to win the position of County Executive, defeating a sitting incumbent executive with 63 percent of the vote.
- Now halfway through his first term in office, Don has put in place a five year financial plan that will stabilize the county’s finances and keep taxes level, made Lehigh one of the state’s top five counties in open space and farmland preservation and cut more than $35 million out of a bloated courthouse expansion project to invest it back into fixing bridges and fighting crime.
- As the son and grandson of steelworkers and union electrical tradesmen, Don has stayed true to his blue collar roots, giving tax relief to active duty military personnel serving in Iraq.
Don is a full product of the Pennsylvania public school system. After 13 years in the Bethlehem school district, Don was educated in the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education where he went to Shippensburg University and earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Journalism and a minor in government. He then worked his way through graduate school, finishing summa cum laude with a Master of Arts Degree in Political Science from Villanova University.
Today, Don’s three children attend the Bethlehem Area School District where they are in high school and middle school. Don still lives in a row home in the same neighborhood of Bethlehem where the Cunningham family has lived for five generations.