City Council president Michael Colón didn’t know the name of his mayor growing up.
“Most of my upbringing, I really was not paying attention to city government much,” Colón said.
His adolescent worldview consisted mostly of his friend group, school and some national news stories every so often.
Meanwhile, his home city of Bethlehem was undergoing a revolutionary transformation from a focus on steel production to a new era welcoming multiculturalism and business development.
Leaders emerged in these eras whose names Colón now recognizes.
Archibald Johnston was elected the first-ever mayor of a united Bethlehem in 1913, as the city previously existed as three separate jurisdictions since it was founded in 1741. A former vice president of Bethlehem Steel, Johnston was chosen to guide the new city, confident in its dedication to steel production and a continuing economic boom.
More than 100 years and 11 mayors later, J. William (Willie) Reynolds took over the mayor’s office in November 2021. He said he believes steel no longer dominates Bethlehem’s identity and hasn’t for decades.
“We had a lot of people that, when I was growing up, their father worked with (Bethlehem) Steel, their grandparents worked with Steel,” Willie Reynolds said. “They had been around for generations.”
To him, the city’s identity reflected an image of a predominantly steel-based town.
However, another identity has emerged – a city defined by growing racial, ethnic and economic diversity, enriched by new leadership.
Johnston viewed the Steelstacks as a symbol of production and economic vibrancy. Reynolds sees them more as a center for human, community-based expression and success.
“There is not one cultural identity of the city of Bethlehem,” Willie Reynolds said.
He said he comes from a family that emphasized the importance of considering what’s going on outside one’s own home. They focused on what success meant for the community and how to be a part of something larger than oneself.
He thinks his family was community- and politics-oriented, especially influenced by his late father, John Reynolds, ‘73. His father attended Lehigh for engineering but shortly switched to political science. He shared his knowledge with impressionable, adolescent Willie Reynolds and with his political science students at Moravian College as a professor.
At this time, Willie Reynolds attended Liberty High School and was later accepted to Moravian College, where he received the same degree as his father — in addition to a history minor and a spot on the varsity basketball team.
“From an early age, it was not (about) how many points you score,” Willie Reynolds said. “It’s about, ‘What did you do to help the team win?’ It’s part political but it’s also just the idea of community.”
He said American culture can place a focus on the individual, especially oneself, but he does not subscribe to it.
“That just was not the house that I was raised in,” Willie Reynolds said. “And I think that those types of (community-oriented) dynamics that surround you often lead people into fields where they think about it from a larger view or a larger lens.”
Willie Reynolds’ lens focused on the greater city of Bethlehem, beginning early in his academic and professional career. He interned for Pennsylvania State Rep. Steve Samuelson, who represented Northampton County, and was hired post-graduation as Samuelson’s legislative aide.
He gained more knowledge of the area, specifically his hometown of Bethlehem, and was elected to Bethlehem City Council when he was 25 years old.
“I think Mayor Reynolds really was the first person to change that,” Colón said, referring to young people successfully running for office. “Mayor Reynolds kind of was this younger person that we could relate to — who did it and got elected.”
Willie Reynolds was the youngest council member of the 2008 cohort by at least 20 years.
“I had seen our city going through changes, and I thought that it was time for somebody from my generation to step up — to have a voice in a lot of those big changes that the city of Bethlehem was undergoing,” Willie Reynolds said. “You learn a lot when you’re the new person in the room, and everybody else has been in that room for a long time.”
Willie Reynolds soon learned how difficult it was to turn political ideas into action. He said what he signed up for as a councilman was not exactly what he had envisioned.
Expensive project costs, crucial partnerships with outside organizations, legal approval, public support and a constant pressure to get things done in a timely manner often determines a program’s success in his opinion, and the process of putting all those pieces together for the sake of passing policies or inciting action was harder than Willie Reynolds expected.
But he was exhilarated. He said he felt excited by the facets of government that often frustrate other officials.
“I have to be very careful about how confident I am about doing anything,” Reynolds said about his early eagerness to actualize his ideas.
A crucial part of his attitude comes from his expressed dedication to listening. He said he quickly learned to rely on the experts around him, pick the brains of Bethlehem residents and ask his somewhat-elder peers questions to facilitate solutions.
Willie Reynolds was confident enough to run for mayor nine years ago, and proved to be a worthy adversary to Robert Donchez., but lost in the primaries by less than a four-percent margin.
In Colón’s eyes, Willie Reynolds was prepared to take on mayoral responsibilities back in 2013, but he said Willie Reynolds’ dedication to City Council up to and following that loss prepared him well for his 2021 victory.
“There’s a familiarity there,” Colón said. “And with familiarity comes comfort — not just in agreement, but in disagreement.”
Councilwoman Rachel Leon said she can speak to local governmental disagreements. She has spent a majority of her life in Bethlehem, south of the Lehigh River. To her, the South Side is everything.
She is now the only council representative currently living on the South Side and said she often has conflicting opinions with Mayor Reynolds.
But, Leon said, when she and the mayor have disagreed, he is thoughtful in his responses.
“He doesn’t interrupt,” Leon said. “He doesn’t try and explain to me why my opinion is wrong or why my life experience is invalid. At the end of the day, if it’s still a ‘no’ from me … he puts importance in understanding why my ‘no’ is a ‘no.’”
She said she sees him as greatly experienced, legislatively oriented and a good listener.
Janine Santoro, Bethlehem’s first director of equity and inclusion, has experienced this firsthand.
Before starting her new position, Santoro said she fell in love with the Bethlehem Area Public Library while acting as president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of the Lehigh Valley.
She and then-councilman Willie Reynolds repeatedly found themselves at the same events and conversations surrounding racial and social justice, which built up their professional understanding of one another.
Santoro is part of his mayoral staff and feels he was “always” listening at events and meetings, even before they assumed their new offices in City Hall.
“He didn’t feel like he had to be the one speaking and was listening to what people wanted,” Santoro said. “I thought that was such an important quality.”
When she speaks with him, Santoro said she feels she is with the same person whether they are in a closed meeting or out in Bethlehem. A resident would get no different treatment than she would, she said.
Santoro thinks that behavior cultivates authenticity and that this focus fosters a new age of people-oriented politics in Bethlehem.
“He doesn’t ask us to do anything that he would not do himself,” Santoro said. “It’s very great to have that kind of hands-on leadership.”
Willie Reynolds leads during a different era than when Johnston was first elected, and he believes with a contemporary city comes the need for contemporary leadership.
“Bethlehem was a very different place 30 years ago than it is now,” Willie Reynolds said. “Our city has really changed since I’ve grown up (here).”