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Northampton County's district attorney candidates spar in Nazareth forum

houck baratta nazareth
Ryan Gaylor
District Attorney candidate Stephen Baratta, left, and incumbent Terry Houck, right, speak at a candidate forum in Nazareth Tuesday night.

NAZARETH, Pa. – Candidates for Northampton County district attorney met in a contentious forum Tuesday night, as former county judge Stephen Baratta attacked incumbent Terry Houck over his job performance, and Houck defended his record.

More than 50 people crowded into a downstairs room at the Oliver Border House to see the Democratic candidates’ first head-to-head meeting.

  • The forum in Nazareth was the candidates' first head-to-head meeting of the campaign
  • Both candidates served as assistant prosecutors under former DA John Morganelli, now a county judge
  • A debate organized by LehighValleyNews.com will be televised live April 12 on PBS39

The winner of the May 16 primary election is all but assured the next four-year term as the county's top law enforcement official; no Republicans are on the ballot for the GOP primary.

Baratta and Houck forcefully criticized and contradicted each other as the audience weighed in on the conflicting arguments and voiced their displeasure with one candidate or the other.

Both candidates first laid out a case for their election and were given a chance to respond to their opponent, before moderator Bernie O’Hare took questions from the audience.

O'Hare organized the forum and is the author of Lehigh Valley Ramblings, a popular blog that focuses on county government and politics.

Baratta, who retired at the end of last year after 25 years on the bench, kicked off his 35-minute opening statement by laying out his campaign strategy: “My job, because I’m running against an incumbent, is to give you a reason to not re-elect him.”

That has been Baratta’s strategy from the beginning, as he has accused Houck of “incompetence, fundamental unfairness" and unethical behavior.

He repeated accusations, first made earlier this month, that Houck has badly mishandled a handful of cases.

“I stepped down purposely to run against Mr. Houck because I believe Mr. Houck has not served the citizens of Northampton County well,” said Baratta, who formerly served as first assistant district attorney before being elected county judge.

The candidates will meet again 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 12, in a debate organized by LehighValleyNews.com. It will air live on PBS39 and be streamed on LehighValleyNews.com.

Houck, himself a former first assistant district attorney, is in the final year of his first term in office. He disputed virtually everything Baratta said.

“Everything he just told you was false,” he told the crowd.

Houck is running on his record, citing past convictions and prosecutions and the success of problem-solving courts and diversionary programs during his tenure.

“I can spend all of my opening, frankly, responding to the last 45 minutes of these lies,” Houck said. “I think you'd rather hear what a candidate or elected official has done and what he promises to do going forward.”

Looking ahead

The 66-year-old Houck, of Forks Township, worked 10 years as a Philadelphia police officer before getting his law degree. He said he's the most qualified person for the job of top prosecutor.

"The best judge of what you do in the future is what you've done in the past," he said. "I'm very transparent. Look at my qualifications and compare them to my opponent's."

Baratta, 66, of Bethlehem Township, said he's served Northampton County his entire career and he's looking forward to continuing that as district attorney.

"If I become DA, my office will look a lot different than it does now," he said. "It will become more professional, there will be interoffice education, there will be mentoring and support for our people who go to trial." 

The candidates are scheduled to meet again 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 12, in a debate organized by LehighValleyNews.com and held at the PBS39 studios in Bethlehem. It will be aired live on PBS39 and streamed on LehighValleyNews.com.

Only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in the primary election. The deadline to register is May 1.