Posted by Joan Hanna on September 13, 2016 in Blog
Crediting his heritage and the way he was raised with making him the person he is today, Sheriff Joe Hanna said, “You have to know where you came from to know where you’re going.” This statement could not be more fitting for Hanna’s professional career.
Hanna, who was elected last November as Sheriff of Lehigh County in Pennsylvania, is half Syrian and half Italian. He identifies strongly with his Arab American heritage, wearing it as a “badge of pride.” Like many Arabs who immigrated to the United States more than 100 years ago, Hanna’s great grandfather settled with his wife and children in Allentown. For Hanna, growing up in Allentown was a very positive experience because he says it was similar to how families were raised in Syria, meaning, by the whole family. His uncle, aunt and father all bought houses on the same street to be close to one another. “For our community, lineage history is very important. Second, third and fourth cousins keep in contact. It’s wonderful to have family members who you’re in contact with in a number of different areas.”
Speaking about his passion for public service, Hanna commented on the inspiration he got from his uncle Charles and how their professional paths mirror one another. Both began their careers as patrolmen and later became detectives. Hanna was a lieutenant before stepping into the role of captain of the first platoon and then assistant chief of operations, just like his uncle. He was promoted once more to Chief of Police before he retired in 2013 from the Allentown Police Department. In 2014, Hanna became a detective in the Lehigh County District Attorney's Office. When the former Sheriff of Lehigh County announced his retirement later that year, Hanna, a Republican, decided to run for the position. In recent years, there have been political and religious divisions in Allentown’s Arab American community. Navigating this delicate situation, Hanna says he focused on messages of unity, while understanding and respecting the passions and differing worldviews he encountered on the campaign trail. It was this mentality, combined with a strategy of grassroots organizing, which won him bipartisan support and 60 percent of the vote last November.
Over the past several months as Sheriff, Hanna has made many institutional changes including additional hires and promotions. The Lehigh County Sheriff's office also has Arabic speaking deputies and officers of different faiths, which, when combined, promotes an environment of cultural and religious sensitivity which Hanna believes better serves the larger community. Hanna has not changed the way he conducts himself, however, whether as a Police Chief, a candidate, or a Sheriff, “I try to transcend the political turmoil. I’m respectful of everyone’s position, try not to make judgments and I aim to represent everyone equally.” For Hanna, public service and political engagement have always been important. “Historically, the number of Arab Americans who participate in federal, state, and local politics has been fairly disproportionate. I feel that I have an obligation, not only as a public servant of 36 years, but also as a Syrian American, to try to advance civic interest and further the recognition we have in political life.”