Sunday’s gubernatorial forum was hosted at the Gershman Y in Center City, with candidates Rob McCord, Katie McGinty, Allyson Schwartz, and newcomer to the race, Jack Wagner, in attendance. Governor Corbett was offered an invitation but declined, and Tom Wolf stated a scheduling conflict that prevented his attendance. The candidates’ answers to tough questions by WHYY’s Holly Otterbein and City Paper’s Daniel Denvir indicated to the keen observer what each candidate perceives to be their own biggest weakness.
There were only a few moments of real differentiation in policy positions between the four candidates, but there were numerous moments throughout the forum in which candidates supported policies that contradict their past record or recent endorsements.
Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz
During discussions of the need to restore and increase funding to general assistance programs for Pennsylvanians, Congresswoman Schwartz vigorously stated her support. Those who have been paying attention know that she recently voted in favor of billions of dollars in cuts to the federal SNAP program. She has taken serious heat for this vote, though members of her staff have intimated that her vote was somehow honorable, that she prevented even deeper, more painful cuts to the critical program. This remains to be seen, but her vote did reinforce the idea that she is one of the more conservative members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation – even Senator Casey was against these cuts, and he tends to be a more centrist political mind than most Democrats would generally like.
Treasurer Rob McCord
Treasurer McCord was a total spark plug throughout the forum, releasing zinger after zinger about Governor Corbett’s “failing record for Pennsylvanians”. Of all the candidates, he seemed to be prepared with the most policy ideas and statistics, but he was not without his fair share of inconsistencies.
In a fiery response, Treasurer McCord cited his distaste for the prison industrial complex – he said that we should be investing in schools, not prisons, which is the exact opposite of what Governor Corbett has done during his first term. Though I don’t necessarily think Treasurer McCord has any secret plan to continue Corbett’s trend, it was an interesting moment, as he just got the prison workers union endorsement and hundreds of thousands in contributions. Generally speaking, those who get the endorsement, especially with that much money to back it up, are not going into private meetings to discuss how they’d like to close prisons.
We won’t ever know what was said leading up to this endorsement, but I think it’s an important thing for voters to consider as they make decisions. McCord went on to say that a governor who is constantly commuting sentences is illegitimate and “autocratic”, but he does favor sentence reform when it comes to mandatory minimums. Governor Corbett has had the lowest record of commuting sentences, so it was a notable similarity for Treasurer McCord to admit, given his recent endorsement.
I was impressed with the long list of revenue options that Treasurer McCord recited when asked how he’d restore funding to public schools. Public education has obviously been at the forefront of his campaign, and his endorsement by PSEA, the largest Pennsylvania teachers union reflects that. He has said in the past that increasing the income tax would be at the bottom of his list of options as governor, and I worry that basically ruling out that option leaves a difficult path to reinstating full funding to our public schools.
Former DEP Secretary Katie McGinty
Katie McGinty was the most aggressive during the forum in favor of better environmental policy, but she has been supported by the Coal industry in the past. She recently returned campaign funds to a donor after it was revealed that they shared connections with the West Virginia environmental disaster. This seems to be her perceived area of weakness.
McGinty pivoted toward economic growth as much as possible, but also seemed knowledgeable about policy programs that address poverty. She mentioned her Northeast Philadelphia roots as much as possible, so this is probably her perceived strength in the race.
Former Auditor General Jack Wagner
Former Auditor General Jack Wagner was the most honest of the group, but appeared tone deaf about the issues concerning Pennsylvania voters. On charter school and cyber charter school reform, he said that parents deserved an alternative, objecting to other candidates’ comments that massive reforms are necessary. He pivoted toward his role in funding formula studies and his work with the Safe Schools Act, but I worry that his weak stance on the former undermine the work of the latter two policies, and limit his ability to create a sustainable economic future for public schools in Pennsylvania.
On abortion rights, Jack Wagner made the biggest policy distinction of the evening, by stating he only supports reproductive choice in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. He was met with silence from the audience. This may play well in the center of the state, but only really serves to hurt Congresswoman Schwartz, not seal any path to victory for Wagner overall.
On drug policy, Wagner also distanced himself from the rest of the candidates, by saying he only supports heavily regulated and heavily taxed medicinal marijuana, not legalization. It seems a little counter-intuitive, given the medical cases that Senator Daylin Leach and others have brought to the public’s attention – heavily taxing a substance a child desperately needs seems punitive without just cause.
I’ll segue now into some other important notes of the evening:
On immigration, answers morphed into a competition over who is closer in number of generations to someone who physically emigrated to the United States. With five upper middle class Caucasian candidates in this race, this type of rhetoric is pretty insulting to the real immigration issues at hand for Pennsylvanians. Hopefully the next debate or forum will show a better performance by all the candidates on immigration issues.
When asked if they support a Pennsylvania version of the DREAM Act, all four said yes. Daniel Denvir followed up with a question about the right of undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license, and all four meekly supported it, stating their needed to learn more about the issue. Though we’re not Arizona, we certainly have diverse populations who deserve an answer on these important questions, especially from the future challenger to Governor Corbett, a staunch opponent of immigration reform measures.
During discussions on affordable housing, all the candidates pulled the conversations toward issues they were more comfortable discussing, whether it was a Marcellus Shale impact fee, education, or an increase in the minimum wage or the tipped wage for restaurant workers. Ultimately they gave the vague response that they support more funding for affordable housing. McGinty brought up setting a regulation that devoted a percentage of economic development funds explicitly for affordable housing, making her a slight leader in this policy area.
Though all the candidates support an impact fee for fracking in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania, Rob McCord was the winner on the issue when, this past week, he published a proposal to tax natural gas at a rate of 10%, twice the rate of Congresswoman Schwartz. All four candidates also stated support of a continued moratorium in the Delaware River Basin.
Treasurer McCord and Former DEP secretary McGinty both stated their desire to modernize the state liquor stores.
When Denvir of City Paper asked about the issue of government ethics, specifically in regards to the sting operation that Attorney General Kathleen Kane shut down last week, every candidate had the same reaction. They noted their lack of prowess in law; some have never attended law school, while the rest have not practiced in years. They then each noted that they respect Kane and know she is acting based on all the facts of the case. Then they all agreed that a universal gift ban was necessary for the future. It’s important to note that Tom Wolf was the first to come out on that issue, listing it in his 40+ page policy memo, released a few weeks ago.
On the use of standardized testing in public schools, all of the candidates said it was over-emphasized, but none of the candidates said they’d fight against the problematic federal policies.
All the candidates agreed on supporting medicaid expansion, but when asked what they would do if Corbett’s Healthy PA initiative was approved in the meantime, none of the candidates had a step-by-step plan for the program’s repeal upon entering the Governor’s mansion.
A competitive primary can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how the news media frames the debate, how the electorate remains engaged, and how diligently candidates are really willing to work to build upon their original platforms. I urge the candidates to reflect upon some of the political mistakes they have made in the past, whether it is a bad vote, a bad position, an embarrassing political association, or a negative political donation, and be willing to admit to them now, to the Democratic electorate. The more they rid themselves of this baggage now, the more prepared they will be when facing off with Governor Corbett for the general election. Voters will be refreshed by a movement toward honesty rather than overcompensation.
I also call on all the candidates, including Tom Wolf, to be more knowledgeable about issues concerning the poor and issues concerning our most diverse populations here in the Commonwealth. As an education advocate, I’m overjoyed that everyone has gotten the memo that our students deserve better, but Pennsylvanians deserve a better message than one mainly concentrated on education, Medicaid expansion, or a natural gas impact fee.
Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Treasurer McCord and Former DEP secretary McGinty would “modernize and privatize” the state liquor system. They each said they’d “modernize” but not the latter. Our apologies for the confusion.