8 Dem gubernatorial contenders lean alike on issues
HARRISBURG — Political analysts see few differences on major issues among the Democratic candidates for governor, who tend to emphasize their personal narratives and experience.
Eight declared candidates in the May 20 primary were invited to participate in a debate on Sunday at Carnegie Mellon University, sponsored by the 14th Ward Democratic Committee, the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club and two other party organizations. Open to the public, the debate will begin at 2 p.m. in McConomy Auditorium. It's one of at least a half-dozen debates and forums held to date.
Although they are a diverse group — a congresswoman, a former White House aide, an ex-environmental regulator, a businessman, a state treasurer, a mayor, a county commissioner and a pastor — with an occasional exception, “I don't see many substantive differences between the candidates,” said Jeff Jubelirer, a Philadelphia public relations specialist. “I find the biggest differences to be in style, prior experience and approach.”
Pollster G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said the candidates appear to agree on “80 to 85 percent of the issues,” with exceptions to distinguish themselves, such as former state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger supporting the legalization of marijuana.
What the analysts say “absolutely rings true,” said former Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney, an ex-state House member chairing Katie McGinty's campaign.
“All things being equal, then, I think a person's (life) story, how they tell that story, will have an outsize role in any campaign,” Rooney said.
Snippets of life stories
McGinty, a former DEP secretary, tells a story of blue-collar roots and hard work. She grew up in Northeast Philadelphia as “the ninth of 10 children. My dad was a police officer, and my mom worked nights as a restaurant hostess,” she said.
Valedictorian of her high school, she won a full scholarship to college and another scholarship for law school at Columbia University. She worked in the White House under President Clinton, eventually chairing the Council on Environmental Quality, according to her website.
Tom Wolf, a former secretary of Revenue, pitches experience in business and government. When he heard that the company he sold three years earlier was on the verge of bankruptcy, he spent most of his resources to repurchase it in 2009, change the business model and make it successful. The Wolf Organization, founded in 1843, employs hundreds in providing American-made kitchen and bathroom cabinets.
Wolf's website notes his doctoral degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and says he is company president and CEO.
State Treasurer Rob McCord, elected twice statewide, boasts a business background. Raised by a single mother, he learned to value “education and hard work,” his website states. He graduated from Harvard University and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He co-founded and directed a venture capital fund.
Issues, however, are typically focal points of debates.
Abortion, gay marriage
Though most of the candidates are pro-choice, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski considers himself “pro-life,” a spokesman said. Pawlowski's definition of that term, however, appears to straddle both sides of the issue: “Although I personally believe that life starts at conception, I would not sign any legislation that interferes with a woman's right to her own body,” Pawlowski said in a statement emailed to the Trib. “In addition, I support more funding for Planned Parenthood, to help prevent unwanted pregnancies.”
In a Tribune-Review survey, Max Myers, a Mechanicsburg pastor, said he won't answer whether he favors gay marriage. He said he empathizes with people for and against it but doesn't want to be labeled.
Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz dodged it with an indirect answer: “My campaign is about economy-boosting jobs — roads, bridges, water, schools and energy.”
Most candidates said they would scrap Pennsylvania's law banning gay marriage, a statute that Corbett supports and will defend in court.
“I strongly believe that government should not be in the business of denying two people who love each other the right to enter into a marriage and enjoy the love and benefits that come with it,” said Wolf of York County.
“While I respect that people have different views on this issue,” Corbett told the Trib in the survey, “I support the current law. I support the traditional definition of marriage of one man and one woman.”
Shale gas fracking, fees
There are nuanced differences on some topics, such as deep natural gas drilling.
Madonna noted that none of the Democratic candidates opposes fracking, the shale-fracturing process using high-pressure liquid to extract gas. It's the means by which companies can recover gas lying a mile or more underground.
Most of the candidates call for tougher environmental regulation. Myers, an Assembly of God minister, suggests a moratorium on “future fracking.”
All favor local control of Marcellus shale drilling, hailing a recent state Supreme Court ruling that struck down major portions of Act 13, a key initiative of Corbett's.
The ruling “provides an opportunity to allow Pennsylvania to profit from the Marcellus shale with a bipartisan, reasonable severance tax,” said U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County, whom some consider to be the front-runner. “Gov. Corbett has been giving away our natural resources to special interests while we have gotten virtually nothing in return.”
Michael Barley, Corbett's campaign manager, responded that shale drillers have paid $2 billion in other taxes and the industry established 200,000 direct and spinoff jobs. He asked how that could be called “nothing.”
The Democrats say they mostly favor a higher tax than the so-called “impact fee” for drillers that Corbett signed into law in 2012.
The idea that the fee, untouched in the high court ruling, will be struck down “is far from a done deal,” Barley said. The Supreme Court has directed Commonwealth Court to determine whether the fee and other portions of the law can be enforced.
Most of the money goes to the state and municipalities to combat impacts from drilling, such as damage to roads from trucks, and to help pay for environmental and community projects, infrastructure and water management.
The Democrats typically support a tax, similar to West Virginia's, about 4.5 to 5 percent. Schwartz, for example, proposes a 5 percent severance tax.
Critics claiming the impact fee amounts to a 1 to 3 percent severance tax “never explain how they get there,” said Patrick Henderson, Corbett's deputy chief of staff overseeing energy. “We always focused on the dollar amount when crafting the impact fee, not a percentage.”
The fee brought in more than $200 million in each of the first two years.
Advocating a 6 percent severance tax, Litz said: “Marcellus drillers aren't going anywhere.”
Corbett disagreed, saying that “rigs left Ohio” when that state levied a tax.
“We're in competition,” he said.
Education funds, liquor sales
There are slight differences on how the Democratic candidates would spend revenue from a shale gas tax, but most call for restoring $1 billion they say Corbett cut from basic education in 2011.
Facing a $4.2 billion deficit, Corbett has said he did not replace $1 billion in federal stimulus money that his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, plowed into schools.
“Did I cut $1 billion? No. You know that; they know that,” Corbett said last week at a news conference.
Most of the candidates oppose privatizing liquor stores, a priority of Corbett's. They typically favor “modernization” of state-owned stores that hold a monopoly on selling liquor and wine, such as longer hours of sales.
“No,” McCord said about privatization. “But we can certainly do more to improve convenience. The current system generates hundreds of millions of dollars for the commonwealth. As someone who spent years in the private sector, I know the danger of selling off assets to generate a one-time windfall.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.