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Money, personal attacks define Pennsylvania's GOP race for governor

| Sunday, May 13, 2018, 12:48 a.m.
Candidates seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's 2018 bid for re-election are (from left) Pennsylvania Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, Laura Ellsworth and Paul Mango.
Matt Rourke | AP
Candidates seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's 2018 bid for re-election are (from left) Pennsylvania Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, Laura Ellsworth and Paul Mango.

Two men trading TV attack ads and a woman casting herself as the responsible candidate are competing to win a Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial primary defined more by personal attacks than the issues.

The winner in Tuesday's GOP primary will face Gov. Tom Wolf in November. He is unopposed in the Democratic primary.

The candidates have taken traditionally conservative views on most major policy questions including abortion, guns and tax cuts. Voters seeking differences can look to their backgrounds and campaign strategies.

State Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, who won the state party's endorsement, and Paul Mango, a businessman from Pine with no political experience, went negative against each other early and often in a manner not typically seen in primary campaigns, said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican political consultant.

“The negative element came so big and so bold because of television advertising,” Gerow said.

Mango's descriptions of Wagner as a “slumlord” and “deadbeat dad” in one ad drew condemnation from Republican State Party Chairman Val DiGiorgio.

Through April, Wagner had spent $10.6 million and Mango $7.7 million.

Laura Ellsworth, an attorney from Ohio Township, spent $560,000 on her campaign through April. She launched her first television ad last week. It showed her using a remote control to turn off a TV playing the other candidates' ads and pledging to put “people before politics.”

A Susquehanna/ABC27 poll released last week showed Wagner with support from 37 percent of likely GOP voters, Mango with 23 percent and Ellsworth with 18 percent, while 22 percent remained undecided.

“We haven't had that many truly competitive primaries for governor in the Republican ranks,” Gerow said.

Wagner

Wagner, 62, is proud of his farm upbringing and blue-collar roots.

He dropped out of college after one year to start a business at 19, and went on in 2000 to found Penn Waste, which he says is one of the nation's largest and cleanest recycling plants.

Wagner said his growing frustration with the increasing government regulations he faced as a business owner spurred him to get involved in politics. He said he started by donating to candidates who shared his ideals but grew tired of hearing they “couldn't get the votes” for reforms he wanted.

Wagner won a special state Senate election through a write-in campaign in 2013 and was elected to a full, four-year term the following year.

As a senator, he has proposed repealing two regulations for every new one the state adds in a change he said would help reduce unemployment. He also wants to speed up permitting processes across state agencies, particularly at the Department of Environmental Protection and PennDOT.

Wagner has repeatedly said on the campaign trail that Harrisburg “has a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” and lambasted Wolf for proposing tax increases.

He has promoted skilled-labor training programs and advocated for a modest increase to the state's $7.25 minimum wage that would put it in “the low 9s.”

“My job, my mission is to make sure that everyone who is receiving more money keeps that in their paychecks, and Harrisburg doesn't take it,” Wagner said.

Mango

Mango, 59, worked during high school as a dishwasher and bowling alley scorekeeper before going on to earn degrees from West Point and Harvard. He served as an Army Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division and worked as a health care consultant in the Pittsburgh office of global firm McKinsey & Co.

He believes his political inexperience is a benefit and has said his business experience would help. He wants to cut spending and modernize state government operations.

“As I look around, see the practices there, I don't see anything close to what a modern organization would be doing,” Mango said, pointing to the DEP's paper-based review process for permits as an example.

He said the state government workforce should be reduced to 55,000 employees from about 73,000. He has proposed offering incentives for early retirements.

He also would look to cut state spending by seeking exemptions from federal requirements that govern how Medicaid is administered in Pennsylvania. Medicaid is the state's largest line-item expense. He said increasing transparency in private insurance markets where prices vary wildly would be another way to cut spending.

Mango suggested reducing the state corporate tax rate to 3.07 percent from 9.99 percent. He said that would result in a revenue reduction of as much as $1.8 billion, but the cut could spur growth by attracting new residents who would generate more income tax revenue.

He said he'd travel to other states and countries to promote Pennsylvania's resources and business opportunities.

“The role of governor partially is to help create prosperity for Pennsylvanians, and to do that we have to have someone who is able to understand what we have to offer and communicate what we have to offer,” Mango said.

Ellsworth

Ellsworth, 59, said her parents taught her to “do things rather than just talk about them” and her legal experience and community service demonstrate her dedication to that principle.

She is a commercial litigator with international law firm Jones Day and has served on a range of regional nonprofit and institution boards. Former Gov. Tom Corbett appointed her to the boards of the Pennsylvania State System for Higher Education, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Pennsylvania Council on Privatization and Innovation.

Ellsworth has touted her role in Pittsburgh's economic revival following the collapse of the steel industry, pointing to her involvement with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. She said the city's success could be repeated in cities across the state.

To do so, business leaders need to be dedicated to improving their communities and there must be organizations capable of doing research to help drive change and capable leaders to coordinate those efforts, she said.

“All of those components are present across the state,” she said. “What they are lacking is the leadership that we had. I didn't invent it; I learned it.”

Ellsworth has taken some more moderate positions compared with her opponents, including supporting an independent, citizen-led redistricting commission and opposing the elimination of property taxes as a source of school funding.

She said her biggest attribute is her combination of public- and private-sector experience.

“The difference between us is the breadth of substantive experience, actually solving these problems in the public sector,” Ellsworth said.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, wventeicher@tribweb.com or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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