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Candidates meet in TV debate

| Monday, Oct. 28, 2002

Democrat Ed Rendell and Republican Mike Fisher confronted each other Sunday in one of the liveliest debates so far in a contest for Pennsylvania governor that will be decided in just eight days.

The event — the eighth and second to last debate scheduled between the rivals before the Nov. 5 election — was disrupted several times by supporters of Green Party candidate Mike Morrill, who protested Morrill's exclusion from the debate. Morrill registered his own protest in an unscheduled appearance on the stage just minutes before the program started.

During a "Town Hall" forum that was broadcast live by WPXI-TV from the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, Fisher and Rendell sparred on issues ranging from job creation and economic development to taxes, gambling and gun control. The most spirited exchange came on two of the hottest issues — property tax reform and teacher competency testing.

Fisher, 58, the state's two-term attorney general from Upper St. Clair, attacked Rendell's plan for reducing property taxes as unworkable.

"The numbers just don't add up," Fisher said.

Rendell proposes generating $1.5 billion in additional state revenue by legalizing slot machines at horse racing tracks and through government belt-tightening, and using that money to offset property taxes that fund public education. He said his plan would mean an average a 30-percent to 33-percent reduction in property taxes. Rendell repeatedly has defended the plan in spite of the state facing a projected revenue shortfall next year as high as $2 billion.

Fisher, who has trailed Rendell in recent polls, also claimed that a Rendell administration wouldn't distribute the school money fairly. Fisher claimed that Pittsburgh property owners would receive a tax cut of about 15 percent, while property owners in Philadelphia, where Rendell served two terms as mayor, would see their property taxes go down about 50 percent.

"Mike hasn't seen my plan. We haven't fleshed it out," Rendell, 58, fired back. "What you have just heard is typical bashing of one region over another. That's the way Pennsylvania has been held back for a long time."

"We are one state. Under my plan, Philadelphia gets more money (for public education), but so does Pittsburgh," Rendell said.

Rendell also took aim at Fisher's property tax reduction platform. The Fisher plan would allow voters in each school district to decide during referendums next spring whether to reduce property taxes by an amount equal to money that could be generated by a new 1.5 percent personal income tax.

"He has taken a no-tax pledge," Rendell said, "and yet what he is just telling you is that the only way you are going to get a property tax cut in Pennsylvania is if you vote to raise your own income tax by a point and a half."

Fisher defended his position as a local-option — not state-mandated — tax increase that would be offset by the decrease of another tax.

On teacher accountability, the two men clashed over legislation designed to abolish the state's one-year-old teacher-testing program. Fisher maintained the bill, which the state Senate approved last week, would abolish all teacher testing. He said he will urge Gov. Mark Schweiker to veto it.

Rendell said he supports accountability measures for teachers, but the current test has been "a fiasco" and should be eliminated. "For the past eight years, Harrisburg has treated teachers like they are the enemies," Rendell claimed.

"I said very clearly I want to redesign that test," Fisher said in rebuttal. "My opponent wants to eliminate teacher testing."

Rendell replied in a frustrated tone, "Gosh, Mike, you just heard me say — Gosh, don't you ever listen• You hear what you want to hear."

Adding drama to the exchange, a woman suddenly emerged from the "studio" audience of about 250 people, walked between the cameras and candidates, and blurted in a loud voice, "I'm a teacher and I think you should listen to me." Then she left the building.

Channel 11 political analyst Bill Green, one of a panel of two questioners for the debate, remarked on camera: "I wonder if she passed the competency test."

Just minutes before the television broadcast was scheduled to begin, Green Party nominee Morrill, 47, a community activist and union organizer from Reading, strode to the center of the stage, unannounced, and claimed he was not invited because "this program is being totally supported by corporations."

"They don't want to hear my message. We think that is anti-democratic," he said. "Unfortunately, this is the only way I'll be able to get my message to you this morning."

After Morrill was escorted from the auditorium by a security officer, Channel 11 anchor David Johnson, the debate's moderator, defended the station's policy. Johnson said that while Rendell and Fisher showed high numbers in recent polls, the two third-party candidates — Morrill and Libertarian Party nominee Ken Krawchuk, 49, a Montgomery County computer programmer — had less than 2 percent support.

"This comes down to a mere matter of polling. If you don't get a certain number, you don't get on," Johnson said, adding that the program's threshold for including a candidate was a minimum of 15 percent voter approval indicated by opinion surveys.

Pittsburgh political analyst Joseph Sabino Mistick gave both Rendell and Fisher high marks for the debate.

"Ed Rendell seems to be steadying the course. Mike Fisher seems to have honed his plain-speaking, Pittsburgh-guy approach to these confrontations," Mistick said.

A final debate between the two is scheduled for Tuesday in Philadelphia.

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