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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Not Your Average Joe

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2009 at 6:35 AM

I've got no idea who the Democratic gubernatorial nominee is going to be next year. But it's pretty clear who's gonna win the hearts of progressives: Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel.

For one thing, the dude gave a conference call to bloggers this week (which is nicely covered by the Pittsburgh Comet). For another, he's got Adlai Stevenson's hairline. 

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But mostly, Hoeffel's appeal is his position on ... well ... just about everything, as an interview with City Paper suggests.

Gay marriage? "I'm in favor of marriage equality. I feel very strongly that we're all equal in the eyes of God, and our job is to ensure that the laws treat people that way."

Government reform? Hoeffel supports campaign-finance limits (though he won't "disarm unilaterally" by imposing them on himself in 2010) and a raft of other changes. 

The environment? Hoeffel favors a 5 percent extraction tax on natural gas drilled in the Marcellus Shale. Proceeds will be used to remediate the environmental damage wrought by the drilling (whose effects our very own Bill O'Driscoll wrote about earlier this year).

Pittsburgh's financial problems? Hoeffel favors giving the city power to levy a tax on commuters, based on a percentage of the income they earn within the city -- just like Philly has had for years. He's also open to expanding the payroll preparation tax to non-profits (which was what Mayor Tom Murphy first proposed, by the way). "Some of those non-profits make a lot of money, and they have to give something back," Hoeffel says. 

"Pittsburgh needs to deal with its problems, and the state has to give it more authority to raise revenue," he adds.

Infrastructure? Hoeffel wants to increase investment in mass transit, as well as investing in highway construction and repair. Where will the money come from? By tolling I-80 -- hell, the guy favors gay marriage; he ain't getting any votes along that stretch of road anyway -- and doubling the gas tax. 

You can check out much of his platform at his campaign Web site, of course. But yeah, the guy believes strongly in a government role in job creation and education. He'd build on Rendell's more successful initiatives -- like his early-childhood education programs -- while trying to avoid some of his shortcomings. ("One quality I have and Rendell doesn't is, I like legislators," says Hoeffel, who has served in the state House and in Congress.)

And it's not just the policies that make Hoeffel appealing: It's the pride with which he proclaims them. 

That said, I can't help but worry that such candor is gonna get Hoeffel crucified ... a prospect he seems almost touchingly unconcerned about. Asked about how doubling the gas tax would go over, for example, Hoeffel conceded, "People and legislators will object to that at first blush." No doubt. In fact, my guess is the second blush would be on the faces of Cranberry Republicans, standing with pitchforks along the banks of the Susquehanna, their faces further reddened by the flames of burning effigies. 

 

As proof of his ability to reach across the aisle, Hoeffel notes that he's one-half of a bipartisan coalition running Montgomery County. But that says as much about his GOP counterpart, Jim Matthews, as it does about Hoeffel. Probably more. Republicans out in the Philly suburbs tend to be socially moderate. Republicans from other parts of the state, by contrast, tend to be more batshit insane. It's hard to imagine Daryl Metcalfe, the pride of Cranberry, joining with Hoeffel to raise the gas tax, or support marriage equality. Hell, it's hard to imagine a lot of Democrats out here doing that.

But on the bright side, the things that might make it hard for Hoeffel to govern could make it easier to win.

The political calculus is pretty straightforward: Tom Corbett, the runaway favorite to be the GOP's candidate, is from the Pittsburgh area. So he'll be tough in the west and, by virtue of being a Republican, likely to command the rural parts of the state. Democrats' best hope, the logic goes, is to play to their strengths by locking up Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. And you don't appeal to those areas by being a socially conservative old-school Dem toting a Pittsburgh accent ... so maybe Dan Onorato and state auditor general Jack Wagner aren't the winning ticket.

"The political fact is that Democrats have to win the suburbs of Philadelphia," Hoeffel says.

That's the theory, anyway. And Hoeffel has some polling data -- which he paid for -- to suggest he has a shot. A mid-September poll compiled for his campaign suggests that among likely Democratic voters, Hoeffel ekes out 15 percent of the vote statewide. That's slightly more than Onorato or Wagner poll ... though it's all within the survey's 3.5 percent margin of error, and anyway fully half of voters say they are undecided. The main factor is Hoeffel's strong showing in the Philly area, where Hoeffel has nearly a third of voters.

On the other hand, every indication is that Rendell -- who's still popular in the Philly area if nowhere else -- is backing Onorato in this race. Be interesting to see whether that changes the dynamic out East.

But no matter what happens, at least there's a candidate for progressives to get excited about. How often does that happen in a statewide race? 

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