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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Four gubernatorial candidates battle to be king of Squirrel Hill

Posted By on Sun, Jan 31, 2010 at 6:10 PM

What to say about this afternoon's Democratic gubernatorial debate in Squirrel Hill, hosted by the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club? There weren't a ton of fireworks: Probably the most newsworthy development, in fact, was an idea the four rival candidates agreed on. In response to a question from moderator Jon Delano, all the candidates agreed to release information on campaign fundraising each month, rather than the scattered reporting deadlines currently provided in state law. 

I know, I know: You can't wait to get a look at that data. (Reports covering 2009 are due tomorrow, in fact.) But until the candidates follow through, you'll have to be content with this write-up of today's debate. I promise you, it will be at least as interesting as the list of individual donors giving between $50 and $250. 

If you're joining us late, the four Dems in the running include two hometown boys -- Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and state Auditor General Jack Wagner -- and two guys from Someplace Else. Those would be Joe Hoeffel, a county commissioner in Philly-suburban Montgomery County, and Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty.

To some extent, the two camps divided on policy as well. Asked about healthcare reform, Hoeffel and Doherty said they favored single-payer plans -- at the state level if need be. Onorato and Wagner took the less ambitious, more ambiguous, approach of favoring a "public option." And while Onorato and Wagner both espoused various tax cuts for business, Hoeffel and Doherty expressed some misgivings. (Hoeffel, for example, contended that corporations used to pay one-quarter of the taxes in the state, but now only pay one-fifth. "I think we'd be better off if we restored that to its original level," he said.)  

Hoeffel, Onorato and Wagner all spoke forcefully about a reform they thought would streamline the budget process: not allowing state legislators or anyone in the governor's office to draw a paycheck until a budget was passed. Doherty struck a somewhat milder note: "You don't need penalties," he said. "We're not children." (Talk to us after you get your first swirly in Harrisburg, Mayor Doherty.) 

On social issues, the discussion was largely a reprise of an earlier forum at the PA Progress Summit in Harrisburg. (Sue Kerr provides a nice write-up of the positions here.) Hoeffel and Doherty reiterated their support for marriage equality; Onorato spoke out in favor of civil unions, and touted the county's anti-discrimination ordinance. Wagner dropped the only real clunker on this one, repeating the old "marriage is between a man and woman" argument, while touting his credentials fighting to protect people from getting beaten up or killed by bigots.

On abortion, Onorato called himself a supporter of the state's current law -- and pledged to "veto any legislation that attempted to change it." Presumably, that could also apply to any legislation that could make an abortion easier to obtain: Staunchly pro-choice Hoeffel, for one, complained that the state's law "is too restrictive as it is." 

For his part, Doherty flatly stated, "I believe in a woman's right to choose, and I would veto any bill that would take that right away." That sounds definitive -- and it echoes statements Doherty has made previously. But on the other hand, it does seem to give Doherty some wiggle room on legislation that tightened restrictions on choice without taking it away completely. And there have been some questions about where Doherty has previously been on the issue.

Wagner, who is pro-life, was careful to emphasize that he was "not for criminalizing abortion." He added that he was a "strong proponent of adoption." Which means that if the GOP candidate opposes adoption, voters will have a strong contrast this Novemember. 

Onorato's own dissonant note came in an answer to a question about legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. The other three Dems all said they supported such a measure. Not Onorato. "I just don't think it's the right thing to do," he said. "Especially right now." It's not clear when Onorato thinks would be a good time to legalize medicinal use: Delano gave Onorato a chance to elaborate on the answer, but Onorato merely said something about how he wanted people to know where he stood -- the "give me credit for talking straight" routine.

As far as I could tell, no one in the crowd was overjoyed by any of the candidates' positions on the Mon-Fayette Expressway. The phrasing of the question -- "will you kill this project once for all?" -- was a bit leading, but candidates either hedged their position or flubbed it.

Wagner's pro-Expressway answer -- which cited poor infrastructure as one reason that industry died in the Mon Valley -- prompted some scattered groans. But hey -- give him credit for talking straight. Noting that the project was controerisal, Hoeffel talked a bit about PennDOT, and how the highway agency couldn't maintain the roads it already had. (True enough, though the Expressway would be a Turnpike project, handled by a seperate agency with its own funding stream.) He did note his support for "user fees" like increased tolls and a gas tax to help double spending on transportation. 

Doherty hedged as well, but Onorato's answer -- which made his approval conditional on getting interchanges built near brownfield sites -- was perhaps the most nuanced. It didn't commit him to the controversial project, and it gave him a chance to cite -- again -- his work on brownfield redevelopment. (You should probably get used to hearing the word "brownfield" from Onorato.) 

Who "won" this debate? Well, at an event like this, all the candidates are winners: I mean, it's just great to see so many middle-aged white guys getting involved. And nobody really scored points off anyone else -- even when Delano not-so-subtly urged them to do so, in hopes of warding off a "lovefest." 

Hoeffel is probably the closest ideological match for the East End audience -- at the outset, he expressed pleasure at the chance to be "talking to good progressives" --  but Wagner scored some applause by decrying the culture in Harrisburg. Onorato is a known quantity around here, but his performance was a reminder that he's pretty good at this stuff.

As for Doherty? He's the mayor of a city best known as the setting of The Office, and so just being seen was a victory. He mixes policy prescriptions with a sort of appeal to self-esteem: Scranton turned itself around "by investing in ourselves, by having pride in ourselves," he said ... and the state could do the same. That might resonate in Pittsburgh, which prides itself on being humble -- and where "poor self-image" is a constant diagnosis. Plus, Doherty sounded a bit further to the left than I was expecting.

In the end, nobody embarrassed themselves. And I've seen a lot of four-person races where you couldn't say that. 

But don't take my word for it: The debate will air tomorrow at 8 p.m. on the statewide cable channel PCN. 

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