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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Two Dan Onoratos

Posted By on Tue, Apr 20, 2010 at 6:51 PM

There's been an interesting little drama unfolding in Dan Onorato's gubernatorial campaign. And it may well hold the key to his hopes for victory in next month's primary.

On Sunday, April 18, Onorato appeared with other candidates (or their representatives) at the endorsement meeting of the 14th Ward Independent Democrat Club. During that gathering, Onorato stated -- as he has before -- that when it comes to abortion, he supports Pennsylvania's law as currently written. 

Pennsylvania's abortion law is highly restrictive, of course. But it does permit abortion -- as every state must do, thanks to Roe v. Wade. So by implication, that would make Onorato pro-choice, right? 

Tell it to the good people of York, PA.

The day after the 14th Ward meeting, this story appeared in the York Daily Record. The story reported that a York-based pro-life group called ACTION -- Americans for Christian Traditions in our Nation -- plans to hold a forum for gubernatorial candidates this coming weekend.

There are six candidates in the race -- four Democrats and two Republicans -- but the story reported that Democrats Joe Hoeffel and Anthony Hardy Williams 

were not invited to the event, [ACTION president Ron] Cohen said, because they are not anti-abortion. Although ACTION is bipartisan, he said the group endorses only candidates who are anti-abortion. 

Auditor General Jack Wagner is anti-choice [UPDATE: It turns out that, after this blog post came out, Wagner too qualified his position on abortion rights] as are Republican contenders Sam Rohrer and Tom Corbett. So they all got invites. And what about Onorato? Well, here's where it gets interesting. The version of the story currently online says the following:

The news release [sent out by ACTION] said Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato would send a representative, but spokesman Brian Herman said there were never any such plans ...

Herman said Onorato would support abortion rights as governor.

"He supports the existing law as it is Pennsylvania and he will veto any attempt to change it," Herman said.

Funny thing is, when this story first ran on Monday, it said Onorato WAS sending a representative. And Brian Herman wasn't quoted at all. Here's an earlier, Google-cached version, which I'm repeating the relevant portion of in case it disappears: 

Onorato's representative will give an introduction but won't participate in the questions, said Ron Cohen, ACTION president.

The story was updated, it seems, at 6:06 p.m. yesterday evening. But by then, the Hoeffel campaign had seized on the earlier report

"That Dan Onorato was invited and is actually sending a representative of his campaign to this breakfast, confirms that he’s pro-life," Hoeffel said.

What happened here? I've got a call in to the reporter who did the story, and will post his reply. But it seems pretty obvious that after the story came out -- and after the Hoeffel campaign jumped on it -- Team Onorato went into damage control, and the story was updated to reflect the campaign's position. 

A position which, by the way, ACTION organizers still seem unaware of.

A post on the organization's Facebook page reported only that "[W]e have had 2 of the Democratic candidates now informing us they will not be able to attend. The latest is Jack Wagner will send a representative, Dan Onorato will not be participating at all." 

As of this writing, the Facebook page makes no mention of Onorato's stated pro-choice position -- for the apparent reason that the group was unaware of it.

Asked what happened to Onorato's participation in the event, ACTION Treasurer Angie Kline told me, somewhat drily, "When you figure that out, let us know."

Initially, Kline told me she thought Onorato probably dropped out simply because he got a better offer somewhere else. "Our organization is just 150 people," she said. But when I told her that the Daily Record was now reporting that Onorato supports the current law and would oppose any changes, she said, "We were under a different supposition."

And really, can you blame them? As Hoeffel's camp noted,in earlier elections Onorato had received the backing of LifePAC, a pro-life group. His 2007 re-election bid was also backed by People Concerned for the Unborn Child (see page 3).

Of course, this kerfluffle could be just an innocent misunderstanding -- crossed wires between a campaign, a community group, and a local newspaper. Such things happen.

But the whole incident reflects one of the most interesting facets of this campaign: At least when it comes to social issues, Onorato has manged to be all things to all people. On Sunday, he's a pro-choice progressive; the next day, he's touted as being pro-life. And despite a clarification issued hours later, I'd bet that most of ACTION's 150 members still think he agrees with them. 

And abortion isn't the only such issue he seems to be neutralizing. When the Steel City Stonewall Democrats endorsed a gubernatorial candidate, the pro-LGBT organization actually split down the middle between Onorato and Hoeffel. Clearly, Onorato's efforts to tout his "progressive policies such as ... Allegheny County’s non-discrimination ordinance" have borne fruit. Even though he was a latecomer to the initiative, which started with county council. 

As someone who watched Onorato on Pittsburgh City Council -- where he was consistently among the least progressives voices -- I'm impressed by how he's been rebranded. But then hardly anyone remembers those days, as a recent post by Sue Kerr reflects.

Kerr had previously argued that Onorato had exaggerated his role in passing the county's non-discrimination ordinance, while passing up opportunities to take the initiative on other LGBT causes. But even Kerr -- who pays closer attention to this stuff than anyone I know -- didn't realize how unsympathetic Onorato had been early in his career.

"I was a chump and I can admit it," Kerr posted, with admirable bluntness. 

Well, OK. I wouldn't be a liberal if I didn't think people could change. (Or -- in the case of politicians -- they can at least recognize when times are changing, and respond accordingly.) And whatever his motives may be, I prefer Dan Onorato the gubernatorial candidate to Dan Onorato the city councilor.

The thing is, I think he's still getting credit for being both those guys. 

UPDATE: Another take on this story comes via Alex Roarty, an excellent correspondent from the Web site PoliticsPA (which I really need to start reading more often). Roarty's piece, among other things, raises the possibility that the confusion here might have begun with the Wagner camp. 

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