One of the mysteries about this year's governor race is why so few voters seem to be paying attention to it. Having attended a pair of debates yesterday, I think I know part of the answer. It's not that four Democratic contenders are all the same -- it's that for much of the campaign, they haven't been very assertive about pointing out each other's differences.
Last night was an exception, thanks partly to the presence of state Senator Anthony Hardy Williams at a candidates forum hosted by the local African American Chamber of Commerce. The four Democrats were all in attendance, as was state Attorney General Tom Corbett (though he left early), and an independent candidate, Robert Alan Mansfield -- more about whom anon.
Williams is the lone black Democrat in the race, and his late-starting campaign has been bankrolled by supporters of school vouchers. Williams is a passionate supporter of that cause, a position that puts him at odds with Joe Hoeffel -- a county commissioner from neighboring Montgomery County -- especially.
The two had an exchange about it last night, and in their debate you could hear the way the voucher issue has driven wedges between some black voucher supporters, and white liberals who feel a strong allegiance to public schools. (Hear Willams take issue with public schooling here; Hoeffel's response is here.)
Onorato avoided the voucher subject entirely, which is a bit ironic: The guy who has been endorsed by the state's biggest teacher's union largely stayed out of the fray.
Williams also took issue with Hoeffel's strong rating by CeaseFirePa, a gun-control advocacy group. Williams brushed aside the rankings, observing that, whereas Hoeffel lived in a suburban county, Williams has "lived there amongst the mayhem," and helped direct $5 million in state money to a gun-violence task force. "If you want to pick somebody that's gonna be governor on this issue," Williams said, "you need to measure them by their actions, not their commentary."
Williams also sparred over the issue with Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, who pointed out that while the state had $5 million for Philly, no one in the west got anything close to that.
"There's not $5 million out here in the west, becuase nobody asked for it," Williams said. "Our mayor asked for it, and I gave it to him. And I don't know what happened out here, but I would have been happy to support $5 million coming out here also.
"Well, consider it asked for," Onorato replied tartly. "I'll pick up the check tomorrow."
"You make me governor, you'll get it," Williams said.
"Uh-huh," Onorato replied.
An earlier debate, held at the Doubletree hotel Downtown, was a less fractious affair -- perhaps because Williams wasn't in attendance.
Sponsored by local tourism officials and the hospitality industry, the Doubletree event was mainly notable for being the first time locals had seen Robert Alan Mansfield. Mansfield is an independent with an Alan Keyes vibe: a black candidate whose whose positions seem likely to capture some Tea Party votes after ultraconservative Sam Rohrer loses the Republican primary.
Mansfield, for example, favors privatizing PennDOT, and won cheers for his one-word response to a question about whether he favored selling off the state store system: "Yes." On the other hand, much of the goodwill evaporated after he told the crowd that state government shouldn't be spending money to support tourism. Such obligations ought to be the responsibility of the tourism industry itself, he said. Say what you want about the guy -- he wasn't pandering.
Auditor General Jack Wagner came across a lot better -- more than anyone else, he tailored his message to the audience. But perhaps the most interesting moment -- bear with me; I'm grading on a curve here -- came when the subject of Allegheny County's controversial drink tax came up. After all, there were more than a few restaurant folks in attendance, including Kevin Joyce, the proprietor of The Carlton restaurant, who was a sharp critic of Onorato on the matter.
Onorato had a pretty polished explanation ... no doubt because he's had to defend himself on the drink tax so many times. You can listen to it yourself here (apologies for the somewhat shaky sound quality), but essentially the argument boils down to "State government made me do it."
Onorato noted that he had to find local funding for the county's transit authority -- and that in most municipalities, government can rely on sales tax revenue. But the state legislature barred him from using such an approach here, and only gave him two funding options -- a drink tax and a car-rental fee like those used in Philadelphia. Onorato pledged that, if elected, he would give the next county exec the freedom he never had -- the option of repealing the drink tax and levying some other fee instead.
"Harrisburg is broken," he concluded. "Send me there and I'll fix it."