Wednesday, May 14, 2014
As a wise man once said: History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, and finally as a campaign advertisement. For proof, I refer you to the primary race between Democratic state House representatives Harry Readshaw and Erin Molchany, where the two sides are pounding away on a small set of by-now familiar themes.
Today's blast comes from Readshaw:
Readshaw begins his new ad by charging that "Erin Molchany's attacks on Harry Readshaw [are] a bunch of malarkey." (The footage used to illustrate the point is not actually a Molchany attack, per se — it was aired by the group Keystone Progress. As I've noted elsewhere, outside groups — namely Keystone Progress and Planned Parenthood — have done a lot of the heavy lifting on Molchany's behalf.)
Readshaw then turns the attack on his rival, claiming that Readshaw won the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement "because he blasted Corbett's radical agenda." The ad contends that Molchany, by contrast, was "rejected by our Democratic Party because she's Corbett's gas-tax partner" — one who allegedly voted for "over 140 tax hikes and fees."
This is — yet another — attack on Molchany for voting for Act 89 of 2013, a transportation bill that funded roads and mass transit through a bevy of driver's fee increases and a tax on gas wholesalers. Those criticisms have been sharply criticized in the past, in large part because Readshaw previously characterized Act 89 as a sop for Philadelphia mass-transit riders, without acknowledging the benefits to drivers and transit riders across the state. Readshaw appears to have dropped the Philly-bashing, instead simply bemoaning any increased cost for drivers. The new ad directs readers to a website that links to news stories about controversy surrounding the bill and mocks her vote with clip art suggesting that, thanks to Act 89, gas will cost an arm and one-and-nine-tenths of a leg. (Which, c'mon — how heartless are these oil companies that they can't round up that last 1/10th of a limb?)
But if you want to understand the "140 tax hikes" claim, the most important part of the page is this schedule of Act 89 fee increases. As best I can tell, the list accurate reflects the Act 89 revenue structure … but one could argue that these aren't really 140 new fees or tax hikes, but a handful of increases applied to different categories of drivers.
For example, Act 89 raises fees (at the rate of inflation) for specialty license plates — like those touting wildlife conservation— across the board. But the list, and the Readshaw campaign, treats the hike for each category of plates as a separate fee increase. The increased charge for a "steelworker" plate, for example, is the same as the hike for a plate touting a driver's service in the merchant marine … but the Readshaw campaign is counting them as two separate hikes. Not all the license-plate fee increases are uniform, so you couldn't lump them all into just one category … but as it stands, license-plate fee changes makes up more than two-dozen of the 140 hikes right there. Higher registration fees for 25 classes of truck, and three classes of mobile home, account for another chunk of the total.
The Molchany campaign clearly had a response in the silo: They sent it out within moments of City Paper tweeting the new Readshaw ad. Given previous criticism of Readshaw attacks, Team Molchany decried Readshaw's "false claims" and his "attempts to mislead voters." It took special exception to the Readshaw ad's claim that, by not endorsing Molchany, the Democratic party had "rejected" her. Molchany responded with testimonials from several local Democrats who have backed her: Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive, state Senator Wayne Fontana, and Pittsburgh City Councilors Bruce Kraus and Natalia Rudiak. The statement quotes each of them offering a mix of praise for Molchany's transportation vote — "bipartisan legislation [that] will make it safer to travel," Rudiak called it — and criticism for what Fontana calls "mud-slinging from Rep. Readshaw."
Readshaw spokesman Robert Witmer fired back, arguing that "the biggest issue in this race is the contrast in support for Tom Corbett's gas tax. … [T]he Molchany camp pushed back on taxes in their newest ad, so it appears they agree that the biggest issue in this race is taxation."
Indeed, as noted here earlier, Molchany has blasted Readshaw's own record on taxes, accusing him of having "voted to raise our taxes eight times ... even the gas tax." And it's true that Readshaw did vote for a 1997 transportation bill, supported by Republican Gov. Tom Ridge and opposed by many Dems, that included a 3.5 cent gas-tax hike. As for the other votes mentioned in the ad, the Readshaw campaign characterizes them as "a mixture of legislation, from small tax increases to giving counties more freedom in taxation." For example, the most recent vote cited in the ad gave elected officials in some rural PA counties the option of hiking a hotel tax. Other tax bills Readshaw voted for were broadly supported by Democrats.
Of course, Molchany's ad isn't really about the wisdom of those votes: It's an effort to call out Readshaw's anti-tax-hike position as hypocritical. (It was also an attempt to engage women voters by hitting Readshaw for his anti-choice legislative record, which included his original sponsorship of a forced-ultrasound bill, and opposition to "buffer zones" protecting the entrance to women's health clinics. While Witmer argues that "There is more to women's health than just the ability to abort a pregnancy," Molchany allies note that the same could be said of women's health clinics, which offer a range of services beyond abortion.)
But really — and not surprisingly — this race has boiled down to a single vote on a transportation bill. Readshaw has been dinged for his characterization of that vote, but he shows no signs of turning back. And with the primary less than a week away, this race is rapidly running out of road.