PoliticsPA: Debate questions trip Onorato
By Alex Roarty
PoliticsPA Staff Writer
Dan Onorato has had better days.
The Democratic gubernatorial candidate had several awkward moments during a debate Wednesday with his three-inter party rivals that, for the first time this campaign, seemed to knock the front-runner off stride. With a polls showing roughly half of the party’s likely voters still undecided six weeks before the primary, it wasn’t the performance he would have wanted.
The first moment came in the first minutes of the debate, moderated by WITF’s Nell Abom. In a move that was a significant departure from the type of questions asked during earlier debates and forums, she asked the chief executive to pick one of his opponents and ask him a question of his own.
Onorato, clearly caught off guard and flustered, took nearly 20 second to determine whom to choose and what question to ask. He finally asked Auditor General Jack Wagner what steps he would take in response to the federal government’s decision Tuesday to reject proposed tolls along Interstate 80.
Later, after fending off aggressive questions from state Senator Anthony Williams about ending pay-to-play in state government, Onorato was asked to name one mistake he made during his time in public office. He responded that, with hindsight, there were a few economic development decisions he would have made differently.
The answer didn’t satisfy Abom.
“Just give folks one (example),” she said.
Said Onorato: “Let me think about it. I don’t have any regrets. I can’t think of one at this point in time.”
Finally, Wagner, considered Onorato’s chief rival because of their shared western Pennsylvania base, highlighted several times during the debate that Allegheny County, along with Philadelphia, saw its unemployment rate increase in the latest jobs report. Onorato has made that region’s economic turnaround the centerpiece of his campaign.
Wagner underscored the fact during his closing remarks, which came directly before Onorato’s. It forced the county head in his own closing remarks to acknowledge that the auditor general was correct about the unemployment increase, although he emphasized that the rate remained well below the state and national averages.
The debate was hosted by WITF and the League of Women Voters, aired on several public TV stations statewide.
Onorato, of course, remains the favorite. He leads the field in all early polling and, most significantly, has a huge financial edge over Williams, Wagner and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel. His tenure leading Allegheny County, which included eliminating three row offices and holding the line on property taxes, is also well-suited for an election when voters are most interested in the economy and reform.
And at previous debates, he’s shown a detailed grasp of an array of issues and can tout one of the campaign’s most specific policy positions to date.
But for one debate at least, the front-runner took a backseat to his opponents.
Other tid-bits from the debate:
– Wagner has taken heat from Governor Ed Rendell about several audits of his administration he thought were unfair. When asked about Rendell’s criticism, the auditor general embraced it.
“He said I’m a pain in the butt, and you know, he’s right,” Wagner said. “It’s my job.”
– Williams and Hoeffel seemed to spend half the hour-long debate in a toe-to-toe debate over school-choice, producing several heated moments. The two men didn’t seem take it personally though, giving each other a big hug while smiling and laughing after the debate finished.