By Alex Roarty
PoliticsPA Staff Writer
An apparent misunderstanding between gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato and a conservative advocacy group on Monday had the front-running Democrat walking a fine line on a subject he wants to avoid at all costs this year, abortion, while taking fire from one of his opponents that he doesn’t have a clear stance on the controversial issue.
The controversy started when the conservative group York County ACTION issued a press release touting a local breakfast, dubbed the “Value Voter Gubernatorial Breakfast,” to be held Saturday that would feature Republican gubernatorial candidates Tom Corbett and Sam Rohrer and Democrat Jack Wagner. Onorato, according to the release, would send a representative to participate.
ACTION, which stands for Americans for Christian Traditions in Our Nation, didn’t invite the two candidates it thought were in favor of abortion rights, Democrats state Senator Anthony Williams and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel. The press release from the group, which is not strictly focused on abortion, sparked a story in the local newspaper, The York Dispatch.
The story’s news drew quick criticism from Hoeffel, who has sparred with the Onorato campaign before and has been eager to criticize the Allegheny County executive’s record on social issues.
“I wasn’t invited because I am 100% pro-choice and believe that women can make the best decisions for themselves and their families,” said Hoeffel, in a statement. “That Dan Onorato was invited and is actually sending a representative of his campaign to this breakfast, confirms that he’s pro-life.”
Problem was, the story also drew an emphatic denial from the Onorato campaign. A spokesman said it never agreed to send anyone to the event.
“We are not sending a representative and never planned to,” said Onorato spokesman Brian Herman.
According to the breakfast’s organizer, York County ACTION Vice President Jay McKiernan, he sent a letter to the campaign in late March inviting them to attend. A few days later, he said a volunteer for the campaign told him the campaign would send a representative.
He didn’t think of it again until Monday’s mini-controversy, McKiernan said.
“I don’t take offense to it. I’m not hurt by it,” he added. “I’d just attribute it to a mix-up and maybe a misunderstanding.”
The only reason he invited Onorato in the first place, the vice president said, was based on the recommendation of Wagner’s sister-in-law and campaign manager, Eileen Wagner. She told McKiernan he should invite Onorato to the event because he was also “pro-life.”
“I said, ‘OK, sure, I’ll invite him, too,’” he said.
Wagner, however, flatly denies she ever suggested ACTION also invite Onorato.
“I would never have said that,” she told PoliticsPA, adding that the auditor general himself also would no longer be attending the event.
Told of McKiernan’s account, Herman said he didn’t know what to say. Nobody in the campaign, he maintained, agreed to participate in any way.
“A volunteer would not be the person to (schedule the event),” the spokesman said.
The issue is clearly a sensitive one for Onorato, who has taken great strides to assuage the fears of some social liberals, many of whom are located in the vote-rich southeast, that he would seek to tighten the state’s abortion laws. His message focuses on downplaying all social issues while touting his economic agenda for the state.
“His position on choice is clear,” Herman said. “He would veto any attempt to change (the state’s abortion laws).”
The appearance at such an event would have given ammunition to critics who says Onorato’s stance on abortion hasn’t been clear. Hoeffel’s spokeswoman, despite Onorato’s denial, said it was “hard for her to believe” that it was simply a mix-up between the two groups.
“While mistakes happen, I believe Mr. Onorato likes to have it both ways on this issue,” said Lauren Townsend, co-manager of Hoeffel’s campaign. “He has a history of being stuck in the pro-life camp.”