Instead the discussion gave the Democratic candidates an opportunity to connect with a favorable crowd. State Treasurer Rob McCord and former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty stood above the rest.
McCord riled up the crowd right at the end to thunderous applause, when he shouted, “Let’s go get him, let’s defeat and evict tom corbett. Let’s take it to him. We’re gonna win this thing.”
The event marked the first time that top tier candidates interacted on stage in the Democratic primary for Governor.
McGinty’s Philadelphia roots – apparent from her accent – resonated with the crowd, as when she said she would support expanding Medicaid.
“When you step up to be Governor there’s some issues that are really hard, some questions that are really tough,” she said.
“But when Uncle Sam knocks on the door and says 600,000 of your very good, decent citizens could have the dignity of healthcare. And we’re gonna pay you $40 billion to give them that health care. And when we do that it’s gonna create 40,000 jobs in your Commonwealth, there’s one answer, it’s right quick, it’s: ‘yes, thank you very much!’”
It was a friendly event and at no point did any of the candidates attack or criticize his or her primary opponents.
Former DEP Sec. John Hanger repeatedly struck a chord with the audience, which was comprised of labor and community groups who sponsored the event: 1199C/AFSCME, 32BJ SEIU, AFSCME DC 47, Action United, Fight for Philly, PA Working Families, PASNAP, PCAPS, POWER and SEIU Healthcare PA.
He emphasized the unjust racial consequences of the drug war.
“All of these issues are connected,” he said and went on to call for the legalization of marijuana, an end to the over-incarceration of African Americans and providing more lenient criminal record policies that would help nonviolent offenders find employment later in life.
Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz and former Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf delivered more wonkish presentations. Each earned applause from the crowd.
“We cannot walk away from this moment,” Schwartz said when asked about health care. “We have to do everything we can to get health care to Pennsylvanians.”
“I have to admit, I love learning. I went as far as you can go, I have a PhD from MIT. I have never been in a crowd where MIT gets an applause but thank you, that’s great,” Wolf said in the education portion of the debate. “All of our children are going to get a good education, that means we have to start with fair and adequate funding across the board.”
Corbett was invited, but declined to attend the event. It was a good choice, as organizers openly called for his defeat. But the Democrats on stage hit the Governor early and often for that choice.
“I am not pleased that there is an absence of our governor, but it’s not a surprise,” Schwartz said. “He has been absent in the values that we share and the priorities that we’re committed to.”
Corbett wasn’t the only person heckled during the event. Midway through, protesters carried a banner saying “ban fracking” onto the stage. Audience members repeatedly chanted against Marcellus shale drilling.
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski was invited but unable to attend. Two declared candidates were not invited: Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz and Cumberland County pastor Max Myers.
Myers’ campaign blasted the decision in a statement, writing:
“The exclusion of candidate Max Myers from this forum is seen as an affront to those that he has been advocating for in his campaign: those in poverty and those being negatively impacted by natural gas extraction.”
The forum addressed four issues: education, retirement, jobs and health care. Full video of the event is here.
The format was free-flowing. First, a member of the audience would provide a testimonial from their experience with the issue living in Philadelphia. Next, the moderator, a reverend from the area, would summarize the official position of the sponsors and ask candidates whether they agreed and what they would do as governor.
The first issue discussed was education, and the moderator asked whether candidates agreed that the state needs a fair funding formula and an increase in state funding levels of education. Unsurprisingly, every candidate agreed with each platform.
McCord got an enormous round of applause when he noted the importance of including unions in the discussion on education, increasing funding for community colleges and universal early education. Hanger also gave a strong answer on controlling charter schools.
“There’s nothing wrong with public education. The problem is the Republicans trying to privatize public education. I will stop the privatization cold,” Hanger said. “I will close down charter schools that are not doing their job, and that’s about every single cyber school.”
Schwartz said she supported abolishing the School Reform Commission (SRC) in Philadelphia.
Next up was a discussion about retirement security, which focused heavily on pensions. Again every candidate agreed on the importance of providing retirement security whether it was through public or private plans.
Schwartz defended the historic importance of comfortable retirement.
“While we worked, we were able to secure our retirement as well. That’s a legacy we talk about and it’s one we have to fight for,” Schwartz said. “We have to respect people who are working today and we have to respect those who are ready to retire.”
McCord gave another strong answer in this category.
“If pension is a top tier issue for you, I’m your guy. No one’s spent more time working on pensions, both on public education and public employees. I’m a proud defender of the defined benefit plan,” he to applause.
“You should be applauding yourselves, what makes the union movement so great is that you care about the working family.”
Good jobs were next on the docket, and the moderator’s demands were more comprehensive. Candidates were asked whether they would support an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, an end to payday lending and investment in the workforce.
McGinty boasted about her record of encouraging renewable energy development.
“Some people want to fill your head full of false choices, if you care about the environment you have to give up good jobs. That’s a false choice,” she said.
Schwartz talked about the labor movement and her efforts to achieve equal pay for women.
Wealth was spread to the workers and there were fair wages, thanks to the unions,” she declared.
All five candidates pilloried Corbett over his decision not to accept a full expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.
The Governor has proposed instead to use Medicaid funding to obtain health coverage for the poor via private insurers.
Schwartz said her record on health care distinguishes her, most particularly regarding the creation of the CHIP program.
Two of her opponents, McGinty and Wolf, embraced the ACA in their remarks – particularly noteworthy given the bad press the law has earned in recent weeks.
“What this Governor is trying to do is nothing less than destroy the President’s health care initiative,” Wolf said. “As Governor, I will expand Medicaid. I will make the President’s ACA – Obamacare – work here in Pennsylvania. It is right for our people, it is right for our economy, and I will do that.”
“Has there been an issue or two with the rollout of Obamacare? Well, maybe an issue or two. But the question is, is Tom Corbett part of the solution or part of the problem? He’s part of the problem!” McGinty declared.
“Can we get in front of it, and make sure that this health opportunity works for Pennsylvania? You bet!”