John Fetterman played to his strengths at a debate on the Penn State University main campus Saturday night, drawing stark contrasts between himself and his opponents for the Democratic nod for U.S. Senate.
Students asked the questions at the WPSU/McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s forum, touching on many of the issues that will be key over the last two weeks of the race.
The candidates started off on similar notes, talking up the need to fix the state’s education funding formula and close the gap between PA’s richest and poorest school districts
“Unfortunately in this state and this country, your zip code often determines your destiny, your socio-economic destiny, and in my community, that’s especially true,” Mayor Fetterman said, emphasizing Braddock’s pre-K programs and the power of a GED. “If you don’t close that achievement gap from [low-income] households, you literally create a tower of inequality in that young person’s educational life.”
2010 Democratic Senate nominee Joe Sestak said the state should move away from property taxes to fund public schools, while Gov. Tom Wolf’s former chief of staff Katie McGinty said PA must continue to make up for education funding cuts in the previous administration.
McGinty and Fetterman traded a few barbs over the importance of high tech jobs vs. blue-collar jobs in the state’s economy, with McGinty arguing service-sector jobs also make up a large part of the equation.
McGinty used the debate platform to push her fight for equal pay for equal work and raising the minimum wage to $15, while erasing the sub-minimum wage paid to employees who earn a significant portion of their income from tips.
“One of the greatest crises we have in this country is the fact that people are working hard, but they’re not getting paid a decent wage for that hard work,” the former DEP Secretary said. “Hard-working people are the backbone of our communities and our country, and we need to honor that by paying people a decent wage and enabling everyone effectively to be in the workforce.”
Fetterman connected with the notably young audience – though some of the region’s top Democrats, including State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham and Centre County Democratic chairman Greg Stewart, were in attendance – capitalizing with the now-common refrain of a “fundamentally rigged economy.”
“The deck is stacked,” Fetterman said. “Did you realize the six Walmart heirs – part of The Lucky Sperm Club – they own the equivalent of what 42% of America owns.”
None of the candidates came out in support of Pres. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, though Sestak was more measured in his criticism of trade deals. The former Congressman said he believes much of the manufacturing that had been outsourced due to global trade deals would be stateside again soon.
“Manufacturing is about to come home. China, because of its one-child policy, is in a race for time before it is older than Pennsylvania,” Sestak said, giving their economy 30 years until it becomes obsolete.
York-native Fetterman said he is opposed to free trade deals that have left many western PA communities on the brink of financial collapse.
“My region has been decimated by free trade and this idea that ‘if you open it up, it’s all gonna work out great, trust us,’” Fetterman said. “It’s like Lucy pulling the football away every time, and it’s the American worker that ends up flat on its back.”
In the year of the anti-establishment movement, Fetterman is trying to pitch himself as the candidate for voters across the political spectrum. He highlighted his substantial size difference over the incumbent GOP senator (9 inches and 150 pounds) and talked up PA Democratic Chair Marcel Groen’s non-endorsement, as well as Sestak and McGinty’s previous electoral defeats.
“I’m fighting for Pennsylvania’s forgotten communities,” Fetterman said. “And in this state, either you live in one of these communities, you used to live in one of these communities or you still have relatives or your parents living in one of these communities.”