HARRISBURG, Pa. — The four announced GOP candidates for governor of Pennsylvania worked to distinguish themselves at their second public forum together Thursday night, avoiding direct attacks on each other or clashes on high-profile issues as they vie for the state party committee’s endorsement in the race.
The hour-long forum at the American Legion hall in Hollidaysburg featured rapid-fire, one-minute answers to 10 questions posed by the Blair County Republican Party’s chairwoman, and gave the candidates little opportunity to challenge each other.
The candidates — state Sen. Scott Wagner of York County, and state House Speaker Mike Turzai, lawyer Laura Ellsworth and ex-health care systems consultant Paul Mango, all of suburban Pittsburgh — met a little over a month before state party committee members meet to decide whether to endorse in the race.
The primary election is May 15. The four are seeking the nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s bid for a second term in November’s election. Wolf appears he will have no significant primary challenger, if any.
Turzai leaned heavily on his record leading the House, while the others cast themselves as outsiders, although Wagner — who runs a waste-hauling firm he founded — said he won’t have a learning curve after four years in the Senate.
In the forum, Turzai repeatedly pointed to battles with Wolf in which the Turzai-led House Republicans provided the staunchest resistance in the Capitol to billions of dollars of budget-balancing tax increases — including on Marcellus Shale natural gas production — sought by Wolf.
“We’ve been taking on Tom Wolf and we’ve been beating him,” Turzai said. At other times, such as on handling the opioid epidemic, Turzai highlighted his accomplishments by pointing to legislation signed by Wolf, such as limits on emergency room painkiller prescriptions. On gun rights, Turzai highlighted legislation signed by former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican.
The candidates occasionally struggled to answer direct questions, such as whether they would support raising taxes to support future budgets and, if not, what services they would cut.
No single candidate answered either element of the question, instead reverting to talking points.
At times, the candidates offered what might have been implicit criticism of Turzai. For instance, Wagner said Republicans hadn’t fought Wolf hard enough at times.
“Mike Turzai is right that we did fight Tom Wolf,” Wagner said, “but I will tell you that we could have done a better job.”
Mango gave a blistering assessment of budget plans under Wolf that — to a great extent — reflect strategies of the Republican-controlled Legislature, including Turzai.
“You certainly don’t sign an expense budget before you know where the revenue comes from,” Mango said. “And you don’t wind up with a credit downgrade, and you do not wind up with a budget that depends on Pennsylvanians smoking more, drinking more, gambling more and borrowing a billion and-a-half dollars from our children’s future. That is not holding the line on taxes. That is deferring taxes to our kids, with $400 million in interest.”
Ellsworth stood out on the hot-button issues of guns and abortion.
On a question about Republican-penned legislation to restriction abortion just vetoed by Wolf, Ellsworth said she supported the bill. But she also said she supported “efforts to protect our children after they are born,” noting Pennsylvania’s high rates of maternal and fetal death in the first year after the child is born. On a question about gun rights, Ellsworth said the constitution protects gun rights, but said policymakers need to focus on mental health. She was the only candidate to bring up the subject.
Wagner, who never graduated from college but nevertheless started two waste-hauling businesses, wasn’t shy about drawing distinctions with the three other candidates who boast advanced degrees in higher education.
“Listen, I have some great opponents, they’re very smart, they’re polished, they’re articulate,” Wagner said during his closing. “I’m a guy who grew up on a farm. I come from a blue-collar family. I started out with two garbage trucks in 1985.”
The candidate forum was broadcast statewide and streamed by Pennsylvania Cable Network.