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Trump figures into Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial debate

January 21, 2018
The four Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor participate in a debate at Kresge Theater on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018.

The only boos from an audience gathered for a debate among Republican candidates for governor Saturday night in Pittsburgh came in response to a candidate’s lukewarm expression of support for President Trump.

Pittsburgh attorney Laura Ellsworth elicited the reaction — along with a smattering of cheers — when she said she hadn’t voted for the president.

“The divisiveness bothered me,” she said of the president’s approach to campaigning, while praising his support for veterans and his pick of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.

Cheers greeted declarations of support for the president from the other candidates: retired Pittsburgh health care consultant Paul Mango, state House Speaker Mike Turzai of Marshall and state Sen. Scott Wagner of York. Each emphasized the president’s economic policies in their expressions of support.

Allegheny County Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills predicted Trump’s influence would harm the party.

“What we need, in light of what we’ve been through these past 366 days, is someone who’s ethically honest and doesn’t lie to people,” she said, expressing support for incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

The hourlong session held at Carnegie Mellon University’s Kresge Theatre was the third debate among the candidates, and a little more distance emerged among them in response to questions from WPXI anchor David Johnson, who moderated the debate. The candidates are competing for the GOP nomination in the May 15 primary.

Candidates differed on education funding. Mango said he would completely eliminate property taxes for schools, saying school choice and education savings accounts are his education priorities. Wagner said he would eliminate property taxes on primary residences for schools and said the state should prioritize skilled labor training to prepare students for those job openings across the state.

Turzai said property taxes help keep school funding local, rather than being funneled through Harrisburg from other taxes.

“Education is not one size fits all,” he said, expressing support for public education and alternatives. Turzai has said he wants to expand charter schools and tie school funding to graduation rates and test scores.

Ellsworth said she supports keeping property taxes for schools but suggested expanding tax credits to help people afford the taxes.

Wagner and Ellsworth said they would favor or consider creating limits on political campaign contributions after Johnson questioned them on the subject, noting that the Center for Public Integrity has given Pennsylvania an “F” grade on campaign finance and state government integrity.

“The largest issue is what we see in Pennsylvania and Harrisburg in what flows to lobbyists,” Wagner said, criticizing unions in particular for lobbying spending.

“I think there is a problem in Pennsylvania when you can have absolutely unlimited dollars for one candidate over another,” said Ellsworth, adding that the lack of limits likely means capable candidates are being shut out of races.

Turzai and Mango said they opposed limits as an obstruction to free speech.

Wagner, Ellsworth and Mango are each expected to spend a lot of their own money on the campaign. Mango announced he ended 2017 with $5.5 million cash on hand. Turzai said Saturday his campaign had $1.7 million on hand, much of which he said came from donations from people across the state. Wolf recently announced he had $11 million on hand.

On the topic of gerrymandering, Ellsworth took a different tack from the three men on the stage.

Ellsworth received applause when she said, “a bipartisan group that re-looks at our right to vote is called for, and it’s called for urgently,” while the other three candidates said they supported the present system.

The state Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the state’s boundary lines that claims they are unfairly drawn by parties in power. Pennsylvania’s districts get attention for being some of the most heavily gerrymandered in the country.

The candidates were united in their opposition to legalization of recreational marijuana, with Mango adding, “I cannot believe we’re having a conversation about the use of recreational marijuana,” and linking it to the state’s opioid epidemic. All candidates said they support medical marijuana.

Each railed against over-regulation by Wolf and Democrats and said the state needs a more disciplined approach to budgeting and holding the line on tax increases.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, wventeicher@tribweb.com or via Twitter @wesventeicher.