I attended the first Democratic Governor candidate forum on Saturday, and the big winners were definitely PA Working Families, SEIU and the rest of the participating host organizations, who came up with a fun debate format that was pretty effective at defining the progressive issue positions first, and then letting viewers measure candidate responses against them. I’d hate this if I were running for office, but that’s what makes it so awesome from an activist viewpoint.
Each issue segment opened with members of the audience telling personal stories about how they’re affected by status quo political choices on education, health care, and the economy, and then the moderator, Mark Tyler, telling candidates basically what the coalition’s positions on those issues are. Then candidates would go up and talk for a few minutes about their views and records on the topic.
This was an effective way to set the agenda for the campaign early on, and also help define what the progressive positions on the issues are. We tried to do a similar thing with our questionnaire, and I think that was successful for a similar reason, in that it’s easier to get candidates to adopt your favorite positions during the period when they’re interested in impressing activists, than it is after they start focusing on regular voters. It’s a key part of how the (broadly-defined) party decides to pick a nominee.
I thought everyone did very well in this format. It did seem to work most naturally for Rob McCord, who delivered a few boisterous applause lines, but in terms of pageantry everyone played their own political style very well. No gaffes or anything like that, and everyone came off poised and confident. I bet nobody would have guessed Katie McGinty is a first-time candidate, although having seen dozens of events like this I could tell she seemed less at home onstage than Schwartz or McCord. She was very genuine and the audience seemed to appreciate that.
On the substantive policy issues, the event seemed to succeed at nudging everyone to the left a bit, although there were few new position statements as far as I could tell.
Everyone is for restoring the $1 billion the Corbett administration cut from the education budget, and everyone is generally for a state funding formula. Nobody mentioned that we had a formula (a pretty good one) that we could just start using again, but people talk about this like we need to reinvent the wheel. Katie McGinty was the only candidate who offered specifics on what the formula would prioritize, and her idea of a good formula takes into account special needs students and low property tax capacity.
At this point most of the candidates (definitely Schwartz, McGinty, Wolf, and Pawlowski) want to pay for the education funding with a severance tax on natural gas production, although I’m not sure Rob McCord has gotten specific about how he’d pay for it. John Hanger was the only one to really pander to the Diana Ravitch fans, saying he’d stop the privatization of public education cold and basically arguing that most cyber schools are failures (they are.)
Schwartz said she’d abolish the state-run School Reform Commission in Philadelphia – a first, I believe – and John Hanger agreed. Katie McGinty differentiated herself with a pledge to support full-day Kindergarten in all school districts. Allyson Schwartz is also in favor of full-day Kindergarten and is currently working on a bill at the federal level to pay for that.
Everybody supports keeping defined benefit pensions for existing employees, which is a gimme because messing with the current promised benefits would be illegal. McCord (and a commenter says Hanger but I’m not hearing it on my recording) was the only one who said we should keep defined-benefit pensions for future public employees as well. That speech was a real banger. McCord also says his read of economic literature on minimum wages is that PA could support a minimum wage “well over $10″ an hour. Arguing that people who show up to work sick get other people sick, and that sickness costs us in economic productivity, McCord backed a statewide paid sick days law.
Allyson Schwartz supports a $10.10 minimum wage, which she’s also been pushing for at the federal level, and also supports paid sick days.
Katie McGinty has supported a $9 an hour minimum wage in her public communications, and didn’t go farther than that at the debate in response to McCord and Schwartz supporting increases to $10+. She brought the focus back to education, saying she would increase funding for higher ed, but only for colleges who keep costs under control.
John Hanger pointed to the 41,000 jobs we could get from accepting the federal money for the Medicaid expansion, and outlined some ideas for increasing solar jobs across Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania. The biggest applause line of the night was Hanger’s call to reduce mass incarceration in part by legalizing and taxing marijuana.
Tom Wolf touted his experience creating jobs directly in Pennsylvania, and made a good point about how universal health insurance would reduce job lock – the phenomenon of people staying in jobs they don’t want just for the health insurance – and thus make our economy better and more dynamic.
Everybody supported the Medicaid expansion, but I wish somebody would’ve pressed the candidates on whether they’d reject the “private option” fake Medicaid expansion Tom Corbett’s been talking about, since that would be a ripoff that would cover fewer people in order to kick some extra money upstairs to doctors and hospitals. Allyson Schwartz has been eerily quiet about whether she’d be okay with this, so I hope activists will renew their efforts to pin the candidates down in the future on whether they support – say it with me – “Real” Medicaid expansion.
John Hanger and Ed Pawlowski are the only two candidates on the record who support a single payer insurance system, but while that’s a worthy ideal, neither man has offered a plausible political pathway from here to there. I’m happy to learn more about how they’d get the votes to dismantle the private insurance industry in this state, but to me it sounds like a classic election year overpromise. It wasn’t all pies in the sky from Hanger though – he argued passionately that plans offered on the exchanges must include coverage for mental health and addiction treatment, and said he wanted to see the Obamacare health care market reforms work.
I appreciated that Rob McCord pointed out that health care providers have too much monopoly power, and that’s why US health care prices are too high. That’s the most accurate description of the health care cost problem we got from any of the candidates, which is important – the first step to fixing these problems is understanding them correctly.
I’m not going to say anybody “won” the debate, but I was most impressed with Rob McCord’s policy depth, his actual positions, and his retail political skills. He doesn’t have any of the snobbish qualities that usually doom wonk candidates – ditto with Bill Peduto – and he seemed to connect pretty effortlessly with the mostly black, working-class audience.