Observations From the First Democratic Governor Candidate Forum

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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.

Education

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.

Economy

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.

Health Care

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.

This entry was posted in Miscellany.

10 Responses to Observations From the First Democratic Governor Candidate Forum

  1. “Pandering to the Diane Ravitch crowd”? That crowd and Diane also supports full day kindergarten, responsible funding and a locally elected school board – not just an anti-privatization message. Surprised KP would marginalize Hanger or the audience with flip language about one of the central issues of the campaign.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Thanks for the comment, Helen. I said “the Diana Ravitch fans” not “crowd,” referring to people who are fans of Diane Ravitch’s arguments about education, not the audience at-large. I mentioned Hanger because he was the only candidate to take an anti-charter (and specifically anti-cyber) position. Most of the other candidates mentioned full day kindergarten and more state funding as part of their platforms, so Hanger didn’t differentiate on that.

      I doubt anyone running supports taking political authority away from the local government level, at least as a matter of politics, but I do. For one thing, having 501 school districts for 67 counties promotes racial segregation, as affluent families sort themselves out of the public school districts where poor people live. Even inside districts this happens with catchment districts. I’m not sure how the property taxes are distributed in Philadelphia, but where I grew up in Bethlehem, people’s tax dollars even stayed within their catchment district! Even within-district redistribution was too much for people. It is pretty clear to me that segregation and inequality go hand in hand with local funding and local political control.

      Also, I’m not sure how things were in Philly before the state School Reform Commission took over, but I know that elsewhere in the state local control means decision-making by part-time, volunteer politicians (half of whom tend to be political hacks with an eye on a city council seat or other office) who get elected in super low-turnout elections. I personally can’t think of a more Tea Party vision of governance than that.

      The state created the Intermediate Units to offer expertise and policy support to the thousands of volunteer lawmakers, but stopped short of giving them actual political authority over schools. I support consolidating districts at the IU level, and giving the IU boards decision-making power (and changing the name, yikes!). I would prefer to fund education entirely from the state level, but if we’re keeping a local share around, the IUs are closer to an appropriately-sized regional tax base. For political accountability, I would favor a mixed board, with some elected politicians from within the IU districts, and some education experts appointed by the state department of education.

      Those would be full-time, well-paid positions, and the large geographic base would, in theory, create a larger pool of talent to draw from. The large geographic base would also mean these would be higher-turnout and higher-dollar elections, weeding out crappy candidates. I’m imagining ex-Superintendents would campaign for these seats.

      • MSII says:

        I agree with your ideas about school reform. Very well thought out. I reject completely the right-wing “privatization” boondoggle that our current governor is so in love with. I wish this country wasn’t so caught up in it’s own “exceptionalism” mythology, that it could simply see that other “first-world” Democracies have already tackled issues successfully, dealt with far better then we have. Just go ahead and copy (as much as possible) their very successful models. As for education I mean the Finnish model.

  2. I think Geeting is right that the biggest winners are the organizations that hosted this event and showed themselves to be a force in determining the next Governor. It’s important to mention in addition to SEIU and PA Working Families, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) coalition, which initiated the event. That coalition includes the PFT, Unite Here, SEIU, Action United, Youth United for Change, Philadelphia Student Union, Juntos, and others.

    They’ve been at the forefront of the fight to defend and build a Public Education system for all.

    I think there is no question that McCord performed well. His policy positions will now need to come under greater scrutiny.

    Our organization, the Point Breeze Organizing Committee, endorsed John Hanger precisely because he was willing to attack the problem at its root, by challenging the effort to privatize schools, part of a broader privatization effort in this state and country.

    To build on Helen’s point: I worry deeply that the characterization of anyone as “pander[ing]” to the “Diane Ravitch” fans is misleading. Your response seems to be a distinction without a difference. It’s a very particular choice to use the word “pander” and it rests on the same false equivalency logic that appears, when Citizens United is defended as giving special privileges to both Corporations and Unions – as if they have the same amount of power in society. Or pundits will say Planned Parenthood and the Manufacturing Association are both “special interests”. We can’t accept that there is no distinction between those who wish to civically and democratically engage towards a better society, and those who wish simply to line their own pockets and defend their ability to do so.

    To take a position against privatization is to take a position that big monied interests are going to oppose, and that so called leaders like Mayor Nutter will dutifully oppose. So it isn’t pandering, it’s not expedient: it’s brave. It’s speaking truth to power. And it should be called such.

    In regard to your response about local control – with due respect –it’s a bit technocratic; its a bit come up with the solutions “up here” then bestow them down there. We shouldn’t be picking and choosing when we tactically employ democracy to get the results we want. Philadelphia is the only county in the state that doesn’t have local control. There are many factors but one of the driving one is the historic racism against the African-American community. And state control of schools has meant that Philadelphia’s Education system has been governed, disproportionately, by elected officials who are either themselves white or elected by majority white parts of the state. That’s the continuation of a historic problem.

    We need to be continuing in the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement and the current Immigrant Rights Movement of standing for the expansion of democracy. It’s absolutely true that local control doesn’t, in of itself, solve many of the problems around Public Education, faced in Philadelphia. We will have to win local and democratic control and fight for democratic infrastructure to be funded and in these new democratic spheres we will have to put forward solutions based, progressive, governing strategies.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I think you’re reading too much into “pander.” Pandering to interest groups by showing deference to their views is what politicians always do with every group. And yes, this is an interest group, and you shouldn’t be reading a value judgment into that description either. Many activists have a habit of thinking all voters support their group’s position, or would support their position if only they knew better. I think you are talking about this issue as if your position enjoys broad majority support, when in fact only about half of Democratic voters support it, and a solid majority of black Democrats are in favor of charter schools and other private options.

      So no, it is not only evildoers and idiots on the pro-charters side of the debate. There are some malign forces aligned with both sides, but they are a minority, and mostly we are seeing an honest-to-God good-faith disagreement between groups who have different ideas about what is the best way to improve K-12 education. Let’s not pretend that teachers unions are a disadvantaged interest group on unequal footing with the Michelle Rhee-style education reform camp. Unions are defending the status quo position in this debate. The status quo always has the advantage in politics. The momentum has shifted against teachers union positions since 2008 when Race to the Top started, but they still enjoy a dominant position in this issue space.

      As for “tactically deploy democracy” there’s nothing undemocratic about what I am suggesting. I reject the tea party idea that local level elections are the purest form of democracy, or that appointed positions are somehow incompatible with representative democracy. In a representative democracy, we have some elected positions and some appointed positions. We can’t and shouldn’t elect every position, because oftentimes elections are not the best judge of who’s qualified to do a job that requires a high degree of policy competence. This is why I favor a mixed board with some appointed experts, and some directly elected members. That’s not anti-democratic. Saying that state elected officials should make decisions about a particular issue, rather than local elected officials, is every bit as pro-democracy a position.

  3. 5 candidates showed up for the Philadelphia Candidates for Governor Forum:

    Firstly, I commend all of the candidates for trying to make a positive impact on Pennsylvania. They are doing what we all cannot. That said, here is my review:

    =====================

    - Wolf: boo’d on Fracking stance and had a tough time convincing the audience to trust him, He read from a card.

    - McGuinty: Gave us a dramatic song and dance, sounding like she was telling a story to a circle of squatting 2nd graders, complete with waving hands and inappropriate laughter responding to serious issues.

    - Schwartz: She read from a card the majority of the time, giving us the same line of BS we’ve heard before in political campaigns… you know, the stories about a “real” person who suffered a difficult challenge, only to point out that it was all Corbett’s fault. She spoke without saying anything except campaign slogans based on what the polls say will get her more votes. Read almost straight from the card, and clearly did not research or understand the issues we all care so much about. She gets a big NO from me.

    - McCord: his only area of expertise is the treasury, and I think Pennsylvania would be fortunate to keep him as our treasurer, but not as governor… He started out powerful, but went way over the top with a whole lot of yelling in attempt to get the crowd to forget that he has financial experience, but little else.

    He was able to repeat his name over and over successfully, but when asked about healthcare and sick people without coverage, he quickly segued back to the same story about jobs and finances again, avoiding the question, which really makes me nervous that he either doesn’t know what to do about it or has another agenda, or both.

    He also spent a lot of time complementing the unions, hoping for a rowdy crowd response, to which he responded by yelling louder and louder. There were moments where I wondered if he was preparing for a WWF match instead of a gubernatorial campaign. I was waiting for him to rip his suit jacket off in shreds and hold up his gold belt in victory! But it didn’t fool me. Governors have much more to resolve than just the budget. I think he makes a great treasurer.

    - Hanger: “Healthcare is a human right and it must be universally available!” “We must say yes to the Medicaid expansion, but very frankly, that’s not enough. Healthcare must be made available to all of us through a single-payer system.” The crowd cheered for John Hanger here.

    The largest crowd ROAR of the evening was for John Hanger. On every single issue, John Hanger came to the podium on fire the entire time, never once reading from a card. He explained detailed plans packed with facts.

    ! The crowed shook the arena when they heard Hanger’s Marijuana Reform plan, his strategy to unclog the prisons and put a halt to unfair discriminatory arrests of African Americans that get are arrested 5 TIMES AS OFTEN AS WHITES WITH MARIJUANA (and the usage is equal!) John Hanger was the only one to even address this critical issue. That’s because he has been fighting side-by-side with mothers and fathers of children suffering from life-threatening epileptic seizures, for which the only cure is a newly discovered one, Medical Marijuana in a concentrated form that does not get the children high, but has stopped 99% of Charlotte Figi’s seizures. (search online for Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, documentary on “Weed”.)

    Hanger also promised to work with Unions, but he’s not just talking – he also FASTED with them. He presented a passionate determination about saving public schools from a blatant attack from Corbett, and he told us exactly where he’s getting that money: returning the $1Billion in public education cuts to public schools.

    Overall:

    John Hanger gets my vote, and there is no other choice. That’s why I volunteered to help raise awareness about John’s campaign. I feel that strongly about it. Watch the candidates speak and see for yourself: http://www.mediamobilizing.org/govforum

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  5. “pay for the education funding with a severance tax on natural gas production”–John Hanger has been saying that for at least 6 months.