Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
Two little-known mid-state Democrats with designs on winning the governor's mansion seized on a offer from Harrisburg's most precocious event organizer for some campaign publicity Wednesday evening.
Yes, it's early -- and yes, candidates John Hanger and Max Myers are seen as the underdogs in what is officially a five-way race for the Democratic nod for governor.
But community group Harrisburg Hope billed the event as the "first gubernatorial debate," and former state Department of Environmental Protection Hanger took aim at his fellow candidates who were no-shows.
"Who knew debates were so scary?" said Hanger. Roughly 100 people, including media and campaign attaches, had gathered to watch at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg. "If you're not ready to do this debate, why are you ready to run for governor, why are you ready to be governor?"
Myers, an evangelical pastor from Mechanicsburg, seemed resigned to the fact that the other three official Democratic candidates for governor saw more downsides than upsides in showing up for a debate nearly a year before the primary.
"The no-brainer here is that it's all about risk-management," said Myers. "And for whatever reason, the risks seem to be too high for those that weren't here."
Also attending the event was Harrisburg City Councilman Brad Koplinski, who is running for lieutenant governor.
Hanger used the event to urge the three other declared candidates (and several rumored ones) to meet him at the next forum.
"Let's start debating every two weeks starting in July," said Hanger. "Let's go on the road and debate the issues."
On many of those issues, Hanger and Myers were in perfect harmony. They sat for questions from the event's audience for an hour and a half, agreeing that schools should receive more money, that the liquor system should not be privatized, and that a heavier tax should be levied on natural gas drillers than the impact fee in place now.
Myers, in particular, had harsh words for the natural gas drilling industry.
"As Pennsylvanians, we're experiencing rape," he said. "They really are coming in and raping our natural resources and running off with the profits and... with us left holding the bag."
Hanger urged for a $3 million cap on campaign spending - a bald attempt to tamp down campaign money coming from the other declared Democratic candidates, who include Kathleen McGinty, a fellow alumna of the state DEP secretaries club, U.S. Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, an adept fundraiser and Tom Wolf, a York County businessman and former state revenue secretary.
But throughout the event, the jabs that were most unrelenting were aimed not at their immediate competitors for the Democratic nod, but at the man they hope to face next November: Gov. Tom Corbett. Both Hanger and Myers reserved most of their fire for his policies as well as his recent poorly-received public remarks.
A placard bearing Corbett's name was placed, cheekily, in front of an empty chair for the duration of the event.
Harrisburg Hope president Alan Kennedy-Shaffer repeatedly reminded the audience he invited Corbett to attend the debate.
He said it only makes sense Hanger and Myers spoke as if they were campaigning against the governor, and not each other. New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight is calling Corbett the fifth most vulnerable incumbent governor in the country among those who are eligible for re-election. Said Shaffer: "It's an anybody-but-Corbett race."
Published in State House Sound Bites
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