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Democrats spar over climate crisis, Supreme Court at U.S. Senate debate in Pittsburgh

One of the first issues where they differed was how to address climate change.

  • Lucy Perkins/WESA
Four of the Democrats running for Pennsylvania's hotly contested Senate seat debated March 20, 2022 on the Carnegie Mellon University campus.

Lucy Perkins / WESA

Four of the Democrats running for Pennsylvania's hotly contested Senate seat debated March 20, 2022 on the Carnegie Mellon University campus.

(Pittsburgh) — Four of the Democratic candidates hoping to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate sparred over climate change policy and the structure of the nation’s Supreme Court at Carnegie Mellon University on Sunday afternoon — the first major debate of the Democratic primary. But throughout the afternoon, candidates also tried to answer a question that wasn’t asked: In a tough election cycle for Democrats, who can actually win?

While the candidates all agreed on the importance of issues like protecting access to abortion and voting rights, one of the first issues where they differed was how to address climate change.

Moderators asked the candidates about approaches they felt were “politically realistic” ways of addressing the deepening crisis. Western Pennsylvania Democrat Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said that it was a false choice to pit climate change action against supporting jobs in Pennsylvania industries like steel and fracking.

“We still need to make stuff in this country, you know?” Fetterman said. “And I have been steadfastly talking about how important it is that we retain the manufacturing jobs and the energy jobs in Pennsylvania that currently provide our energy security as well, too. But we also must acknowledge and recognize that we have to trend …. away from these.”

In this photo made on Friday, March 4, 2022, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, right, greets Brian Sims, a candidate for Pennsylvania Lt. Governor, as they visit with people attending a Democratic Party event for candidates to meet and collect signatures for ballot petitions for the upcoming Pennsylvania primary election, at the Steamfitters Technology Center in Harmony, Pa. . (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta pushed back on Fetterman, emphasizing the urgency of the climate crisis and criticizing the Fetterman for taking a more moderate stance than he had in his 2016 Senate bid.

“You talked about us going bolder,” Kenyatta said, referring to Fetterman’s past statements about the Paris Climate agreement not going far enough to tackle the climate crisis. “And now you have said we need to get real. I will say this: The climate crisis hasn’t changed. But on this issue, you have.”

“Climate change doesn’t really care whether or not you think it’s real,” Kenyatta said. “I’ve been unequivocal in saying that we need a moratorium on approving new permits for oil and gas drilling. Period.”

The two other candidates on the debate stage, Jenkintown borough councilor Alex Khalil of Montgomery County and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb also both emphasized the need to address the crisis through the American workforce.

“We have to protect existing jobs …. not talk about hypothetical jobs of the future,” Lamb said. “And so that’s why things like nuclear energy, things like continuing to build pipelines, but for hydrogen instead of natural gas, things like making sure that the next 100 million electric cars that are built in the world are built here in the United States and sold here in the United States. ”

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

FILE PHOTO: Pa. State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta urges voters to wake up to voter suppression tactics.

Dr. Kevin Baumlin, a Democrat from Philadelphia, is also on the ballot, but did not attend the debate.

Later on, the candidates were asked where they stood on expanding the U.S. Supreme Court, an idea entertained by some as a way to reform the high court, which has become increasingly under the sway of conservatives who seem willing to make sweeping changes to the law.

Lamb and Fetterman were staunchly against expanding the court, while Kenyatta and Khalil supported it.

“I understand why people want it and why they want to talk about it because of how frustrated they are with the people who are on the court,” Lamb said. ”But if we want to succeed on all the issues that we’re talking about here today, we want to succeed over time …. if we run campaigns and win elections, we can legislate Roe v. Wade. We can change the campaign-finance laws. We can change a lot of the things that have been left to the court over the years because the Senate doesn’t function. And then if we stay in power, we can nominate better judges to replace the ones that are on there.”

Fetterman said he agreed, because he believes “in consistency.”

“We’re Democrats. We don’t structurally change something just because we are appalled or frustrated by the current outcome.”

Kenyatta acknowledged that “if we are going to preserve our democracy, yes, it’s going to take winning this election.” But he added, “The Supreme Court has become too politicized, and having court reform is one of the most important things we can do to restore people’s faith in it.”

Khalil said that because conservative justices like Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito will never change their views on issues like abortion rights, “We don’t have a choice.”

But whether any candidate will be able to win in November, with Republicans hoping to wrest control of the Senate, is a different question. All four candidates sought to portray themselves at being the party’s best shot at victory during the debate, which featured a few digs — often made by Kenyatta — but little in the way of fireworks.

Fetterman emphasized the campaign contributions he’s received from some 190,000 donors.

U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., speaks during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party State Committee in Harrisburg, Pa., Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., speaks during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party State Committee in Harrisburg, Pa., Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022.

“We are the most well-resourced Senate campaign,” Fetterman said.

Fetterman, who announced his bid for the seat long before other candidates, has racked up a total of nearly $12 million in donations.

Kenyatta said his identity as a Black gay candidate will help turn out voters this fall and push Democrats to victory — despite skepticism from some white organizers or voters who think the state is too conservative to elect someone with that demographic profile.

“When we think about winning this election, we have to think about how we win this election,” he said. “We win this election by turning out Democrats, by turning out the base of our party. That means young people, that means progressive voters. That means Black voters.”

Lamb, meanwhile, touted his record of winning high-stakes elections — starting with an early 2018 special-election win in Republican-friendly turf.

“I do have the experience of going out and talking to these people whose votes we need,” he said. “If you think you can elect any Democrat in a situation like this one, and we’ll all work together…. talk to the people that lost in 2020. Not everybody did win.”

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