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Pennsylvania’s Democratic U.S. Senate candidates divide on energy, government reforms and more in Monday debate

  • Charles Thompson/PennLive
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Alexandria Khalil, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb prepare for the Pa. Democratic primary debate for U.S. Senate held at Dickinson College on April 25, 2022.

 Joe Hermitt / PennLive

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Alexandria Khalil, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb prepare for the Pa. Democratic primary debate for U.S. Senate held at Dickinson College on April 25, 2022.

They all shook hands with each other at the end, but….

At Monday’s debate between the Democratic candidates seeking the party’s nomination for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, real differences emerged on a list of issues including: energy policy; suspending the federal gas tax; reforming areas of government like the Supreme Court and the Electoral College; Medicare for all; and even the merits of negative campaigning.

When all was said and done, one of the major undercurrents of this particular race remained the same: Do the Democrats have a better chance in the general election with the pragmatic U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb; the everyman’s hero Lt. Gov. John Fetterman; or state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, as the candidate who can new pockets of voters?

That was seen most sharply Monday in the rounds where the candidates got to ask questions directly of each other.

Joe Hermitt / PennLive

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, right speaks during the Pa. Democratic primary debate for U.S. Senate held at Dickinson College on April 25, 2022.

Lamb, the third-term Congressman who has seen his “rock star” status overshadowed by the lieutenant governor’s larger-than-life persona since 2018, continued his very direct appeal to Democratic voters to consider not what they may want in this election, but what they need – a candidate that has a tried-and-true record of appealing to more conservative Democrats and more moderate Republicans.

Already in his third term in Congress, Lamb had his first 15 minutes of national political fame when he won a hotly-contested special election for a House seat in southwestern Pennsylvania in 2018 that many political pundits nationwide saw as presaging the end of the Donald Trump era, and he has argued that’s the playbook Democrats should stick to to flip this seat this fall.

“John’s record and his history and the choices he has made place him too far at the extreme to win at the statewide level in Pennsylvania,” Lamb challenged at one point. “When he was running around the state in his gym shorts making marijuana the number one issue… and campaigning for Bernie Sanders (whom Fetterman supported for president in 2020) he lost a lot of the swing voters in our state already.”

Joe Hermitt / PennLive

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, left, speaks as state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, Alexandria Khalil and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb during the Pa. Democratic primary debate for U.S. Senate held at Dickinson College on April 25, 2022.

Meanwhile, Fetterman counter-punched with Lamb’s past support from U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who many Democrats have come to revile as one of the two members of the Democratic caucus, along with U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have effectively blocked the advancement of big parts of the party’s agenda through their allegiance to the Senate’s filibuster rule.

“My fear is that I think that… one Joe Manchin is enough in the Senate,” Fetterman said, calling Manchin a mentor of Lamb’s in Washington who wants him to win this race.

Lamb said he will “accept the support of any Democratic senator who supports his candidacy.”

But, he added, it does not mean that he will vote with Manchin. Lamb said he has the receipts to prove it in his voting record in the House, noting that since President Joe Biden has been in office he has voted for the House’s strongest voting rights and abortion rights bills, and supported the Build Back Better bill, and would continue to do so as a senator.

All four candidates in this primary field, incidentally, reiterated Monday that they support changing the filibuster rule, which effectively requires a 60-vote majority to pass non-budget legislation.

Joe Hermitt / PennLive

Pa. state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta speaks during the Pa. Democratic primary debate for U.S. Senate held at Dickinson College on April 25, 2022.

Kenyatta actually parted ways with the rest of the field most often on this night, as he voiced his support for structural governmental reforms like getting rid of the Electoral College and increasing the size of the U.S. Supreme Court, a legislative change that some Democrats argue could balance out the court’s current conservative majority.

Kenyatta presents himself as the face of the future of the Democratic Party, and a more authentic version of Fetterman’s everyman appeal as a guy who actually is paying student debt, and who says his family went to the ER for health care when he was a kid because they couldn’t afford a regular medical appointments.

On the electoral college, Kenyatta said Monday its only purpose now is to “continue to muddy up this idea that there should be one person and one vote…. If any one of us gets one more vote than the other person, that person will be the Democratic nominee. And yet with the electoral college we’ve seen multiple elections now where the person who got the most votes did not become president.

“That is a problem and I think it erodes people’s faith in our elections,” Kenyatta said.

Fetterman challenged Democrats to be better than modern-day Republicans – both in Washington and Harrisburg – and said they can do that by “making sure that we’re not changing the structure of our government at a fundamental level based on whether we like the outcome or not.”

Lamb said if the founders were drafting our Constitution now, it would be best to not have the electoral college system. But ever the pragmatist, he said it’s impossible to see two-thirds of the 50 states – as is required to ratify an amendment to the U.S. Constitution – getting behind this change. “It makes this discussion completely academic in my opinion,” Lamb said.

Many political scientists argue that the electoral college does give smaller and more rural state a slightly-enhanced voice in the process.

But Lamb’s answer brought a sharp retort from Kenyatta.

“This idea that we’re Democrats, we don’t try to change anything; or, well, it’s in the Constitution, therefore it’s hard so we shouldn’t try to change anything. I mean, that does not make a lot of sense,” Kenyatta said. “The Constitution has mechanisms by which it could be changed because our founders understood it was a living, breathing document.

“I’m running for U.S. Senate because there’s a lot of stuff we need to change, and that’s what we should do as Democrats,” Kenyatta said.

Joe Hermitt / PennLive

Alexandria Khalil speaks during the Pa. Democratic primary debate for U.S. Senate held at Dickinson College on April 25, 2022.

Expanding the Supreme Court was another point of demarcation, with Kenyatta and Jenkintown Councilwoman Alexandria Khalil voicing support for adding new seats.

“The Democratic Party does not rig the rules just simply because we do not like the outcome,” Fetterman said. “I wish we had a 6-3 Democratic majority on the Supreme Court, but the fact is that we don’t, and I don’t believe fundamentally altering the structure of the Supreme Court is the answer.”

Lamb noted that in tens of thousands of conversations with constituents he has never had someone ask him to add a justice to the Supreme Court.

“People are looking for a little bit of stability and practicality in our priorities. They want to know where do we really stand at the end of the day. Adding justices to the Supreme Court is completely over their head and I think every moment we’re not talking about people and what they’re going through right now is a waste of time,” he said.

That prompted Khalil to shoot back. If abortion rights are overturned, or there are further rollbacks in voting rights or environmental protections, she said. the makeup of the Supreme Court will matter very much to average Pennsylvanians.

“What has happened is that this particular Supreme Court has decided it wants to overturn everything from the New Deal (forward),” Khalil said. “Their desire is that our way of life, they want to overturn…

On energy, Kenyatta was the only candidate to voice support for banning new permits for fracking for natural gas. All of his rivals agreed that America needs to take steps to bolster its own energy independence and that of our allies by maximizing production of natural gas in the near term. Khalil went a step further, saying she would work for a way to give all Americans a royalty payment for that shared resource.

But Kenyatta and Lamb were in agreement in opposing a suspension of the 18-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax to provide short-term relief to middle- and working class Americans as this time of spiking gas prices.

Fetterman and Khalil said they would support such a suspension.

Kenyatta and Lamb noted that those funds are vitally needed for infrastructure improvements, and Lamb also said that he doubted such a tax rollback would even be felt by drivers, since the tax is paid by oil companies who have the final word as to whether it would show up at the pump.

Fetterman, who used Pennsylvania’s quirky system of electing lieutenant governors to elbow his way back onto the state’s political landscape in 2018, has been leading in the polls and in the fundraising throughout the early stages of this campaign.

And as the frontrunner, Fetterman was challenged again by Kenyatta on a 2013 incident in his hometown of Braddock in which he tracked down and held at gunpoint a Black jogger until police could respond, believing he was a criminal on the run from a shots fired incident. That man, it turned out, was not involved in any criminal activity.

“With powerful folks like John, any type of accountability feels like persecution, but John is not the victim here,” Kenyatta said. “At the time he (Fetterman) said he thought he committed a crime, and then he uses his re-election in Braddock as another justification for why he doesn’t have to apologize.”

But there was no change in the outcome of this discussion.

Fetterman has explained in the past that on that cold January night he responded to a burst of gun shots and made a split second decision to call 911 and intercept the only individual running from the direction of the gun shots. He has said he did not know the race of the man at the time he began his pursuit.

And again Monday night, he refused to apologize for what he did that night or say that he would have handled it differently if given a do-over, noting that his duty as mayor of Braddock at that time was to do everything he could to provide for the safety of the public.

“The people that re-elected me know that that’s not what this was about,” Fetterman said. “I never pointed the weapon at anyone, and everyone in town understood that the protection of the community was always in my heart, and that’s what it always was consistently about.”

The Pennsylvania seat is seen as one of a handful nationwide that is likely to define who has majority control of the Senate come 2023. The open seat contest has also generated a hotly-contested race for the GOP nomination. The Republicans will be debating in the “Spotlight on Pennsylvania” series on Tuesday.

Primary election day is May 17.

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