Democrats for governor face off

2 from W.Pa., 2 from East share Squirrel Hill stage

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Geographically, at least, it was a home game for Dan Onorato and Jack Wagner.

On the terrain of issues, it sometimes seemed a different story as the two candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor joined Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel in a Squirrel Hill forum organized by the traditionally liberal 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club along with the University of Pittsburgh College Democrats and the League of Women Voters.

The candidates were arrayed alphabetically across the stage of the Wightman School Community Center, which meant that Mr. Wagner and Mr. Onorato were on the audience's right and Mr. Doherty and Mr. Hoeffel were to the left. Frequently, those positions corresponded with the policy differences the candidates aired during a substantive and civil 90 minutes on the Wightman stage.

"It's good to be here talking to good progressives," Mr. Hoeffel said as the session opened.

While they displayed some differences on social and economic issues, the candidates offered a united front in promising reform in Harrisburg, a more timely and transparent budget process, and the need for environmental scrutiny of the state's burgeoning natural gas industry.

On abortion rights and gay marriage, Mr. Hoeffel and Mr. Doherty repeated their more liberal positions, emphasizing their support of abortion rights and equality in marriage laws.

While emphasizing his support for anti-discrimination measures in general, Mr. Wagner said he believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman. He said that he opposed abortion but also disagreed with proposals to legally criminalize the procedure.

Mr. Onorato said he opposed gay marriage but did support civil unions.

The Allegheny County executive, an opponent of abortion, said he would nonetheless oppose efforts to change the state's legal status quo if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn or modify the Roe v. Wade precedent.

"I support Pennsylvania's current law," he said. "If a bill came to my desk to make it more restrictive, I would veto it."

Mr. Hoeffel, on the contrary, pledged that he would work to overturn restrictions in the state's current law, considered one of the strictest in the nation.

The divide between the candidates from the east and west on social issues is familiar, but the two Pittsburghers also offered more conservative stands on business taxes. Mr. Hoeffel criticized Mr. Onorato's call for a cut in the state's corporate net income tax, while Mr. Wagner indicated support for business tax cuts to spur the economy. Mr. Doherty said he also opposed the call for a tax cut, arguing that it was more important for the state to invest in needs such as infrastructure and education.

Three of the four Democrats said they supported some form of legalization of the medical use of marijuana with a doctor's prescription, a step, that had already been taken by 16 states, Mr. Wagner said. Mr. Onorato was the only candidate on the stage said he would oppose the proposal.

Pressed by moderator Jon Delano of KDKA-TV, the four Democrats endorsed at least the concept of more frequent, perhaps monthly, campaign contribution disclosures. As the forum ended, however, it wasn't clear whether that general sentiment would be matched by any specific changes in campaign practices. Another point of agreement was the Democrats' unanimity in criticizing the Supreme Court's decision last week easing the restrictions on corporate spending to political issues. The first contribution reports for 2010 are due today and are expected to show Mr. Onorato with a substantial lead over his three rivals.

Mr. Hoeffel, however, twice told the standing room-only crowd of more than 200 that the competition to succeed Gov. Ed Rendell remained a wide-open race, pointing to the fact that no candidate has managed to post a significant lead in the early polling.

Turning to a regional issue, Mr. Wagner sparked a few groans of protest as he stated his support for the completion of the long-stalled Mon-Fayette Expressway. The auditor general said he believed the sections of controversial project, particularly the airport bypass, would yield economic benefits, although he said he did not support one major aspect of the project -- a proposed bypass to the Squirrel Hill Tunnels.

Mr. Onorato said that he favored moving forward on much of the so-far unfunded roadway, so long as it included adequate connections to brownfield sites in the Mon Valley. Mr. Doherty echoed Mr. Onorato's position while Mr. Hoeffel, who seemed unfamiliar with the long-simmering controversy, said he reserved judgment.

On other transportation issues, Mr. Wagner renewed his criticism of the Port Authority's light rail tunnel under the Allegheny River. Mr. Onorato said that he had been saddled with the project when he took office. To have halted it at that stage, he said, would have meant forfeiting $500 million in federal dollars as well as making the Port Authority liable for repaying millions in federal dollars already spent on the project.

Mr. Hoeffel said he would increase user fees and gas taxes to double the funding for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Stressing the need to move away from dependence on oil, Mr. Wagner said he would move to make the Pennsylvania Turnpike an innovative multi-fuel highway, with the infrastructure for plug-in recharging of electric cars as well as refueling facilities for vehicles powered by natural gas.

"We have to get off oil in this country," said Mr. Wagner.

All of the Democrats voiced cautious support for both the development and the taxation of the Marcellus shale natural gas deposits throughout the state. They all coupled that support with calls for greater vigilance over the industry's potential hazard to the state's water supplies.


Politics Editor James O'Toole: at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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