John Hanger's varied careers a strong point on his resume
December 22, 2013 11:28 PM
By James O'Toole / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thirteen months ago, John Hanger became the first Democrat to announce a bid for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Now he's got plenty of company, including several rivals with bigger bank accounts and more name recognition. Still, his resume makes him at least a plausible candidate to lead the state. He's a former Neighborhood Legal Services attorney, a former member of the Public Utility Commission, led the Department of Environmental Protection for part of the Rendell administration and was the first president of the environmental group PennFuture.
But he continues to face the question of whether he can break through to the first tier of the crowded Democratic field.
One thing that's sure about his political future is that even if he is elected governor and posts a spectacular record, he'll never be president. Mr. Hanger was born in Nairobi, Kenya, to British parents. After Kenya, he lived for a time in Dublin and came to the United States at age 10 and later became a citizen.
Over the next two weeks, Politics editor James O'Toole will write about the campaign preparations of the eight Democrats who plan to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's re-election bid in 2014.
The move to the United States came because his father came here for a job.
"He was pursuing the American dream," the progressive Democrat said. "In the last 30 years, since 1980, the American dream has been slipping away for so many people. The levels of inequality are crushing."
After graduating from Duke University, he came to the state to attend the University of Pennsylvania law school. Then Mr. Hanger took what he calls his "dream job," working on cases for clients who couldn't otherwise afford an attorney.
That helped set him on an unplanned path to Harrisburg.
While at Neighborhood Legal Services, he ended up concentrating on energy issues, working as an advocate for people who couldn't pay their utility bills. His immersion in those issues brought him to the attention of a former member of the PUC, the late Joe Rhodes, and the former Pittsburgh lawmaker recruited him for his staff.
The late Gov. Robert P. Casey then nominated him to the commission. Among the issues before the body then was energy deregulation.
"At that time, Pittsburgh's electricity rates were among the highest around the country; Philadelphia was also high." Mr. Hanger said.
Whatever happens to his current candidacy, he contends, he's already had an impact on the state.
"I led that reform effort," he said in a recent interview. "I've saved anyone who pays electric bills thousands of dollars, literally saved electric rate payers, cumulatively, millions of dollars."
From the PUC, he moved to the environmental and economic advocacy group PennFuture. Then-Gov. Ed Rendell tapped him to be his second DEP secretary just as the state's shale gas play was getting underway.
His record before his DEP tenure would seem to bear out his self-image as an environmental activist. While there, he said, he beefed up enforcement and more than doubled the size of the bureau overseeing natural gas.
But he was depicted in a negative light in the anti-fracking documentary "Gasland." And anti-fracking hardliners were upset with him along with his chief rivals in the primary for their refusal to support the Democratic State Committee's call for a drilling moratorium earlier this year.
"I guess no good deed goes unpunished," he said of the criticism. In rebuttal, he notes that several of the families from Dimock, a community whose fracking-related trials were spotlighted in "Gasland," have endorsed his candidacy.
Like several other Democrats, Mr. Hanger has called for an extraction fee or tax on the burgeoning industry, coupled with stricter regulation. But he says that the top issue in this campaign is education. He has sharply criticized the Corbett administration's school funding record, seeking to draw attention to his criticism and his candidacy in a cross-state tour in a school bus earlier this year.
Mr. Hanger also has distinguished himself from the Democratic pack with his support for reform in the state's marijuana laws. At news conferences across the state last month, including one outside the Allegheny County Jail, he showcased his endorsement from NORML, the National Association for Reform of Marijuana Laws.
The group applauded his three-step plan to immediately allow medical marijuana use, then decriminalize the drug for general use before fully legalizing and taxing the substance by 2017.
Mr. Hanger has called for a spending limit among the Democratic candidates, a proposal that could be seen as an effort to make a virtue of necessity in that he is not expected to enjoy the fundraising resources of some of his competitors. But he contends that "$3 million to $5 million is plenty of money to run a campaign," and warns that an expensive, negative Democratic primary could play right into the hands of Gov. Tom Corbett.
And he predicts that his own fundraising will be more robust than some might expect.
"We hope to have a $3 million campaign," he said. "I will be reporting in the low seven figures [in a 2013 yearend tally], which may surprise some people."
Mr. Hanger argues that the big field of Democratic contenders could end up working to his advantage in that it is likely to reduce the total of votes needed to grab the nomination. He anticipates a low turnout, with roughly 1 million Democrats voting, roughly the same number that voted in the 2010 primary.
"With at least six on the ballot, 300,000 votes will win it," he predicted.
Editors note: Over the next two weeks, Politics editor James O'Toole will write about the campaign preparations of the eight Democrats who plan to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's re-election bid in 2014.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.
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