Democratic candidates for governor unite against Corbett, UPMC in debate

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UPMC was nearly as prominent a pinata as Gov. Tom Corbett as UPMC's employee relations and its standoff with Highmark were repeatedly denounced during a debate Sunday among eight Democratic candidates for governor.

In the 90-minute forum at Carnegie Mellon University, the candidates were united in criticizing the Republican administration's education policies. Most voiced support for easing prohibitions against marijuana use in the state, and for stricter regulation and taxing of natural gas fracking.

But some of the more affecting moments of the encounter came as the hopefuls were asked to describe failures in their lives.

Democratic candidates for governor debate at CMU

Democratic candidates for governor participated in a debate at Carnegie-Mellon University. (Video by Nate Guidry; 1/26/2014)

John Hanger, a former state secretary of environmental protection, said his most profound failure had involved the suicide of his 23-year-old son.

"What I learned from that is how vital mental health services are," he said, adding that it was crucial to fund such health care but also to erase the stigma often attached to mental illness.

Katie McGinty, another former DEP secretary, said she had fallen short in trying to seek justice for the violent death of a nephew who was killed in a confrontation with a group of young men who were never held accountable for what she regards as a crime.

Max Myers, a businessman and evangelical minister, recounted losing the support of his congregation, and his job along with it, and said that while the impact seemed devastating at the time, he and his family had grown from it.

Treasurer Rob McCord described himself as pro-failure, citing his experience as a venture capitalist and the failures that inevitably accompany new companies and new ideas. U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz took the question in a different direction.

"I just don't believe in failure," she said. "You have to wake up every morning and believe you can take on a challenge. It's hard in politics to win every day, but you can find way to work with people and get things done."

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski said that "as a mayor you have to be accustomed to failure," but pivoted to use his answer to highlight the accomplishments of his administration in turning his city around through new development and a reformed pension system.

Jo Ellen Litz, a Lebanon County commissioner, and a distinct long shot in this race, said she had fallen short in previous runs for office, but also succeeded.

"You can win, and soar like an eagle," she told the capacity crowd that had defied the elements to jam the CMU auditorium.

Ms. Litz stumbled later in the debate, as she described Erie's Presque Isle State park as her favorite spot in Pittsburgh.

While the Corbett administration has on several occasion prodded UPMC and Highmark to resolve their bitter dispute on future coverage, the candidates were unanimous in suggesting that the governor had not done enough. And several made clear that they regarded UPMC as the prime bad guy in the confrontation.

"It's quite remarkable that UPMC has made an insurer look as good as it does," said Ms. Schwartz, who, like several of her colleagues, said she supported legislation sponsored by Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, and Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa of Forest Hills that would require UPMC to continue access for Highmark customers.

The criticism of the health care giant on the Highmark issue was overlaid with criticisms of UPMC's treatment of its employees.

"UPMC is generating an army of poor people working full-time," Mr. McCord said.

"That kind of income inequality is intolerable," he added.

In a room dotted with anti-fracking activists, Mr. Myers was the only candidate who supported a complete moratorium on drilling in the state. The others, for the most part restated positions in favor of new taxes on the industry coupled with tighter regulation and moratoriums on drilling on state lands and in the Delaware River basin.

Ms. McGinty also said that increased scrutiny should also apply to the burgeoning level of rail shipments of the industry's products.

Mr. Hanger has made a path to full legalization of marijuana a central part of his platform. Most of his rivals wouldn't go that far, but there was general support for easing of current strictures. All of the candidates supported a change to allow the drug's use for medical purposes. With the exception of Ms. Litz, most supported some definition of decriminalization. Mr. McCord, urged a wait-and-see response to study the results of recreational legalization in Washington and Colorado but added that he suspected that "in the fullness of time," the state would move toward legalization.

In response to one question, Mr. Pawlowski said he was personally anti-abortion but emphasized that he supported full funding for Planned Parenthood and would do nothing to increase restrictions on abortion rights. To another question, Ms. Schwartz rebutted the suggestion that her role as the founder of a women's health clinic that provided abortions would hurt her statewide political appeal.

"Most Pennsylvanians are also pro-choice," she said. "That is a Pennsylvania value ... it's true across this state."

Mr. Wolf was pressed over the fact that no females were on the board of the York firm he owns. He said that was because the company is family-owned but added that women are well represented in the firm's management.

The candidates restated their frequent criticisms of the Corbett administration's education funding policies, with a consensus on the need to provide more education funding and to revise the formula for how state funds are distributed among school districts.

The forum was sponsored by the 14th Ward Democratic Committee, the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club and the Carnegie Mellon Democrats. The format mixed one-minute answers to panelists' questions with "lightning rounds," calling for yes-no or one-word answers. It took place just days before one of the first potentially winnowing developments for the big field of challengers. On Friday, the contenders are due to report their 2013 fundraising details. Most of the leading candidates have already made partial disclosures showing war chests ranging between $2 million and $13 million.

Politics Editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562. First Published January 26, 2014 6:57 PM

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