"If you want to hide a secret from someone,'' state Sen. Mike Stack advised the Oakland audience, "talk about it at a lieutenant governor forum because no one will hear it.''
The Philadelphia Democrat dabbles in standup comedy. And actually about 40 people were there Saturday afternoon to hear him and a couple of his rivals for the second spot on the Democratic ticket. But he spoke to a larger truth about the relative anonymity of the state's second-ranking officeholder, and the usually under-the-radar process that leads to his or her selection.
"A lot of people don't even know you vote for lieutenant governor,'' another candidate for the office, state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Washington County, observed as he was about to address a Democratic forum at the University of Pittsburgh Law School Saturday afternoon.
Those two, joined by Harrisburg city Councilman Brad Koplinski, spent nearly two hours discussing and largely agreeing on issues highlighted by their contention that the state's well-being rests on replacing the incumbent administration in Harrisburg.
Campaigning elsewhere were the two remaining contenders for the Democratic nomination, former U.S. Rep. Mark Critz and Mark Smith, a Bradford County commissioner.
They're vying for an office that's drawn a spotlight only on those historically rare occasions when the governor has stepped aside.
The incumbent, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, was acting governor for about 90 minutes earlier this year while Gov. Tom Corbett was under anesthesia for a minor operation.
Former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel had a longer stint as the acting chief executive in 1993, when he stepped in, from June until December, while the late Gov. Robert P. Casey was recuperating from the organ transplant he endured to ward off the effects of amyloidosis.
Former Gov. Mark Schweiker ascended to the top job in 2001, after former President George W. Bush called former Gov. Tom Ridge to Washington to be the nation's first Homeland Security director in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Mr. Schweiker is the only figure in the state's modern political era to become governor in more than an acting capacity. Former Gov. Ray Shafer was the last lieutenant governor to be elected governor. He succeeded his former running mate, the late Gov. Bill Scranton, in 1966. Since the adoption of the state's current Constitution in 1968, no lieutenant governor has gone on to be elected governor or, for that matter, to any other position.
Still, the job has attracted plenty of competition among Democrats this year. Mr. Cawley, who was speaking to a conservative gathering in Harrisburg on Saturday, is unopposed for renomination on the Republican side.
Little daylight between them
During their questioning from members of the Pitt Law Democrats and a variety of other Democratic groups from the East End, the Democrats offered broadly similar positions led by the need to increase funding for education. Their positions largely overlapped the policy proposals of the four Democratic candidates for governor. The second-spot aspirants all said they would be happy to run with any of their party's gubernatorial nominees. In Pennsylvania, the nominees for the two offices run independently in the primary and are joined in a ticket only in the general election.
It's unusual for candidates for the two offices to form alliances, although that happened in 2002 when Bob Casey, now a U.S. senator, teamed up with former Auditor General Jack Wagner, then a state senator, in an unsuccessful effort to form a cross-state alliance to counter the strength of the figure who would go on to win the governor's office, Ed Rendell.
One divergence from the consensus positions of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates emerged Saturday as Mr. Koplinski said he favored a temporary ban on natural gas fracking until more is known about the potential safety hazards of the chemicals used in the process. While the Democratic State Committee members voted in favor of a fracking ban at a meeting this year, all of the party's current candidates for governor oppose such an outright ban, even as they call for stricter regulation of the process.
Mr. Koplinski came to Pennsylvania as a worker in John Kerry's 2004 campaign for president. He stayed and in 2007 was elected to the Harrisburg council by the landslide margin of four votes.
Despite his relatively modest political base, he worked hard to build his candidacy. By August of last year, he'd already achieved the so-called full Arlen - the circumnavigation of the state's 67 counties, an election tactic proudly pioneered by the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter.
A lawyer who formerly worked in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, he got the most votes of any of the lieutenant governor candidates in the Democratic State Committee's endorsement vote earlier this year, although he failed to gain the two-thirds majority needed for the party's regulars' official backing.
Mr. Stack came to this race after first considering a run for governor. He has deep roots in Philadelphia politics. The grandfather whose name he shares was a member of Congress during the Great Depression. Mr. Stack was elected to the state Senate in 2000, defeating a Republican incumbent in his third bid for the seat in Philadelphia's Northeast.
He is a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard, a captain in the judge advocate general's office. In the Senate, he's been a proponent of a variety of progressive issues. He told the crowd Saturday that he's sponsored legislation to raise the state's minimum wage to $12 an hour. With the support of former gubernatorial candidate John Hanger, he's also crafted a measure to decriminalize marijuana in the state.
At 32, Mr. Neuman is the youngest member of the field, as he reminded the Pitt crowd. A graduate of the University of Richmond and Duquesne University Law School, he was elected to his Washington County House seat against the GOP tide of 2010, the year after he graduated from law school. He said he decided to run for lieutenant governor because he believed it was important to give Western Pennsylvania a voice in a year when the field for the top of his party's ticket is dominated by figures from the eastern half of the state.
Mr. Critz also boasts a political base in the west. He was the district director for the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha, who wielded tremendous clout for a generation from his senior perch on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
After Mr. Murtha's death in midterm in 2010, he won a hard-fought special election for the seat with the support of Mr. Murtha's widow and much of the region's Democratic establishment. He successfully defended it against the Republican tide of 2010. In 2012, however, running in a district redrawn to be more GOP-friendly, he was ousted by Republican Keith Rothfus.
While there was speculation that he might seek a rematch with Mr. Rothfus this cycle, he opted instead for the state race. His battles for the old Murtha seat attracted national attention and some of the heaviest spending of any congressional contest.
One of the assets he brings is the residual name recognition built by the millions of dollars in spending on his behalf in the 2010 and 2012 races.
Mr. Smith's website boasts of his expertise in handling the controversial issues presented by the burgeoning development of the Marcellus Shale, for which his county is a major center. He also boasts of being an avid blues guitarist. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that he was ousted from a Christian rock group that he had played for because of his support for gay marriage equality.
Still wide-open race
There does not appear to be any overwhelming favorite among candidates toiling in such a low-profile competition. Jay Paterno, the son of the late Penn State football coach, had probably the most recognizable name in the race, but he dropped from the ballot after his nominating petitions were challenged by Mr. Koplinski.
A Harper Poll conducted in February, while Mr. Paterno was still in the field, found him essentially tied with Mr. Critz. Mr. Paterno had 17 percent in that automated phone poll, followed by Mr. Critz, 16 percent; Mr. Neuman, 7 percent; Mr. Stack, 6 percent; Mr. Koplinski, 4 percent; and Mr. Smith, 2 percent.
But probably the biggest message of the February survey was how wide-open the race appeared, with 48 percent of the respondents holding no preference.
The forum at Pitt was sponsored by a coalition of Democratic groups including the Shadyside Democrats, the 4th Ward Dems, the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club, the Gertrude Stein Political Club of Western Pennsylvania, the Stonewall Democrats, the Young Democrats of Allegheny county, and the Pitt Law Democrats.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.