Democrats fire off last salvo at York's Wolf in gubernatorial debate

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PHILADELPHIA -- Trampling rough but familiar terrain, Tom Wolf fended off attacks Monday night from state Treasurer Rob McCord and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz on his business background and his ties to a former York mayor who stepped down as a candidate for re-election in 2001 after being indicted for his role in a 1969 race riot in which a black woman was killed.

With a week to go before the Democratic gubernatorial primary next Tuesday, Mr. McCord forcefully renewed his critique of Mr. Wolf's judgment at the campaign's final debate at Drexel University. He pointed to the York businessman's role as chairman of former York Mayor Charlie Robertson's re-election campaign while contending that Mr. Wolf, the front-runner, had "failed the leadership test," in not speaking out against Mr. Robertson at the time that he was indicted -- though later acquitted -- of charges of having been an accessory to the women's death. Mr. Wolf protested that he had been in the Peace Corps in India at the time of the York riots, and that decades later he had been a behind-the-scenes voice in persuading Mr. Robertson to abandon his candidacy when the charges emerged shortly after he won the primary for renomination.

Ms. Schwartz of Montgomery County contended that Mr. Wolf's business background was not an adequate preparation to run the state, and insisted that he had to be willing to answer tough questions on camera if he hoped to be a credible challenger to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

"We cannot take a risk on someone who is untested, unproven," she said, defending the harsh focus on Mr. Wolf.

Mr. Wolf insisted that his varied business, academic and government background equipped him to lead the state and said that, if it didn't, and only more conventional political paths should be considered as qualifications for high office, then that would be an indictment of the entire political system.

Following another pattern from past encounters, Katie McGinty, who is also seeking the nomination, kept her focus on the incumbent they all hope to unseat.

Decrying cuts in education funding, she said, "[W]hat I hear the voters talking about their son or daughter no longer has tutoring after school, that they now have to pay 150 bucks if they want their son or daughter to be able to participate in sports, the fact that we're now dead last in the region -- zero, last -- in private sector job creation; the fact that 97,000 Pennsylvanians have lost Medical Assistance all because of roadblocks Tom Corbett has put up."

When the question of government ethics arose, she again faulted Mr. Corbett, the Republican incumbent, for having accepted gifts and a trip to Rhode Island.

The exchanges came after a campaign in which Mr. Wolf has vaulted to the lead in public polling on the strength of an early and abundant advertising campaign. Despite their caustic assessments of the apparent front-runner, however, both Mr. McCord and Ms. Schwartz said that they would be willing to support him over the incumbent in November.

In the next few days, at least two new public polls are about to test the resilience of Mr. Wolf's lead against the attacks from his rivals and, increasingly, from the Corbett campaign. Despite the onstage acrimony, all four of the contenders pledged that they would attend a unity event hosted by Rep. Bob Brady, the Philadelphia Democratic Party leader, immediately after the primary.

Echoing one of his commercials, Mr. McCord also criticized Mr. Wolf for the fact that some of his firm's kitchen cabinets were manufactured in Indiana, rather than Pennsylvania. He returned to the controversy over Mr. Robertson, renewing a comparison of those events to the storm swirling around racially offensive remarks of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. He argued that Mr. Wolf's suggestion -- that he stood by the mayor publicly while quietly persuading him to step aside -- was comparable to a National basketball Association commissioner supporting the Clippers' owner publicly while working for his ouster only behind the scenes.

The normally serene Mr. Wolf seemed impatient at times, noting more than once that he had been serving an undergraduate stint in the Peace Crops at the time of the York riots. When Ms. Schwartz implicitly questioned Mr. Wolf's decision to stand behind a friend, former state Rep. Stephen Stetler, who was among those convicted in the Harrisburg Bonusgate prosecutions, the businessman insisted that he had demonstrated his ethics during his tenure as secretary of revenue in the Rendell administration when he declined his government salary, car and other perks.

The debate was interrupted at one point as anti-fracking demonstrators shouted out demands for the Democrats to endorse their opposition to the natural gas industry.

Beyond the advertising blanketing the airwaves, the one-hour forum, the final face-off in Mr. Brady's description, was the most high-profile opportunity for the candidates to make their 11th-hour appeals to the voters before next week's balloting. The questioning at the debate was handled by John Baer, Philadelphia Daily News columnist; Sandra Dungee Glenn, a former member of the Philadelphia school board; and veteran broadcaster Larry Kane.

Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.

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