Gubernatorial hopefuls seek to harvest farmers' support
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HARRISBURG -- Three guys who don't know too much about farming but who want to be Pennsylvania's next governor drove through snow and sleet to talk to one of the state's leading Democratic agricultural groups.
Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato; his Lehigh County counterpart, Don Cunningham, and former state Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf of York each made a "nice-to-meet-you" speech Saturday at the Penn Ag Democratic luncheon, an annual gathering held on the first day of the annual Farm Show here, a salute to farms and livestock.
All three said they hadn't decided officially whether to seek the Democratic nomination in the May 2010 primary, but all three sounded like they are strongly leaning toward running. Visiting the agricultural luncheon makes political sense, because agriculture is the state's largest industry, with 55,000 farms statewide and $3.5 billion in annual product sales.
Mr. Wolf, a businessman from York who oversaw the revenue agency in 2007-08, said he will disclose his political plans in February. He has hired Sean Smith, a key figure in President-elect Barack Obama's Pennsylvania campaign, as an adviser.
Mr. Cunningham, a former mayor of Bethlehem and former state General Services secretary, said he has to win re-election as Lehigh County chief executive this year, but said he's hired a fundraising coordinator for the 2010 gubernatorial race.
Mr. Onorato said his fundraising committee already has $4 million in hand, and said that anyone who wants to run for either governor or senator next year has to make his intentions known by June, which he said he would do. Significant lead time is needed for fundraising and name recognition
Three other Democrats who are mentioned as likely candidates for governor next year skipped the luncheon:?state Auditor General Jack Wagner, one-time Philadelphia mayoral candidate Tom Knox and Senate Democratic leader Bob Mellow.
Mr. Wagner said the poor weather was a concern, and he had to attend a gathering in Pittsburgh, said Keith Bierly, leader of the Penn Ag group and a former Centre County commissioner.
In talking to reporters from outside Allegheny County, Mr. Onorato stressed his record of not raising property taxes in six years in office, and actually, he said, decreasing them twice. A Philadelphia reporter asked if the uproar over the county's 10 percent drink tax had subsided and Mr. Onorato said it wasn't much of a factor anymore, especially since he's lowered it to 7 percent.
"Go Steelers," shouted someone in the crowd of 75 or so, as Mr. Onorato got up to speak. He diplomatically said he was hoping for a Steelers-Eagles Super Bowl.
Mr. Onorato, 47, told the crowd that while Allegheny County has an urban image, there are still more than 400 farms in the county, with many others in more rural surrounding counties.
He touted his record of slimming the county work force by 600 and making government work more cheaply, including combining five 911 centers into one.
He said that while the position of county executive may not be as well-known as mayor of Philadelphia, the two posts are similar in responsibility, as Allegheny County has 1.3 million people, 7,000 employees and a $1.7 billion budget.
Mr. Cunningham, 43, talked about his record of reviving Bethlehem when he became mayor at age 31. He said thousands of steel jobs were lost when a big Bethlehem Steel plant closed. He said he has executive experience, both as mayor and now county executive, and experience running a major state agency, the Department of General Services.
Mr. Wolf, 60, is a wealthy businessman whose company, the Wolf Organization, was the largest distributor of kitchen cabinets and other building products on the East Coast before he sold it three years ago. Gov. Ed Rendell named him as revenue secretary in early 2007, a job he kept until late 2008. He also has contributed heavily to many Democratic candidates, which could earn him some support.
Although Mr. Wagner wasn't there, Monica Kline, who owns an alpaca-raising farm in Lebanon County and is the daughter of former Democratic Lt. Gov. Ernie Kline, who also was present, said Mr. Wagner is her favored candidate.
As a state senator and now auditor general, said Ms. Kline, "He has always shown a level of integrity that is different from some politicians. I like and respect him."?
Mr. Knox, who also wasn't there, spent $10 million in 2007 to come in second in the Philadelphia Democratic mayoral primary, won by current Mayor Michael Nutter. Mr. Knox has set up a Web site for his potential gubernatorial campaign, www.knoxforgovernor.com. Like Mr. Wolf, he is expected to spend a considerable amount of his own money if he decides to run.
Next year could be an interesting year for both parties. Attorney General Tom Corbett of Shaler and former U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan of Philadelphia are likely candidates for governor in the Republican primary.
First Published January 12, 2009 12:00 am