As I arrived at Monday night's debate site in Hershey, my fears that the event would be more show than substance escalated.
In the Hershey Lodge lobby, amid bright lights, stood a lifesize cutout of Alex Trebek, and a line of people waiting for pictures with the smiling image of the host of Jeopardy!
Celebrity meets politics in Chocolate Town. At best, a suspect mix.
Once the debate started, my fears were borne out big-time.
The Hollywood game-show maestro performed rather than moderated.
The only scheduled encounter between Gov. Wolf and Scott Wagner devolved into a series of Trebek-centric topics, tossed like tumbleweeds along the barren landscape of this year's gubernatorial race.
We got no real insights. No real news. Nothing that might engage undecided or apathetic voters.
Instead, a Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and Industry dinner audience of roughly 1,700 — and a statewide TV audience of the Pennsylvania Cable Network – got other things.
Some Eagles trivia, some California facts, a regurgitation of Trebek's research into congressional redistricting, and advice to citizens to call candidates to ask where they stand on a natural gas severance tax.
Oh, and an inexplicable trip down Trebek's memory lane.
After asserting that the only entity in Pennsylvania less popular than the legislature is the Catholic Church, he recounted, in some detail, his experience with priests.
Unclear what that had to do with the governor's race.
But Trebek, who grew up in Canada and lives in California, said this: "When I was a young teenager I attended a Catholic boarding school run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Two-hundred-and-fifty students, other boys and I, spent three years sharing the same accommodations 24/7 with 44 priests, and not once in those three years was there any sexual misbehavior.
"Now boys are pretty sharp, we talk, we would have known. So, I believe that there are Catholic priests out there who are able to minister to their congregations without preying – that's P-R-E-Y – on the young people."
He went on a bit, but you get the gist. And let me just say several jaws at media tables dropped.
Trebek also offered some windy, rambling questions, and proffered opinions that surely sucked up more time than either candidate, maybe both combined.
Point being, Alex Trebek took a one-shot opportunity to give some profile to a low-profile race and turned it into state and national attention to, well, Alex Trebek.
So, what now?
Wolf agreed to one gubernatorial debate instead of the normal three. Monday night was not, in my view, a real debate. We should have one.
One focused on the candidates, not the moderator.
It can be anywhere. It can be with no audience, no moderator. Just Wolf and Wagner in a broadcast studio asking each other questions.
Or, it can be with an audience of the public that doesn't have to pay $275 to $300 for an event ticket, as was the case Monday. And it can be with a moderator, any moderator (other than Trebek), asking one-word questions – taxes, environment, education, pension woes, transportation – and letting candidates offer views and visions.
For me, taxpayers in the fifth-largest state deserve better than we got.
We're a state of perennial fiscal challenges. Enormous public pension debt. Ongoing issues surrounding equitable education funding.
The next governor faces the prospect of dealing with gut-wrenching divisiveness over abortion rights, if, as predicted, the U.S. Supreme Court returns the issue to the states.
It's near-certain the next governor faces another battle over partisan-infused congressional redistricting after the 2020 census.
In short, critical issues of governance and politics are at stake. They should be subject to a substantive candidates' debate.