It's beginning to look a lot like ... the 2014 gubernatorial race!
With six fun-filled, promise-loaded campaign months to go, five of the announced eight (yes, we kid not, eight) Democratic candidates appeared Saturday at a raucous Temple University forum that resembled a revival meeting.
Actually, you couldn't call the event a debate because the candidates agree on virtually everything, probably down to how they like their eggs.
The program quickly evolved into a political version of a talent show, with a generous dose of church testifying. Who knew that State Treasurer Rob McCord, with a background in venture capital and attire to match, could rock the highly vocal crowd?
How vocal? Participants hooted and hollered - twice - when businessman and former Rendell revenue secretary Tom Wolf mentioned that he has a Ph.D. from MIT.
McCord, Wolf, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, and former Secretaries of Environmental Protection John Hanger and Katie McGinty - that's right, two - make for a pragmatic, bookish sort of group that became more animated and preacher-like as the event progressed, fueling on the crowd's passion.
Gov. Corbett was invited to participate, and declined, most likely a good thing as this was so not his crowd. The performing arts center was packed with full-throated union members, community activists, fracking protesters (two "fractivists" took to the stage with a banner that read "Good governors don't frack their people"), charter school opponents, the working class and poor.
You know, Philadelphians.
Moderator the Rev. Mark Tyler gave my favorite admonition: "Show some respect. We're not here to heckle. You can heckle them later outside." He also said to the candidates: "On behalf of all the clergy, I'm glad you're not running for pastor."
Billed as "Philadelphia Speaks Out: Gubernatorial Candidates Forum," the city most definitely did. And the candidates more than held their own. They gave as good as they got, even if they looked so staid in their sensible campaign clothes and haircuts.
A former Community Legal Services attorney, Hanger reached an oratorical crescendo, and got a rollicking standing ovation, when he decried the high rate of African American males incarcerated for drug possession and called for the legalization of marijuana.
The candidates promised to raise the minimum wage, abolish the School Reform Commission, crack down on charters, tax fracking, defend unions, accept Medicaid expansion and help the poor. Basically, they promised to be the opposite of Corbett while making you wonder what pledges they will make before a business crowd.
Residents selected to offer testimony on education, jobs, seniors and health care often spoke far longer than the absurdly brief time allotted candidates. Schwartz, running as "the mother of CHIP," Pennsylvania's Children's Health Insurance Program she helped pass in 1992 that has become a national model, appeared enormously frustrated. She noted, "It's really hard to talk about health care in two minutes."
Initially chaotic, the format ultimately proved illuminating in its noise and mess. Rather than the audience learning about the candidates - attendees appeared to be doing more yelling than listening - the forum provided a crash course for the gubernatorial hopefuls on how to woo and win Philadelphia. (I wish the spirited McGinty, the ninth of 10 children born to a now-retired Philadelphia cop, still lived in the city instead of Wayne, and was running for mayor.)
The candidates differ so little on issues, if at all, that the May primary is going to be won on style, strategy, fund-raising and who offers the best chance to unseat the unpopular governor.
There may be big money in the suburbs but the city is gushing with more than 800,000 registered Democratic voters, who need little convincing that these candidates serve their interests better than Corbett. The trick is to get voters motivated enough to come to the polls.
Most of the five candidates have lived or worked in Philadelphia. They told stories of overcoming hardship and advocated strongly for public education. They made more promises than any official can possibly keep, particularly with a Republican-controlled legislature, but this is an experienced, impressive, lively crop of candidates. If only the same could be said of the Philadelphia mayor's race.