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Pa. lieutenant governor candidates Jeff Bartos, John Fetterman press running mates’ talking points in cordial debate

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Jeff Bartos and Democratic candidate John Fetterman make cases for their running mates in Pittsburgh TV debate.

Candidates for lieutenant governor John Fetterman, left, and Jeff Bartos shake hands and pose for a photo before a televised debate Saturday at WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh.
Candidates for lieutenant governor John Fetterman, left, and Jeff Bartos shake hands and pose for a photo before a televised debate Saturday at WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh.Read moreALEXANDRA WIMLEY/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — In a cordial but lively debate, Pennsylvania lieutenant governor candidates Jeff Bartos and John Fetterman used their time Saturday on WPXI-TV to advocate for their running mates.

The debate, which aired at 7:30 p.m. on the NBC affiliate, was a battle by proxy.

Bartos, a Republican and Montgomery County real estate executive, said Pennsylvania needs a pro-growth businessman as governor to revive the state: former State Sen. Scott Wagner.

Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, said Democratic incumbent Tom Wolf would continue to protect unions, women's reproductive rights, and public education in a second term, while saying Wagner would tax retirement income, destroy unions, and "enact the most restrictive abortion laws in the country."

The debate was the polar opposite of last week's one and only gubernatorial debate, with moderator Alex Trebek criticized for not allowing the governor or Wagner to talk enough. With anchor Katherine Amenta handling the questions, Bartos and Fetterman were able to outline numerous disagreements on policy issues such as marijuana legalization, gun control, and capital punishment.

Their starkest contrast came on the question of public education, which started a brief but telling exchange on teachers' unions. After Fetterman said the governor restored $1 billion in cuts made to education by his GOP predecessor, Bartos called Wolf "a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers' unions."

"Gov. Wolf works for the teachers," Bartos continued. "We will work for the students of Pennsylvania, the parents of Pennsylvania, and the teachers of Pennsylvania."

Fetterman responded that teachers' unions are facing an "existential threat" and that Wagner would "exterminate" them. He referred to Wagner's 2014 comparison of unions to Hitler.

On mass shootings, Fetterman said he supports a ban on assault rifles in Pennsylvania and denounced Wagner for his recent endorsement from the National Rifle Association, which he said "monetizes" the deaths of innocents.

"There's no reason to have these military-grade weapons in the hands of civilians, these instruments of mass killing," Fetterman said.

Bartos didn't propose additional restrictions on firearms, but said the state "woefully" underfunds mental health services — asserting that Wagner would take on special interests and the bureaucracy to free up resources.

Wagner opposes legalizing recreational marijuana, as does Bartos, who said there is "not enough data yet on the major health consequences and public health consequences." Bartos said he supports medical uses.

Fetterman said that when he was running for U.S. Senate in 2016, he believed Pennsylvania should go "full Colorado" with legalization, but added he stands with Wolf on the issue. The governor has said Pennsylvania isn't ready for legalization.

"There is a small area of difference," Fetterman said, "and I know Gov. Wolf supports decriminalizing it."

The power of a lieutenant governor was a point of contrast, too. Fetterman said he wants to see the role expanded into something "important, special, and transformative." In response to a question, Bartos said he sees a governor and lieutenant governor as being a "cohesive working unit."

As Fetterman touted Wolf's record, Bartos said a Wagner administration would lower taxes, create jobs, and invest money into classrooms.

Before the debate started, the candidates bantered. The 6-foot-8 Fetterman towered over Bartos, but the shorter man had him beat in clothing.

"I thought about requesting a 1-foot stool," Bartos said.

"I thought about requesting a tie," Fetterman responded.

Posing for a photo together, Bartos chuckled and said, "We actually get along.", 412-263-1952, Twitter @julianrouth.