With Alex Trebek moderating, Gov. Wolf and GOP opponent Scott Wagner debate Pa.’s future
Gov. Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner faced off in the first and only debate of the campaign, battling over money in politics, the culture of Harrisburg, and issues like taxes, the death penalty and education funding.
HERSHEY, Pa. — Gov. Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner faced off in the first and only debate of the campaign for governor of Pennsylvania, battling over money in politics, the culture of Harrisburg, and such issues as taxes, the death penalty, and education funding.
Sitting on stage next to Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy! and moderator for Monday night's debate at the Hershey Lodge, Wolf, a Democrat seeking a second term, pitched himself as an ethical governor who refuses to take gifts, has invested in education, and expanded health coverage for low-income residents.
Wagner, a former state senator and owner of a waste management firm, declared himself the "cleanup guy" who would stand up for law enforcement and take on fiscal challenges such as the state's underfunded retirement system.
"Nobody wants to do any heavy lifting," Wagner told a ballroom audience of more than 1,500 people at an annual dinner hosted by the state Chamber of Business and Industry. "That's what we need to start doing."
Wagner entered the debate looking to jolt a campaign that has been overlooked by news about President Trump and high-stakes congressional campaigns.
Wagner has struggled to gain momentum in a year that has seen strong enthusiasm among Democratic voters.
About 50 percent of voters approve of Wolf's job performance, according to a poll released Sept. 27 by Franklin and Marshall College. That's similar to Gov. Ed Rendell's approval ratings before he was reelected in 2006.
Trump isn't doing any favors for statewide GOP candidates: Just 37 percent of Keystone State voters approve of Trump's job performance, according to Franklin and Marshall.
So the debate presented an opportunity for a breakthrough. Wagner described Wolf as being beholden to special interests and too timid to take on the big issues.
"When I'm elected governor, if I don't do anything in four years, I pledge to you I will change my name to Tom Wolf," Wagner said.
Wolf countered that he had set Pennsylvania on the right path and established a record of bipartisan compromise.
The candidates agreed on a need for more civility in politics. "Politics, especially in a democracy, we have to make it civil," Wolf said.
But the candidates refused to back down from their attacks on each other.
Early in the debate, Trebek asked, "Have you ever said anything negative about your opponent that you knew was not true?"
Wagner shook his head no, and Wolf said, "Not that I remember, no."
That led to a chorus of boos from the ballroom.
"I try to do the right thing," Wolf said.
They traded jabs on transparency, with Wolf saying Wagner should release his tax returns and Wagner lashing out at the governor for refusing to participate in more debates.
"The mothers and fathers that have had a loved one die of opioid addiction — they want to talk to the governor," Wagner said.
Wolf responded: "I think people are listening. They don't like what they hear from you. But they are listening."
With a short amount of time on stage together, the candidates rarely went in-depth on issues such as the opioid epidemic, tax policy, the grand jury report on clergy abuse, health-care costs, or the state's underfunded retirement system for public workers.
They did discuss the death penalty at length. Wolf imposed a moratorium on capital punishment when he took office and said he continues to support it.
"He assassinated a trooper, just like he would shoot a groundhog," said Wagner, who has called for mandatory capital punishment for school shooters.
Pointing to Wolf, Wagner added: "This man is going to allow that person to stay on death row."
Trebek noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory death sentences are unconstitutional. Wagner dodged the point and said, "We're going to get tough in this state."
Wolf, referring to people who have been convicted in connection with school shootings, said, "I think the people who committed those crimes should rot in prison and be punished severely."
On fiscal issues, Wolf argued that he had made progress on shoring up the pension system for state workers and pointed to balanced budgets.
Wagner countered that Wolf didn't actually sign some of the budgets and that the reason the governor signed this year's spending bill on time was that he was up for reelection.
The governor also said he would continue to push for a severance tax on natural gas drilling, which Wagner said wasn't necessary because the state already imposes an impact fee.
The night started with a moment of levity, as Trebek chatted on stage with the chamber's president, Gene Barr.
Asked why he had agreed to moderate the debate, the game show host said, “I think I was drunk at the time.”