SARVER, Pa. — As dark clouds crept over the Lernerville Speedway on a damp Friday night in April, Laura Ellsworth wished away the storm. The opening night of the racetrack's 51st season had already been derailed by weather once, and on this night, the Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate's name and campaign logo would be featured prominently on a sprint car.
All of a sudden, the 59-year-old pointed at the sky above the dirt racetrack in Butler County. "Rainbow!" she shouted, putting her arm around owner John Tomson's 11-year-old daughter, Alexis.
A double rainbow, to be precise.
The race would go on as planned.
Ellsworth considers her candidacy a rainbow amid chaos. In the primary fight for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic Gov. Wolf, she has stayed on message — traveling from one end of the state to the other in an RV — while her opponents, State Sen. Scott Wagner and health-care consultant Paul Mango, trade barbs and attack ads over the airwaves.
The vitriol of the primary may have drowned out her message of offering private sector experience and civic engagement, making her an underdog. But on Tuesday, she thinks, the voters will go for "the other option" — the candidate who hasn't been "as loud as the other two," and the one with far less money in her campaign coffers.
"They are exhausted by the yelling and the noise and the shouting and the finger-pointing, and they're just looking for somebody who will get stuff done for them," Ellsworth said.
Ellsworth, of Ohio Township, Allegheny County, points to her nearly 40 years in practice as a power lawyer to build her private sector clout. Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, she moved to Pittsburgh to attend law school in 1980 after graduating from Princeton University and started her career at the Buchanan Ingersoll firm. In 1992, she took a job at the international law firm Jones Day, where she climbed the ranks and eventually became the head of the firm's Pittsburgh office, and its first partner in charge of global community service initiatives.
But her civic engagement is what she says separates her. She served in leadership roles in several of Pittsburgh's economic development organizations — the board of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, among others — which she said gave her hands-on participation in driving the region's revitalization.
"These were the engines of the economic renaissance of Pittsburgh," Ellsworth said. "It started with the private sector. The private sector are the ones who did the planning and the number-crunching, and brought the resources to really get our arms around these issues. Then we partnered with the public sector to actually get things done."
She hopes to replicate "the magic formula of Pittsburgh" statewide, aiming to encourage and spur private sector development, then bring politicians to the table to drive it forward. Pennsylvania has the "basic ingredients," the workforce and the know-how, but lacks a leader who understands how to bring them together, she said.
On the opioid addiction crisis, Ellsworth said she'd focus on empowering federal authorities and state and local law enforcement to work together, and is in favor of mandatory treatment for users after the second time they are revived with naloxone. On taxes, she called no-tax pledges "political gimmicks," and said she'd sell the State Store system and use the proceeds to pay down the pension fund shortfalls.
"It will get [government] out of the liquor store business, and it will give consumers a better selection, service, and price," she said. "It will bring your property taxes down, and it will shore up pension for the people who are relying on it. It will solve three problems at once."
Ellsworth, once a small-time donor to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, runs to the left of her GOP primary opponents on issues of the electoral process. She has called for a bipartisan citizens commission for redistricting, and said in a debate in September that she doesn't believe "our current system delivers the best result for Pennsylvania."
Unlike Wagner and Mango, she is a proponent for limits on campaign finance — and laments that there is no ceiling on gubernatorial campaign contributions, though that could be driven by the circumstances of the race. The two men have poured millions into their own campaigns, and have about $2.2 million and $1.6 million on hand, respectively, while Ellsworth has about $412,000 for the final stretch.
Ellsworth has a lighthearted story for almost everything, and she likes to tell one about her financial disadvantage: Once, while shaking hands with voters at Pennsylvania State University before the annual blue-and-white spring football game, a biplane trailing a "Vote for Scott Wagner" banner droned overhead.
To Republican strategist Mike Barley, that could be Ellsworth's biggest problem.
"She's certainly an alternative for people that are sick of the back and forth, but the problem you have is, people have to know who she is," said Barley, a consultant for Long Nyquist & Associates. "At the end of the day, they're not seeing a whole lot from her."
Her first television ad went up last Wednesday, just 13 days before the primary. It was the same day former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, indicated he'd vote for her. A week earlier, former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina endorsed Ellsworth, calling her an "exemplary leader."
In recent days, Ellsworth has earned endorsements from several editorial boards, including PennLive in Harrisburg and the Inquirer; her campaign said it has seen an uptick in fundraising since these nods, though she still trails her rivals in cash on hand.
A cherished endorsement, though, came from the racetrack. After traipsing through the gravel outskirts of the track to meet and hug attendees, she climbed onto the flag stand to give the official prayer before the event — and watching her was Bill Beck, the speedway's official chaplain. When she finished, he took the microphone.
"She prayed from her heart, and that's the type of people we need in government," Beck said. Ellsworth embraced him, then the race began.
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