HARRISBURG — Democrat Mike Stack just might be the most politically hunted lieutenant governor in modern Pennsylvania history.
Eight people are vying for his job — four from his own party — and come May 15, each hopes to make Stack the first lieutenant governor to lose reelection in a primary since the holder of the position was permitted two terms nearly a half-century ago.
For Stack, a onetime state senator from Northeast Philadelphia who was elected the state's second-in-command in 2014, it's a chance to salvage a political career sullied last year by revelations that Gov. Wolf, also a Democrat, had ordered an inquiry into complaints that Stack and his wife had verbally abused or otherwise mistreated state employees. The inquiry's findings have not been made public.
For Stack's four Democratic competitors, it's a chance to snag what Harrisburg insiders only half-jokingly refer to as the state's best job: It pays $163,672 annually, comes with a 2,400-square-foot residence funded by taxpayers, and involves a fraction of the work and stress of the governor's position.
Stack's opponents are seeking to seize on an unusual — and uncomfortable — political scenario in the Capitol: a chilly relationship between Wolf and Stack, who are supposed to be a team but behind the scenes barely speak to each other. Wolf is taking a neutral stance and is not endorsing anyone.
That may-the-best-person-win attitude has cast a dash of intrigue into what often is an overlooked race. It also could mark a new entry in Pennsylvania's history books if Stack is defeated while Wolf, who has no primary challenger, sails into the general election.
"This is not the norm," said pollster and political science professor G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. "After four years of serving together, you usually see the governor and the lieutenant governor as running for reelection as a team."
The lieutenant governor, Madonna noted, "is a heartbeat away from the governor's office. So you would think the governor would have a keen interest in the lieutenant governor's race."
Stack did not respond to an interview request.
Pennsylvania law does not allow governors to choose their running mates — although there is a bill in the legislature to change that. As a result, governors and lieutenant governors do not run as a ticket in primaries, only in general elections.
Almost all candidates said they are running to restore gravity to an office often viewed as largely ceremonial. The lieutenant governor has certain prescribed duties, including presiding over the 50-member Senate (and casting a tiebreaker vote, if necessary) and chairing the Board of Pardons. But most candidates said they also want to tackle meaty social and fiscal issues.
Off to the races
On the Democratic side, four candidates are challenging Stack to run with Wolf in November (originally there were more, but several candidates dropped out).
Nina Ahmad, a onetime deputy mayor for public engagement in Mayor Kenney's administration, said she is running to "restore integrity and accountability" and to "give a voice to forgotten communities." A former president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women, Ahmad said she also wants to bring diversity and inclusion to elected executive positions in the state, which for decades have largely been held by men.
"I am a systems-change person," said Ahmad, "and that is what this position will allow me to do, working in concert with the governor: connecting with folks who feel marginalized."
Kathi Cozzone, an accountant who has been a Chester County commissioner for the last decade, said she wants to give counties more of a voice in the Capitol. She said she has been frustrated that the legislature over the years has reduced state funding for county services "to the most vulnerable in our communities."
She said she also would seek to bring attention to women's rights and better funding for public education, issues that Wolf has prioritized in his first term.
"The governor," she said, "needs a partner he can work with."
John Fetterman, the Braddock mayor who made national headlines when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, stands apart for his height (6 foot 8), his standard black T-shirts, and his tattoos marking the dates of homicides in his borough.
Fetterman bills himself as a progressive, which he says means "championing common-sense, evidence-based public policies that benefit the most people possible." He's been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind., Vt.) and by various progressive groups. But the Pittsburgh chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, which has become increasingly active since Sanders' presidential run, declined to endorse Fetterman.
Another Democratic challenger, Ray Sosa, a career banker and insurance agent from Montgomery County, said he feels like he is "battling rock stars" in this year's Democratic primary.
If elected, Sosa said, he would seek to make improvements in emergency management and criminal justice, using the office to push for compulsory education for prisoners and post-prison opportunities to cut down on recidivism. Having grown up in a farming family, the Puerto Rican native said he also wants to work on assisting agriculture through subsidy reform and "taxation that is crop-specific."
"I've seen very effective lieutenant governors in other states," said Sosa, who moved to Pennsylvania from Florida nearly a decade ago. "We keep selecting people to these positions who are seeking something better. I think … I can make this position relevant."
Then there is Stack.
In campaigning for reelection, the Philadelphia Democrat has stayed silent about the controversy surrounding his treatment of employees. Instead he has touted his political resumé, built on nearly four years as lieutenant governor and another 13 years as a state senator representing Northeast Philadelphia.
Campaign manager Marty Marks called Stack "a national role model in restorative justice," noting that he launched the Pathway to Pardons program, which aims to help former offenders learn how to clear their criminal records and ease their path to employment. Marks said Stack also has worked to streamline the daunting process of obtaining a pardon.
Stack, Marks said, also established the lieutenant governor's veterans task force to bring together mental health experts and others to help veterans battling opioid addiction and post traumatic stress disorder.
Despite reports of their estrangement, Stack supports Wolf's policies and reelection, Marks said.
"He feels like he's made the most of his opportunity in office," Marks said of Stack. "He's stayed in his lane as lieutenant governor, and also stayed in lockstep with Gov. Wolf and his policies."
The GOP contest
Four Republicans are competing to appear on the November ballot. Two are running as a team with GOP contenders for governor.
Among those running as teams – despite the fact that they technically can't do so until the fall election – is Jeff Bartos, a real estate executive from Lower Merion aligned with GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner. Together, they present themselves as anti-establishment candidates who would reform Harrisburg's finances and do away with government regulations that they say hamstring businesses and choke economic development.
Bartos said Pennsylvania, with its natural resources, fertile farmland, well-established industries and ports, and cutting-edge universities, should be among the five fastest-growing states — a distinction, according to recent census figures, that largely belongs to states in the southern and western regions of the country.
"I want to be part of a leadership team that makes Pennsylvania an economic growth engine," said Bartos, who together with Wagner has been endorsed by the state party.
Also part of a team for the primary is Diana Irey Vaughan, a longtime Washington County commissioner campaigning alongside GOP gubernatorial candidate Paul Mango. They pitch themselves as focused partly on promoting economic development and tempering the opioid crisis.
Irey Vaughan, pointing to several projects she coordinated with Washington County's two other commissioners, said she believes she could be a stabilizing force in the Senate and "bring everyone together to work for the common good."
That leaves Kathy Coder, a Republican State Committee member from Allegheny County, and Marguerite "Peg" Luksik, from Cambria County, running on their own.
Coder said she chose to run for lieutenant governor in part to bring some diversity – namely, a woman — to the ballot.
Coder, who runs a business that offers leadership training and served on the Bellevue Borough Council, said her first priority would be to gather Democrats and Republicans and outline a plan for which issues they can agree to work on.
"We really need to stop this east-west" divide, she said.
Luksik thinks her time living in various parts of the state — near Philadelphia and in Erie, Clarion, and Pittsburgh — positions her to understand the complexities of the diverse state.
Though she has run for public office before, including governor, she has yet to win.
If elected, she said, she would focus on developing lesser-known roles held by the lieutenant governor, such as serving at the helm of the state's Local Government Advisory Committee.
"My whole history has been speaking for the little guy," she said. "I'm 5 foot 2."