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4 takeaways from Monday night’s Pennsylvania Democratic Senate debate

The debate was one of the last chances for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s opponents to bring down the front-runner, who is widely leading the Democratic contest in fund-raising and the polls.

Left to right, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidates John Fetterman, Malcolm Kenyatta, Alex Khalil, and Conor Lamb during a debate Monday night at Dickinson College in Carlisle.
Left to right, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidates John Fetterman, Malcolm Kenyatta, Alex Khalil, and Conor Lamb during a debate Monday night at Dickinson College in Carlisle.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

They don’t want to “defund the police,” but they do want to end the Senate filibuster.

Those were some of the positions taken Monday by the four Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat.

The candidates — Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, and Jenkintown Borough Council member Alexandria Khalil — also supported continuing American military aid to Ukraine as it fights off Russia’s invasion. But they each said no to sending American forces to that battlefront. And they agreed that keeping Roe v. Wade’s protections for legal abortion would be a “litmus test” to support future Supreme Court nominees.

And while there were areas of policy agreement, there were also clashes as the candidates tried at times to avoid being boxed in to taking stands.

The debate was one of the last chances for Fetterman’s opponents to bring down the front-runner, who is leading the Democratic contest by about two dozen percentage points in most polls and also enjoys a huge fund-raising advantage with just weeks to go before the May 17 primary.

Here’s some of what stood out to us in the debate:

Kenyatta targets the Electoral College

The candidates split on whether the Supreme Court should be expanded from nine seats, and whether the Electoral College should be abolished.

Only Kenyatta supported ending the Electoral College.

Fetterman said Democrats can’t be like Republicans who try to delegitimize elections when they don’t like the results. “We as a party need to remain logically consistent on these things,” he said.

Khalil agreed, adding, “We cannot act like the last president and just get upset and say, ‘Well, we’re going to change the Electoral College.’”

Lamb noted that such a move would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which he called politically impossible.

“It’s not happening,” Lamb said. “It makes this discussion completely academic.”

Kenyatta disagreed.

“The Constitution has mechanisms by which it could be changed because our founders understood it was a living, breathing document,” he said.

» READ MORE: Malcolm Kenyatta is tired of being told a Black gay man from North Philly can’t win Pa.

Kenyatta and Khalil supported adding seats to the Supreme Court. Kenyatta noted the court has been expanded before and said that Republicans, while in control of the Senate, played by different rules in blocking a nominee put forward by President Barack Obama before rushing through one for President Donald Trump.

That didn’t persuade Fetterman. “The Democratic Party does not rig the rules simply because we do not like the outcome,” he said.

Lamb called the question “a trap” that distracts from issues voters care about the most.

“I’ve never had a single one of them, in tens of thousands of conversations, ask me to add a justice to the Supreme Court,” Lamb said.

Fetterman under fire (again)

Kenyatta, given an opportunity to ask an opponent a question, returned to an incident that has long loomed over Fetterman’s campaign.

Fetterman was mayor of Braddock in 2013 when he pursued a man and pulled a shotgun on him because he wrongly believed the man, who turned out to be a Black jogger, had been involved in a shooting.

“Here’s the problem: Powerful men like John are used to having to play by a different set of rules,” Kenyatta said. “He wasn’t held accountable because he was the mayor, and he’s trying to not be held accountable now.”

» READ MORE: Everything to know about the 2013 John Fetterman jogger incident

Fetterman continued to deny the jogger’s claim that he pointed the shotgun at his chest.

“That’s just not what happened,” Fetterman said. As he has many times before, he held up the fact that he was reelected by the majority-Black city as a kind of exoneration.

Kenyatta, who like Lamb has increasingly hammered Fetterman over the issue, dismissed that, noting that Fetterman won reelection in the small town with just 186 votes.

“Malcolm, I’m not sure why you’d want to diminish a small, marginalized Black community,” Fetterman responded.

A split on spending and inflation

All the candidates except Lamb said they don’t believe major spending initiatives under President Joe Biden have contributed to inflation.

Kenyatta said there’s a double standard of questioning whether spending on social programs causes inflation, but not tax cuts or aid to corporations.

“Whenever we invest in working people, in actual people, you hear about how it’s unaffordable, how it doesn’t make sense,” Kenyatta said. “You didn’t hear that when it was time to bail out the big banks.”

» READ MORE: John Fetterman doesn’t just have supporters — he has fans. His celebrity could make him a senator.

Lamb said both sides of the debate have a point.

“There is a debate right now among these academic types about whether the inflation is driven by supply, meaning the pandemic, and the war [in Ukraine] — two things that are no one’s fault in this room or in our government — or driven by all the extra money that came in as a result of the pandemic,” Lamb said. “It’s a valid debate.”

Left out of the debate was any talk of monetary policy by the Federal Reserve.

The candidates take on gas prices

The candidates all said they support Biden’s decision to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower gas prices.

But Kenyatta was alone in saying he opposed a plan supported by some Democratic governors and lawmakers to suspend the federal gas tax.

Kenyatta, who has positioned himself as the candidate most committed to fighting climate change, said suspending the tax would be penny-wise and pound-foolish because the revenue is used to pay for roads and bridges. He said a more effective way to lower gas prices would be to target the profits of the fossil-fuel industry.

“What I do support is actually making sure that we don’t give one cent more in tax breaks to big polluters and actually put our investments into clean technologies of the future,” Kenyatta said. “Big oil and gas CEOs are making more money than they’ve ever made and are not passing on those savings to the consumers.”

Lamb spoke most forcefully about the need to continue supporting Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industries.

“Talking about repealing the federal gas tax or clean technologies of the future and all of this other stuff — it sounds great. Not a single one of them will result in you walking out one day and paying a lower price at the gas pump,” he said. “That will happen if we increase production.”