Corbett comment on limiting Democratic voter turnout draws fire; opponents hear it as vote supression

Posted: October 30, 2010

TWO LESSONS from the race for governor: State Attorney General Tom Corbett, the front-running Republican, is gaffe-prone.

And Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, his Democratic challenger, pounces each time Corbett blunders aloud.

Corbett, addressing Delaware County Republicans on Thursday, noted Democratic efforts to pump up voter turnout in Philadelphia for Tuesday's general election. Gov. Rendell has said he wants at least 50 percent of the city's Democrats to vote.

"We want to make sure that they don't get 50 percent," Corbett said. "Keep that down."

Corbett then said he wants strong turnout across the state and hopes for support not just from Republicans but Democrats and independents too.

Onorato and Rendell yesterday accused Corbett of trying to foster voter suppression in the city. Rendell went so far as to say Corbett, the top law-enforcement officer in the state, should not be running for governor.

"He urged people to break the law," Rendell said after Onorato was endorsed by the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. "Voter suppression is against the law. And he clearly urged them to break the law. Now does he have a plan? How would we know?"

Onorato was more cautious, playing a video of Corbett's comments at the endorsement event but declining to "put words in his mouth" when pressed for what he thought Corbett meant.

"I think it's pretty clear what he's implying," Onorato said. "I think it was very clear that he was saying Philadelphia's turn-out must be held down."

Corbett's campaign hit back, calling the complaints a "last- minute desperate attack."

Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said Onorato took the comments out of context.

Corbett does not expect to win Philadelphia, Harley said, but was saying he can prevail if Onorato's margin of votes is kept under 50 percent in the city and surrounding suburbs.

"We're not telling people not to vote," Harley said. "We're telling our people to come out to vote."

A dozen elected Democrats, led by Mayor Nutter, gathered at City Hall yesterday to decry Corbett's comments. They scoffed at the idea that Corbett's words had been taken out of context.

Nutter recounted an anonymous flier that circulated in African-American neighborhoods before the 2008 general election, falsely warning that voters with outstanding arrest warrants or parking tickets would be arrested at their polling places.

"These and many other threatening tactics are the kinds of things that were done in the past to 'keep that down,' " Nutter said, one of several times he used Corbett's quote against him.

District Attorney Seth Williams said any voter who feels threatened or intimidated Tuesday should call 9-1-1 or his office. Williams said his office has no evidence or information that any conspiracy to suppress votes in the city was under way.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who finished third out of four Democratic candidates in the May 18 primary election for governor, said he found it shocking that the state attorney general, who by law investigates election crimes, would make such comments.

"It wasn't a slip of the tongue," he said. "It is a way of speaking about them. And them is us."

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