Pa. has progressives? And 7 lt. gov. candidates?

Posted: March 06, 2014

PENNSYLVANIA politics, so often mind-numbingly predictable, occasionally presents a surprise or three.

A recent example? A Democratic debate for lieutenant governor last weekend at a "Progressive Summit" in Harrisburg.

I know that "progressive" anything in Harrisburg sounds oxymoronic, but it happened. I was there.

About 400 progressives sat attentively while six of the seven candidates for state government's second-highest office answered questions for an hour.

Two things struck me. (I mean beyond how long an hour can seem.)

First, I had no idea there were 400 progressives in Pennsylvania.

I scanned the large Harrisburg Hilton ballroom for clues that many present were bused in from Massachusetts: WGBH tote bags, Red Sox caps, lobster bibs.

No luck.

But you can't fault my suspicions.

New Gallup polling shows that the percentage of Pennsylvanians identifying as conservative (37.1 percent) is the highest of any Northeastern or Mid-Atlantic state and higher than the national average (36.8 percent).

Plus, I've covered our Legislature for a very long time and can report it's a place where progressive ideas are as welcome as smallpox.

The second thing that struck me (don't laugh) was the quality of the candidates.

This is a comparative judgment. It only prevails once you know I've covered lieutenant-governor debates that included a candidate who said, "For the record, I am anti-toxic waste," a candidate who said he'd spent a month in a coma and a candidate who withdrew from the race during the debate.

So this was better.

The seven Democrats seeking nomination in the May 20 primary are: Brenda Alton, a top aide to former Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson; Mark Critz, a former Johnstown-area congressman; Harrisburg City Councilman Brad Koplinski; Washington County state Rep. Brandon Neuman; former Penn State assistant football coach Jay Paterno; Philly state Sen. Mike Stack; and Bradford County Commissioner Mark Smith.

They differ on few issues, but one issue they differ on is support of a Democratic State Committee resolution calling for a fracking moratorium.

Koplinski and Alton support a ban.

Critz, Paterno and Smith do not (Smith noted that his county is the state's highest natural-gas producer).

Stack said he's for a ban on public lands. Neuman wasn't present, which was disappointing because no one got to say, "Hello, NEUman."

Other highlights included Mark Critz twice asserting, "I can help us win in November," noting that two former lieutenant governors were named Mark (Democrat Mark Singel, Republican Mark Schweiker).

Mark Smith did not rebut.

Stack was forceful and eager to jump to the general election: "Tom Corbett never met an underdog he didn't want to kick under the bus."

Alton, an African-American, said, "I bring a demographic to the ticket that other people do not."

Smith said he was "the only elected executive on the stage" and Bradford County's top Democratic vote-getter. The county is 2-to-1 Republican and among counties that by law require a minority-party commissioner.

Koplinksi said that he's "a very strong progressive" and that "it's absolutely wrong what Tom Corbett has done to this commonwealth."

And Paterno, who seemed comfortable and confident but spoke largely in generalities about commitment to public service, said that "the most important thing is what we stand for, not anyone we stand against."

When it was over, attendees voted and provided another surprise.

Koplinksi won easily (he also got the most support from the Democratic State Committee last month, although the committee did not endorse anyone) and Paterno tied for last with Neuman, the candidate who didn't show.

The only public polling, a Harper poll last week, shows Paterno narrowly leading (read: statistically tied with) Critz, 17 percent to 16 percent; all others in single digits, except Alton, who wasn't included in the poll; and 48 percent undecided.

The lieutenant governor gig's a good one: no heavy lifting; pays $158,000; comes with a fieldstone mansion and pool 26 miles from the Capitol.

Oh, and five states don't have lieutenant governors, which some might consider, um, progressive.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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