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Trebek hounded for performance at Wolf-Wagner debate

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Gov. Tom Wolf and Scott Wagner, Republican candidate for governor, take part in a debate moderated by Alex Trebek, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

Pennsylvania seemed to be thrilled when it was announced "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek would moderate the first and only gubernatorial debate between Democratic incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner.

But that excitement turned to anger and confusion for many just minutes after the clock struck 8:15 p.m. and the debate began Monday, Oct. 1, at the Hershey Lodge in Hershey, Dauphin County.

Trebek opened the debate at the 34th annual Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry dinner by announcing he would take a more conversational approach rather than a traditional debate format.

He did just that, and he often led the conversation with his own opinions, jokes and interactions with the audience.

Watchdog, a nonprofit organization run by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity in Virginia, calculated Trebek spoke for roughly 41 percent  — just more than 18 minutes — of the 45-minute debate.

Criticism of Trebek: The debate garnered national media attention, including from The Washington Post, which published an article Tuesday, Oct. 2, titled "Alex Trebek moderated a gubernatorial debate in Pennsylvania. It didn’t go well."

The article highlights tweets and comments from politicos, most of which were critical of Trebek's performance.

Pennsylvania League of Women Voters Executive Director Jill Greene shared such feelings, saying the organization was "disappointed" at both the tone and pace of the debate.

"It was unfortunate that Mr. Trebek monopolized so much of the allotted time," Greene said. "Mr. Trebek’s interjections were a distraction from the intent of the event, and his lack of objectivity robbed both the viewers and the candidates of the opportunity to explore the important issues that are facing Pennsylvania."

Chamber President Gene Barr said he can "certainly see" and understand the complaints that were voiced during and after the debate, but he added that overall the night received "tremendous reception."

"I see in places where he tried to pry information he went a little too far and took an advocacy position," Barr said. "We've also heard that he tended to go on a little too much, set up questions too much, and I can certainly see that."

Barr said the chamber approached Trebek because it would help bring in a stronger audience of voters, but he also recognized doing so "was walking a fine line."

He added the chamber didn't initially know the debate would be the only debate before the November elections, and as a result, they "had an obligation to the citizens of Pennsylvania to make it more than just business issues."

Entertaining but disorderly: G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Politics and Public Affairs in Lancaster, said the debate's format and desire to cover a large variety of topics resulted in a "disorderly" debate.

Although entertaining, the format didn't allow candidates to adequately discuss their political positions, nor did it allow the moderator to "home in" on inconsistencies and "issues that matter," he said.

Still, Madonna added he "actually enjoyed" the debate and Trebek proved to have done his homework, at times pushing candidates on tough issues.

Wagner, although taking to Facebook after the debate to declare himself victorious, seemed to agree with most of the criticism and noted Trebek's lengthy input in a news release the next day.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Scott Wagner, Republican candidate for governor, take part in a debate moderated by Alex Trebek, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

"Last night’s debate did not profile enough of the serious problems that are facing Pennsylvania,” Wagner said. “A single 45-minute debate where the moderator spoke just as much as both candidates limited our chances to present our views on a number of topics."

Wagner added he wants to hold two more televised debates with Wolf to have a better opportunity to discuss issues in state government.

No more debates to come: Wolf campaign spokeswoman Beth Melena didn't respond to inquiries into whether she agreed with negative comments about Trebek's performance.

But she also clarified "nothing has changed" after Monday night and "we're not doing any more debates."

Wagner has long criticized Wolf for not debating him — and Wolf's campaign's response indicates this pattern will continue —  but this may be a good strategy, Madonna said.

"Wolf is following the traditional incumbent strategy," Madonna said. "Not a single independent poll has the election in single digits, and he has a huge money advantage. He's limiting his exposure to some kind of mistake that could possibly change the election."

Still, despite bad reviews of Trebek during the one and only debate of the election season, Wagner appeared to win over the crowd.

Wagner's fiery rhetoric drew applause and cheers from the room full of the state's most powerful businessmen, businesswomen and legislators.

The two candidates found agreement on some topics, such as supporting open primary elections and increasing access to training for skilled labor jobs, but that was the extent of common ground.

Candidates go head-to-head: Wolf cited what he sees as three years of legislative success in his first term, emphasizing an increase in education funding, the state's first deposit into its rainy day fund in more than a decade and his efforts to address the heroin epidemic.

"These things matter for our democracy, for our commonwealth and for our future," Wolf said. "If I'm given the privilege of another four years, I will continue to move Pennsylvania on this path, on this trajectory, to a better future."

Wagner, on the other hand, advocated for rapidly changing the way the state functions.

"I will get more done in the first six months than you've seen in the last 12 years," he said, a sentiment similar in both energy and content to what President Donald Trump proposed on the campaign trail in 2016.

Wagner criticized Wolf throughout the debate for over-regulating businesses, not investing enough in education and imposing a moratorium on the death penalty.

Wolf defended "responsible regulations," said those who commit heinous crimes should "rot in jail" rather than die and touted the $2 billion his administration has brought into education funding.

But Wagner said regulations hinder the success of businesses and that Wolf lied about former Gov. Tom Corbett's $1 billion cuts to education, adding Corbett had done more for education than Wolf ever did.

Wagner also noted he already had a list of criminals who would be killed if he were to be elected — even though such changes to state's capital punishment laws would require cooperation from the Legislature.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Scott Wagner, Republican candidate for governor, take part in a debate moderated by Alex Trebek, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

Later on, Trebek pushed the candidates on redistricting, a process that led to new congressional district lines being drawn by the state Supreme Court.

While Wolf emphasized that the state's new congressional map passed in February was a step to end gerrymandering, Wagner called the new map  "corrupt" and said "the Legislature should have been involved."

Wolf was quick to fact-check his opponent, stating the lawmakers had input on the map before it was passed by the state Supreme Court.