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Governor race: Independent streak seen at GOP candidates’ forum

Marc Levy
Associated Press

A little-known lawyer from Pittsburgh showed an independent streak as the four Republican candidates vying for the nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in November’s election stood together in their third forum Saturday night.

Seeking the Republican Party's nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's re-election bid, candidates, left to right, Paul Mango, Pennsylvania Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, Laura Ellsworth, and Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, participate in a debate, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The hourlong forum at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh was broadcast live on TV and was the candidates’ first with a non-partisan moderator.

Lawyer Laura Ellsworth of suburban Pittsburgh – a first-time candidate — stood out prominently from the group on several issues, including when she said she didn’t vote for President Donald Trump, she supports limits on campaign contributions and she would change how Pennsylvania draws congressional districts.

On a question about taking a no-tax pledge – something done by Wolf’s predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett — Ellsworth answered the question frankly.

“I think tax pledges are political gimmicks that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, with all due respect, and I think anyone who takes them is not being responsible to the citizens,” Ellsworth said.

Ellsworth and the other candidates – ex-health care systems consultant Paul Mango, state House Speaker Mike Turzai and state Sen. Scott Wagner — otherwise professed a desire to find savings or cut taxes. Mango perhaps came the closest to making a no-tax pledge.

“I’m not going to hold the line on taxes, my pledge to you is to ensure that we give you tax rebates,” Mango said.

Laura Ellsworth, one of the candidates seeking the Republican Party's nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's re-election bid, debates with the other Republican candidates, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in Pittsburgh. The others were Paul Mango, Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Pennsylvania Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

All opposed the legalization of recreational marijuana and – save for Turzai — are in favor of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law that passed in 2016. Turzai said Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law was about “big marijuana” and political favoritism, not about taking care of people.

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With the state Supreme Court considering a gerrymandering case seeking to throw out Pennsylvania’s map of congressional boundaries on grounds it unfairly helps Republicans, only Ellsworth objected to the politically charged process that created the existing map. She called for the creation of a bipartisan commission.

“I do not believe that our current system delivers the best results for Pennsylvania,” Ellsworth said. “I didn’t believe it when the Democrats controlled the process, I don’t believe it when the Republicans control the process.”

On the question about the Republican president, Mango, Wagner and Turzai were effusive about Trump’s job performance and said they voted for him. Ellsworth – who wrote in the name of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican — couched her response, saying she had been bothered by the “divisiveness” that she thought Trump would bring to the job.

However, she also said Trump had done more for military veterans than the three previous presidents combined, he made a brilliant pick in Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and he has done a lot for businesses and deregulation. Then she said, without elaborating, “I do not agree with everyone he does.”

Asked about money in politics, only Ellsworth took issue with Pennsylvania’s law that allows unlimited campaign donations.

“I think there is a problem in Pennsylvania when you can have absolutely unlimited dollars for one candidate over another,” Ellsworth said. “I think it presents some perverse incentives that are ultimately not good for our state and ultimately don’t provide the voters with the best-qualified candidates because it closes out many, many capable candidates.”

Pennsylvania Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, one of the candidates seeking the Republican Party's nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's re-election bid, debates with the other Republican candidates, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in Pittsburgh. The others were Paul Mango, Laura Ellsworth, and Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Wagner said he would be “in favor of some change” without elaborating, while Turzai and Mango defended the current law. Turzai said limits on campaign donations favor wealthy candidates and infringes on free speech rights. He also said it hadn’t worked at the federal level, saying “we have all rich people in the United States Senate.”

Mango noted that Trump was outspent by opponents in 2016, but won anyway and said money in politics means less when voters are engaged.

“We saw an extraordinary engagement of the voter, we’ve seen it many times where money means less today than it ever did before,” Mango said.

The primary election is May 15. The deadline to file paperwork to get on the primary ballot is March 6.

Wolf is seeking a second four-year term and is unlikely to face a primary challenge.