GOP gubernatorial debate becomes confrontational

Marc Levy
Associated Press

HARRISBURG – A debate between the three Republicans seeking their party’s nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in November’s election quickly became confrontational Thursday night, as former health care systems consultant Paul Mango relentlessly attacked the party’s endorsed candidate, state Sen. Scott Wagner.

The hour-long, live-broadcast debate at Harrisburg Area Community College came as the campaigns collect signatures to get on the ballot in the primary election, less than 11 weeks away.

Perhaps the toughest exchange came in response to a question on education tax credit programs that Mango turned into an attack on Wagner over the hot-button “bathroom bill” issue that social conservatives say will open up bathrooms to transgender people.

Mango – who suggested he is the most conservative candidate in the race – accused Wagner of supporting legislation in 2016 that would permit “anyone” to walk into girls’ locker rooms in schools.

“He is not keeping our kids safe and secure,” Mango said. “As I said, he is a dangerous, ineffective liberal insider just as Tom Wolf is.”

Wagner, in response, said “this is the best time to call him ‘lying Paul’” and said he would not sign a bathroom bill as governor. The bill he supported, he said, was about banning discrimination in housing and employment.

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Despite support from Wolf, most Republicans opposed the bill and it died in the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2016 without a floor vote in either chamber. It would have added the categories of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression to a law that empowers the state Human Relations Commission to investigate complaints of discrimination in employment and housing because of someone’s race, sex, religion, age or disability.

It had broad support from Democrats and the business community, but – in an echo of a high-profile fight that played out in North Carolina – opponents warned it could compromise religious freedoms and personal privacy in places like public bathrooms.

It was one of several clashes initiated by Mango that drew a rebuke in the debate’s closing moments by the third candidate in the race, lawyer Laura Ellsworth.

She is, she said, “an experienced problem-solver and somebody who has a track record of getting things done, without all of the name-calling and shouting and yelling and finger-pointing and characterization that gets in the way of smart, intelligent governing.”

She, like, Mango, also maintained that Wagner is not the kind of political outsider the state needs. Later, Wagner – who started the $65 million York-based waster-hauler Penn Waste Inc. in 2000 – said “trust me, I’m far from an insider” and played up the waves he has made in the state Legislature since beating the GOP’s endorsed candidate in his 2014 campaign for Senate.

On a question about gun control, none of the candidates changed their position to advocate for greater gun-control measures, even ideas supported by Republican President Donald Trump this week following the Florida school shooting that killed 17.

Ellsworth said she would push for metal detectors and swipe cards in Pennsylvania’s school buildings, while Mango said he would advocate for stronger school security plans, funnel more money into screening for mental illness and prevent those diagnosed from getting their hands on guns.

Wagner said he would put armed, trained officers in every school – Pennsylvania has about 3,000 school buildings, according to state figures – and ensure background checks are being done properly for prospective gun owners. He did not repeat a statement he made Monday that he would pursue a mandatory death penalty for any school shooter who kills someone, something legal analysts said has been unconstitutional for decades.

Asked whether they would refuse campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association, Wagner and Mango said no. Ellsworth said yes.

Journalists from Pennlive and WHP-TV of Harrisburg moderated the debate.

The primary election is May 15.