Pennsylvania GOP governor hopefuls face off for first time


BLUE BELL — With primary campaign season starting up, Pennsylvania’s three announced GOP candidates for governor auditioned Thursday night for Montgomery County Republicans, whose members might be the state party’s most generous campaign donors.

All three — Scott Wagner of York County and Paul Mango and Laura Ellsworth of suburban Pittsburgh — stressed their business experience and their confidence that they can solve the problems of a state saddled with a slow-growing economy and a government at perhaps its most dysfunctional moment in budgeting since the recession. It was their first forum together.

None is well-known in Montgomery County or, for that matter, the four-county Philadelphia suburbs, a moderate bellwether where one in five Republicans live.

Each is seeking the nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s bid for a second term in next year’s election. The primary election is in May.

Wagner: Wagner, a state senator since 2014 who operates the waste-hauling firm he founded, has been campaigning the longest and is the only one of the three who previously has run for public office. Referring to his interests in waste-hauling, trucking and real estate, he drummed on the subject of the state government’s business regulations, saying it has run amok and must be fundamentally pared back to allow the economy to grow.

“Pennsylvania is a patient that is dying in the emergency room; it is bleeding to death,” Wagner told the crowd of a couple hundred people during the 50-minute forum at the Bluestone Country Club.

Ellsworth: Ellsworth ran her law firm’s Pittsburgh office and has played a prominent role in steering the city’s civic institutions and business associations, living there since Pittsburgh hit what she called the bottom of its economic cycle more than 30 years ago.

Labeling herself a “problem solver,” she said she helped lead Pittsburgh’s rebirth.

“I’ve been in those trenches, and I know what it takes to deliver the promise of Pennsylvania,” Ellsworth said.

Mango: Mango, an Army veteran and a former health care systems consultant, characterized himself as the candidate best-equipped to stoke an economic recovery in Pennsylvania.

“It will only require a governor who has the vision, the leadership capabilities, the plan and a sense of urgency,” Mango said.

Asked what they’d do about the state government’s current fiscal troubles, they all avoided specifics. Wagner said he’d streamline costs in state agencies; Ellsworth said she’d impose discipline by requiring a comprehensive, on-time budget plan; and Mango said the state cannot pull out of its current doldrums without a strategy to boost the economy.

Wagner is a departure from statewide Republican Party officeholders in recent decades.

He used his millions made in the waste-hauling industry to help underwrite conservative challengers to sitting Republican lawmakers before he ran for state Senate in 2014. He beat the GOP’s endorsed candidate in an ugly and expensive contest and remains unafraid to publicly chastise fellow Republicans.

Controversial comment: His penchant for speaking off-the-cuff makes him a magnet for controversy, and he made one eyebrow-raising comment while discussing the need for skilled blue-collar workers when he accused Philadelphia’s powerful trade unions of being racist.

“Do you know that the trade unions in Philadelphia employ no blacks?” Wagner said. “The trade unions I’m finding are racist, and it’s unfortunate because, I have to tell you this, I know a lot of decent black men and women that would love to be trained or learn to be a plumber or an electrician or a heavy-equipment operator, and we need to give those people opportunities.”

Mango was never politically active in the party, other than giving money, and was virtually unknown to party activists before exploring a run.

Ellsworth is perhaps better known to the political elite. She was active in raising campaign contributions for party incumbents, chaired the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and served as an appointee of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to various boards.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, was invited but did not come. He has been silent about a campaign for months after saying in the spring that he was seriously considering running.