In a sharp-elbowed debate, Pa.’s Republican governor hopefuls make their pitch

Four of the leading GOP candidates traded jabs on issues ranging from fossil fuels to abortion rights

By: - April 27, 2022 10:08 pm

The Republican candidates for governor debate on ABC-27 on Wednesday, 4/27/22 (Screen Capture)

With less than a month to go before the May 17 primary election, four candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor faced the cameras on Wednesday night for a televised debate that was broadcast and streamed across the state.

GOP hopefuls Lou Barletta, Doug Mastriano, Bill McSwain, and Dave White made the polling cut to be included in the debate broadcast by ABC-27 in Harrisburg, and shared statewide.

In a fast-paced and occasionally testy 60 minutes, the Republican hopefuls sparred over their respective experience and qualifications for office as each tried to build the case that they’re best suited to take on Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who’s running unopposed in next month’s primary election.

First up, the candidates:

Barletta, 66, an early supporter of former President Donald Trump, is the former mayor of Hazleton, Pa., in northeastern Pennsylvania, and a former GOP member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mastriano, 58, of Franklin County, also is a Trump supporter. Mastriano, who has trafficked in baseless claims of election fraud, was subpoenaed by the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Mastriano was at the Capitol, but has denied participating in an attempt to halt the certification of now-President Joe Biden’s election.

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McSwain, 52, is the former, Trump-appointed top federal prosecutor for the Philadelphia region. Despite that, Trump issued a stinging rebuke to McSwain, urging his supporters to back any GOP hopeful except the veteran prosecutor on May 17.  In an unusual statement, Trump hammered McSwain, calling him a “coward” who “did absolutely nothing on the massive Election Fraud that took place in Philadelphia and throughout the commonwealth,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

White, 60, is a former Delaware County councilman, union pipefitter and HVAC contractor. He’s spoken out in favor of voter ID and vocational education. He has been notably critical of critical race theory and government regulations.

The Trump Factor:

Unlike the Republican race for U.S. Senate, the former president has stayed notably silent in the GOP gubernatorial derby. Several of Wednesday’s debate candidates — Barletta, McSwain, and Mastriano, each have played up their ties to the ex-president. One candidate notably not on the debate stage, Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, has former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway on his payroll. Corman debuted a campaign commercial this week featuring both Conway and a photo of him on the golf course with Trump.

Pa. GOP governor hopeful Mastriano campaigned at event promoting QAnon

So what’s the governor do, anyway?

The job is a big one. Pennsylvania’s governor serves a four-year term. They can only serve two, consecutive terms (but could technically come back for a third after waiting four years.)

As the commonwealth’s chief executive, the governor is the boss and sets policy for hundreds of thousands of public workers, from state troopers and DMV clerks to environmental permitting staff and unemployment and Medicaid caseworkers. The governor can also attempt to change the regulations or rules governing many of these agencies internally without legislative approval.

Here’s where the candidates agreed — and disagreed — on some of the key issues.

Infrastructure and the gas tax:

Using the January collapse of Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge as a jumping off point, the four candidates were asked how’d they fund infrastructure repairs — especially if Pennsylvania’s gas tax, among the highest in the nation, is suspended, as some Republicans have proposed.

Each of the four candidates said they supported using the fuel tax for its intended purpose, and not paying for the Pennsylvania State Police, which relies on the gas tax and license fees for a portion of its funding.

“We should take the State Police out of the highway fund, and put it into the general fund, freeing up $300 million for infrastructure,” said Barletta, who also highlighted his experience serving on the U.S. House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Mastriano said taxpayers were “lied to” about the tax hike, which was intended to pay for a $2.3 billion transportation funding bill passed under the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in 2013, arguing that “if we spend the money where it needs to go, we can get the roads and bridges where we need to be.”

White acknowledged that fuel taxes are an important way to get infrastructure fixed,” but he said the state needed to go further and “get rid of some of those regulations to get [our] roads and bridges fixed.”

McSwain used the evening’s first question to take a swipe at the competition, arguing, as he would throughout the night, that he was the only non-politician standing on the debate stage.

“Let’s start with Senator Mastriano since he is standing here right to my right,” McSwain said. “He claims to be a fiscal conservative, but look at his record. He has voted again and again for Governor [Tom] Wolf’s spending increases.”

Mastriano jabbed back, saying, “Nonsense is still nonsense, especially when spoken by an attorney … I’m the only one up here who did something about election integrity … he [McSwain] chickened out.” The former is a reference to Mastriano’s efforts to push for an investigation of the 2020 election results, even though there is no evidence showing fraud.

Trump and Electability

All four candidates tried to cloak themselves in the Trumpian mantle. Asked whether his electability had suffered because of the former president’s snub, McSwain argued that he was the only candidate to serve in the Trump administration as the top federal prosecutor for the eastern part of the state.

“I’m proud of my record as [United States] Attorney,” he said. “I put rioters and looters in jail. I stopped heroin injection sites. I pushed back against Philadelphia’s dangerous sanctuary city policy. I stood up for the law-abiding citizens of this commonwealth.”

Mastriano faced additional scrutiny because of his presence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, arguing he was exercising his constitutionally protected rights to free speech and free assembly. He also batted aside published reports Wednesday about his appearance at an event in Gettysburg last weekend that promoted QAnon, and conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Mail-in ballots and Election Reform:

All four candidates said they would support the elimination of the no-excuse, mail-in balloting that was authorized in 2019 under a law, passed with bipartisan support, known as Act 77.

“You have so many people who are now questioning our democracy and our elections,” White said. “They have no confidence in it. In 2014, 2018, you knew who was elected and who won … that all changed with Act 77 and the people who voted for it should be held accountable.”

Mastriano, who voted in favor of the bill, complained that it had been “hijacked by Democrats, rewritten by Wolf and [former Secretary of State Kathy] Boockvar, and abetted by ZuckBucks,” the latter is a reference to Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg.

McSwain pronounced the law unconstitutional.

In a bit of campaign hyperbole, Barletta also vowed to repeal the law, saying “We know dead people have been voting in Pa. all our lives. Now they don’t even have to leave the cemetery. We have a process to use absentee ballots. We also have to have voter ID. We need to bring integrity to our elections.”

Abortion Rights

All four candidates said they opposed abortion rights, and would sign legislation restricting it if elected. Mastriano and White said they would not support exceptions in the cases of rape or incest, or where the life of a pregnant person is in danger. Barletta and McSwain said they would support such exceptions.

Asked further if they believed doctors should be punished for performing illegal procedures, Mastriano, Barletta, and White all said yes. Barletta and White also said they supported counseling, but not punishment, for pregnant people. McSwain said he couldn’t answer a hypothetical question, but did allow that “you should only be punished if you’re breaking the law.”

Natural gas exploration

All four candidates raced to outdo each other in their support for natural gas exploration, and what they said were its salutary effects on the state’s economy.

“Drill baby drill. We need natural gas,” Barletta quipped.

Economic Development

All four called for reducing Pennsylvania’s corporate net income tax, which, at 9.99 percent, is among the highest in the nation. Wolf, a Democrat, also has called for reducing the tax. The state House voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to cut the tax, WGAL-TV in Lancaster reported. The bill now goes to the Senate. All four also vowed to encourage an environment more friendly to businesses, slamming Wolf for his pandemic shutdowns.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.