Then-Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman campaigns in Bristol, Pa.., on Sunday, 10/9/22 (Capital-Star photo by Nick Field)
Mark Singel has seen this movie before. He’s reflecting on the Republican attack ads criticizing a decision that Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman made while chairing the state Board of Pardons.
Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s sitting lieutenant governor, voted to release Wayne Covington, who was 19 years old when he killed a man in 1969. Covington, 73, has spent over 50 years in prison and is in poor health. In 1991, the state Corrections Commissioner said Covington was a “minimal” public safety risk.
However, despite Fetterman’s vote and a recommendation from the Department of Corrections, Covington was not released. In Pennsylvania, it takes a unanimous vote by the pardons board for a prisoner to be released. Fetterman was the only board member to support his release.
Fetterman’s Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, has taken issue with the decision, claiming it shows he’s soft on crime.
However, this is not only a movie that Singel has seen, it’s also a movie that he lived.
Singel, a former lieutenant governor under Gov. Bob Casey, ran for governor in 1994. He was ahead in the polls and headed toward victory when his opponent, Republican Tom Ridge, aired an ad criticizing Singel for his decision as head of the state Pardons Board to release Reginald McFadden.
Singel had voted in March 1992 to release McFadden, 41, who was sentenced to life in prison for the 1969 murder of a Philadelphia woman. His release was also recommended by Gov. Casey.
McFadden was released in July after serving 24 years in prison. He was later arrested and charged with killing a 42-year-old computer programmer, and a 78-year-old woman, and kidnapping and raping a 55-year-old woman.
Singel never recovered from the attack ads and lost to Ridge in the November general election.
“The ads ended my political career,” Singel told the Capital-Star.
Singel claimed that such attack ads started in the 1988 presidential campaign when Republican George H.W. Bush was running against Democrat Michael Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts.
Willie Horton had been convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, but he was released as part of the state’s weekend furlough program.
Horton never returned to prison and was later charged with raping a woman and gagging her fiancé. He was eventually shot and captured by police in Maryland.
Bush ran ads, blaming Dukakis for the furlough program, claiming he was soft on crime. Bush went on to win the presidency, setting up a template GOP candidates have followed ever since.
“Every chance Republicans have they use the Willie Horton story, and it’s beyond the pale. It’s despicable,” said Singel.
Before serving as lieutenant governor, Singel, a Johnstown native, had served six years in the state senate. He was the acting governor for six months while Casey underwent surgery for a liver problem.
Singel didn’t blame Ridge himself for the negative ads, claiming they were made by some of his “hired guns who twisted the facts and were over aggressive.”
Singel said the situation got so bad that his young son came home one day and asked him if he had killed someone.
“He said the kids at school were saying that I had murdered someone,” said Singel. “The ads had the impact they wanted.”
He said under the state’s constitution, members of the pardons board must take a serious look at a prisoner’s request for clemency. He said the number of requests is minute compared to the state’s prison population.
“Members of the prison board could just vote no on every request but then they wouldn’t be doing their constitutional duties,” said Singel. “You just have to make the best decision possible based on the information you have at the time,
“Pardon board members make very serious decisions and they shouldn’t be subject to cheap political shots. It’s very offensive,” he added.
Singel said he ran into a Fetterman staffer over the summer and told him that the campaign should be ready for an attack from Republicans on the pardon issue.
Singel said the staffer assured him that the campaign was ready for such a negative ad, and he thinks that overall Fetterman has done a good job of handling it.
“The difference between my campaign and his is that Ridge ran his ad at the last minute and there wasn’t time to do anything,” he said. “Fetterman has had more time to respond, and he’s done a good job.
“To his (Fetterman)’s credit, he hasn’t dignified the ad with a response,” Singel continued, noting that he did respond with an effective ad from the Montgomery County sheriff who pointed out that Fetterman had voted with law enforcement officers on the pardons board over 90 percent of the time.
“I think John has done a good job, but I would like to see him hit the issue head on and really stand up for himself, ”said Singel. “I wouldn’t mind that at all.”But Singel said it’s difficult for politicians to deal with such negative ads and it’s a further sign of how dirty politics can become.
“It was garbage then and it’s garbage now,” Singel concluded.
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