Pa. Democrats vying for U.S. Senate highlight policy divides in televised debate

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta faced questions for one hour in a contentious debate

By: - April 21, 2022 10:19 pm
US Senate Candidates Collage

From left to right: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (Philadelphia Gay News photo collage).

With less than a month until the May 17 primary election, the leading three Democrats running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania faced off for the first time together on the same stage — touting their platforms while also dealing blows to their opponents in a contentious hour-long debate.

The candidates — U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta — answered questions about the economy, crime, and legalized cannabis in the forum hosted by ABC-27 News in Harrisburg Thursday night.

The widely-watched and crowded race is one of the few chances Democrats have to gain a seat and build on what’s now a narrow majority in the upper chamber. And on May 17, registered Democrats in Pennsylvania will cast their ballot for one of the four candidates, including Jenkintown Borough Councilmember Alex Khalil, vying for their party’s nomination to replace retiring GOP U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.

On the Republican side, voters will get to choose between conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, Montgomery County real estate investor and businessman Jeff Bartos, Trump-endorsed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick, former Trump administration ambassador Carla Sands, Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto, and Montgomery County attorney Sean Gale.

Every GOP U.S. Senate hopeful, except Gale and Bochetto, has committed to a debate hosted at the same place and time on Monday, April 25.

Reviving a 2013 incident

Lamb, D-17th District, and Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, criticized Fetterman for skipping a debate earlier this month to avoid questions about his record and a 2013 confrontation with Christopher Miyares, a Black man Fetterman held at gunpoint after suspecting he was involved in nearby gunfire.

And on Thursday, the former mayor of Braddock faced further questioning about the incident.

Asked whether he would do anything differently if he were in the same situation again, Fetterman avoided giving a direct answer. Instead, he defended his decision and refuted claims that he pointed a firearm directly at the individual.

“It’s certainly not a situation anyone would want to be in with gun violence,” Fetterman said. “But I’d like to point out that I’m the only Democrat on this stage that has successfully confronted crime and gun violence and has been in charge of a police department.”

Miyares, who is incarcerated for an unrelated crime, previously wrote a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer saying: “It is inhumane to believe one mistake should define a man’s life. I hope he gets to be a senator.”

Lamb and Kenyatta, who have criticized Fetterman for the incident and his refusal to apologize, were asked why the incident should disqualify Fetterman from serving in the U.S. Senate.

Lamb, a former prosecutor, noted that in the same letter, Miyares said that Fetterman “lied about everything” that happened in 2013. He added that Fetterman, who serves as the chair of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, is one of the people who “holds the keys” to release him.

“He also won’t really answer your question as to whether he did anything wrong and should have done it differently,” Lamb said.

Speaking directly to Fetterman, Kenyatta accused him of being afraid of “two little words — I’m sorry” and urged him to apologize.

Fetterman, however, defended his actions and touted his reelection as mayor of Braddock, which is outside of Pittsburgh.

“That never happened,” Fetterman said, neglecting to apologize or admit any wrongdoing. “I never pointed the weapon at the individual.”

Answering questions about the economy, energy and the environment, foreign policy, and immigration, candidates’ differed in their policy approaches.

Here’s a look at where they stand on some key issues:

Federal gas tax suspension

Fetterman was the only candidate who said he supported a federal gas tax suspension, saying that he would offset any lost revenue by insisting that “multibillion-dollar corporations” and “hyper-rich billionaires pay their fair share.” Fetterman pointed to GOP Senate hopeful McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO, as an example of someone who should pay their “fair share” of taxes.

Lamb and Kenyatta, who both opposed suspending the federal gas tax, had different approaches to the issue.

Lamb said the United States should focus on increasing oil production. He also said he opposes tax increases among the middle class.

Kenyatta said the “root causes of inflation” should be dealt with first. He added that the “hard costs” families deal with — childcare and prescription drug prices — need to be lowered. Kenyatta said the income cutoff for higher taxes is those who make under $500,000 a year.


With gun violence on the rise nationwide, the candidates all said they supported gun control measures. 

Lamb said the “most important” is to shift law enforcement dollars away from nonviolent drug crimes and toward a “more aggressive” approach to gun violence.

“We do not do enough firearms trafficking prosecution,” he said. “Stop the flow of guns into Philadelphia, into Pittsburgh.”

Kenyatta highlighted a three-point plan, saying that people need access to good jobs, schools, healthcare, and retirement. He added that the government should focus on legislation tied to lost and stolen guns.

Fetterman called for an end to the filibuster so Congress could pass gun reform legislation.

“We would need 10 to 12 Republicans to join our ranks and decide that, ‘Yes, we want to join you in banning assault rifles. We want to join you in passing red flag laws. We want to make it more difficult for dangerous and unstable people to own a weapon,’” he said.


Kenyatta said the natural gas industry doesn’t care about workers or their health, saying they “will leave at a moment’s notice, go bankrupt, open with a different name, and leave workers holding the bag.”

He added that Pennsylvania could be a leader in creating clean energy jobs and addressing the climate crisis. He did not voice support for an all-out ban on fracking, the process of extracting natural gas from the earth, but said there should be no new fracking permits.

“This is about what we’re going to do in the future,” he said. “Is Pennsylvania going to be the place or not that leads the way on geothermal, on bio, on wind, on solar? I want us to do that.”

Fetterman, who faced backlash from Kenyatta for flip-flopping on his stance, called for an extraction tax. He added that fracking is an important industry that allows for energy independence and helps create jobs.

“Two things are true at the same time,” he added.

Lamb said the United States should think about its energy strategy “like a stool supported by three legs” to lower carbon emissions, allow for affordable energy, and create jobs.

“Fracking allows us to do all three of those things,” he said.

Legalizing recreational cannabis

All of the candidates said they supported legalizing recreational cannabis. Lamb, however, stressed a need to do it “slowly” and promoted regulatory policies to ensure safety.

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