Exclusive: ex-Democratic Congressional candidate George Scott is running for state Senate seat in Harrisburg

Democrat George Scott, a candidate for Pennsylvania's 15th state Senate district. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

When he knocked on doors in central Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District in 2018, George Scott asked Dauphin County voters to send him to Washington to replace incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Perry.

After narrowly losing that race, the Lutheran pastor and Army veteran is now seeking an assignment closer to home: a seat in Pennsylvania’s state Senate.

Scott, an Adams County native who relocated from York County to downtown Harrisburg this fall, announced on Tuesday his campaign to unseat state Sen. John DiSanto, the Republican currently representing the state’s 15th Senate district.

The district covers most of Dauphin County — including the capital city of Harrisburg — and all of neighboring Perry County. 

“It’s a kind of a microcosm of Pennsylvania, as a whole, in the sense that you’ve got a mix of urban, suburban and rural, all within one district,” Scott said Tuesday. 

The campaign marks Scott’s return to politics since his Congressional bid, where he emerged from a crowded Democratic primary to come within two points of unseating Perry in the November general election. 

The 2018 elections were the first ones to take place after the state Supreme Court scrapped Pennsylvania’s Congressional map, saying the district lines were unfairly drawn to advantage Republican candidates.

The newly redrawn maps, which made districts such as the 10th more competitive for Democrats, took effect before the midterm primary races.

To Democratic politicians in the 10th District, Scott’s finish in the November general election signaled that they had a chance of unseating Republicans in future contests. 

When it came time last year to consider another run against Perry, the York County Republican who belongs to the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, Scott said he didn’t feel the same “internal call” that launched his first campaign.

“I just felt it was not the right time, nor the right office for me,” Scott said in a wide-ranging interview with the Capital-Star. “So I listened to that.”

He said his decision was sealed after he spoke with Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat who announced his candidacy for the 10th District this summer. 

Scott and his wife moved to downtown Harrisburg in September. Scott said they were seeking a smaller home and city living after their youngest child left for college.

They found both those things in the riverfront Shipoke neighborhood. But Scott said he also started to get nudges from people who said he should run for DiSanto’s seat.

“As I learned more about the district and learned more about what can be done at the state Senate level, I became really enthusiastic about the opportunity,” Scott said. 

To date, he’s the only Democrat to announce a challenge to the incumbent. 

DiSanto, a former real estate executive, was elected to his seat in 2016, defeating Democratic incumbent Rob Teplitz in what the Harrisburg Patriot-News called an “upset” victory. 

Registered Republican voters have a slight edge over Democrats in the 15th Senate District. But with 15 percent of the electorate registered as independents, the seat is liable to swing between parties once more. 

Scott hopes he can return the seat to the Democrats — and add one more member to his party’s struggling minority caucus.

In an hour-long interview in the Capital-Star’s office on Tuesday, Scott said that he won’t use his campaign megaphone to criticize his opponent. But he did say voters could count on him to depart from several points of DiSanto’s record.

Taxes and School Funding

Scott said that many Dauphin County voters he met during his 2018 congressional campaign complained about high property tax burdens.

He’s hardly the first Pennsylvania politician to hear that refrain on the campaign trail. Lawmakers have long debated how to alleviate tax burdens, and some have advocated for abolishing school property taxes.

Pennsylvania’s property tax, explained: A moral wrong, or the building block of government finance? 

Scott says he doesn’t know how to fix Pennsylvania’s tax structure once and for all. But he does disagree with DiSanto’s stance that the state should eliminate property taxes entirely. 

DiSanto has joined Republicans and Democrats in his chamber to support legislation that would provide a path to total property tax elimination. But Scott isn’t convinced the state can make up the difference and continue to fund public schools.

“Somebody else’s got to pick up that burden, and there’s no really effective solution that I think has been presented by Republicans in that regard,” Scott said.

He said he’d prefer to grant property tax relief by strengthening the Homestead Exemption, which allows homeowners to reduce the taxable value of their home based on assessments.

School vouchers

Scott also said he doesn’t support the expansion of school voucher programs like the one proposed by state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, which would require the Harrisburg City School District to make tuition payments on behalf of district students who choose to enroll in private schools. 

DiSanto has voiced support for Turzai’s bill, which remains stalled in the House. 

Scott said the bill would divert funds away from the troubled school district just as it’s started making progress under a state-appointed receiver.

Scott said many voters in the 15th District share a desire for better public schools — including more funding for public education.

Scott knows he’d want to address those concerns in the Capitol. But he couldn’t yet say whether he’d support bigger appropriations for K-12 education, or advocate for larger, structural changes such as a shift to the state’s fair funding formula.

“I do know that the current system is not doing what we want to do in a way that it’s really equitable, and that changes are needed,” Scott said. “But I’m not going to sit here and say I’ve got the master plan to fix everything. I think it’s a really complex issue. And I think we’ve got to develop a bipartisan solution for any policy to move forward and have some lasting effect.”

Jobs and Wages

At 4.2 percent, the average unemployment rate in Dauphin and Perry Counties is lower than it’s been in decades. But that doesn’t mean that all people in the 15th District are earning a living wage, Scott said.

He said the Legislature should spur job creation and wage growth by offering tax incentives to firms that offer high-paying jobs, especially in such growing sectors as renewable energy. 

He said corporate tax breaks “wouldn’t be at the top of [his] agenda.” 

But he did say the state could make targeted investments to stimulate growth in struggling industries. He cited the Wolf administration’s announcement on Monday that it would disburse $500,000 in agriculture education grants, which aim to reduce a projected workforce deficiency in the state’s sizable agriculture industry.

Notably, Scott said he would join Democrats’ calls for a higher minimum wage — but he wouldn’t embrace the $15-per-hour wage that many Democratic lawmakers are demanding. 

He argued that a $10 minimum wage, pegged to annual increases based on inflation, would be a more reasonable goal “in the short term.”

“My gut says 15 [dollars an hour] is great, but it’s probably a bridge too far in the short term,” Scott said. “At a minimum, we need to get to 10 [dollars].”

Scott acknowledged that a $10-per-hour wage still isn’t enough to live on. But he said that he’d worry about how a $15 wage would affect small business owners.

DiSanto voted along with Democratic and Republican Senate colleagues in November to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $8 this year and to $9.50 by 2022. The compromised legislation fell far short of what Wolf and other Democrats have introduced in other bills. 

DiSanto has also sponsored a workforce development bill that would make it easier for people with criminal records to get occupational licenses. The legislation, which had wide bipartisan support and won praise from a coalition of criminal justice reform organizations and business development groups, currently awaits a vote in the House. 

Abortion

“My belief is that abortion should be safe, legal, and ideally rare,” Scott said Tuesday. 

The Lutheran minister said the General Assembly should not pass legislation that restricts a woman’s healthcare options, and instead ensure that families have easy access to contraceptives, paid family leave, and affordable healthcare.

DiSanto has voted for bills that would restrict abortion access, including one that would criminalize the procedure after a fetus is diagnosed with Downs Syndrome and another that would ban elective abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Both measures were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.