United on the big questions, progressive Pa. House, Senate hopefuls stress the subtle differences

Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania's 15th Senate District take questions during a Sunday, 3/8/20 forum put on by Capital Region Stands Up (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

CAMP HILL, Pa. — They might have been sitting in a meeting hall barely three miles from the state Capitol, but the progressive candidates who gathered here Sunday stressed that the political differences that separate them from establishment Harrisburg were vast.

“You can still legally buy your very own politician if you have the means to do so,” said Patty Smith, a Democrat who’s taking a second-run at unseating long-serving state Rep Sue Helm, R-Dauphin, in suburban Harrisburg’s 104th House District.

For two hours on Sunday, House and Senate hopefuls fielded questions posed to them during a forum put on by the progressive advocacy group Capital Region Stands Up. It was the second in the series of such forums held at Camp Hill’s borough hall building. Last week, the group held a panel for local Congressional hopefuls.

For candidates running in contested primaries, as was the case in the Dauphin County-based 15th Senate District, where two candidates, and Cumberland County’s 31st Senate District, didn’t have much chance to demonstrate bright-line distinctions in their campaigns.

All supported such bread-and-butter Democratic issues as a higher minimum wage, more money for public schools and smart environmental regulations. Their differences, rather, were in the margins of their approaches.

In the 15th Senate District, where Army veteran and Lutheran pastor George Scott faces community activist Alvin Q. Taylor, the difference became one of broad-brush generalities (Taylor) and policy specifics (Scott).

Perhaps the most notable development came when Scott, who narrowly lost in 2018 to Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, had to answer a question about the minimum wage. Scott told the crowd that he supported raising Pennsylvania’s minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, to $15 an hour.

Scott said that, if elected, he’d support increasing the wage to $10/hr., and then by $1/hr. until it rose to $15/hr.

The answer was a subtle modulation, over an answer that Scott gave to the Capital-Star in January, when he announced his candidacy for the seat now held by Republican Sen. John DiSanto.  Then, Scott said he could support hiking the wage to $10/hr. Future increases, pegged to 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 told the Capital-Star in January. “At a minimum, we need to get to 10 [dollars].”

In an interview after his appearance, Scott told the Capital-Star that he’d changed his view after speaking with voters in the Harrisburg-based district he’s seeking to represent, and that a $15/hr. wage would make a more significant difference in their lives.

Meanwhile, in Cumberland County’s 31st Senate District, three people, Shanna Danielson, and Rick Coplen, both educators, and John Bosha, a pharmacist, are vying for the chance to unseat GOP Sen. Mike Regan, of York County, in November.

Danielson, who unsuccessfully challenged state Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York in 2018, stressed her York County connection to a Senate district that straddles York and Cumberland counties, while Coplen positioned himself as a pragmatist who’d actively engage with district residents to solve problems.  Bosha unsuccessfully challenged Regan four years ago.

Asked for the three biggest public policy challenges facing the largely suburban district, all three cited education funding. Coplen and Danielson both cited environmental concerns, while Bosha listed redistricting reform as the third, biggest challenge.

The Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania’s 87th House District, from left, Nicole Miller, Sean Quinlan and Heather McDonald (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

There were similar flurries of agreement between the three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Cumberland County’s 87th House District, where Republican incumbent Rep. Greg Rothman is seeking a third, two-year term.

One of the candidates, attorney Sean Quinlan, of Camp Hill, is making a second attempt to unseat Rothman, a real estate agent. He ran, and lost, in 2018. In 2019, Quinlan made an unsuccessful run for Cumberland County district attorney.

Two women Nicole Miller, who ran for a seat on a local school board in 2019, and newcomer Heather MacDonald, are also seeking the nomination.

MacDonald, who comes to the table without prior experience, stressed her human side.

“I live in Camp Hill. I used to park my car and walk my dog and think about where I wanted to live someday,” she said, adding that becoming a mother at age 17 was “a transformative experience for me. It’s informed every decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

On Sunday, the International Day of the Woman, Miller noted that she’d be a woman serving in an overwhelmingly male institution.

“I bring the fact that I am a woman who grew up in a time, and still live in a time, where we grow up and told we’re not worth as much as men,” she said. “I tell my daughter that all the time.”

Democratic state House candidates, from right, Tara Shakespeare, Brittney Rodas and Patty Smith (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Three House candidates, Smith, along with 105th District hopeful, Brittney Rodas, and 88th District aspirant Tara Shakespeare, had the stage to themselves.

Rodas, a former Pennsylvania House staffer, punched up her experience in the Legislature, and said she’d be “ready to begin serving on Day One.”

Shakespeare positioned herself as an outsider.

“I come to politics from a very different background people than a lot of people,” she said. “I’m not a lawyer, I haven’t worked for the Legislature for a lifetime like my opponent. I’m a regular person who cares about people.”

John L. Micek
John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. He's been covering Pennsylvania politics for more than 20 years and most recently served as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Micek's commentary is syndicated to more than 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. And he's a regular contributor to a host of broadcast outlets in Pennsylvania and abroad.