PA Dems Should Seize Reform Movement

Member Group : Nathan Shrader

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party is in the midst of a vigorous primary election to succeed Ed Rendell in the Governor’s Office. Unlike their Republican counterparts, the Democratic State Committee wisely decided against declaring a party endorsement, setting up an opportunity for the state’s 4.3 million Democratic voters to make an unbossed vote on May 18th.

Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls include Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, Auditor General Jack Wagner of Allegheny County, Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, state Senator Anthony Hardy Williams of Philadelphia (who is yet to formally declare), and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel.

Let’s take a closer look at the Democratic field:

• Doherty is running largely as the outsider, suggesting that his work to reform Scranton makes him the most logical successor to Rendell, who used his record as an urban leader to propel himself to the Governor’s Mansion. However, recent rumors suggest that he may soon exit the race to instead fill the state Senate seat being vacated by retired Democratic Minority Leader Bob Mellow.

• Williams is the only minority candidate in the race and has shown an ability to think outside the box as an outspoken advocate of school choice, and especially on behalf of charter schools. He represents the political legacy of his late father, Senator Hardy Williams, who engaged in frequent combat with Philadelphia’s entrenched Democratic political machine.

• Hoeffel has attempted to take up the mantle of the party’s liberal wing, earning the endorsement of pro-choice activists and former National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) leader Kate Michelman while calling for the end of Pennsylvania’s flat state income tax. He was the victim of a statewide political beating at the hands of Arlen Specter in the 2004 U.S. Senate contest, but has been exposed to voters many times as a former U.S. Congressman and current county official.

• Onorato has made waves by presently having $6.5 million in the bank for this race, making him the fundraising heavyweight. Republicans are licking their chops at the prospect of taking on Onorato and reminding voters of his legacy: a 10 percent alcoholic drink tax in Allegheny County and utter failure in reforming his county’s broken property tax reassessment system.

• Wagner is a former Pittsburgh City Council President, former state Senator, and was twice elected Auditor General in statewide races. He is a decorated Vietnam vet described by the venerable Dr. G. Terry Madonna as being "pro-life and pro-gun" in a December 2009 Patriot-News story. It is plausible to suggest that Wagner is the only Democratic hopeful who can pull together enough conservative Democratic voters in western and central Pennsylvania, moderate centrists and independents, and the traditional Democratic base to win in November.

There are two obvious reasons the Democrats should nominate Wagner.

First, reform issues are weighing heavily upon the minds of voters this year. A Franklin and Marshall College Poll released earlier this month indicates that 78 percent of voters think that Pennsylvania’s state government needs reform with 91 percent holding strong feelings about the need for said reform. Among the Democratic field, Wagner has the record to match the rhetoric and the ability to go toe-to-toe with either of the potential Republican nominees on reform issues.

As Auditor General, Wagner carried out a historic audit of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA)—the first such audit of the agency in 45 years—exposing extravagant waste and abuse of tax dollars and that the agency had given away over $7.5 million on taxpayer-funded bonuses in three years. His office also began the practice of conducting performance audits of state departments and agencies while implementing a policy of following up on previous audits within two years of their initial completion to determine if the proper cost-savings reforms have been implemented.

Wagner has promised as governor that he will produce timely, balanced budgets, a departure from the Rendell era of delaying and dithering that has left Pennsylvania with late budgets and excessive infighting. He is also the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate to call for a ban on bonuses in state government at every level and first proposed legislative reform in the 1997-1998 legislative session by introducing a bill to reduce the size of the General Assembly. While not the optimum solution of creating a part-time legislature, it is still a dramatic leap towards reform as compared to what the rest of the Democratic field has proffered.

Second, Jack Wagner is a proven statewide winner for Democrats. Wagner defeated his Republican opponent for Auditor General in 2004 by seven points and defeated Republican Chet Beiler in 2008 by almost 22 points. Wagner’s 2008 reelection victory was the most sweeping triumph of any statewide candidate in 2008, outpacing Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett’s own reelection vote total by 333,292 votes. These numbers are tough to ignore.

The 2010 gubernatorial contest will likely be decided on issues related to reform and responsibility in state government. Pennsylvania Democrats would be foolish to nominate anyone but Jack Wagner, who is the one candidate in their stable who has pledged to prevent a tax hike while running on a reform agenda, a strategy that could best hold together their party’s growing, yet fragile political coalition and draw critical independent and Republican votes in a pivotal statewide contest.

Nathan R. Shrader is a PhD student at Temple University and a veteran of over 20 political campaigns. He can be reached via his web page at He served as former Legislative Aide to the late Lt. Governor Catherine Baker Knoll and is now a Republican Committeeman in Philadelphia.