This past Saturday morning, while most of you were doing your weekend chores and a lucky few got to sleep in, three candidates for the 183rd state house seat - a statewide office - were at a largely empty middle school in South Whitehall Township, debating before a small group of camp followers. It's a gerrymandered distict that includes municipalities like parts of South Whitehall and North Catty, which have little in common, in two different counties. This is the only chance voters had to see long-time incumbent Julie Harhart, a Republican who has been in office since 1995, defend her record against Democrat Terri Powell, a title agent hoping to ride gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf's coattails into office. It was the only opportunity for Independent Michael Molovinsky, a long-time community activist, to tell Powell and Harhart that both of their messages are wrong. Did they waste their time? In a democracy, the answer has to be No. And in this case, the candidates are lucky because, though the debate itself was sparsely attended, there was quite a bit of media coverage. The Morning Call, the weekly Press papers and hyper-local South Whitehall Observer were all present, along with yours truly. It was a fast hour.
Before telling you about the debate itself, I have to acknowledge the dedication of the Lehigh Valley League of Women Voters, I love to make fun of them, but without people like Beverly Hernandez or Joan Dean, there'd be no attempt to inform the voters at all. Newspapers are so concerned about being "objective" that they run from elections, only to return after it's all over to tell everyone how shitty their choices were. This lack of scrutiny is how we end up with people like Karen Dolan. It's also why people who have no ties to special interests, and who are unwilling or unable to spend the fortune required to tell their story, will never get elected.
It's why Michael Molovinsky has no shot. He has refused to curry favor with either of the major parties. He won't spend the money for the seven mailers he'd need to expect to have any hope at all. But to anyone who attended the debate, Michael Molovinsky was head and shoulders the best of the bunch.
He's by no means the nicest. That honor would have to go to the incumbent, Julie Harhart, whose basic decency stood out.during the debate. It's no mystery why she's been in office for ten terms.
Nor was he the best prepared. That distinction goes to Terri Powell, a powerful and confident candidate who came with reams of talking points and papers and recited bill numbers with the certainty of a Bingo caller. By contrast, Molovinsky even forgot his reading glasses.
But Molovinsky, combining his laconic style with a biting wit, was the best orator. His brief "Harriisburg is broken" opening, in which he states that no amount of money is "ever enough for Harrisburg", was still resonating after the other two gave longer openings that largely said nothing.
Powell is neither for or against them, but stated they should be held to the same standard as public schools. Harhart stated that reform legislation has recently been enacted that will improve them. Molovinsky said they result in de facto segregation, especially in larger cities, and scoffed at schools financed by real estate developers who hire public relations experts to ram them through.
Special Interests, Transparency
Harhart points to Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law, stating there are "no secrets". Powell pledged to decline large contributions from corporations. Molovinsky stated term limits would discourage a legislator from developing a rapport with special interests. He noted Harhart had pledged to seek only two or three terms, and now is on her tenth. He added she gets a lot of money from the medical industry. "That's because I chair the professional licensure committee," Harhart later explained. "I don't find that answer very reassuring," responded Molovisnky.
Powell noted Pennsylvania's infrastructure is ranked 49th in the nation, and she'd fix that problem by imposing a tax on Marcellus Shale and closing the Delaware loophole. Harhart stated that the recently enacted Transportation Bill, which she conceded she voted against, would bring in seven billion dollars for infrastructure improvements over the next five years. Molovinsky claimed this is a "political football" brought about by mismanagement by both parties. "One need only look at the Turnpike Commission" he observed, wondering what exactly they do.
Taxes on Seniors
Powell stated property taxes continue to rise because Republicans cut education funding, a point sharply disputed by Harhart. "We never cut education funding," she insisted, noting that schools did receive two years of stimulus funding from the federal government and were warned not to spend it on programs. Molovinsky continued to insist there are already enough taxes and revenue. He noted there are 73,000 state employees, and if they have the time to be sending porn emails to each other, perhaps there are too many of them.
Harhart supports an impact fee that goes to the municipalities that are impacted by fracking. Powel supports an 11% tax, the same as imposed in every other state that allows fracking. She noted that would raise $1 billion in revenue every year. "We are leaving billions of dollars on the table," she complained. Molovinsky, who supports a tax, noted impact fees only bring in $225 million per year, calling that a "drop in the bucket." He complained that a pipeline coming through the Lehigh Valley is going to degrade this area and we need a revenue tax to protect us from companies that "have more or less gone wild." He also is wary of the DEP and its ability to actually protect the community.
Clean Air, Water
Noting Allentown's recently abandoned plans to convert refuse into energy, Molovinsky noted the project had the blessing of the DEP. "What a Frankenstein mix!" he lamented, "So much for the DEP watching over fracking or anything else. We need to improve the process." He believes more oversight is needed. Powell agreed we have a right to clean air and water, as well as tourism and farming.
Harhart noted that the DEP has received funding to hire more people to provide oversight. She also pointed to recent studies showing that fracking has caused no water pollution.
Municipal bans on guns
Powell went off on a question about municipal bans on guns by stating there should be better checks on mentally unstable people. Noting the state legislation that prevents municipalities from banning guns in parks, she complained that even the KKK will be able to sue.
Harhart brought the argument back to earth, noting that the state law preempts municipalities from most gun issues/. This is because differing municipalities could contradict each other. They could , make the same conduct that is innocent in one municipality,criminal in the next.
Molovinsky stated these are "wedge" issues designed to appeal to panderers and emotion, and faulted both the NRA and gun control advocates for sensationalizing the issue.
Affordable Higher Education
Powell complained she is still paying her student loans and that the "system is a mess" and "we need to do something." Harhart noted there are numerous loans and grants available, "I don't have much interest in the question," noted Molovisnky, who pointed out that people who take these loans agree to pay them. He later noted that paying off a loan itself is educational.
"We need reform," announced Powell, but Harhart noted this is really a federal issue. Molovinsky added that the last time he checked, Pa. is not a border state and wonders what people really mean. "Are we talking about immigration or expressing prejudice?" he asked.
All candidates support a hike in the minimum wage, but Harhart would do it incrementally. "You have to be very careful or it could be detrimental to the people you're trying to help," she warned.
When it was all over, LWV member Joan Dean gave this warning: "Your vote is your ticket that brings you to the table; because if you're not at the table, you're probably on the menu."
Blogger's Note: Michael Molovinsky and I are friends ... I think. He is also a fellow blogger. I am obviously rooting for him, and wish I could vote for him. Having said that, I do think the other two candidates should be proud of their performances and each had their strong points.
Updated 9:05 pm: The Morning Call's account of the debate notes Molovinsky's strong performance as well.