2010-02-04 / Local & State

4 Dems For Governor Debate Pa., National Issues

By PETER JACKSON ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – In the first debate of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial campaign, the four Democratic candidates for governor jousted Friday night over some of the hottest issues at a gathering sponsored by labor unions and citizen activist groups.

Questions posed by some of the roughly 300 people at the first Pennsylvania Progressive Summit illuminated differences among the candidates on topics as politically tense as abortion rights, same-sex marriage, the fairness of state taxes, the legalization of marijuana and the future of the state liquor stores.

Three of the candidates – Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, former U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel and Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty – said they would veto legislation to criminalize abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court were to repeal the 37-yearold Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure. State Auditor General Jack Wagner said he would work to improve services for children and pregnant women.

“Consistency on this issue is important,” said Hoeffel. “You can’t be on both sides of this issue.”

Onorato and Wagner said they support legislation to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, but only Hoeffel and Doherty said they are willing to sign a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

“People have a right to be happy,” Doherty said. “This is America.”

Hoeffel called for replacing Pennsylvania’s flat-rate income tax with graduated tax rate that would rise with income. Onorato said such a change would require amending the state constitution – a difficult process that takes years – and that he would advocate immediate passage of an earned-income tax credit that would allow lower-income families to keep more of their income.

Wagner said he would focus on solving problems in state government – passing state budgets on time, for example, and reducing the use of no-bid state contracts – before considering tax changes.

“This train needs to be put back on the track,” Wagner said.

All four candidates said they support keeping the present system of state stores to sell liquor and wine but were divided about whether the state’s marijuana laws need updating.

Hoeffel and Wagner said they would support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, while Doherty and Onorato said they would leave the existing laws alone.

The debate came on the first day of summit. Sponsors included the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, Netroots Nation and Keystone Progress, which bills itself as “the communications hub for the progressive community in Pennsylvania.”

Michael Morrill, the director of Keystone Progress, said the Republican candidates for governor were also invited but that they did not respond.

A campaign spokesman for state Attorney General Tom Corbett, the front-runner in the GOP primary race, said his campaign turned down the invitation late last year because it conflicted with Corbett’s plans to take part in weekend gathering of the southwest and northwest regional caucuses of the Republican State Committee. The caucuses planned to take straw votes on their gubernatorial preference as a prelude to the state committee’s expected Feb. 13 endorsement vote.

“There was no way to make it work,” campaign manager Brian Nutt said Friday.

The campaign of state Rep. Sam Rohrer, a Berks County conservative who is Corbett’s only apparent primary foe, was not aware of the event until an Associated Press reporter called Friday afternoon to ask why Rohrer was not participating, spokesman Ryan Hite said.

Hite said Rohrer, who declared his candidacy in November, would have attended had he known about the event.

U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach had also been a candidate but dropped out of the race this month.

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