[ candidates anonymous ]
Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series on the little-known Democratic candidates for governor.
It's March 4, and Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett is about to accidentally pay Democratic rival Joe Hoeffel a sweet compliment.
The two men, both vying to become Pennsylvania's next governor, are at a Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce forum along with the other four candidates in the race. It's the first time the candidates have all been in the same room together; yet the debate thus far has not been mic-glomming competitive or even amusingly awkward, but rather strangely polite and terse.
The moderator poses a potentially riling question: How would the candidates grapple with the state's "coming Armageddon," the $20 billion pension gap? Despite their multifarious parties and constituencies and hometowns, though, the assembled — state Rep. Sam Rohrer, a Republican; and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, Auditor General Jack Wagner and state Sen. Anthony H. Williams, all Democrats — proffer a similar solution: Cut pension benefits and consolidate pension plans. Not one mentions raising taxes. Then Corbett swiftly, and slyly, cuts into his Democratic opponents. "Quite honestly, I feel like I'm at a Republican convention," he says.
But Hoeffel, a Montgomery County commissioner, hasn't spoken yet. Hoeffel is a tall and svelte man, yet he's too foreboding to ever be deemed lanky. He's also got a shiny, thoroughly bald head, and has probably been called Mr. Clean more than once in his life.
Hoeffel momentarily smirks at Corbett's statement; without realizing it, Corbett has just articulated Hoeffel's campaign strategy. Hoeffel then launches into an explanation of how he'd avert a pension crisis through a graduated state income tax, a "robust" severance tax on the Marcellus Shale's natural gas, and the closure of the so-called Delaware loophole, which allows businesses to avoid paying taxes by setting up shop in that state.
Absent much evidence that it's viable, Hoeffel's strategy is this: He will win the Democratic primary — and the general election — by being the most progressive candidate on the ballot. He will tout his liberal positions on women's reproductive issues, same-sex marriage and the environment. Said another way, he's the only guy running who'd never in a million years be mistaken for a pol at a GOP convention, and he will use this fact to win the support of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia suburbs, the Philadelphia exurbs and women who are charmed by his unwavering pro-choice position.
"The way to beat the GOP is not by running a conservative Democrat against a slightly more conservative Republican," he says. "You've got to run a liberal Democrat. People want a choice."
Indeed, he's giving them one. But do Pennsylvanians want it?
Hoeffel has long been a ladies' man.
His relationship with the women's rights movement goes back to the 1980s, when as a state legislator from Montgomery County he fought against the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, long the ire of the pro-choice set. He also led the House debate against the bill — which requires that minors get parental consent for abortions, and women of all ages seeking abortions receive counseling first — and still calls for its repeal today. Conversely, Onorato and Wagner are anti-abortion rights. And though Williams is also pro-choice, he doesn't seem to advertise it like Hoeffel does.
"Being pro-choice is not just supporting the right of a woman to make a reproductive decision," Hoeffel often says, "but it is being supportive of empowering women."
There's evidence that, in at least some circles, this progressive bravado is catching on. "He really gets women's rights," says Caryn Hunt, president of the Philadelphia National Organization of Women, whose state PAC has endorsed Hoeffel. "He's got a record of voting pro-choice, and he's never caved on that in his entire career."
In line with his liberal's liberal strategy, Hoeffel also supports same-sex marriage. He's the only candidate who does. Taking a moderate-to-conservative position on gay issues is such a norm in Pennsylvania politics that, even while trying to court the local gay rights group Liberty City Democratic Club, Williams and Onorato admitted that they've long stood against gay marriage.
But here's where Hoeffel really wants you to know he differs from Onorato, Wagner and Williams: He's "very concerned" about the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation below Pennsylvania that's ripe with natural gas. As such, politicians like Gov. Ed Rendell are eying it as a veritable cash cow. But Hoeffel isn't. He backs moratoriums on both leasing additional state lands and issuing new drilling permits, at least until more regulations are in place and more studies have been completed. (The aforementioned "robust tax" he wants to place on the Marcellus Shale refers to parts of it that are already being leased or drilled.)
Hoeffel is evidently willing to suffer for his views: He is one of only two Democratic candidates who didn't receive funds last year from companies that stand to benefit from drilling or leasing the Marcellus Shale. (Williams is the other; however, he entered the race this February, and campaign finance reports for the first quarter of 2010 won't be available until the end of April.)
It's well known that the Republicans running for governor are being wooed by gas and oil companies vested in the Marcellus Shale — Corbett, for example, received $180,000 last year from the wife of Terry Pegula, CEO of East Resources Inc., which has leased hundreds of thousands of acres of the Shale. Most of the Democratic candidates, however, are doing it, too: Range Resources, a company that's drilled the Marcellus Shale, gave Onorato $5,000 last year, and Wagner $1,000. Chesapeake Energy Corp., the single largest Marcellus stakeholder, gave Wagner $2,500 last year; and its director of corporate development, F. Scott Rotruck, gave Onorato $2,200. Also, CNX Gas Corp., which has leased thousands of acres of the Shale, gave Onorato $1,000; and Dominion Resources, Inc. gave Wagner $500. The list doesn't end there.
Asked what he'll do when the same Marcellus Shale special interests come knocking on his door, Hoeffel is impudent. "Do you really think they're going to knock on my door, with my position?" he asks. "They haven't knocked yet, and they're giving money to my competitors."
But what if they do? Will you go on the record saying you won't take money from them? "I," he says, pausing. "Yes. Yeah."
Ultimately, though, does any of this matter? Will Hoeffel's pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ and pro-environment positions actually yield him votes in Philly proper and Philly suburbs, like he believes?
Terry Madonna, a Pennsylvania politics scholar at Franklin and Marshall College, isn't so sure. Though Rendell won the 2002 Democratic primary with a similar Southeastern Pennsylvania-focused strategy, Madonna points out that Rendell did it with $18 million. Hoeffel, on the other hand, took in only $347,000 last year. A previous statewide campaign — in 2004, he ran for Senate against Arlen Specter — and three terms in Congress appear to have done little to boost either his name recognition or war chest.
"Hoeffel's strategy," says Madonna, "is about all he has."
Madonna also contends that it's a bad time to rely on one's social issues to win an election. "We're in the midst of a recession. In the state, polls show no indication of social issues being a factor for voters."
To wit: Even the Liberty City Democratic Club is hesitant to fully embrace Hoeffel. "There is broad support for Joe Hoeffel based on the issues," says Liberty City co-chair Micah Mahjoubian, "but there is support for Onorato as well. He made the case that he's in the best position to beat a Republican candidate next fall."
Onorato, who raised $3.7 million in 2009, is indeed the odds-on favorite. In the latest Franklin and Marshall poll, he's ahead of Hoeffel by 6 percentage points. But herein lies the rub: Though he's leading, Onorato has the support of only 11 percent of respondents. Seventy-one percent are undecided.
"Nobody has a clue who these candidates are," says Madonna. "It's the most low-key race for governor I can remember in decades." Theoretically, in such a wide-open bout, anything could happen.
"Things are going to work out," says Hoeffel. "Dan [Onorato] and Jack [Wagner] aren't well-known here. They're going to need millions of dollars to even get on the map in the southeastern part of the state."
But what about getting himself on the map throughout the rest of the state?
"Thankfully," says Hoeffel, "TV and radio ads in those places are much cheaper than they are here."