By Sarah Laud, Staff Writer
On April 19, the Eisenhower Institute hosted a Republican Gubernatorial Debate for the upcoming primary election. The event was sponsored by Spotlight Pennsylvania, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Tribe Live, and PennLive Patriot News. Editor in Chief and Director of Spotlight PA Christopher Baxter organized the debate.
Scott Lamar from Harrisburg’s WITF public radio moderated the debate. Journalists Eva DeJesus of Penn Live and Scott Blanchard of WITF lead the questions.
The participating candidates included Jake Corman, Joe Gale, Charlie Gerow, Melissa Hart, and Nche Zama. Before answering questions, the candidates gave opening statements on their top priorities.
Jake Corman explained his interest in protecting personal freedom. Joe Gale introduced himself as a pro-life, staunch conservative. Charlie Gerow described himself as a “Ronald Reagan Conservative.” Melissa Hart emphasized her experience as an asset. Finally, Nche Zama highlighted his humanitarian motivation.
How should the state be distributing tax dollars?
The first question began with Corman’s response. “What I wouldn’t do is what some of the Democrats are proposing, which is a 16% increase in our state budget, which is completely unsustainable,” Corman said. He described tax dollars as a “money pot.” He said he would send tax dollars back to D.C.
Gale responded that his first step would be to avoid lockdowns. He also agreed with Corman on sending tax dollars back to Washington.
“I believe that the taxpayers’ money ought to go right back to the taxpayer,” Charlie Gerow began. He wants to propose a one-time tax credit for the Pennsylvania taxpayers. He would use the money to repair roads and bridges to provide citizen relief.
Hart would prefer to spend money on education. As such, she would target one-time necessary projects like improving the infrastructure of roads and bridges.
Similar to Hart, Zama believes that the country has unproductive spending. “We spend money when there is no money and we don’t spend money in addressing problems in a sustainable manner,” he said. As a solution, Zama would use tax money to provide relief from COVID to children who lost access to education, front-line workers, and those who lost their jobs.
How would you change school funding?
The next question began with a response from Gerow. As governor, he plans to fight for real school choice and have a serious, meaningful discussion about the school property tax. Not seeing the productivity in the Pennsylvania school property tax, Gerow would seek an alternative funding mechanism.
Melissa Hart said she thought that Pennsylvania pays enough money towards their schools and that significant education reform outside of funding should be taking place. “Right now, public schools are being asked to be basically the purveyors of mental health care,” she said. Hart believes in school choice in having access to both public and private schools and parents’ opportunities to homeschool.
Nche Zama believes in school choice as well. However, he wants to broaden school choice more by advocating for access to more fundamental, meaningful education such as coding and financial education as well as access to vocational schools. As governor, Zama plans to open new markets for Pennsylvania’s energy and agriculture resources. Revenue from such resources would offset the challenges of funding education.
In the case of the legislature increasing taxes, Jake Corman would oppose it. He highlighted the fact that PA has one of the best education funds per student. Corman said, “…[I] would force school districts to put their curriculum online so the parents could know what’s being taught in their schools.” Corman plans to instill a voucher system where dollars go straight to the child’s education at a school of their choice whether private, parochial or charter.
Joe Gale has a similar education plan, seeking to generate competition amongst the schools as governor. He also supports the voucher system.
What changes to state election law do you support, and given that the state’s election system has been established as free, fair, and secure, and under that system, republicans were reelected to majority control in the legislature in 2020, why do you support those changes?
Hart outlined her response surrounding Act 77. She said, “I would repeal act 77 because it does open opportunities for fraud, whether you can prove them or not. They have placed significant doubt in the integrity of our system.” As such, she wants to require voters to show ID.
Zama explained his values of democracy and giving the opportunity for every PA citizen to vote. However, he also wants election integrity to be investigated moving forward.
Corman spoke about the Lehigh Valley polling stations where he claimed more ballots were dropped off than people who went to the polls. He emphasized his desire to ensure no one votes illegally. “Getting rid of drop boxes will go a long way. And that’s why later this week, I’m going to introduce my voter integrity plan, which I think will go a long way to restoring competence and elections and Pennsylvania.”
Gale believes mail-in voting is unconstitutional and would also appeal Act 77. “That’s the longest vote by mail period of time in the nation. And the blood is on the hands of the Republicans and the legislature. Every single Republican state senator voted for it,” he said.
Gerow also spoke on Lehigh Valley. He said, “The problem that I had is that if there’s one fraudulent vote, that cancels out the vote of a law-abiding citizen who did it properly, and that simply cannot be accepted.” He wants a secretary of state who is experienced in conducting elections, committed to the rule of law, and the Constitution of Pennsylvania.
If elected governor, what would you do with legislation restricting abortion access reaches your desk and why?
Zama is a pro-life candidate. He explained his beliefs as follows: he thinks that life begins at conception and that intervention between conception and birth is murder. He said that he would sign legislation restricting abortion access and make no exceptions for rape or incest.
Corman, too, believes that life begins at conception. He would sign legislation to restrict access to abortion with justification formed on the basis that the lives considered aborting are most vulnerable and must be protected.
“I am an unapologetic pro-life conservative and I pray that Roe v. Wade is overturned and the power restored back to the states,” Gale said. As such, he would sign legislation against improving access to abortion.
Gerow began his response by describing his active participation in passing the Fetal Heartbeat Bill and Down Syndrome Bill. He believes that those who think abortion laws better public policy are wrong.
Like other candidates, Hart is pro-life. She explained her part in sponsoring the Safe Haven Law and participating in the Personhood Bill and Laci and Connors Law.
How would you deal with improving access to sustainable energy?
Corman focused on manufacturing. He said, “If you want to improve the environment, bring manufacturing back to Pennsylvania so we can use our natural gas which is a much cleaner fuel.”
Gale believes that reducing dependence on foreign nations for energy should be a goal for the United States. He explained that he would extract Pennsylvania’s natural gas resources, increase exportation, and create thousands of new jobs.
Gerow said, “You know what we can do for our Pennsylvania workers? Drill, baby, drill.” He noted the high-paying jobs in the natural gas industry that he would make available to Pennsylvania residents as Governor.
Hart suggested a different approach. She emphasized growing from the bottom-up and rebuilding small towns where people have experience in resource extraction.
Zama emphasized humanism, and that people need affordable and reliable energy at their disposal. He also noted the security imperative of becoming energy independent.
At this point in the debate, Lamar introduced the lightning round, where candidates asked each other questions.
Gale took the opportunity to call out his opponent Doug Mastriano, who was absent from the debate. “What nerve do you have to think that you can run for governor when you voted for the unconstitutional mail-in-voting legislation, Act 77?”
Hart, too, expressed her concern that other candidates, like Josh Shapiro, are not facing the public. “It appears as though some candidates believe that they don’t need to come to public forums and answer questions from the press, that their communication with the public is spending millions of dollars putting out commercials that basically make up a narrative that they can’t defend in front of the public,” she said.
Zama refrained from mentioning other candidates in his response. Rather, he emphasized that voters should be aware of the power they have to put someone in charge.
Jake Corman switched the conversation to talking about the justification of mask mandates. He asked Zama about his scientific knowledge in relation to masking mandates, to which Zama responded that he did not see a need for masks.
What is your position on legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes in Pennsylvania?
Gerow answered first. He said that he would take advantage of the opportunity to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. He noted his influence in the passing of legislation regarding the use of medical marijuana.
Differing from Gerow, Hart does not support the legalization of recreational marijuana. She said she views weed as a gateway drug.
Zama reframed the question toward health care. He questioned politicians’ focus on marijuana when there are people who do not have adequate health care access.
Though Corman aided in the passing of medical marijuana legislation, he said he is against the decriminalization of marijuana. “All you’re doing is giving the cartels free run to run an illegal product,” he said.
Gale said, “The last thing we need when we are facing an epidemic where people are dying is to legalize recreational marijuana.”
Lamar marked the end of the lightning round and transitioned to the last series of questions:
If elected governor, what specific actions would you take to reduce gun violence?
“I think that there is an emphasis that is inappropriate on the gun,” Hart began. She noted that the societal problems regarding young people and violence are not because of guns. She added that she believes guns involved in crimes are not legal, so enforcing laws on the distribution of firearms will have limited results.
Zama took a broader stance on gun control, emphasizing the need for social and judicial reform. He said,“Until we address the social ills will we be able to get a hold of crime.”
Corman linked the question about gun control to crime problems. “I led the charge for criminal reinvestment in Pennsylvania, and that process is being hurt because no one’s being held accountable,” Corman said.
Unlike Corman, Gale directly called out the Black Lives Matter movement. “When the city [of Philadelphia] burned in 2020 because Black Lives Matter rioted and torched police cars and harmed people, I was the only elected official in the state, and I believe the first in the nation, to speak the truth about Black Lives Matter,” he said. Gale called the stripping of guns and defunding of the police “asinine.”
Gerow stated that the police are the apex of public safety and should be respected. He wants to put more police on the street and increase their funding.
How would you go about the ongoing upkeep of infrastructure in Pennsylvania?
Zama’s plan is to invest in the safety of the citizens before investing elsewhere. He noted that Pennsylvania is a rich state, with an $800 billion GDP.
Corman hopes to free up spending for the further fixing of roads and bridges by redirecting the state police funding out of the motor license fund and into the general fund. Corman wants to ensure that people are using the highways that he plans to continually manage and sustain.
Gale plans to promote the inclusion of independent contractors in the repair and maintenance of infrastructure and drive down the costs of projects.
Gerow said he hopes to protect the safety of the people and the distribution of goods that the economy depends on.
Hart does not want new construction to take place. Simultaneously, she plans to repeal the gas tax.
How would you handle a bill banning transgender students from participating in school clubs that align with their gender identity?
Corman blames the NCAA for not doing enough research to find a fair way to let everyone play on athletic teams. He believes that equal play gives some people a disadvantage.
Gale blamed former Senator Scott Wagner for passing transgender bathroom bills that set an unfair precedent. “Quite honestly, I’ve had enough of wokism, cancel culture, radical liberalism, transgenderism rammed down our throats. It’s ridiculous,” he began.“If you’re a man, you play male sports. If you’re a woman, you play female sports.”
Gerow said, “If you put a biological male or two onto that court, you’re taking one or two women off the court and putting them on the bench simultaneously.”
Hart focused on her experience as both a woman and a former athlete. “So I played basketball in high school. I was a five-foot-ten center. If a man decided to play and he was six-foot-four, I was gonna be on the bench,” she explained.
“I believe also that gender, as a scientist in biology, is the gender you carry for the rest of your life,” Zama said. He does not support legislation that would allow transgender students to play a sport contrary to their assigned sex at birth.
The candidates ended the debate with closing statements.