Republican gubernatorial candidates Paul Mango and Scott Wagner were unapologetic Wednesday evening about the tone of their campaigns and their attack ads aimed at each other.
The third candidate on the debate stage at Willow Valley Communities Cultural Center, Laura Ellsworth, said her competitors’ mudslinging “hurts the process” and leaders should “be decent.”
Wagner said repeatedly he’s focusing on the issues. He challenged Mango to run the rest of the primary campaign without either of them naming each other in ads.
Mango said he’d do “whatever I have to do” to give voters full information about the choice facing them.
Later, Mango said Wagner had “ambushed” him with an untruthful ad and said, “When I get punched, I’m going to punch back.”
Ellsworth, Mango and Wagner are seeking the Republican nomination for governor in the May 15 primary. The winner will face first-term Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in the fall.
Wednesday’s forum was hosted by ABC 27, LNP, The Caucus and Lancaster Farming.
Mango said observers have rated him the most conservative candidate in the race. He pledged to reverse decades of economic underperformance in Pennsylvania to “bring our jobs and our children back home.”
Wagner said his four decades as a businessman and his term as state senator have given him the experience to be governor.
He said “zero-based budgeting” would bring sorely lacking budget transparency and cost control to Harrisburg, saying state government suffers from “breathtaking” waste, fraud and abuse. He also stressed the importance of tackling problems such as the opioid crisis and veteran suicide.
Ellsworth touted her track record of leading western Pennsylvanian organizations that transformed the region from “dead in the water” to a vibrant, livable region. That transformation “can and should and must be done in every corner” of the state, she said.
All three pledged to reform taxes, rein in spending and stem or reverse Wolf’s policies. Mango and Wagner said they support eliminating school property taxes altogether. Ellsworth said she supports reducing them but that substituting taxes that are sensitive to the business cycle risks destabilizing education funding.
All three candidates said they favor reining in the Legislature’s cost. Wagner and Ellsworth support reducing the number of legislators, but Mango said he doesn’t because it could give rural constituencies less access.
Asked if nursing home regulations are adequate to prevent abuses, Mango said the homes are badly overregulated and should be freed to innovate. Wagner said the state Department of Human Services should adopt a more collaborative approach and stop treating every nursing home inspection as a “gotcha” opportunity.
Ellsworth said she would like to create more opportunities for seniors to age at their homes.
Mango questioned Wagner’s bona fides to clean up Harrisburg, citing a $3,500 penalty the senator recently paid to settle the Philadelphia Board of Ethics allegation that he had violated city campaign law by making two excess contributions to GOP district attorney candidate Beth Grossman.
Wagner said he had followed his elections compliance attorney’s advice in how he made the donations and made a “business decision” to pay the fine rather than spend an estimated $50,000 to $100,000 to fight it.
“I gave the money legally,” he said, to which Mango replied: “You broke the law, senator.”
In his closing statement, Mango said Pennsylvanians “want to be winners again” and that he “scrapped” his way to leadership in the military, school and in his business career.
Wagner said he’s created thousands of jobs and issued millions of paychecks, that he knows what it takes to build a business and how regulations hurt business owners. The state needs a governor who’s a “fighter and a survivor” like him, he said.
Ellsworth said she isn’t bothered by her financial disadvantage relative to the other two.
“It’s up to the voters,” she said, “not the wallets of the people up here. ... This race is not for sale.”