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I attended Monday’s gubernatorial candidate forum sponsored by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (PABJ) and black talk-radio station WURD AM. It took place at First District Plaza, a complex owned by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The candidates rolled out their African American credentials. While doing so, they name-dropped so many black political operatives that Twitter user Beard Kenny tweeted me the following: “@SolomonJones1 this is starting to sound like a contest of who has the best [people of color] story and who names the most black people who support them.”
I favorited the tweet. Then I listened as Tom Wolf, Kathleen McGinty, Rob McCord and Allyson Schwartz fielded queries from PABJ’s Nia Meeks, Nick Taliaferro of WURD, Philadelphia Tribune editor Irv Randolph, and moderator Vincent Thompson. As I listened to the candidates’ answers, I found myself drawn more to their body language than I was to their words.
Tom Wolf, who was attacked early and often for his support for former York, Pa., mayor and admitted racist Charlie Robertson, looked uncomfortable. Rob McCord, who’d endured a storm of criticism for raising the Robertson issue, looked pleased. Katie McGinty, who lags far behind the other candidates, appeared happy to finally discuss issues. Allyson Schwartz, the one-time frontrunner who now trails badly, looked earnest.
Given the reality of the race, their body language told a much more accurate story than their answers. With less than a week remaining until the Democratic primary, Tom Wolf holds a double-digit lead in the polls. But if one candidate can light a fire in Philadelphia’s African American community, thus sparking the kind of turnout that twice propelled President Obama to victory in Pennsylvania, that lead could evaporate. I didn’t hear much Monday that would make that happen.
That’s a shame, because in watching the candidates together onstage, I saw the kinds of differences you don’t see in commercials. Wolf, for example, did not appear especially forceful. He looked to me like a man who was playing with a lead and running out the clock, not a man acting boldly to cement his victory.
McCord, who clearly believes he still has a chance to win, seemed to remain on message throughout the forum. He’d clearly rehearsed his talking points, and at times he alliterated his talking points with the zeal of a preacher.
Schwartz, who clearly had a firm grasp on policy, was decidedly understated, and seemed to ramble at times.
Surprisingly, Katie McGinty seemed to shine brightest. This was true when she recounted a story about her adopted daughters from India who were banned from a neighbor’s yard because of their dark skin. It was also true when she talked about Gov. Corbett.
McGinty pointed out the walls Corbett had built that denied people opportunities, beginning with Voter ID, an issue that Corbett recently decided to abandon. McGinty didn’t stop there. She went on to name more walls she would take down as governor.
“[Corbett] has built a big wall that has kept 97,000 Pennsylvanians from medical assistance,” McGinty said. “That wall would come down. Thousands of people have been denied the nutrition assistance that they’re entitled to by Tom Corbett. That wall would come down. Now, when we’re done righting some of those wrongs, I would drive hard toward job number one that we’ve talked about and that’s education.”
McGinty said she would increase funding for education, and promised to go further. “It’s not just about the bare minimum. We’re looking at the brilliance that leads to the next Apple, the next Microsoft, in each of our kids, and each kid needs the chance to develop those talents.”
Allyson Schwartz had bright moments, too. She talked about apprenticeship programs being cut under Gov. Corbett and promised not only to restore them, but also to make sure they’re diverse. “It cannot just be all white guys,” she said. “And so we have to make sure that we hold accountable every one of our [state] job training programs, that we are training for the most skilled jobs and that all that training is attentive to diversity and that we measure that.…”
McCord, who took every opportunity to remind the audience that Wolf failed to stand up against racism when he had the opportunity to do so, closed out the forum. He said he would stand up for Pennsylvanians. Then, in a theatrical moment that was a little bit over the top, McCord stood up, while his seated opponents looked on with a sort of mild amusement.
The audience seemed to appreciate McCord’s fire. At least one person shouted “Amen!” when he finished.
Unfortunately, most Pennsylvanians won’t get the chance to see the candidates in person. They won’t see how easily and naturally McGinty elucidates her policy positions. They won’t see the excitement with which Schwartz explains her governing experience. They won’t see McCord’s confidence or his level of preparation.
When Pennsylvania Democrats step into the voting booth next Tuesday, they will only have seen the television commercials Tom Wolf began running months ago. Because Wolf had the most money, and was prepared to spend it first, I suspect that most voters will go with the name they’ve come to know.
Veteran political operatives know why that will happen: Television moves poll numbers, and television costs money.
I wish there was a way we could all look into the candidates’ eyes, without the influence of money and without the buffer of television. Perhaps then we could vote for individuals we know, and not just for the commercials we’ve seen.