GOP gubernatorial candidates face off in Pa. debate

HARRISBURG — Three Republican candidates for governor squared off Thursday night in a wide-ranging debate that covered such key topics as gun control, sexual-assault policies, and how closely they would align themselves with President Trump.

Laura Ellsworth, an attorney from the Pittsburgh area; Allegheny County health-care consultant Paul Mango; and State Sen. Scott Wagner of York faced off at the Harrisburg Area Community College in their first public matchup since House Speaker Mike Turzai dropped out of the race last month.

All three received loud, supportive cheers at various points during the debate, which was sponsored by the Patriot-News and local TV station CBS21. The primary is May 15.

Here are a few takeaways from the debate:

  • Asked about gun control and background checks in light of the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Wagner said that he wants to know whether current background-check requirements are being properly enforced and that he wants “an armed, highly trained officer in every school.” Ellsworth said she would like to put swipe cards (such as the ones used to get into hotel rooms or federal buildings) and metal detectors in every school. Mango said that he wants better resources for screening and diagnosing mental illness and that he would like such a  diagnosis to prevent individuals from getting firearms.
  • Asked later whether they would accept donations from the National Rifle Association, Wagner and Mango said yes, and Ellsworth said no.
  • Asked whether a legislator should resign immediately upon allegations of sexual or physical assault and what they would do to ensure a safe environment, all three candidates said they would have a zero-tolerance policy. None of them used the word resign. Wagner and Mango both said taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to settle claims or lawsuits alleging sexual assault.
  • Asked about how closely they would be aligned with Trump or his administration, Wagner said: “I supported Donald Trump from Day 1” and that he expects the president will campaign for him since he won the state Republican Party’s endorsement. Mango said he voted for Trump twice and would welcome the chance to campaign with him. Ellsworth said she appreciated Trump’s work on deregulation, veterans’ issues, and the tax bill. But she also said the governor’s primary responsibility is to represent the people of Pennsylvania and “I think nobody can ever be quiet about matters of principle that are important to them.”
  • Asked about ways to change the state’s process for drawing congressional maps, Ellsworth called for the legislature to create a bipartisan commission of citizens to set district boundaries. Mango disagreed, saying the legislature should draw the map, and Wagner repeated prior statements that he believes the state Supreme Court overstepped its bounds when it ruled that the map drafted in 2011 was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.
  • On some issues, all three candidates agreed. All said they oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use. All three said they were “pro-life,” with Ellsworth and Wagner specifically stating they supported a state Senate bill that would have made it illegal to have an abortion starting in the 20th week of pregnancy, four weeks earlier than the current cutoff. That bill passed the Republican-controlled legislature and was vetoed by Gov. Wolf. Mango did not reference the bill during the debate but said afterward he would support such a measure.
  • Asked what kind of beer they would serve at their victory party, Mango and Wagner said Yuengling, and Ellsworth said Iron City.