As Republican challenger Scott Wagner and Democratic incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf sparred this summer over the number of debates to be held during this race, Wagner prodded his opponent with an accusation that the citizens of Pennsylvania had barely heard from the governor, in contrast to his own extensive travels of the state.
Wagner sought a debate in each of the state’s 67 counties, but Wolf ultimately agreed to just one, held Monday night in Hershey. As to whether the citizens of the state feel like they’ve sufficiently heard where the governor stands on the issues, that may still be an open question after celebrity moderator Alex Trebek took the unusual tack of dominating the conversation.
According to an analysis of the hourlong debate by Watchdog.org, the “Jeopardy” host did 41 percent of the talking, eschewing the typical moderator task of simply providing cues for the candidates to expound on the issues. Wagner, a York County businessman and former state senator, was the second-most featured speaker at 32 percent, and Wolf brought up the rear at just 27 percent.
Trebek, who promised at the outset that the event would be a “conversation” instead of a traditional debate, brought up the topic of the number of debates – focusing on Wagner’s offer rather than Wolf’s unwillingness to do more than one.
“Wait a minute, let’s get serious about this,” Trebek asked Wagner. “You knew that was not going to happen. Now were you just having fun, or were you’re trying to stick it to him to put him on defense?”
“The people of Pennsylvania want to hear from the governor,” Wagner replied. “They want to talk about issues, and there are a lot of issues. The people, the mothers and fathers that have had a loved one die of heroin or opioid addiction, they want to talk to the governor.”
On the topic of opioids, Wolf tried to reckon with accusations that he had vetoed a bill to address the crisis at the behest of campaign donors making money off of opioid sales.
“I didn’t want politicians to interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, especially knowing that some of the people, some of the patients who have been affected the most were police and firemen,” he said. “And those are the folks who get the worst injuries.”
Trebek accused the candidates of engaging in negativity that would drive voters away from both of them.
“If we … were to believe everything you’ve said about each other, we’d have trouble voting for either one of you,” he said. “We’d go into the voting booth and we’d say, ‘Oh, my God, where’s the line that says … none of the above?’”
In a series of pointed but fairly collegial exchanges as they sat inches apart on high stools, Wolf and Wagner continued to hit at each other’s records on education. As he has throughout the campaign, Wolf claimed credit for the state’s increased funding for education during his term, while Wagner continued to assert that the governor could hardly take credit for measures that were part of budgets he refused to sign over the years.
On the topic of the death penalty, Wolf said he would continue to defer to the opinions of a bipartisan commission that recommended a moratorium on the practice, while Trebek sparred with Wagner over the latter’s support for mandatory death sentences for killings on school grounds.
“Alex, a life is a life,” Wagner said, expressing as much frustration with the moderator as with his actual opponent in the Nov. 6 election. “And someone needs to stand up for someone who has lost a loved one, and the victim.”
Later, Wagner and Trebek clashed again on the topic of public pensions. As Wagner insisted that major pension reform was still needed, saying that recent legislation was insufficient to address the problem, the moderator seemed to question whether Wagner was advocating for taking pensions away from those who already have those benefits.
“It’s an obligation, and you have to recognize that and you have to satisfy that obligation,” Trebek said.
“Alex, I do recognize that, and we have to solve this problem,” he said. “Listen, I had school teachers coming to my office when I was in the Senate, retired school teachers, ‘Please don’t take our pensions away.’ The government sector unions, corrections officers, school teachers, are all telling their members, ‘Wagner gets elected, he’s going to take your pensions away.’ That’s not true.”
Wolf also found himself arguing with Trebek, this time on the topic of the state budget.
“You have a structural deficit in this state,” Trebek said. “You guys balance the budget by drawing on one-time elements.”
“Actually, that’s not true,” Wolf said. “We actually have a balanced budget. There was a one-time, a big one-time deposit in our budget last year, because we had a lot of one-time elements in that structural deficit. But we have a balanced budget at the end of last year.”
After just over an hour of watching the candidates debate Trebek as much as each other – not to mention digressions by the game show host on the Catholic priest abuse scandal and Wolf’s proposed severance tax – the audience attending the Pennsylvania Chamber-hosted event booed loudly when Trebek announced that the conversation was coming to an end.
“What did I tell you guys at the beginning?” Trebek said, chastising the crowd. “No booing or hissing.”
“I think they were booing you,” Wolf said.
For a transcript of the Wagner-Wolf debate, click here.