Wednesday, May 19, 2010

For governor: Two lawyers from Allegheny County

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato gives his victory speech at IBEW Local Union No. 5 on the South Side after winning the Democratic nomination for governor yesterday.

Pennsylvania's race for governor will be a faceoff between two Allegheny County lawyers who promised to bring budget discipline to Harrisburg after fulfilling their front-runner perceptions with comfortable nomination victories.

Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett easily turned aside a challenge from Rep. Sam Rohrer, R-Berks, while Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato outdistanced three rivals for the Democratic nomination including his Allegheny County neighbor, Auditor General Jack Wagner, state Sen. Anthony Williams, whose regional appeal and abundant late spending added some suspense to the final weeks of the Democratic contest, and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel.

Mr. Onorato praised each of his rivals as he accepted his nomination Tuesday night in his South Side headquarters.

"I am the Harrisburg outsider in this race,'' he proclaimed, promising to balance the state's ailing budget and change the "toxic Harrisburg culture.''

From his election night headquarters Downtown, Mr. Corbett said that "Tonight, we start a new journey to begin to take Pennsylvania back.''

Echoing the small government pledge of his campaign, he told the crowd, "I'm taking tax increases off the table."

And like his new opponent, he promised to confront the culture of the Capitol, saying he would remind the governing establishment that "it's your money, not theirs."

Bucks County Commissioner Jim Cawley, the endorsed candidate of the state Republican Party, prevailed in the GOP's crowded race for lieutenant governor. In a potential upset, State Rep. H. Scott Conklin was leading a close battle with Jonathan Saidel, the former Philadelphia city controller, who had been endorsed by the Democratic Party's state committee.

Their victories set the stage for a general election debate on the future of a state facing a confluence of crisis-level financial challenges from schools to pensions to transportation. At the same time, both gubernatorial candidates have shown a willingness to nationalize the issues of the general election. Mr. Corbett denounced the policies of both the Obama and Rendell administration last night. The Republican has also courted conservative support with his decision to join fellow state attorneys general -- several of whom are also running for higher office -- in challenging the constitutionality of the Obama administration's health care plan.

At one election eve rally, Mr. Onorato said he was eager to join that conversation, vowing to put Mr. Corbett on the defensive for opposing the measure's consumer protections.

Both candidates come to the general election with established public records and demonstrated vote-getting and fundraising abilities.

Mr. Corbett, 60, won a comfortable re-election victory in 2008 in the Democratic tide that swamped many other GOP candidacies. Mr. Onorato, 49, raced to the top of southwestern Pennsylvania politics with stints as a city councilman and the county controller before ousting Jim Roddey from the county's top job. Despite a tough budget situation and chronic controversy over property tax assessments, he consolidated his political position so solidly that he won re-election without opposition.

Despite their successful track records, however, neither could claim to be a household name in the state. In the final Quinnipiac University survey before the primary, Mr. Onorato was well ahead of his Democratic rivals, but even after his campaign had spent millions in television advertising, more than half of the state's voters said they didn't know enough about him to express either of favorable or unfavorable opinion of him. Mr. Corbett was a similarly blank slate to more than a third of the state's voters.

The matchup is at least superficially similar to the last time that both parties nominated Allegheny County residents for governor. In 1978, Dick Thornburgh, another GOP prosecutor, faced Pete Flaherty, another relatively conservative Democrat who attained popularity as a local government chief executive.

In a Quinnipiac survey released on May 13, Mr. Corbett led 43 percent to 37 percent, the narrowest margin of the trial heats between the two that the Quinnipiac researchers have been conducting for the last several months. Both candidates did well with their partisan bases, but Mr. Corbett had a significant advantage, 42 percent to 29 percent among independents.

Mr. Onorato was comfortably ahead in the heavily Democratic county where both make their homes. But Mr. Corbett had an advantage in the vote-rich suburban counties that surround Philadelphia. Those communities, once GOP bedrock, have been drifting into the Democratic column in statewide and presidential elections.

If Mr. Corbett could reassert the once reliable Republican advantage in those suburbs, it would vastly complicate Mr. Onorato's path to Harrisburg.

Based on the popularity he established as mayor of Philadelphia, Gov. Ed Rendell capitalized on and accelerated the southeast's Democratic shift. Mr. Onorato's campaign has demonstrated its appreciation for the importance of those communities from the moment he declared for the race with a cross-state tour that began in Philadelphia rather than the more traditional choice of his own hometown.

Mr. Corbett has won headlines with a string of prosecutions of Harrisburg improprieties. That attention will continue as more high-profile trials get under way. But the shift to a general election will brighten the spotlight on Mr. Corbett's policy positions as well. He was the consensus choice of the GOP's hierarchy.

Mr. Rohrer, a Harrisburg budget hawk, sought to tap into the political energy of the Tea Party movement, portraying himself as the more authentic conservative in the race. But Mr. Corbett protected his right flank, courting Tea Party support himself and signing the no-new-tax pledge promoted by Grover Norquist, the national conservative activist.

In late returns, Mr. Corbett was well ahead of Mr. Rohrer in all but three counties. The only one in which Mr. Rohrer led by a substantial margin was in his Berks County home.

Mr. Onorato went into the Democratic competition with the best-prepared, best-funded campaign, and while his less than overwhelming statewide name recognition remains vulnerability, he never looked back. The executive had a modest lead in early polling of the race, and that advantage soared once his television advertising debuted.

For weeks, he had no real competition in the overwhelmingly important airwaves until Mr. Williams broke the mold of state spending and fundraising. A handful of hedge fund managers from the Philadelphia region poured millions of dollars into the Williams campaign, allowing him to attack the front-runner while promoting his unconventional -- for a Democrat -- school choice proposals.

In the end, however, Mr. Williams spending bought him only a third-place finish, carrying only his Philadelphia base.

Mr. Wagner was the Democratic runner-up, leading in only three smaller counties, while Mr. Hoeffel trailed the field, finishing first only in his Montgomery County home.

In their Allegheny County base, Mr. Onorato ran ahead of Mr. Wagner, 52 percent to 37 percent -- a long delayed payback for Mr. Wagner's defeat of Mr. Onorato in a 1994 state senate race, the only election that Mr. Onorato has ever lost.

By James O'Toole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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