Pennsylvania’s three candidates for the Republican nomination for governor are vying to distinguish themselves to voters as the May 15 primary election draws closer.
A debate at Harrisburg Area Community College Thursday repeatedly turned combative, as state Senator Scott Wagner, former health systems consultant Paul Mango, and lawyer Laura Ellsworth grappled over issues ranging from gun control to sexual assault to their feelings on President Donald Trump.
Notably, none of the candidates supported increasing gun control; Ellsworth advocated for metal detectors and other security protocols in schools, and Mango pushed for similar measures, plus more funding for mental health screening. Wagner said he wants to make sure current gun laws are enforced properly, and renewed a call for an armed security guard to be present in every Pennsylvania school.
Mango and Wagner both said they’d accept donations from the NRA, while Ellsworth declined, saying she favors total campaign finance reform.
All three contenders said they’re pro-life, and expressed support for a divisive bill that would reduce Pennsylvania’s legal abortion window by four weeks.
They also all indicated they more or less plan to align themselves with Trump.
One of the more contentious moments of the evening was over bathrooms.
Health systems consultant Paul Mango claimed state Senator Scott Wagner supported a bill letting transgender people use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
“He is not keeping our kids safe and secure,” Mango told a sometimes-rowdy crowd. “He’s a dangerous, ineffective liberal insider just as Tom Wolf is.”
The measure in question is a failed 2016 bill that would have protected people from job and housing discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity.
Wagner supported it at the time, though many Republicans did not. But he maintained during the debate, he absolutely doesn’t support any so-called bathroom bills.
“This is the best time to call him ‘Lying Paul,’” he said of Mango.
After the debate, Wagner clarified his position somewhat, saying he wouldn’t want to extend discrimination protections to cover public accommodations.
Those can include anything from private businesses to public schools.
“I’m not out to infringe on people’s religious beliefs,” he told reporters. “It’s down to housing and employment.”
He added, “you know, a lot of large companies are looking very closely at our anti-discrimination laws. Amazon is looking very closely; people who are going to locate here, they want to know, is this a backwards state? And we’ve got to get into the new times, so to speak.”
The debate repeatedly veered off policy entirely, and into more personal territory. At one point, it turned into a business-measuring contest between Wagner and Mango.
Wagner claimed his York County trash hauling company, Penn Waste, proves his worth as a job creator because he routinely hands out 600 paychecks.
He accused Mango of killing jobs as a consultant for the firm McKinsey and Company.
Mango shot back.
“The business I created is ten times the size of Penn Waste, just so you know,” he said.
Mango also sought to measure conservatism, declaring himself the “most conservative” candidate in the race. Responding after the debate, Wagner seemed unwilling to engage.
"I don’t think this is a competition about who’s more conservative,” he said. “Listen, it’s about who understands the issues.”
Meanwhile Ellsworth, who largely steered clear of confrontation during the debate, is branding herself as a non-ideologue.
“We have so many things that we need to get on with,” she said. “I think we would advance all of those objectives if we spent less time shouting at each other and calling each other names.”