PHILADELPHIA — Democrats who are vying for the party's nomination to run for governor are positioning themselves to run on issues including expanding Medicaid, extending kindergarten to full day and increasing the minimum wage.
One candidate, John Hanger, is advocating the legalization of marijuana, and roused a crowd of loyal Democrats at a Saturday night forum organized by labor unions and Philadelphia civic organizations by pointing to it as an example of a wasteful mass incarceration that predominantly targets blacks and jams prisons.
Hanger and four other candidates appeared together at Temple University's Performing Arts Center for the forum, which marked one of the first major events at which the Democrats appeared together.
In general, there were few gaps in policy stances: They expressed solid support for labor unions, public sector pensions and Medicaid expansion under the 2010 federal health care law. They also touted their support for fuller funding of public schools and often made it into an economic argument by linking it to a better trained and educated workforce.
Instead, the candidates made the case for themselves and trained their fire on Corbett — with whom they have substantial policy disagreements — rather than each other.
"But it is not a surprise that there is an absence of this governor," U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz said of an empty chair at the forum reserved for Corbett. "He has been absent on the values that we share and the priorities that we are committed to. ... We need a different governor to be great again."
Organizers said Corbett declined to attend.
Other participants included state Treasurer Rob McCord, former state Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf and former state Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty. The primary election is May 20. The deadline for filing nominating petitions is March 11 and the first deadline to report campaign finances to the state is Dec. 31.
All five were asked to speak on topics including education, jobs, health care and retirement security.
Some candidates raised the issue of boosting the minimum wage or funding the extension of public school kindergarten to full days. Perhaps in a nod to the state government's tight finances, a couple candidates touted cutting funding for charter and cyber charter schools or raising taxes on the state's natural gas drilling industry.
Wolf, who called himself "the only Ph.D. forklift operator in York County" where he runs a major building products supplier, and McCord, a one-time venture capitalist, touted their private sector experience in expanding businesses.
They also raised intensely personal stories: for Hanger, the suicide of his 23-year-old son, and for McGinty, the death of her 94-year-old father, a former Philadelphia police officer.
Some were embraced more warmly than others, and rafter-raising speeches by McCord and Hanger brought the crowd to life.
Hanger, a former state environmental protection secretary and state utility regulator, said the criminalization of marijuana and the high rate of blacks being arrested for it is why Pennsylvania's "schools-to-jails pipeline is full."
"Well that woke everyone up," said the moderator, the Rev. Mark Tyler, after the cheering died down.
The candidates did not, however, endorse a halt to natural gas drilling, even after two anti-drilling activists charged the stage holding a sign that read, "Good governors don't frack the people," and posed for photos behind the seated candidates.