Could Montel Williams become PA’s next outside money heavyweight?

montel williams cropBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Today in “Sentences We Never Thought We’d Type,” here is this:

Montel Williams is threatening election challenges to Pennsylvania lawmakers over a pending vote on medical marijuana legalization.

The celebrity, who has multiple sclerosis and uses marijuana as a treatment, earlier this year partnered with advocates in Harrisburg in their fight to get marijuana legalized for medical purposes in Pennsylvania.

Since a key House committee moved the legislation forward, Williams and his team released a statement saying they’ll advertise against lawmakers who oppose marijuana legalization.

The statement particularly calls out GOP lawmakers, and calls on those who believe in legalization to prevent limiting amendments, such as a cap on THC quantities:

Mr. Williams and his partners are prepared to commit significant resources in the next cycle to mount and finance primary (and general) election challenges against members who don’t stand up for sick and suffering Pennsylvanians by passing REASONABLE legislation based in science.

We are further prepared to commit resources to television and radio advertisements to make sure voters know which legislators were willing to stand with those sick and suffering.  Naturally the converse is true, along with our partners and a diverse grassroots coalition of Pennsylvanians, we will stand behind those members of the House GOP caucus who show political courage.

With the Republican party possibly still reeling from its Election Day smackdown on the Supreme Court, and legislators continuing to fight for their policy priorities with the Wolf administration in an ongoing budget battle, hearing about possible challenges and expensive campaigns over this issue might not be taken lightly. Or, perhaps they’ll see the Emmy-winning talk show host as all talk.

Proving that Williams is paying attention to all the headlines related to this issue, his released ended on a snarky note – in reference to a PennLive.com story about Republican Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, getting over-emotional in a caucus meeting on the topic, it said:

“Speaker Turzai there is no need for tears when meeting the needs of sick and suffering Pennsylvanians.”

Pennsylvania’s Gov. Wolf is half-OK, poll finds

Tom WolfBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Most American governors are held in good favor by their constituents – and half of Pennsylvanians seem to like Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf received a 50 percent approval rating in a state-by-state gubernatorial survey from Morning Consult, putting him – with Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin – right on the cusp of the majority of U.S. governors who have an approval rating of 50 percent or higher.

Nationally speaking, the survey found 34 of the nation’s governors have approval ratings at or above 50 percent; 16 have approval ratings higher than 60 percent.

As far as Pennsylvania is concerned, the results appear 10 months into Wolf’s first year as governor and nearly five months into a budget impasse. Previous polls showed more voters blamed the legislature than they did Wolf for the impasse that’s putting schools and social service agencies against the wall financially without their relied-upon state appropriations.

Electorate responses to Wolf, Morning Consult explains, may be linked to his relative newness:

On the other hand, voters appear to give the benefit of the doubt to governors who have only recently won office: Less than a year into their terms, Baker, Hogan, Alaska’s Walker, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) all have approval ratings north of 59 percent. Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) both have approval ratings over 50 percent.

More experienced governors who have enjoyed a bigger stage because of presidential runs, the poll notes, have less favor. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have approval ratings of just 40 percent; Louisiana’s Gov.  Bobby Jindal nets just 35 percent, while Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich is the most well-liked among his presidential aspirant peers at 46 percent.

PA good government groups push voting access laws

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

A group of good-government and community-building advocates are calling for laws that make it easier to vote in Pennsylvania.

Pointing to the rather dismal 28 percent voter turnout during the Nov. 3 general election, the newly created Keystone Votes coalition wants to lobby lawmakers to pass four voting access laws, including:

  • Excuse-free absentee ballots
  • In-person early voting
  • Pre-registration for teenagers
  • Same day registration

The 30 organizations comprising Keystone Votes – including Common Cause Pennsylvania, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh United and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania – said Pennsylvania is one of just nine states that doesn’t have a single one of those reforms.

Susan Carty, board president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, said these are the kind of policies that “make voting work for modern voters at every stage of life.”

Could allowing more ways to register and vote increase the number of ballots cast? Sure, the advocates said. Think of the parents who work jobs far from their home who under current law can’t do a mail-in ballot, or the elderly who can’t get a ride on demand.

Each of these reforms has been tried and tested in other states, they say:  in the case of same-day registration, 12 states plus Washington, D.C., allow it, dating back to the 1970s. About 30 allow for in-person early voting.

But that doesn’t mean these reforms will appeal to lawmakers in Harrisburg.

Election reform in Pennsylvania has a history of taking a long time. Earlier this year, the commonwealth joined more than two dozen other states when the Department of State began online voter registration after Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order to do so.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause, said conversations to create such a system began shortly after Arizona created one back in 2002. He said the Corbett administration had the technology ready to go and was just waiting to get the go-ahead.

This next batch of voting reforms, similarly, might take awhile to catch on, but the advocates will start by reaching out to lawmakers to get the issues on their radar. Keystone Votes said they envision younger generations of lawmakers – of both parties – getting behind these proposals as “common sense” reforms.

“Election code bills are few and far between,” Kauffman said. “We have to watch for those at every chance.”

Will Harrisburg deliver a budget by Thanksgiving?

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Now that Pennsylvania’s Republican legislative leaders and Democratic governor are reaching compromises on school funding, pensions and liquor law reform, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration sees “a light at the end of the tunnel” for the five-month state budget impasse that’s left Pennsylvania with partisan gridlock and no spending plan.

It’s a “framework” they say, but how long until the details are finalized? How long until there’s an actual budget?

We took to Twitter and found that 71 percent of the 58 respondents didn’t think the budget would be done by Thanksgiving.

md01

Overly pessimistic, or realistic? We received some fun responses from our friends at WESA and The Associated Press, among others:

md02

We’re not sure if betting on outcomes of legislation is illegal in this state, but if it’s anything like Draft Kings, it probably could be soon.

GOP Debate offers substance, highlights differences

BY SALENA ZITO  szito@tribweb.com

The big winner of Tuesday night’s debate was the Republican Party. The candidates were impressive, engaged, detailed on their different views of how government would work best and left you with the impression that several potential presidents were on stage.

As suspected, the in-depth policy debate swallowed-up both outsider insurgent candidates Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson.

“They are not shallow people, but the depth of candidates like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul make them seem that way in comparison,” explained Bruce Haynes, GOP media expert and founding partner of Washington-based Purple Strategies. “Carson did help himself by soundly defending his integrity, and his innate advantages of strength and humility still came through, but tonight showed why those qualities may not be enough to make him or Donald President.”

Tonight was likely the beginning of both Trump and Carson settling back into the field in the polls and Rubio – possibly others – growing support.

“Rubio is just silly good,” said Democratic strategist Dane Strother, who said Rubio had an interesting gaffe when he first said the most important job anyone of us will ever do is being a parent, then he repeated it and said the most important job any of us could have is the job of being president.

Strother said Rubio’s “pro-family tax code” statement was solid.

“The winner on the stage was Marco Rubio,” said Haynes, “He didn’t run away and hide tonight like he did in some other forums, but he maintained his momentum and sustained the growing narrative that he is the strongest potential nominee the party can offer.”

Rubio was solid sharing his generational narrative, his unique perspective and his strength on foreign policy, said Haynes: “I suspect we will continue to see more endorsements and financial support moving his way in the days and weeks ahead.”

Most of the other candidates had very good nights as well.  A focused policy debate allowed the group to demonstrate intellectual and ideological depth, passionately but politely highlighting differences where they occurred.

“The real Jeb Bush showed up tonight, the one that gives a damn and acts like he wants to be president,” said Haynes. “He wasn’t perfect, but there was more passion and strong policy chops on display.”

Now we see if this is one good night, or the beginning of Bush’s own surge that reframes his campaign.

Strother disagreed, saying Bush is done. “The Republican race became all about debating ability, boiling the race down to snippets and sound bites and ability to jump in. Jeb never made the case that the same family should have three people in a quarter of a century run our country,” he said.

There were plenty of substantive exchanges and differences during the debate, more so than the other three combined, showing sharp differences within the Republican field on a host of issues.

Former HP tech executive Fiorina supported a more strident foreign policy, sharply criticizing Trump on Putin.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul found both his voice and his stride with his libertarian-leaning belief that restraint should be used in U.S. military interventions overseas. “You can be strong without being involved in every civil war around the world,” Paul said.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, took on the mostly silent Trump for his “silly argument” to deport 11 million illegal immigrants. “Come on, folks, we all know you can’t pick them up and ship them back across the border. It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument,” Kasich said.

“John Kasich is a smart man and a great governor, but his awkwardness as a political candidate was on full display tonight,” said Haynes, “He had cringe worthy moments at times, and what should have been a good night for him fell far short of his needs.”

Strother said Kasich probably should have been put in timeout for poor behavior, but on substance he made himself the executive in the race.

While Ted Cruz had the gaffe of the night, mentioning the Department of Commerce twice among the five bureaucracies he would eliminate, a gaffe strikingly similar to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s whoopsie moment of the 2012 primary when he failed to remember all of the bureaucracies he would eliminate. But Cruz redeemed the gaffe by delivering the line of the night when – in the heat of a debate over whether to curtail or increase military spending – he said: “You think defending this nation is expensive? Try not defending it!”

Rubio was calm, witty and regimented in a good way — he was ready to show he was going to live up to the hype and down-play whispers he’s not ready for the job.

Cruz was strident taking on Hillary Clinton, more so than any other candidate. He was also very specific in his policy answers, sometimes perhaps too much so, but he proved himself a gifted debater.

Both men will continue to grow after Tuesday’s event; so will Fiorina, while Trump and Carson will start to fade.

Which leaves us with the undercard champ Chris Christie, who owned the event by projecting his candidacy as the true warrior to take on Hillary Clinton. All in all, there were two great debates, full of substance and personality, that highlighted real differences between the differences between candidates.

Why the ‘little kids’ debate is perfect for Christie and Jindal

BY SALENA ZITO  szito@tribweb.com

Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal – both relegated to the ‘kids table’ for this week’s Fox Business Network’s debate – are on solid ground to gain the most out of the event Tuesday in Milwaukee… seriously.

Not being on stage for the prime time debate with Donald Trump, et al, benefits them more than it hurts them.

For Jindal it means he gets to not only come out from the shadow of Sen. Lindsay Graham’s southern zingers (Graham was cut entirely) but he also has the opportunity to showcase his policy chops with another policy wonk: Christie, who was downgraded this week to the earlier forum.

For Christie the downgrade is a gift, and he wisely knows that – if he did not he would have pitched a diva fit and that is all anyone would have remembered — instead he treated it like a major league player who had caught a string of bad luck and was sent down to AAA to shake it off.

Only the best are able to do that with grace and determination, and that is exactly what Christie did when he got the news.

“I’m not a whiner or a moaner about the rules… I’m going to show up on Tuesday night and I’m going to debate who they put on the stage with me, whether it’s on the main stage or on the kid’s stage, it doesn’t matter because what matters is the state of the American people, what the leadership is you’re going to provide, so – you know – I’ll show up wherever I’m told to show up on Tuesday night, and I will debate, and I will make an impression because that’s what we’re doing,” Christie told talk show radio host Laura Ingram.

You want to get out of the minors, you have to show up at the game with your game face on and play to win.

Because of the populist streak running through the electorate, the race for the GOP party’s nominee has been dominated by Donald Trump, but it’s fluid below the surface, which is actually normal. At this time in 2008, Hillary Clinton was 21 percentage points ahead of her closest rival — by January that had all eroded, and she eventually lost the nomination.

Christie has had a steady improvement in his popularity. His debate performance in Boulder was stellar, and he has caught on with the New Hampshire electorate, connecting with personal stories of friends he has lost to addiction.

Christie is a powerful communicator. When he gave this speech to North East Republicans in June of this year he held them spellbound for a solid forty minutes, not once reading from notes or a teleprompter.

Jindal may benefit from any disruption that happens after the revelation that Ben Carson may or may not have exaggerated his story about being offered a scholarship to West Point as a young ROTC officer in high school.

If Carson falters, keep an eye on Jindal and Ted Cruz battling it out for the evangelical vote in Iowa.

In the prime time debate watch Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush: both of them are looking to settle the score in this debate, and that will take up most of the oxygen – yet another reason why the little kids debate may be the one with the more engagement on policy and the future.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the day of this week’s debate.

PA Supreme Court race breaks its own fundraising record

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

The record-breaking spending in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court race is even higher than expected.

A total of $16.5 million was spent through the primary and general elections for three open seats, according to a post-election day tally from judicial election watchdog organizations Brennan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

The number includes spending from candidates and independent groups according to their filed state campaign finance reports and television ad purchases.

The figure, higher than the $15.8 million reported on Tuesday, includes money reported on that day. All told, it’s a higher-than-anticipated national record for spending in a judicial race – the previous record was $15.1 million in Illinois in 2004.

The prior judicial record spending in Pennsylvania was $10.5 million in 2007.

As we reported earlier this week, Democrats outspent their counterparts heavily to achieve their sweep of the three seats on the seven-member court, including backing from trial lawyers and unions.

Here’s a breakdown of who spent what, in alphabetical order:

  • Christine Donohue (D): $1,951,410.52
  • Kevin Dougherty (D): $3,984,374.93
  • David N. Wecht (D): $2,880,604.00
  • Anne Covey (R): $984,654.62
  • Michael A. George (R): $882,918.67
  • Judith Olson (R):  $616,329.70
  • Paul Panepinto (I): $234,000.00
  • Six primary losers raised a total of $1,563,619.85

Looking at just television ads, Dougherty, who has been the administrative judge at the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, booked the most of all candidates with about $3 million. Independent expenditure group Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, which aired attack ads against Republicans, spent the second-most on ads with about $2.5 million.

Republicans only saw so much outside help – the Republican State Leadership Committee booked $898,090 worth of ads, according to the report, and had said it would spend a collective $1.5 million to elect Covey, George and Olson and keep the court leaning right.

On Election Day, state Republican Party chairman Rob Gleason said the Dems’ bankroll was the reason they won. But his party will get another chance to try in 2017, when another two Supreme Court seats will open up due to sitting justices hitting the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Wonder what records will get broken that year.

PA Congressional seat likely to remain red despite Pitts’ retirement

In this March 25, 2014, file photo, Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Pitts has announced he will not seek re-election. Pitts, 76, is one of the House's most ardent conservatives on social issues such as abortion. He is also a prominent advocate for human rights. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)
In this March 25, 2014, file photo, Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Pitts has announced he will not seek re-election. Pitts, 76, is one of the House’s most ardent conservatives on social issues such as abortion. He is also a prominent advocate for human rights. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

BY SALENA ZITO  szito@tribweb.com

After ten terms representing ruby-red Pennsylvania Dutch country in the U.S. Congress, Joe Pitts is calling it quits at the age of 76. The Vietnam war veteran who flew B-52 missions in the U.S. Air force, a respected artist and former high school math teacher, announced Friday he will not seek re-election and will retire at the end of his 10th term.

“I plan to focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom, both domestic and international, as well as on matters of culture and the American family,” Pitts said in a statement announcing his retirement.

Chair of a key health panel on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Pitts pushed to pass legislation this year to fix a flawed Medicare reimbursement system for physicians.

Lancaster county commissioner Scott Martin, State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, former state representative John Bear and 2008 auditor general Chet Beiler are all in the mix as probable primary candidates for the seat on the Republican side.

In a news release Smucker said many people had already reached out to him about his future plans: “ I will be making an announcement soon regarding my own political future and, in particular, my interest in serving the people of the 16th Congressional District in Congress.  However, today is about Congressman Joe Pitts and we all should be honoring and praising him for the countless years of dedicated, tireless public service he gave our great Commonwealth.”

Pitts' congressional district (courtesy Kyle Kondik)
Pitts’ congressional district (courtesy Kyle Kondik)

The sage of all things House, Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball, Tweeted: “Rep. Joe Pitts (R, PA-16) retiring. Crystal Ball rating goes from Safe R to Likely R”

It is unlikely the seat moves blue unless there is a Democratic wave election cycle of massive proportions and the Democrats pick a moderate candidate similar to what they did in 2006 with Patrick Murphy in Bucks County.

After going for Obama in 2008, the district moved to the right, voting 52-46 for Romney in 2012.

Republicans currently hold 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional seats. Pitts is the second retirement announcement for the Republicans this year: Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick has honored his term limit pledge and will not seek reelection for his Bucks County seat.

Lone Wolf: Dem Gov Signs GOP-backed bill

Tom WolfBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Those who thought Pennsylvania’s governor would strictly favor proposals supported by his fellow Democrats and organized labor donors received something of a surprise on Thursday.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed Act 59 of 2015 into law, removing a “labor disputes” exemption for offenses of stalking, harassment and threats. The proposal has been on the to-do list of Harrisburg Republicans for some time now, and it passed both chambers this year almost perfectly along party lines.

Meaning: Nearly every Democrat (save Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, and Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County) voted against the bill that Wolf just signed.

“I believe it is important to allow men and women to come together and have their voices heard,” Wolf said in his press release announcing his signature. “I also believe that any form of harassment by employees or employers is unacceptable.”

His press office wouldn’t offer further comment or say if they had discussed his decision to sign with Democrats or unions. But we imagine there may be some shaking heads and wagging fingers.

Supports of the bill say it closes a legal loophole that allowed management or unions to escape charges of these crimes if engaged in a labor dispute. The bill passed the House in April and the Senate in late October.

The law takes effect in 60 days.

Big winner in Pennsylvania election not on the ballot: Philly’s ‘Johnny Doc’

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

One of Pennsylvania’s biggest winners in Tuesday’s election wasn’t even on the ballot.

johnny docJohn Dougherty, business manager of Philadelphia’s influential Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, cemented his role as powerful political force this cycle, following the election of his brother Judge Kevin Dougherty to the state Supreme Court and of his childhood chum Jim Kenney as Philly’s new Mayor.

Dougherty, also known as “Johnny Doc,” is also poised to head the Philadelphia Building Trades Council.

As detailed in the Tribune-Review, Dougherty’s union donated hundreds of thousands to his brother’s campaign including $250,000 in the final cycle. Why the support? Doughtery told the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Who would you support? Someone who lives 400 miles away, or your brother?” Dougherty said. “My mom raised both of us to be for each other all the time.”

It’s what brothers do, but in this case, John Dougherty can call on his union brothers, who have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Kevin Dougherty and Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney.

Kenney, the Inquirer reports, hung out in the same playground as Dougherty when they were kids. He and his brother, Dougherty recalls, used to steal Ortlieb’s beer from their dad’s icebox.

David La Torre, former press secretary to Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker and a Harrisburg-based consultant unaffiliated with IBEW 98, said Dougherty’s political network aided in his brother’s election. La Torre described Dougherty as “a gentlemen union leader” who has developed a network that creates opportunities for his members.

“When I look at the landscape toady I see the big loser as the Republican Party establishment and the big winner as Johnny Dougherty,” said La Torre. “He has friends on (Philadelphia) City Council, he grew up with the mayor, and he just helped get his brother elected to the state Supreme Court.”

“He is clearly a big winner in last night’s election,” La Torre said. “We saw years of hard work in many ways come to fruition last night.”