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With Senate Candidates Close On Policy, Voters Look At Electability

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA
The democratic senate candidates (L-R): Braddock Mayor John Fetterman; Katie McGinty, former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf and former congressman Joe Sestak.

The three democrats vying for a chance to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey discussed their stances on the issues at Carnegie Mellon University's candidate forum on Sunday.

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, Gov. Tom Wolf’s former chief of staff Katie McGinty and former Navy Admiral and U.S. congressman Joe Sestak outlined broadly similar policy proposals to a crowd of several hundred. It's their approaches, backgrounds and personalities that set them apart.

Fetterman, though Harvard-educated, is the tattooed and plain-spoken mayor of an economically depressed former steel town. McGinty is more polished, despite having not yet won an election; she lost the democratic nomination for Pennsylvania governor to Wolf in 2014. Navy veteran Sestak is soft-spoken, data-driven and presented as more of a policy wonk than the others.

Fetterman, the lone local candidate, drew the most consistent applause. Sestak and McGinty both call Philadelphia home. He also snagged the biggest cheer of the afternoon when talking about the Syrian refugee crisis, saying that the U.S. has to do more.

“How many more 3-year-old little boys have to drown before we in this country have the moral courage to stand up and say we’re going to do the right thing?" he said. "I don’t care whether it costs me, in terms of votes, and we’re going to do this because we are America and we don’t turn our back on the most vulnerable."

Closing American borders would be paramount to dismantling Lady Liberty, he said.

"The Statue of Liberty (doesn’t) say send us your best, your brightest, your PhDs and your engineers," he said. "It says send us this little 3-year-old boy.”

McGinty said immigrants have helped make our country strong and that we should be grateful for them. Sestak agreed; he said, "We are in a fight for the soul of America."

All three candidates urged restraint with military intervention in Syria. Sestak said he didn’t want to see American troops on the ground. The military could help stop ISIS, he said, but it can’t solve the problem of ISIS. U.S. leaders and their allies need to plan for the day ISIS is defeated, Sestak said.

“The thing about using your military is before you take the first step, you should understand the last step,” he said. “It isn’t … how policy begins, it’s about how it ends, and we have not done that with ISIS.”

Fetterman countered, in his usual, plainspoken manner, that leaders can’t just “bomb the hell out of everyone.” McGinty said she supports air strikes and also wants to cut off ISIS’s resources.

On the domestic front, all three candidates vowed to address economic inequality and specifically said the phrase "black lives matter." Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley came under fire last summer when they said "all lives matter;" Bernie Sanders faced criticism when he said "Black lives matter, white lives matter, Hispanic lives matter."

On the issue of climate change, McGinty presented the most thorough policy proposal including a three-point plan to invest in renewable energy, “push the envelope on green building” and reevaluating ideals for cities' mass transit, light rail and commuter walkability.

Moderators’ questions about climate change drew the first mention of Toomey. McGinty tried to set herself apart from the incumbent, rather than her opponents in the primary.

“We have a senator, of course, in Pat Toomey who’s still part of the know-nothing crowd,” she said. “Here’s what he’s missing: when we take action on climate change, we enhance our national security, we protect public health and we grow our economy.”

Sestak called for a moratorium on fracking, which drew substantial applause. And Fetterman said he was disappointed with the Paris accord, adding that it doesn’t have enough teeth to hold countries accountable.

With all of the candidates aligning fairly closely on policy issues, voters will likely be putting a lot of weight on each candidate’ electability in the general election.

“The number one thing for me is who can win in November,” said Lawrenceville resident Tim Hyde, an economics researcher who attended the event. “These three candidates are so close to each other, relative to Senator Toomey … that I think more than any particular thing, any one of these candidates would represent my views so much better than the incumbent.”

After the forum, several others said they hadn’t made up their minds about who they’d vote for in April. Many echoed their concerns over which candidate could present the strongest front against Toomey in November.