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GOP Gubernatorial Stakes Grow With Pittsburgh Lawyer's Entry

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The Republican race for the nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's re-election bid drew a third contestant Tuesday with the entry of Laura Ellsworth, a lawyer who ran her firm's office in Pittsburgh and has played a prominent role in steering the city's civic and business institutions.

It is the 59--year-old Ellsworth's first run for public office, after years spent raising money for Republican candidates and serving in prominent positions at the intersection of public policy and the private sector, including gubernatorial appointments.

Her campaign is casting her as a no-nonsense problem solver for a state government riven by dysfunction and a state economy that's been one of the slowest growing in recent decades.

"The No. 1 issue for us is going to be jobs and improving the economic climate in Pennsylvania, and doing it in a way that breaks through all the paralysis that's going on up there," Ellsworth said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Ellsworth is entering the race at one of the most dysfunctional moments in state government budgeting since the recession. Wolf and the Republican-controlled Senate have cooperated on a revenue package for the state's deficit-ridden finances that leaned heavily on borrowing, but the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has balked at raising taxes as part of it.

Without singling out Wolf or lawmakers, Ellsworth said she "cannot sit and watch as the people of the state are being driven over a fiscal cliff."

If Ellsworth wins the nomination in the May primary, she'd be the first woman on Pennsylvania's general election ballot for governor since then-Republican Auditor General Barbara Hafer lost the 1990 contest.

Already running are York County state Sen. Scott Wagner and former health care systems consultant Paul Mango of suburban Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, state House Speaker Mike Turzai, also of suburban Pittsburgh, has been silent for months about his plans after saying publicly in the spring that he was seriously considering running.

The primary campaign will cost millions: Wagner, who built two municipal waste-hauling companies and currently owns the $65 million Penn Waste operation, reported loaning his campaign $4 million.

Wolf, 68, is seeking a second four-year term, and the former CEO of his family's building products supplier appears thus far to have a united Democratic Party behind him.

For 12 years, Ellsworth ran Jones Day's Pittsburgh office, with about 70 lawyers there. In 2015, she took on a post as the firm's first partner-in-charge of global community service initiatives to head up public service projects that including combatting human trafficking and helping military veterans get access to legal services.

She also has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, including the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Zoo.

Ellsworth pitches herself as an anti-politician, but she comes to the race with more establishment credentials than Mango or Wagner. She was active in raising campaign contributions for party incumbents, chaired the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and served as an appointee of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to various boards.

Ellsworth also may provide Republicans with ideological variety in the primary election. She said she supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich in Pennsylvania's presidential primary election, and wrote in his name in last November's presidential election.

Her $1,000 campaign contribution to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2015 has raised some eyebrows, and she also contributed to Barack Obama's campaign for president in 2007 and 2008.

Business people, like herself, write checks to different candidates for different reasons, Ellsworth said, noting that President Donald Trump himself once donated to Clinton.

"Anybody who watched the last election and watched Trump knows that business people write checks to people of both parties," Ellsworth said.