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Corman gets boost from top Trump advisor during Pittsburgh visit

Kellyanne Conway urges a crowd of Republican faithful to support Jake Corman for governor at a Bethel Park hotel ballroom on Feb. 28
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Kellyanne Conway urges a crowd of Republican faithful to support Jake Corman for governor at a Bethel Park hotel ballroom on Feb. 28.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jake Corman came to Pittsburgh’s South Hills on Monday, arguing that in a crowded Republican field, he alone knew both how to work effectively within the system and challenge it. And at an evening town hall, he was joined by Kellyanne Conway, the longtime advisor to President Donald Trump, who had tough words not just for Democrats but for one of Corman’s GOP rivals.

Corman is “somebody who’s done this before,” Conway told a gathering of roughly 100 supporters in a Bethel Park hotel ballroom. “He's not afraid to stand on conservative principles and make those tough decisions, was not afraid to take on Tom Wolf himself.”

At a time when Republicans seem willing to upend the political status quo, Corman’s resume might seem suboptimal: He’s the top Republican in the state Senate, with a quarter-century tenure in office and a father who also served for more than two decades in Harrisburg. But he and Conway, who joined his campaign in January, argued he had been a conservative champion.

“We're going to need a governor who is not afraid to stand up to Joe Biden and those liberal elites,” Corman said. “And that is something I will continue to fight for.”

Predictably, he and Conway had tough words for President Biden, Gov. Wolf, and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who almost certainly will be the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee. Conway, for one, called Shapiro a “star of stage and screen on MSNBC” who “wakes up every day and finds a new way to take away your personal liberties. … You do the country a favor by making sure that these activist left-wing attorneys do not get a promotion.”

But Conway also criticized a rival gubernatorial candidate: state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a firebrand who was present at the scene of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the nation’s Capitol.

“Other people can talk and they can preen like peacocks, and they can walk around and say, ‘Donald Trump just called me and I'm doing this and I'm doing that.’ … There is a guy I don't know that I've ever met him — maybe I have, I don't really remember — Doug Mastriano, who's feasting on that," she said. "He's feasting on that, but it turns out he's a show horse. … [B]elieve me, as somebody who talks regularly with President Trump, if you do, you don't have to say you do.”

Mastriano and Corman have long been at odds regarding a probe of the 2020 election, with Mastriano accusing Corman of hamstringing his efforts to audit the results. Corman has said Mastriano was just posturing and handed a Senate investigation to state Senator Chris Dush.

No evidence of widespread fraud in 2020 has ever been produced. But many Republican insiders fear Mastriano is so polarizing a figure that he could cost Republicans the election. While polls have shown both men trailing former Congressman Lou Barlettain the Republican primary, Mastriano’s dedicated core of supporters might carry a race in which a dozen candidates run.

Conway later told a pair of reporters that “a record needs to be subtly and politely corrected, that if people are misleading the voters that they are the one talking to Trump about X, Y and Z, you need to produce.”

As for Barletta, who was one of Trump’s earliest supporters, Conway said, “I enjoyed very much campaigning in Pennsylvania in 2016 with Congressman Barletta. He's a great guy. … But he lost in 2018 [in a challenge to incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Casey] by 13 points.

Asked whether Trump would endorse in the race, Conway said he “very well may because he recognizes how important these governorships are … and this is a state that's very near and dear to President Trump.”

In the meantime, Corman is touting a record of fighting Democrats on a number of fronts, such as resisting Wolf’s previous tax-hike proposals, joining a group of parents in an ultimately successful lawsuit to challenge the state’s mask mandate in schools and fighting widespread mail-in voting.

The last topic is delicate for Corman, who like most Harrisburg Republicans (including Mastriano) backed the 2019 law that enabled voting by mail — which Trump and others have since denounced. Asked about the issue Monday night, Corman said agreeing to mail-in voting was a “mistake on our part.”

He characterized it as a trade-off to remove a straight-party voting option from the ballot — which many believe helps Democrats in down-ballot races. Corman said Republicans expected voting by mail to produce “a small-blip increase” in Democratic turnout, but he said the Wolf administration had opened the floodgates to count what he saw as dubious ballots, including those deposited in drop boxes, which weren’t provided for in the legislation.

Now, Corman said, widespread mail-in ballots “should be eliminated. There's no need for it. And as I'm governor, we will eliminate it.”

Earlier in the day, Corman hosted a roundtable discussion on education in Bethel Park with a half-dozen area parents who voiced a range of concerns about masking policies and efforts to teach issues such as race and history. Upper St. Clair resident Tara Kennedy, for example, expressed misgivings about “materials that a lot of our left-leaning teachers have implemented.”

After watching students learn at home during the coronavirus shutdowns, Kennedy said, “you were able to identify teachers that are very biased, and they didn't they weren't interested in teaching your child how to think: They were interested in teaching your child what to think.”

Corman said that “my goal as governor is to restore power back to the people that allow people locally to determine their futures … and how they want to educate.” That means doing more to help parents access charter and private schools, he said, and also encouraging vocational programs — a goal that might include converting Pennsylvania’s struggling state-supported universities into job-training centers.

As for curriculum concerns, Corman allowed that educators should teach both the good and bad of America’s history. Still, he said, “at some point they can't be violating, even through the local process, parents' and children's rights. And teaching certain things like that, to me, goes above and beyond a local decision.”

It’s not clear what that intervention would entail, or what kind of curriculum might trigger it. Corman told WESA that while he favored local control of schools, “If there are certain areas which we believe that a school board or multiple school boards go past and starts infringing on people’s rights, then we should look into that and possibly prevent that.”

He added a key first step would be compelling school districts to post their curriculum online, a proposal passed by the legislature but vetoed by Wolf.

Asked how he would know such an intervention was warranted, he said, “It’s like anything else: I guess it’s when you see it.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.