With the exception of the presidential campaigns, the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty is the most expensive in the country. The matchup is being closely watched because it’s one that could tip the balance of power in the senate in favor of the Democrats. 90.5 WESA’s Paul Guggenheimer talked with Katie McGinty about where she stands on issues including the economy, gun control, foreign policy, energy and the environment.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PAUL GUGGENHEIMER: Perhaps the most important issue for you and your opponent in this campaign is the economy and job creation. “Depressed” is a word often used to describe the economies of the small towns and rural communities that surround Pittsburgh. What is your plan for reviving them?
McGINTY: Well, Paul, first this is family for me and not just politics and an issue. I was blessed to be raised in hard working family that, with hard work, felt we were in the middle class. You put in your hours, you were able to get ahead. What I see across the Commonwealth is that people are working hard but the dollars and cents, the good paying jobs haven’t been there. What I’d like to do is get back to investing in job training and apprenticeship programs. I think that’s key. We’ve gotten away from that. For those kids who are going to college, you bet I’m going to fight to bring the cost of college down and get tax credits for middle class families to get the cost of college down. But I also think we can get started right now in putting people back to work. We know that our infrastructure needs to be rebuilt. And I think with the technology we have, we can compete in manufacturing again.
GUGGENHEIMER: As long as you have mentioned trade deals, let’s talk about the one that’s been in the news a lot of late and that’s the Trans Pacific Partnership. The TPP is a trade deal between the United States, Japan and 10 other Pacific nations. President Obama has signed it. He has talked about the virtues of it. But you oppose it and Sen. Toomey opposes it after initially indicating that he would support it. Why is this a bad deal for people in places like Pittsburgh?
McGINTY: Well, my top priority, and I think the country’s biggest need, is good paying jobs. Even the proponents of TPP say that it will cost us at least 50,000 good paying jobs every year. We can’t afford it. And we also shouldn’t be fooled by Sen. Toomey on this one. Sen. Toomey literally wrote the book on free trade, has lobbied for and voted for countless numbers of these agreements. And even on TPP itself, was one of the senators who pushed hardest to, what they call, fast track the agreement through the Congress to get it done as quickly as possible. So, I don’t think voters are going to be fooled by a supposed election season change of heart.
GUGGENHEIMER: Why is free trade a bad thing?
McGINTY: Free trade is not a bad thing. But trade needs to be fair and we need to have a level playing field. I believe 100 percent that American workers, and Pennsylvania workers in particular, can compete with anyone in the world. We have the most productive workforce in the world. But, you know, when the deck is stacked against you, it’s pretty hard to win. And so when we see the Chinese, for example, getting away with dumping their products in our market, when we see them doing very complex things like manipulating their currency so our products aren’t cost competitive, that playing field isn’t level. But if trade was genuinely fair, we can out compete anybody.
GUGGENHEIMER: Donald Trump famously said last spring that he’s going to bring the steel and coal industry back. Is that possible in this day and age and if not what are the industries western Pennsylvania can turn to in order to create jobs?
McGINTY: First of all, I think Donald Trump is suspect on anything he wants to say in terms of creating good jobs. Why? Because he spent his whole career defrauding honest businesses and sending honest businesses into bankruptcy when he wasn’t playing the bankruptcy courts himself. But look, we should be optimistic about where we are. Here’s the cutting edge of where competition is. That competition has to do with skilled labor plus technology, plus speed to market. We have some of the best work forces in the country in Pennsylvania and western Pennsylvania in particular. But making stuff now is as much about a joystick as it is a forklift. And so when we have the excellence at Carnegie Mellon in robotics, at Pitt in life sciences, at Penn State in engineering, you put those things together, plus the fact that we sit in the middle of the biggest buying market in the world, our speed to market is quicker than any of our competitors. That’s a recipe for success. But we have to go after it. And in addition to the unfair trade deals, one thing that I would do and push hard for as a U.S. Senator is buy American. Where are our tax dollars going? For every good and service that we are procuring, are we buying from local companies invested in our communities? We should and need to be. And when we do, you bet, it’ll be the best goods and services in the world.
GUGGENHEIMER: How do you ensure that?
McGINTY: Well, I think just as I did when I was secretary of (the Pennsylvania Department of) Environmental Protection, we set about to build good jobs in the renewable energy space, manufacturing jobs. And the way we did that is to say, look, the Commonwealth is the biggest consumer of energy in Pennsylvania. So, we put our energy purchasing dollars to work to buy from those companies that were hiring Pennsylvanians.
GUGGENHEIMER: The ethane cracker in Beaver County promises jobs, but many are worried that it’s a large new source of pollution in a region that has seen slow but steady improvement in its air quality over the years. As a former Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, what do you say to environmental critics of the plant or people worried this could set Pittsburgh’s air quality back?
McGINTY: In my career, 25-plus years working to create jobs while protecting the environment, what I've learned is when you’ve got good strong regulations, when you ensure that you’ve got a good, solid, environmental cop on the beat, we shouldn’t buy the line that you have to choose between jobs and the environment. And what I think we need to do is fully understand any pollution that would be associated with the plant. And ensure that all the right controls and requirements and rules are in place to capture and cut that pollution. As we ensure the environment and public health isn’t harmed, by this plant or any other, when it comes to our gas and other resources, we need to make sure the full spectrum of jobs are being created here in Pennsylvania. It still bothers me to see all the Oklahoma and Texas license plates. Pennsylvanians should have those jobs if we’re producing that gas resource. What I’m excited about is instead of just burning that resource, what the cracker allows us to do is use gas as a feed stock for all kinds of advanced industries whether they are in chemicals or advanced materials or in the life sciences space. Let’s make sure we’re doing that full value chain here in Pennsylvania and not just shipping out raw products so that other people in other states or countries get the good paying jobs.
GUGGENHEIMER: Fracking is seen by many of your fellow Democrats as an economic driver for western Pennsylvania despite concerns about how it can harm the environment. Should we proceed with fracking and if so what is the best way to do it?
McGINTY: I’ve been very clear on this. I think that we need to regulate it, zone it, tax it. In the previous administration with Gov. Corbett, we didn’t get that balance right. The idea that we weren’t allowing good reasonable zoning regulations in terms of where that well development would happen is wrong. It’s also wrong that we’re just about the only state in the country with a shale gas industry that doesn’t ask the industry to pay its fair share in a severance tax. So, these are things we need to change. We need to get those right. And make sure that these resources are working for us. And that everybody’s paying their fair share.
GUGGENHEIMER: You have an established track record when it comes to clean energy including courting a Spanish wind turbine manufacturer, Gamesa, that would eventually invest heavily in Pennsylvania. However, your opponent Sen. Toomey contends that you turned government posts and taxpayer aid into six-figure positions with environmental and energy companies, including one that was a major shareholder in Gamesa. How do you answer his allegations?
McGINTY: Well, don’t take it from me. Every independent organization that has fact checked his ads and assertions have repeatedly said his ads are wrong, they are misleading, they are false, time and time again. And it’s really disturbing actually how he just doubles down on things that have been declared total falsehoods. But what I am very proud about is that, whether I have been in the private sector or the public sector, I have also been about the same thing and that is creating jobs while protecting the environment. What Sen. Toomey unfortunately has done is he’s hard charging every day to repeal consumer protections to enable Wall Street to do pretty much whatever it wants. Case in point is this situation with Wells Fargo Bank. Wells Fargo oversaw the defrauding of some 2 million accounts including innocent victims here in Pennsylvania. I’ve been hard charging to say that I’m going to stand up for those consumers, for the victims of this fraud. And what has Pat Toomey done? Well, he’s working hard to push legislation that would de-fund the Consumer Protection Agency that uncovered the fraud and brought the big bankers to heal.
GUGGENHEIMER: There have been several disturbing incidents throughout the United States in the last couple of years in which unarmed black men have been shot by police. What are your thoughts about what we’re seeing and how should this problem be addressed?
McGINTY: Well Paul, I guess like a lot of Americans, I’m just heartbroken about it and very, very concerned. And I come at it from two perspectives. One as a mom with daughters who are now teenagers and who want to be out and about and seeing the world and that makes our hearts happy but every time they walk out the door, your heart is in your mouth. And I come at it from the perspective also of the daughter of a police officer where we knew that experience of kissing dad good-bye in the morning not knowing is he coming back home for dinner tonight. I think as a community, as moms and dads, and as brothers and sisters, and as neighbors, that’s how we have to sit down and work our way through these tragic incidents. And I think there are some pragmatic things that we have to do as well. I have proposed and have been pushing hard for doubling something called the COPS program. That’s about community policing. It’s about more cops on the beat. Everybody agrees, whether it’s law enforcement, or folks in communities who have not felt very protected in their communities, that one of the best things we can do is community policing. I have proposed to double it. Unfortunately, Pat Toomey has led the charge to end the program for various places in Pennsylvania or at the very least to cut the COPS program. That’s the wrong way to go. I think we need to have body cameras. And another thing that my dad really emphasized to me, as he was a beat cop, is it’s important that the ranks of police officers look like the neighborhood. Let’s make sure we have folks who have come from the neighborhood who are part of the team. Those are things I think we can and should do. But I will say that my heart is very, very heavy about where we find ourselves.
GUGGENHEIMER: When it comes to the issue of gun violence and mass shootings, you have acknowledged that “most gun owners believe that there should be common sense gun laws.” As far as you are concerned, what is a common sense gun law and which common sense gun laws are you in favor of?
McGINTY: I think in Pennsylvania we respect and celebrate our sportsman’s heritage. My own brothers were hunters. Deer season would come around and they’d be very, very excited. And that’s an incredibly important part of who we are. But responsible gun owners too say we shouldn’t be having criminals or the mentally infirm having unfettered access to dangerous weapons. I think one that everybody agrees on, but unfortunately Senator Toomey voted against, we have a loophole in our gun safety laws in the United States right now that allows suspected terrorists in this country to buy the weapons of war and then turn them against innocent people in our country. There’s legislation not once but twice to close that deadly loophole, and Sen. Toomey voted against it. I think for myself, that I would be part of closing that loophole. I would be part of insuring that the mentally infirm and criminals are going through thorough background checks, not able to get those weapons.
GUGGENHEIMER: Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, Sen. Toomey won praise from Democrats by putting his name on a bill, the Toomey-Manchin amendment, that would have required a background check on all gun sales, including at gun shows and on the Internet. In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando you criticized Sen. Toomey, saying he “disavowed” any attempt to move on the legislation. Is “disavow” too strong a word since he still supports the measure and indeed voted for it again?
McGINTY: Well, no. Let’s look at the Senator’s track record. It’s disturbing because it’s clear that this is a politically opportunistic thing for him. So, he lent his name for one brief moment in time to a piece of legislation. He dropped it like a hot potato as soon as the public attention turned away. In fact, his words, not mine, famous or infamous, "The Senate has spoken, let’s move on." After Orlando and San Bernardino, he was literally begged to re-introduce that legislation. His words, not mine: "No, let Democrats take the lead." In this campaign cycle, here’s what he’s been up to. When he’s in Philadelphia, he points again to that legislation three-and-a-half years ago. But when he’s in other parts of the state, he tells a very different story, "Oh, I have a perfect record with the NRA. My idea of gun control, he has said, is a steady aim. I think what’s disturbing is that this need not be so divisive an issue. Good people can come together with genuine leadership." But Sen. Toomey has been playing this issue and he’s not been straight with the people of Pennsylvania, saying one thing in western Pennsylvania and a very different thing in Philadelphia.
GUGGENHEIMER: Mylan CEO Heather Bresch was on Capitol Hill recently defending the price of EpiPens going over the last few years from $100 for a two-pack to over $600 by saying the company doesn’t make as much profit on EpiPens as many believe. What would you do to rein in what these that drug companies are charging?
McGINTY: The situation here is indefensible. There’s been no reason put forward as to why a vital tool for families that’s literally life saving has been so radically jacked up in cost. Look, there are some things we have to do here. It’s absolutely unconscionable as well that federal law says right now that Medicare can’t negotiate the cost of prescription drugs. We’re the only country in the world where that’s true. And the result is that our families pay two times, three times, four times or more the cost of these drugs as compared to what people pay for the very same medications in other places in the world. You have to keep a bright spotlight on these practices that just are not right. And I think if this company’s not making profits, as the CEO apparently suggested, her salary certainly suggests a very profitable company, nearly $20 million a year. So, something is fishy there. I would call for the various instruments of federal government, whether it’s the Federal Trade Commission or the Department of Health, to investigate this. What could possibly justify these jacked up prices? And I think what we’ll find is that nothing justifies it and that there is abuse of consumers in what we’ve seen. Some other things that we can and should do, the Food and Drug Administration, is it properly staffed? Is it properly funded to be able to move along the approval of generic versions of various drugs and make sure that consumers have some options to choose from? I think we also need to bring price transparency, not only to drugs, but to medical procedures where everybody knows the price of a gallon of gas but you’re going to get your hip replaced, you have no clue. That can and should end and I would look forward to pushing initiatives along those lines.
GUGGENHEIMER: It’s been one year since the Iran Nuclear Deal was signed, which prevents Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Sen. Toomey has long opposed the Iran Nuclear Deal and believes sanctions should have been maintained. What is your feeling about the Iran Nuclear Deal, particularly as look back on it one year later?
McGINTY: First and foremost, it’s absolutely unacceptable to allow a nuclear Iran. This agreement has made significant progress in taking down some of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the experts would say this pushes them back a decade in terms of their nuclear capabilities. That’s absolutely vital. Iran is not a friend to the United States. Iran is not a friend to Israel. Iran is not a force for good in this world. We cannot have it be that Iran has nuclear capabilities. Having said that, I’ve been critical of the Obama Administration for being slow in acting when Iran proceeds, for example, to test ballistic missiles that are violations of U.N. resolutions. We need to make clear to Iran that we mean business. No violation of any kind, of any agreement, the Iran Deal itself or U.N. resolutions, will be tolerated. We need to act and act fast.