|Rendell Bucks Pennsylvania Trend|
It's been historically difficult for a Democrat to pick up steam in a state-wide election among Pennsylvania's largely conservative voters, but former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell has built up momentum in his race against state Attorney General Mike Fisher.
Rendell currently holds a 20 percent lead, scoring 56 percent of the vote to Fisher's 36 percent, with some seven percent undecided, a poll by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute conducted in mid-October said.
"There is no good news anywhere in this poll for Mike Fisher," Clay F. Richards, a pollster for Quinnipiac, told Allentown's Morning Call newspaper Oct. 18. "The numbers are moving heavily in the wrong direction for [Fisher] and Ed Rendell is pulling away."
Despite Rendell's lead, Fisher may have history on his side. Pennsylvanians tend to elect Republicans for state posts, but have historically opted for Democrats in federal elections.
Since the early 1940s, Pennsylvania citizens have elected ten Republicans and only four Democrats to the governor's office. The last Democrat elected governor was Robert P. Casey Sr., a popular leader and traditional Democrat who served for two terms, from 1987 to 1995. Pennsylvania's two senators -- Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter -- are both solid Republicans.
Republicans currently dominate the state's congressional delegation, occupying twelve seats while Democrats fill only six. In the last gubernatorial election, voters were most concerned about crime and overwhelmingly approved former Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, for a second term.
Current Gov. Mark Schweiker, who replaced Ridge when he became President Bush's homeland security director, decided not to run for a term in his own right. In this election, however, voters are not focused on one particular issue, but a variety of topics, including the economy, state and property taxes, and education reform.
Twenty percent of Pennsylvanians ranked job and economic growth as the determining factor for selecting a candidate, with 16 percent instead choosing education, 15 percent lowering state taxes, and 13 percent reforming the property tax system as their most important election-year issues, according to a survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. of Washington, D.C. Fisher and other Republicans vow they will not opt for a tax hike, but suggest Rendell would raise taxes, like fellow Democrat Bob Casey did as governor during the 1991 recession.
Rendell, however, rejects Fisher's claims that he would raise taxes to balance the state's budget, saying during an early October debate in Wilkes-Barre that the state's current fiscal woes are "nothing" compared to what he overcame in Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
Instead, Rendell says he will off-set the deficit by expanding certain industries -- like historic and entertainment tourism -- and increase "vice taxes" on cigarettes and gambling. He says the expected revenue would enable the state to reduce property taxes while boosting "the state's share of education money" to fifty percent.
Rendell says he wants to use the extra education funding to reduce financial inequities among school districts, expand all-day kindergarten programs and lower class sizes in elementary schools. But Fisher and his supporters argue Rendell will not lower property taxes if he enacts these education initiatives, which Fisher says will cost the state another $10 billion per year.
Rendell's camp has questioned Fisher's plan to offer counties the choice to continue with the present property tax system or implement a system allowing counties to lower property taxes while raising income taxes if necessary to cover local education costs. Fisher, however, says Rendell's proposed program will ultimately cost taxpayers more money, saying, "[s]lot machines and cigarette taxes are not a reliable enough base to provide for education."
Fisher has said he plans to convene a special session of the state legislature, vowing no lawmaker would get to go home "until property taxes are significantly lower."
Both Fisher and Rendell are working to convince voters they can break Pennsylvania out of an employment slump that has put the state's rate of job creation and economic growth below the national average. Fisher says reforms aimed at curbing frivolous lawsuits against corporations, lower corporate and franchise taxes and other tax incentives will boost the state's economy and help job growth. "Governors and mayors don't create jobs. Businesses and entrepreneurs create jobs. A governor needs to create the climate to make our state competitive," Fisher said.
Unlike Fisher, Rendell calls for the state to take a greater role in stimulating the economy and business growth. Rendell says he would increase the state's investment in urban redevelopment, making the state "a full partner with local governments in revitalization plans and projects." He also favors the use of corporate tax incentives and bond sales to attract new industries.
Fisher's ads, however, accuse Rendell of embellishing claims about his success in revitalizing Philadelphia's economy. Fisher's camp also labels Rendell a "tax-and-spend Democrat," saying Rendell threw taxpayer money at Philadelphia's economic problems with few results. Voters in Pennsylvania's "T" region -- the central area of the state between Philadelphia and Pittsburg that is dominated by mainly conservative rural communities -- have responded positively to Fisher's opposition to gun control.
Gun-ownership policies represent a significant issue to voters in the region, where hunting and marksmanship are popular past times. Rendell, meanwhile, attracted the ire of the National Rifle Association in this race because of his call for a limit on handgun purchases to one per month. A recent NRA ad warned voters their individual rights may be in "grave danger" since Rendell "doesn't respect your rights or values" and "won't hesitate to strip them away."
But the former Philadelphia mayor maintains his gun control policy effectively targets gun traffickers and other criminals, noting that sportsmen and other gun owners could still buy as many as 12 weapons a year if it were enacted. Health care is another major issue fueling this governor's race.
With the majority of the state's 12 million residents over 35 years of age, Rendell and Fisher both seek to attract votes from the state's aging population. Both candidates agree that Pennsylvania's prescription drug coverage plan is one of the best in the country, but both also say coverage for senior citizens must be increased.
Rendell plans to increase financial assistance for prescription drugs, protect senior citizens from consumer fraud, and increase aid to senior centers.
Fisher lists his accomplishments as state attorney general to protect senior citizens against medical and health care fraud. If elected, Fisher says he would shore up the state's dwindling Lottery Fund, the primary fund for senior citizen programs, with the expected revenue from slot machine and horse-track gambling. Meanwhile, Fisher may get a boost from GOP-backed steel tariffs of up to 30 percent on U.S. trading partners.
Although the state's once-formidable steel industry has shrunk in recent years, the state maintains the second-highest number of steel industry jobs -- a group that could reward Fisher for his party's policies. Rendell has struggled to win backing from the state's labor unions and blue-collar workers.
Even the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents some 77,000 state workers, staunchly refused to endorse him, citing his tough concessions on labor union contracts during his mayoral tenure in Philadelphia. "Mike Fisher has pledged not to balance the state budget on the backs of public employees," Ed Keller, executive director of the group's Council 13, said at a press conference on Sept. 12. "[Fisher] has demonstrated a concern for both public workers and the Pennsylvania taxpayers."
Keller said Rendell, as mayor of Philadelphia, made cutbacks in the city's payroll to offset Philadelphia's fiscal problems. "What [Rendell] did simply cannot be forgotten," Keller said. Nonetheless, Rendell has built a wide lead over Fisher in the state's two major urban areas - Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. According to Quinnipac pollster Richards, Rendell has stolen Fisher's support among men and overall among Republicans. "If he [Fisher] can't bring his base back," Richards told the Morning Call, "the race is over."
--By Liz Harper, Online NewsHour