Who are the Democrats looking to unseat Lt. Gov. Stack?
On April 11, AL DÍA News hosted a forum for the Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. While incumbent Mike Stack was absent, his challengers made their cases in full force.
Lt. Gov. Mike Stack has a lot to worry about.
Last year, Stack’s tenure as Pennsylvania’s second-in-command, a position that historically doesn’t garner much media attention, became mired in controversy when Gov. Tom Wolf, who Stack was elected alongside in 2014, initiated an investigation into the lieutenant governor’s actions.
Reports surfaced that Stack and his wife, Tonya Stack, had verbally abused state employees, including house staff at the official lieutenant governor’s residence near Harrisburg and the state police officers that provided the Stack family protection. In response, Lt. Gov. Stack issued a public apology for his alleged behavior. Later, it was reported that Stack's wife was seeking treatment for an unidentified mental health problem.
After the allegations, Wolf reduced the number of staff at the Stacks’ residence and removed entirely their state police detail, though the governor has withheld from releasing the results of the investigation.
Fast forward to the 2018 election cycle. In Pennsylvania, each political party votes separately for governor and lieutenant governor in the primary election, which will take place on May 15. The winners from each party run as one ticket in the November general election.
Given Stack’s weakening popularity, it’s not surprising that four Democratic challengers are looking to unseat the Northeast Philadelphia native in May: former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Nina Ahmad, Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and Ray Sosa, a businessman who resides in Montgomery County.
Gov. Wolf has not endorsed any candidate in the race, including Stack, which is perhaps revealing as to how the governor feels about his current second-in-command.
The office of lieutenant governor, which comes with an annual salary of about $162,000 per year, has largely been ceremonial and considered cushy, even unnecessary, by some critics. The official responsibilities of the position include serving as president of the state senate, as well as chairing of the Board of Pardons and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Council. In the event that the governor dies or leaves office, the lieutenant governor assumes leadership.
Despite this apparent lack of authority, the Democratic candidates challenging Stack are looking to do more with the position than has ever been done in the past, creating a platform to promote real change in Pennsylvania.
Inspired by these initiatives, AL DÍA News organized and hosted a forum for the Democratic candidates for the position on Wednesday, April 11, at Temple University. The forum, titled “Redefining the Office of Lieutenant Governor,” was held in collaboration with Temple’s Klein College of Media and Communication and in partnership with 6ABC.
While the Stack camp had said in early March that he would be available, a campaign spokesman for Stack confirmed the week of the event that the lieutenant governor would not be participating due to a "scheduling conflict."
His challengers, however, were happy to make time for AL DÍA.
Dr. Nina Ahmad served as a deputy mayor under Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney until Nov. 2017, when she resigned in order to run for U.S. Congress, looking to represent Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District. After the state’s congressional district map was redrawn, Ahmad ended that bid to make a run for lieutenant governor.
Ahmad is a first-generation American. She grew up in Bangladesh, immigrating to the U.S. when she was 21. She earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to work as a molecular biologist.
Kathi Cozzone was first elected commissioner of Chester County in 2008 and has since been re-elected twice (2011 and 2015). Cozzone has worked on two advisory committees at the state level: the Statewide Geospatial Coordinating Board and the Joint State Government Task Force Advisory Committee.
Cozzone also serves in various roles in a number of committees and groups, including as the first vice president of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and as the chair the County Government Workgroup on the Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force, to which she was appointed by Gov. Wolf.
For 12 years, John Fetterman, who grew up in York, has served as the mayor of Braddock, a Pennsylvania town just east of Pittsburgh that has lost 90 percent of its peak population due to deindustrialization. His efforts to revitalize the struggling community have drawn national attention.
In 2016, Fetterman ran for the U.S. Senate, earning about 20 percent of the vote in a four-way Democratic primary. Fetterman’s wife, activist Gisele Barreto Fetterman, moved to the U.S. from Brazil with her family as a child and is a former Dreamer.
Ray Sosa, who is originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, has lived in both Montgomery and Bucks Counties over the past eight years. He is currently the president of Round Hills Investments and Services Consulting Firm and takes pride in being the first Hispanic candidate to be included on the ballot for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.
Throughout his career, Sosa has been appointed by three governors to be a leader in statewide emergency management and response, and served as chairman of the Governor’s Human Rights Advocacy Committee in Florida for 10 years.
At the AL DÍA forum, Lt. Gov. Stack’s name was only mentioned once the entire evening, when co-moderator Walter Perez of 6ABC announced at the opening of the event that Stack would not be attending.
What came next proved to be a civil discussion in which candidates addressed crucial issues facing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, including sanctuary cities, the opioid crisis, public education funding, prison reform, and fracking. The following are highlights from the discussion, lightly edited for brevity and clarity. (The entire forum can be viewed above.)
I am an immigrant so I understand the journey one makes to a new country, and how you learn to acclimate yourself is not an easy process. I think as a government, we should be supporting people to help them know how to integrate into the communities they have gone into.
I’m very proud to have been part of the administration that pushed the sanctuary city. We worked very hard across the board, talking to communities about what exactly that meant, and how we can roll that out so that all people feel important and feel welcome and safe in Philadelphia.
I want to take that same effort across Pennsylvania using the platform of the lieutenant governor’s office to do so, to really unpack what it means so there’s not a lot of fear or bigotry around this issue. We need someone who can speak authentically to that, and I can because I am one, and I know I’ve benefited from being an immigrant in this country and understand all the benefits that immigrants bring to this country.
It may not seem like it but there is a very large immigrant community in Chester County. Some of you may or may not know that Kennett Square is the mushroom capital of the world and relies very, very heavily on immigrants who do amazing work in that industry and other agricultural industries.
In addition, agriculture is the number one aggregate industry in our community, so I’ve been working very closely with a lot of the businesses in our community to deal with the problems that they’re having in hiring people because too many people are afraid.
We should be treating people with respect, and the idea that somehow we should, as a community or a government, be doing ICE’s job for them is outrageous. We should do everything we possibly can to make sure that our immigrant community is treated with respect and dignity.
I’m a big supporter of sanctuary cities. When I ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, I was asked by Chris Hayes on MSNBC: “Your wife’s family broke the law. How do you feel about that?” My wife is a former Dreamer. I said, “You know, Chris, I’m so glad that her family did because I wouldn’t have the incredible family that I have today if they didn’t have the courage to do that.”
We are never more un-American than when we are persecuting the Americanness of immigrants, and it’s outrageous. And it’s despicable that we have a family detention center here in our own commonwealth, in Berks County, that imprisons children along with their parents. [Berks Family Residential Center]
We need to step up and we need to stand up for immigrants in this commonwealth and I want to be the lieutenant governor who is able to say the second lady of Pennsylvania is a former Dreamer, and I stand with you and I stand for the safety and security of immigrants because immigration is what made this country great.
As a Latino, I really believe it touches really, really close to my household. I was born in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico but most of my friends, they’ve been affected. So when it comes to the sanctuary city concept, I think it should be defended. We do have the sixth largest economy of the U.S. so we can certainly hold on. I don’t think we should bend to the pressure of the federal government.
I think we should protect our immigrants because they made America what it is right now, and I think we should offer the Dreamers a way to legalize their status, and that’s a whole different aspect of it. But I’m all for sanctuary cities and we should expand the concept if we can.
It’s critical that while we look at the current opioid crisis as a public health crisis, we must acknowledge that mistakes were made when the crack epidemic happened. There’s a truth and reconciliation process that must occur. People who were hurt by that epidemic need to be acknowledged. There are still issues that need to be dealt with from that epidemic that we should look at, and look at funding for as well.
For the opioid crisis itself, I think it’s critical to look at the communities that have suffered, like Kensington. Why are open drug markets in that neighborhood and not in Chestnut Hill? That is a resource allocation issue. So when someone from here calls the police, what is the response time as opposed to someone from there calling the police? That is an issue that we as a government must struggle with and say that all communities need our resources, and you must be equitable in that resource allocation.
It’s an awful, awful issue that affects so many communities and families, and the reality is that it is certainly a problem of the person who is addicted, but the snowball effect on the families of those folks is putting a lot of strain on all of our other systems.
There is not a one size fits all solution. We understand that at the county level. We’re where the rubber meets the road, where the services are provided. We have to look at all options. So I know there’s a debate about medically assisted treatment. There’s a debate about needle exchanges. There’s a debate about a lot of other means, but what we need to do is solve the problem of the individual addict. Not every addict is going to respond to every kind of treatment. We need to make sure that treatment is available for all of them in the way in which it works for them.
We also need to focus more and more on handoffs. There’s a lot that happens — somebody overdoses, they get Naloxone, they go to the emergency room, and then there’s nowhere for them to go. Or the doctor says, “Here’s a card, call this person when you get out.”
We have to work harder and smarter together in our communities, and we’ve been doing that in Chester County and around the state. I was at a forum a couple of weeks ago to do just that, to get people into treatment. I will also say that our insurance companies have to pay for what it takes to get somebody sober, not for what they think it takes to get somebody sober.
As the mayor of a community in Western Pennsylvania, we saw the opioid crisis grow in front of our eyes, and it’s like dumping a bucket of gasoline on a fire that’s already burning in terms of destroying the fabric and the social contracts that these communities have with their residents.
Last summer, we had a woman inject and then drive off from a parking lot in our community and she left behind her seven-month-old baby in the car seat. She was that high. We took the child to the police station and my wife came down and bathed the baby, changed the baby, fed the baby... and not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about what kind of life that child has.
We’ve hosted Narcan trainings at our home. It’s an issue that touches us every day. And I support safe injection sites. We need as many comprehensive solutions to this scourge as we possibly can. We can’t arrest our way out of it, but I also think it’s disappointing that, with the crack epidemic, it’s only when people of color were having the issue that we wanted to arrest our way out of it. Today, they’re getting the help that they deserve but it’s a shame because it’s taken this long.
I am very, very glad that Governor Wolf has declared the opioid crisis a disaster because it puts the issue directly with what the lieutenant governor does. So that’s where my vast experience comes in.
I do think that the declaration assigns an incredible amount of funding to make a real difference that couldn’t be made before, so that’s where the leadership comes in. I do think that the injection sites are a good idea. We need to see where that takes us. I do think that the funding for clean halfway housing is very down.
There are a lot more efforts being done right now regarding inventory control. Right now, doctors can just prescribe as much as they want so that needs to end.
It’s a very, very critical issue, particularly right here in Philadelphia. We are incarcerating people at such a high rate. It’s just a waste of human potential. Of course, people have to pay their dues if they make a mistake, but we can’t destroy their lives, which is what is happening.
So the pardon system is the only way that lifers have a way out, to get clemency. We have changed in Pennsylvania from going from a majority decision from the Board of Pardons, who sends the recommendation to the governor, to a unanimous decision. That has been a real problem for a lot of people to actually get their clemency request passed.
So we need to work with communities to advocate for changing that, but more importantly, we can actually work right now with the corrections system to look at how are we streamlining who gets to ask for those pardons. There are some people in there who have no idea how to get those resources. We need to fix that.
We need to make sure we have automatic expunges for people who are qualified for that. We just have to streamline the prison system and shut down the industrial complex.
There are entirely too many people in our jails who don’t belong there. As lieutenant governor, I would very seriously take on the role of bringing people together to work on real criminal justice reform. That would include the whole spectrum of criminal justice, from the first contact with law enforcement to a person’s eligibility and access to pardons.
Having been responsible for running, with my colleagues, numerous departments, I understand how to change the processes so they become more efficient. I can do that as lieutenant governor as it relates to the pardons process.
I also want to talk about how we’re ending up putting so many people in jail in the first place. I’ve been working on several criminal justice issues, but one of them relates very specifically to people with mental illness who have committed nonviolent crimes who are spending way too much time in jail. In fact, jail has become the place where those folks go. There’s a national initiative that I’ve been involved with. We’ve brought it to my county. We’ve translated it to the state where we can do a lot to prevent people from even getting arrested in the first place so that there is no record.
There are two criminal justice systems: one for African-Americans and there’s one for more affluent white folks. From a criminal justice reform standpoint, the bully pulpit of lieutenant governor can be such a powerful and important tool.
The Board of Pardons process, it is long. It is drawn out. It’s intimidating. That must change. I think the process now takes approximately three years. We shouldn’t have juveniles serving life without parole. That’s cruel and unusual punishment.
I really have been enjoying watching Larry Krasner, your new district attorney, just take some common sense approaches, like getting rid of police officers that should be testifying, decriminalizing the possession of marijuana and refusing to prosecute those kinds of crimes, reducing or eliminating cash bail on different offenses.
We should not ever be in a position where we’re warehousing people; we should be in the justice business, and that needs to change. The platform of lieutenant governor, I think, can be very valuable in promoting that along with streamlining the process of pardons.
First off, you need actual statewide experience in the criminal justice system to do reform. The board needs to be diverse. That’s first, because those are the decision makers. So you need to appoint people directly to represent the people that you want to actually help.
The second thing is I do believe we’re seeing a horrible amount of recidivism, about 70 percent, that costs us hundreds of millions of dollars. There is no budget that can be balanced with that. You need compulsory education for people that are paying their debt to society — they come out with a degree, and the state has the responsibility to make post-prison opportunities. They come out with a career, they won’t have motivation to go back. Right now, it’s just toss them out on the street and expect for them to be successful. That’s never worked in any state.
So that would be my first approach. Then non-privatizing jails.
Education is a great equalizer, and we should make sure that the zip code of a child does not determine the quality of their education. We must have equity there. On the soda tax, I’m very proud to be part of the team that ran that that campaign to really make sure people understood what that was going to do and what preschool meant for early education and childhood development, but it also was an economic driver as well.
So when we look at education, and as I say, it’s an equalizer, we must look at how it’s delivered. How do dollars come in? I want communities at the table to understand what a formula fund is, what are the factors that go into it so they understand, when the budget's put together, how they are getting their dollars back. So, my role is going to be to advocate, to explain and get them to the table so they can then advocate for more dollars for their communities and their school districts.
It’s not just a function of the funding formula, it’s also a function of too much reliance on property tax to fund our schools. So we’re about 30, 35 percent funded from the state, which is based on an income tax. The school districts used to get about 50 percent of their funding from the state. We have to talk about how we reverse that trend and stop relying so heavily on property tax, particularly in those areas where there isn’t the opportunity or the valuable properties that are adding to the schools. So it’s not just the funding formula, it’s where the funding is coming from.
Secondly, it’s also about giving our teachers the flexibility to be able to teach students in a way that they will learn and stop spending so much time having our teachers do nothing but teach through tests that don’t do anything, in most cases, to establish whether or not a school or school system is a good school or school system.
I’m a product of public education. My son is getting a public education. It’s really, really important and, in my opinion, it’s a right for every child in this commonwealth and in this country to have that free public education and a quality education.
They absolutely do need more money. Our school district struggles with the unfair funding formula and we as a society have to demand that quality education is a basic fundamental human right, and it should be that way in this commonwealth.
The other party, the Republicans, are actually campaigning on this idea — saying education is not guaranteed under our constitution so why should we worry about it? And that’s absurd.
Representing a community of color, and seeing the enormous disparities it puts up, it’s disheartening to say the least. But it’s also a reflection of how unequal our society is as a whole and until we can make our society more just and less inherently unequal—the way it is—these kinds of wildly divergent outcomes are going to continue.
I applaud Philadelphia with the soda tax, providing universal pre-K for all the children across the city. I think that’s an outstanding idea. I think we need that kind of innovative approach. I think we need a commitment across the state to make sure that the resources that have been starved, resources in communities like my own, get the appropriate funding that they need, and we take steps collectively as this commonwealth to make a more inclusive and less unequal society.
At the state level, we must revise the concept of the Keystone tests, as it’s not fair for every single school system. We have school systems that are graduating kids in high school with a 6th grade level of education. Some places are just training for the test because that’s how the state distributes funding. That’s not fair. We have to put all of the commonwealth at the same level. That’s what other successful states have done in the past for many, many years. This is not a new problem.
So when it comes to funding, I do think that penalizing the homeowners is a mistake. I am with Governor Wolf in his effort a couple years back of putting a modest increase in the sales tax for the state as a whole to reduce the debility for homeowners 60, 70 percent, and that way, fund the schools on a permanent level by legislation. I think that’s very, very important.
As a scientist, I’m deeply concerned that we are not moving and transitioning from fossil fuel. We have to do that, but we have to be thoughtful. We have people who are engaged in that industry. Every time we do some investment in our clean energy resources, we must have a workforce development piece that brings along workers who are in that industry.
We have something in the budget called the alternative energy portfolio. That determines how much in x year will the budget support to change to clean energy. We need to increase that number because that will drive investment. The government sends the signal where we’re investing our dollars and that’s how entrepreneurs come in to make sure that we can then drive that industry. So it is critical that we do this because there is a social justice piece associated with this.
The places where these pipelines are going through, these are destroying neighborhoods, and when we look at the oil refineries in South Philadelphia, the asthma rate, the pollution that comes out, it's really a problem. Poor people can’t just leave because the environment is being polluted. They have to stay there, so it is really incumbent on us to have a real, clear strategic plan to move to clean energy.
For many reasons, fracking is here. It is what it is. It shouldn’t be expanded and we need to start moving toward a more green economy. But I will say this, the drillers and the pipeline operators need to be held accountable. Part of the problem is this whole process isn’t really regulated in any one place. I was fortunate enough to be appointed by Governor Wolf as the County Government Workgroup Chair of the Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force. The pipeline that some of these folks are talking about goes right through my neighborhood.
But Chester County is 700 square miles. We have over 600 miles of pipeline. I’ve been involved in this issue since 2008. Nobody’s held accountable. The DEP doesn’t have enough resources. The accountability rests mostly with the federal government. Sometimes with the DEP, sometimes with the PUC, and we have to be able to pass legislation that allows our communities and our residents and our citizens to decide what happens in their communities.
A pipeline infrastructure task force report is already out there and if I’m elected your next lieutenant governor, I will make sure that the recommendations in that report start to get some traction.
Fracking is an established part of the Pennsylvania energy economy and portfolio. I do not support its expansion. I don’t support it in areas like our national forests. I don’t support it in untouched green areas and places like that.
Most importantly, if we are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, we need to have the most comprehensive and extensive environmental controls. We currently don’t have that under the current environmental protection. We need to have the best environmental controls to make sure the environmental impact is at a minimum.
And most importantly, if this is going to be our resource that’s extracted, we as a state need to tax that, and we need to have the tangible benefits of that industry, of producing the revenue in order for us to use that and reinvest it in whatever we as a commonwealth choose to.
I do think that fracking is an industry, if it were just being developed right now, it could be more easily controlled. However, you have 65,000 families that depend on it. So we can limit it, we can regulate it, we can make it green.
Now, business goes where money is. So at a state administration level, you put the right incentive for them to migrate to green energy, they’re going to migrate. Right now, there’s none and they’re getting our resources for free so there’s no motivation to develop it.
But I do think that fracking is to be limited, taxed appropriately, and made as green as we can possibly make it, because for every job in there, five extra jobs get created. It’s a massive part of our economy and it is what it is.