The two candidates competing to become the next state senator representing District 38 — which includes Etna, Fox Chapel, Highland Park, and Ross Township — met Thursday for their one and only debate.
The race between Republican Jeremy Shaffer and Democrat Lindsey Williams has been a contentious one. Signs connected with Shaffer’s campaign manager declared Williams is an all-caps “SOCIALIST” because she joined the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America to seek their endorsement. Ads from Shaffer’s campaign have continued to promote the idea.
During the debate Thursday at CCAC’s McCandless campus, Shaffer called on Williams to disavow outside support she’s received from a “dark money” progressive super PAC.
But for the most part, the debate, sponsored by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, offered the candidates an opportunity to showcase their competing visions for Pennsylvania. Below are some of the issue highlights.
A person who said they are a member of Dor Hadash — one of the three congregations that meets at the Squirrel Hill synagogue where 11 Jews were gunned down Saturday — asked the candidates about access to guns “to prevent this from happening again.” The person added they wanted specifics on positions, not “platitudes about mental health or armed guards.”
Shaffer said he has “consistent views in terms of firearms.” He said Pennsylvania needs universal background checks to ensure only “law-abiding citizens” have access to guns. He added that the state needs to look at laws associated with mental health.
Williams said she supports universal background checks, closing online and gun-show loopholes, and improving efforts to restrict gun access to people convicted of certain crimes like domestic violence. She added that she does not believe in arming teachers.
Do the candidates support an independent redistricting commission? Both Shaffer and Williams said yes.
Shaffer added that he supports shrinking the size of the legislature and imposing term limits on elected officials.
Williams noted that Shaffer, as a member of the Ross Township Board of Commissioners, abstained from a vote on a resolution to support a citizen redistricting commission. Minutes from that meeting show that Shaffer “liked the concept of having fair districts,” but did not think it was the place of a township board to pass such motions.
Right to work
Right-to-work laws prevent employers and unions from requiring non-members to pay fees.
Shaffer called right to work a “multifaceted issue.” He does not support the right for teachers to strike as it “can be very disruptive to students,” but added that he doesn’t think “straight right to work” would be right for Pennsylvania.
Williams said right-to-work laws make work places less safe, “bring down wages,” and increase income inequality.
Shaffer said a $15 minimum wage would destroy the economy and drive up expenses for businesses. He is in favor of increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour over a few years.
Williams said she supports gradually raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour.
Both Shaffer and Williams said they support instituting early voting in Pennsylvania.
Williams said she also supports same-day registration, easier access to absentee ballots, and paper backups for voting machines.
Shaffer, too, wants to make voting more secure. “Anything we can do to encourage voting I will support,” he said.
Shaffer, a father of five, said he is “pro-life. I don’t apologize for that.” He said there should be exceptions for life of the mother and rape or incest.
Williams said she supports a woman’s right to choose and noted her Planned Parenthood endorsement.
The candidates were asked a number of questions about education.
In 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into a law a “fair funding formula” that accounts for things like poverty and charter school enrollment to allocate new state funds.
Shaffer said he opposes the model as it would “defund” local school districts in Allegheny County. He also opposes the formula as it would send hundreds of millions of dollars more to the City of Philadelphia’s “failing” school district. He said he does not support cuts to education spending.
Williams said she supports gradually increasing the use of this formula “in a way that’s responsible.” She noted that if all education funding went through the formula today, Pittsburgh Public Schools would lose tens of millions of dollars a year. She also said the state needs to increase revenue to fund education by implementing a severance tax on shale.
Shaffer called Williams’ support for the fair funding formula “stunning” because of the effect it would have it fully implemented at once. “I’m stunned that Lindsey would support that formula,” he said.
Vouchers for non-public schools
Shaffer said he supports the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, which gives tax breaks to businesses that donate to private school scholarship funds.
Williams said she does not support vouchers or the EITC program, which “is just another word for vouchers.” She noted that Shaffer has received money from the Commonwealth Leaders Fund, which in turn has received donations from Students First, a political action committee that supports privatizing education.
Both candidates said they support universal pre-K. Williams again noted that she’s put forth a revenue stream to make it a reality.
Shaffer said he supports expanding the state’s hate crime laws to include sexual orientation, adding that people should not lose their job or housing “based on LGBTQ status.” That should be balanced with religious freedom, he said. Shaffer used the example of a Jewish artist who is asked to paint something horrific that goes against his religion.
Williams said she supports passing a statewide non-discrimination bill. She noted that Shaffer did not mention gender or gender identity and that he missed a vote on an ordinance that would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people in Ross Township.
After the debate, Shaffer told The Incline he believes there should be one state law instead of a patchwork of ordinances across different municipalities.
Severance tax on shale
Shaffer said he is concerned a severance tax would shift money from western to eastern Pennsylvania. He would support renaming and restructuring the existing impact fee.
Williams said she fully supports a severance tax.