Summary of May 7, 2020 forum for candidates for the 166th assembly district seat.  This forum was hosted by the League of Women Voters and moderated by Jamie Mogil.

The two participants were Greg Vitali and Jen Leith. Vitali is the state assembly representative from the 166th district, who is seeking his 15th term in the assembly with the endorsement of the Democratic Party organizations in his district. Leith is a non-profit executive director and member of the Haverford Township Democratic Party Committee from Ward 6.

Below is a summary, not a verbatim transcript, but anything in quotation marks is verbatim from the candidates’ replies. Vitali’s answers are first when it was his turn to be first; they are second when it was Leith’s turn to reply first. The candidates were confined to two-minute answers.

Question #1:  The closing of schools due to Covid-19 has exposed the pre-existing inequities in PA. schools.  What solutions do the candidates offer?

Both candidates called for increases in state funding.

Leith noted that, in the 1970’s, PA. provided 50% of each school district’s budget; now that state percentage is in the low 30’s. She pointed to the need for broadband in rural districts as an example of the need for more state funding to achieve educational equity in PA.

Vitali expressed his pride that the school districts in his assembly district – Haverford, Radnor, and Lower Merion – are among the three best in the state and said he is dedicated to protecting the quality of these schools. Added that he votes consistently for more funding for schools but that increased funding will come only with a Democratic majority in the state legislature.

#2: What reforms would you make in the criminal justice system?         

Vitali mentioned that, when he was a lawyer, he tried criminal cases so is familiar with the court system. He has been criticized for being the only “no” vote on mandatory minimums, but he believes that mandatory minimums “take away judges’ ability to do justice.” Opposes “sentencing creep,” saying “we cannot sentence our way out of crimes.” Also mentioned the importance of preserving statutes of limitations to protect the rights of the accused.

Leith called for the end to cash bail, “which criminalizes poverty in our state.” Noted that her current work with the Youth Sentencing and Re-entry Project and the Youth Self-empowerment Project made clear that there should be no youth in adult courts or adult prisons. Final point: PA is among the few states without independent Public Defenders’ offices, leaving P.D.’s vulnerable to the views of partisan District Attorneys in each county.   

#3: How to handle the Covid-related decline in the state’s revenues and increase in the state’s need for expenditures?

Vitali explained that we cannot know what will happen with the next state budget, but predicts “a lot of pain in this budget” because the state’s rainy-day fund is inadequate to handle a situation like this. He is hoping that some money from the federal government will help.   

Leith noted that she aspires to serving on the Assembly Appropriations Committee because her daily work as a non-profit administrator involves “looking at budgets, assessing the viability of programs, and tracking the money.”  She hopes to apply those skills to examining “where money is going in Harrisburg these days.” Noting that PA. will be getting $4.1 billion from the federal government for Covid stimulus, Leith hopes that some of that money will be earmarked for community development finance institutions “to help keep open the doors  of small businesses that sustain so many of our residents.”

#4: Agriculture is the Number One industry in PA but declining family farms and international trade agreements jeopardize the sustainability of this backbone of the state’s economy. Ideas for assisting PA agriculture?

Leith said that this is a “very inter-connected issue,” adding that she hopes PA can create an “economic ecosystem” by using “impact-investing” that is “serious about creatively supporting agriculture and small businesses.” This would mean that the state invests dollars here, not somewhere else, and makes sure that “the dollars we invest have an impact on the goals we care about,” including support for sustainable agriculture.

Vitali explained that agriculture is not a big part of the 166th district. As a result, he does not “interact with farmers very much” except through the Farmland Preservation Program. Vitali supports “proper funding” of this program so that farmers who want to continue “that way of life” can get a development easement in exchange for relinquishing “any right to future development.” Also supports expanded use of wind turbines, which are “compatible with farming operations and give farmers extra source of income.”

#5: Describe first-hand experiences you have had with people who are different from you.

Vitali described himself as a 63-year-old, lifetime resident of Havertown whose father believed he should learn the value of hard work. As a result, he held “various jobs as a young man that allowed me to interact with people very different from me.” Noted that he had “the dubious pleasure” of working at the gum factory, “interacting with many people who came in from the poorer areas of Philadelphia.” As well, “I caddied and interacted with some poor-but- professional caddies and washed dishes at our country club, again, just interacting with people who came in from outside the community.” Going to St. Joseph’s Prep in the inner city “allowed me to experience neighborhoods that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen.” Cutting grass at the old Haverford State Hospital site provided another opportunity for “just interacting with people who weren’t as fortunate as I was to spend my entire life in this great community.”

Leith did not grow up in Havertown; “I grew up in what my siblings and I call a ‘rough and tumble’ neighborhood of Kensington in Philadelphia.”  Jen and her siblings were all first-generation college students. She noted “there was a lot of disinvestment in manufacturing in Kensington when I was growing up, so I knew that a lot of people who ‘looked like me’ but were in different economic circumstances due to lost jobs and low wages.”  Leith “served proudly” as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in West Africa.”  She added, “if you really want to see life that is very different from what we experience here in the United States, where there are varying degrees of privilege, spend some time in a developing country, where I learned that  everybody at heart is about the same thing, which is providing opportunities for our children, primarily through education.” Post-Peace Corps career has focused on “helping amplify the voices of those who are most marginalized in our society, which happen to be folks who are black, brown and do not have the same bank account as myself.”

#6: How to level the playing field for residents in this commonwealth?

Leith noted Covid-19 has revealed that a lot of “essential” workers are among the very low-paid. Those workers are “among those that some people  might be called ‘illegal’ on a given day, but when they want to get their Amazon delivery or get their strawberries at the farmer’s market,  they are okay with looking past the illegal part and saying they are essential.” Leith said that her work with the Domestic Workers Alliance has shown her that there are “things we need to do as a state to help level the field for women, for women of color, particularly paid sick days and fair work week standards throughout the state, not just in Philadelphia.” Paid family leave, she said “will help tremendously, and I think there other economic resiliency tools we can bring into the fold. But we have a long way to go and I have a lot of ideas about it.”

Vitali responded by arguing that “it’s just a basic matter of approaching legislation with a basic fundamental fairness so that everyone regardless of genders is just treated fairly.” He looked back “almost 40 years ago” when his graduating class from Villanova Law School “was about 50/50 gender-wise” and pointed out that some of his female classmates have “gone on to be some of the most powerful attorneys in this commonwealth.”  He told a “humorous story about my ex-wife, who I met in law school. We competed for many of the same jobs and she got them.” Vitali added, “so I’m not really a stranger to women’s equality but I do think it’s just a matter of fundamental fairness, of trying to make sure that everybody in society is treated fairly. I do that in my hiring, I do that in my law-making. It’s just a matter of being fundamentally fair to everybody and that’s the way I approach legislation when I vote on it.”

#7: How to how to advise the citizens who support re-districting reform in PA.?

Vitali advised non-governmental groups like Fair Districts PA. to “keep the pressure on.” He noted that “politicians are reluctant to give up power. That’s why it was court action, not legislation, that got rid of egregious gerrymandering in PA.” Vitali is a co-sponsor on a bill in the assembly that would set up an independent districting commission, but he made clear his view that “it was the efforts of groups like Fair Districts PA that brought about change so have to keep it up. Keep plugging at it and a solution finally comes.”

Leith Agreed that the solution is an independent commission.  Added that in non-profit world, “we have to sign legal forms testifying we have no conflict of interest in distributing monies.” Yet legislators who have a “direct conflict of interest in drawing districts are still part of that process.” Commended Vitali for co-sponsoring the independent commission bill and advised groups like Fair Districts PA and the League of Women Voters to keep up the pressure.

#8 What reforms do you support to reduce the power of special influences, like the gun lobby, in our state government?

Leith sees publicly-funded elections as the key reform. Noted that when she became a candidate in the 166th race, she was constantly told she must raise money.  You begin to understand that people believe that money drives politics when it really should be ideas & values.” Called the influence of the fossil fuel industry and the gun lobby “unconscionable” and reiterated that public funding of elections was the way to  “end this corrosive influence of money in politics.”

Vitali recalled “many years ago, in an effort to prompt the legislature to put all campaign expenses on the internet, I did it myself to show how easy it was.” His effort prompted then-Governor Tom Ridge to do the same. Vitali then introduced a bill requiring public financing of gubernatorial races; it was passed in the assembly but stalled in the state senate. Vitali has also researched, authored and updated the Marcellus Money Report “which shows the influence of money on the legislature and who was giving what to whom.” He supports lobbyist disclosure, a gift ban, “and more people in Harrisburg committed to this,” adding that the current legislature “is not likely to reform itself.”

#9: Do you support marijuana legalization?

Vitali supported the legalization of medical marijuana. Regards the issue of recreational marijuana as “more tricky.” Though “not an ardent proponent” of legalized recreational marijuana, if a bill to legalize “was before me, I would vote yes.”

Leith “definitely” supports legal marijuana for medical use. Legalizing for recreational use “is not a driving issue for me,” adding that “the science is still out on the effect on the environment around users.” The whole discussion about legalization means “we need to look at social justice for those locked up for marijuana.” Many have been incarcerated “far too long” for marijuana possession.

#10: Your approach to state involvement in addiction treatment?

Leith: All state money to assist addiction treatment must be spent on “evidence-based” treatments. She called “medically-assisted treatment” the “gold standard” of treatment for opioid and substance abuse. “As someone who looks at the feasibility of programs, I really think all of our state funding must be centered on evidence-based practice.”

Vitali commented that he “knew that addiction generally, opioids specifically were a very serious problem in this township when a police officer came up to me and told me how many people were dying in this community.” The legislature has created a data base of prescriptions so that any “shopping” for opioid prescriptions are flagged. Laws now limit length of a prescription’s renewal status. But “it’s a terrible, terrible problem and we need to do more” in the way of  funding for treatment centers and for education.

#11: What should Pennsylvania do re: climate change?

Vitali began by stating that PA “produces 1% of the world’s greenhouse gases through our power plants & transportation industry so we have a responsibility to deal with it.” He is on the state’s Environmental Quality Board, which will soon consider “a good first step”: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. It joins PA with 10 other southeastern states to create a cap-and-trade program for the power sector.  Vitali pointed to methane as a serious problem because it is a powerful greenhouse gas that “leaks from the well head to the tip of the burner on your stove.”  In addition to supporting an expansion of energy conservation, Vitali supports a state-wide switch to renewable energy by increasing the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. That will increase the required amount of energy from wind, solar, and hydro sources that the current power sector must include in their total energy production. Calling climate change ‘the biggest threat to this planet,” Vitali notes that the environment “has been the focal point of my time in Harrisburg.”

Leith noted that “this is Greg’s issue – he’s been a one-issue guy – and has a lot technical knowledge.” She quoted Ben Franklin: “well done is better than well said” to make her argument that “the time for action on climate change has been upon us for many years.  We need to make things happen and one way is to change the people who are addressing the issues in Harrisburg.” Leith agrees that the legislature needs to increase state renewable energy standards and update electrical grid. She adds that the state should institute a ban on fracking, noting that her in-laws live in a community where oil and gas companies came in “with false promises of new jobs” that never materialized. Leith sees the high unemployment created by Covid-19 as “an opportunity” to hire Pennsylvanians to “build clean energy power stations almost like what FDR did with the Civilian Conservation Corps in the New Deal.” An effort like that could expand broad-band capacity and update our rail system. “Enough with the talk, let’s get moving.”

#12: What to do you think legislators can do to break through the partisan divide and work for the common good?

Leith said that, in her experience on various boards “where members do not see eye to eye about path forward,” the key is “truly listening” and “not thinking you are the smartest person in the room” and getting to know people. She said to find common ground, you have to “listen and have honest conversations about the path forward.” For a legislator, that translates into the “need to listen to the people in your district. You need to be present in the district, need to be working with municipal officials in your district.” As well, Leith thinks that legislators are more likely to find common ground if they visit fellow legislators’ district and learn that “the lived experience of people may be very different from the experience of those who live in the 166th.” Seeing issues from different viewpoints is more likely to create common ground for passing legislation.

Vitali stated, “I think it’s all about focusing in on policy as opposed to politics. He said that in Harrisburg, he is “an ally of anyone who I think is working on the right side of issues. Frankly, when I think that fellow Dems are not valuing issues that I think are important, then they might be subject to criticism.” Vitali added that “locally, I get along with some Republican commissioners better than Democratic commissioners because it’s just about policy, it’s just about getting the job done. I don’t think there’s any magic bullet to that.  It’s just the outlook you take to the job: putting the partisan bickering aside, working on policy, getting the job done.”

#13: How important are recent changes in PA voting laws in light of Covid-19? Where do you stand on open primaries?

Vitali noted how “lucky” it was that the legislature passed Act 77 allowing for mail-in ballots “as we move thru this dangerous time.” Vitali does not support an open primary, arguing that the whole point of primaries is to elect the leaders of a particular political party. People who are not members of an organization, such as a political party, do not have the right to vote for that organization’s leaders. So if a person wants to participate in electing, say, the leader of the Democratic Party, that person should become a member of that party

Leith strongly supports mail-in voting and has been “informing people about mail-in voting in my campaign.” Leith also supports open primaries on the grounds that “there is this growing number of Independents, and that number will continue to grow” in response to a perceived loss of variation within parties. Leith believes that open primaries, which would allow voting by those who are not a member of a political party, will “bring about more civic engagement and invigorate our democracy.”

#14: What mistakes have you learned from?

Vitali said he makes “many mistakes every day” but in the legislature, “you have to do your job without questioning others’ motives.” Said he’s learned to be “very reserved in what you say.” Vitali has noticed that “the less I say, the more I’m liked” so thinks it’s wise to “say less but perhaps get more done.” 

Leith focused on the mistakes “we all make when reaching decisions in real time.” She has learned that it’s wise to have “empathy” about decisions people make which we regard as mistakes. The belief that she should not be “judgmental” about why people do what they do in a particular moment “informs how I interact with other people.”

Closing Statements:

Vitali is “proud to serve the166th and has “tried to be a leader on the most important issue: climate change.” He added that his votes on gun control, education, and reproductive rights “reflect the values of this district.” As well, his district office helps his constituents and his newsletter keeps people informed. “If you like the job that I’m doing, I ask for your vote on June 2.”

Leith stated “democracy starts to die when we allow incumbency to be the norm and allow governmental inertia to go unchallenged.” She is seeking this seat to bring a “fresh set of eyes in Harrisburg and some fresh energy.”  Leith said that the district “needs to have someone representing us who will not only be responsive to our community but who will take action and bring results for all Pennsylvanians.”