Fact-checking an increasingly ugly Readshaw/Molchany race

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The primary race between Harry Readshaw and Erin Molchany is getting ugly, with partisans on both sides lodging what may be the worst insult of all -- that the other guy is too much like Gov. Tom Corbett. And, as is the way of these things, both Democrats running for the 36th House District are accusing each other of going negative first.

Things really began popping yesterday, when Readshaw released a new TV spot. While his first ad was a fairly benign introduction, the new 30-second spot features an unflattering photograph of Molchany – who the ad refers to as "the new face of the old Harrisburg politics" -- looming over the Mordor-like landscape of Harrisburg. The ad faults her for "attacking Democrat Harry Readshaw" -– more on that in a bit -- and then seeks to turn the tables by focusing on what I previously reported would be a defining issue for the candidates in this campaign: their differences over last year's transportation-spending bill. By voting for the measure, the ad contends, Molchany "hiked gas taxes 30 cents a gallon" -- all "to fund transit projects in Philadelphia."

In a statement, Molchany's campaign characterized the spot as "the first attack ad in his race," and "just another example of republican-style scare tactics"

The Readshaw campaign's response: Hey, your side started it.

"For the past three months, Erin Molchany and her allies have been laying out a smear campaign on the phones and at voters' doors," Team Readshaw said in a release issued late last night. "Her allies try to characterize Harry as too conservative, while attempting to distract voters away from the fact that she hand-delivered radical conservative Tom Corbett's signature policy achievement."

Molchany's campaign has indeed gotten a boost from outsiders. Keystone Progress, a left-of-center advocacy group, has aired a TV ad blasting Readshaw for betraying Democratic values. It also launched a satirical "Republicans for Readshaw" website -- with the URL "harryreadshaw.com," no less.

"We're trying to make a clear delineation between the two candidates," says Keystone Progress spokesman John Neurohr (who adds "it was amazing to us" that Readshaw hadn't locked up his own name as a URL). "We've worked with Rep. Molchany on a number of issues, so it was a no-brainer to support her." Thanks to redistricting, Molchany is running a district that is largely Readshaw's turf, "and Neurohr says "we wanted to draw these distinctions, especially for the voters she will be new to."

This isn't Keystone Progress' first run-in with Readshaw. As noted here last week, in 2012 the group accused him of having ties to conservative lobbying group ALEC -– a claim Readshaw denied. But Neurohr says, "We think [the current campaign] is more than fair."

Readshaw spokesman Robert Witmer disagrees. "There's a really personal aspect to it that gets me." He notes that the "Republicans for Readshaw" homepage refers to Readshaw's ownership of a "$300,000 Deep Creek condo" -- which he argues is totally irrelevant to Readshaw's legislative performance.

And Witmer says the attacks dovetail with a whispering campaign launched by the Molchany campaign itself. "We know her volunteers have been saying negative things about him. Early on, she was talking about how he was going to retire, even after he said he was going to run. [Door-knockers] bring things like that up."

Jacob Redfern, a spokesman for the Molchany campaign, responded, somewhat dryly, "We are well aware of the fact that Rep. Readshaw is running for his seat. I can't speak for everything that happens at voters' doors. But our volunteer training is 100 percent focused on talking about Erin and her record."

As for the Keystone Progress ads, Redfern says, "That's something they decided to do on their own." But he added that Readshaw "has a 20-year record of taking conservative stances and voting against the interests of his district. Voters deserve to be aware of that."

So are the attacks unfair? Let's take a look.

Readshaw's Anti-Molchany ad

The central claim here concerns last year's controversial Act 89, which funds mass transit and road-infrastructure projects through a hike in fees and a wholesale tax on gasoline. Readshaw voted against it, Molchany for it.

Here's how the ad describes Molchany's position: "Molchany fought for and voted for Gov. Corbett's crushing new gas taxes -- the highest in America." And the money, it contends, would "fund transit projects in Philadelphia."

Molchany did advocate for Act 89. And depending on how much of the tax wholesalers pass along to drivers, Pennsylvania's gas tax could indeed be the nation's highest once fully phased in. In an accompanying press release, the Readshaw campaign adds "[W]e are already feeling the effects of Molchany's vote at the gas pump," citing a a recent WTAE story as proof.

Then again, as some savvy observers noted when Act 89 was passed, gas prices can fluctuate for all kinds of reasons, some of which may have much larger impacts than the new state levy. And while the ad makes a plausible case about the cost of the tax, it could mislead voters about how the money will be spent.

Readshaw's first ad, which briefly mentioned Act 89, has already been faulted for making it sound as if Philadelphia transit users were the only people who will benefit from Act 89. The same is true in the new spot: There's no mention of any benefits except those "transit projects in Philadelphia." It doesn't mention that if the measure hadn't passed, local transit users could have seen bus service cut by more than one-third. Nor does the ad mention that Act 89 will help fund road and bridge repair all across the state.

In an accompanying release, Readshaw's campaign does acknowledge Pittsburgh gets something out of the deal: "Philadelphia mass transit is receiving a disproportionate amount of funding ... $10 to Allegheny County's $1."

Actually, the range is closer to 3-to-1 (as the Readshaw campaign acknowledged after questioning by City Paper). According to PennDOT statistics (see page 23), the Philly area's SEPTA system will get between $316 million and $368 million a year for the next several years; Allegheny County will get between $103 million and $120 million. That's consistent with the overall trend: PennDOT spokesman Richard Kirkpatrick says that Port Authority gets $184 million from all state sources, while SEPTA receives about $540 million -- again, roughly three times more.

Of course, that's still a lot more money, but then "Philadelphia's system is much larger," Kirkpatrick notes. And on a per-rider basis, he says, Allegheny County gets more from the state than Philly: Our Port Authority gets about $3 per rider from the state, as opposed to $1.70 for each Philly straphanger.By that metric, this isn't a bad deal for Pittsburgh.

Even so ... you may be paying more at the pump down the road, and Philly will be getting more of the money. Whether you think that's a problem may depend on how much you need transit here -- and on how much you hate Philadelphia. That question, at least, may not be settled in voters' minds until after the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Which brings us to ...

Keystone Progress' Anti-Readshaw campaign

How accurate are the claims made in the Keystone Progress website and TV ad?

Some are true, if not always particularly relevant (really, who cares about Readshaw's vacation spot? The guy also runs a funeral home, so it's not like his legislative salary is his only income). For example, Readshaw does oppose marriage rights for same-sex couples, and Keystone Progress even links to a City Paper story to support the claim: How much more authoritative can you get? It's also true that Readshaw once generated outrage in the progressive blogosphere by hand-writing a decidedly personal letter to a constituent who opposed his stance on abortion. (Witmer acknowledges the letter is real: "The thing about Harry is, he's not going to lie to you. And he often writes his responses by hand, which a lot of people appreciate.")

But in other cases, Keystone Progress juxtapose issues in ways that are either misleading or simply unrelated.

Its TV ad, for example, contends that Molchany "holds UPMC accountable to taxpayers," while Readshaw "has taken thousands of dollars from Republicans."

Keystone Progress pointed to two such contributions in Readshaw's 2013 campaign-finance report: $1,000 apiece from local Republican leader Jim Roddey and William K. Lieberman, a longtime supporter of Republican pols and a powerful figure in his own right. I also found $850 in donations from Bob Cranmer, a former Allegheny County Commissioner. Keystone Progress' Neurohr says there are likely other GOP donors as well, and voters should wonder "Why does GOP leadership want Rep. Readshaw re-elected so badly?"

Witmer acknowledges that Readshaw has taken money from Republicans: "I'm sure Erin Molchany gets money from Republicans as well." But what, he wonders, does that have to do with UPMC? "Harry has stood with UPMC workers every time," he says. I can't say I've noticed Readshaw at UPMC rallies -- Molchany has been far more visible -- but they are both cosponsors of HB 1621 and HB 16222, the two major UPMC-related bills currently in Harrisburg. (The bills would require UPMC to offer in-network rates to patients carrying insurance from Highmark, its nemesis.)

Witmer says Keystone Progress is doing a similar bait-and-switch on women's issues. The TV ad again contrasts Molchany (who "supports equal pay for equal work") with Readshaw, who it claims "opposes women's rights, and even supported Tom Corbett's forced-ultrasound bill." The forced-ultrasound bill, which would require a woman to view an ultrasound of a fetus before having an abortion, features in another ad: Planned Parenthood blasted Readshaw for cosponsoring the legislation in an spot launched just today.

In January, Readshaw told City Paper that he didn't realize the bill's implications at first, and later pulled his name from it. But in any case, says Witmer, Readshaw's position on choice issues doesn't mean he "opposes women's rights" in general ... and certainly not when it comes to "equal pay." Readshaw is, he notes, a cosponsor of Molchany's own equal-pay legislation. A campaign statement responding to the Planned Parenthood attack also touts Readshaw's support of PACE, a prescription-assistance program for which the "vast majority of enrollees is female."

"The more ironic bit" of these attacks, the statement adds, "is that Molchany's allies call Harry 'Tom Corbett's best friend in Pittsburgh.' Only one candidate in this race has fought for and supported Corbett's landmark piece of legislation, and that was Molchany" ... who (you guessed it!) "voted for Corbett's massive gas tax increase."

It's not that Molchany is running from that vote: She touts it as essential to preserving transit service in her bus-dependent district. But you can probably expect Readshaw to keep raising it, for a couple reasons. First, of the issues that divide the candidates, it's one of the few hot-button topics where it's easier to tie Molchany to Corbett's position. (Both Dems have opposed Corbett on bread-and-butter issues like school funding cuts.) And the wisdom of dissing Corbett is, it seems, the one thing both candidates can agree on.

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