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Democrats play nice at U.S. Senate forum |

Democrats play nice at U.S. Senate forum

When Katie McGinty was asked what distinguishes her from John Fetterman and Joe Sestak, her fellow Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, she provided a diplomatic answer.

Any of them, she said, would do a better job representing the people of Pennsylvania than Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

McGinty, Fetterman and Sestak came together Sunday afternoon and outlined their stances during a candidate forum hosted by 14th Ward Democratic Committee, Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz College and other groups on the university’s campus. The three candidates are vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination to challenge Toomey in what analysts have described as one of the most important races in the country.

“The all seemed to have the same understanding that we need someone different from Toomey,” said Curt Conrad, 28, of Mt. Washington.

The forum drew a crowd of more than 200 spectators. The candidates, who refrained from launching attacks at each other, fielded questions on issues ranging from immigration and the Syrian refugee crisis to criminal justice reform and racial inequality.

Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, appeared to have the most supporters among the crowd of about 200 spectators. As he discussed his position on numerous stances, he described his experience as a leader of the struggling and mostly black borough, where he said he has helped reduce crime and tackle poverty.

Sestak, a former U.S. congressman and a retired Navy admiral, emphasized his prior political experience as well as his military background as he discussed topics such as defeating ISIS, reducing gun violence and working across the aisle to get things accomplished in Washington. He ran against Toomey and narrowly lost in 2010.

McGinty, former chief of staff for Gov. Tom Wolf and former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, also leaned on her prior political experience as she talked about climate change, fair wages and the Affordable Care Act. She worked in the occasional jab at Toomey’s record on issues such as veterans care and raising the minimum wage.

“They were all pretty much equal,” said Conrad, who came to hear to hear the candidates speak after he heard about the forum through friends.

The latest Franklin & Marshall College Poll, which was released last week, showed that 61 percent of registered Democrats remain undecided on who should challenge Toomey in November. Sestak is supported by 17 percent of Democrats, while McGinty has been stuck at 13 percent since August, the poll shows. Fetterman has the support of about 6 percent.

Kathy Boykowycz of Oakland said Sunday’s forum was her best chance to hear all three Democratic candidates speak in one place.

“I feel less good about Sestak and more good about Fetterman,” said Boykowycz, 72.

Fetterman had some interesting stances, she said, but she was a little concerned about Sestak’s “military focus.” McGinty performed well, as Boykowycz said she expected.

“They all had pretty good positions,” she said.

“The Democratic candidates showed today that they are becoming more liberal and out of touch with hard-working families who have seen an average health care premium increase of 11 percent in Pennsylvania over the past year,” said Ted Kwong, Toomey’s campaign spokesman in a statement after the forum. “And yet all three promoted even more government involvement on top of Obamacare, which had to be rammed through Congress without a single Republican vote.”

Whoever wins the nomination faces a formidable opponent in Toomey, said Sam Hens-Greco, with the 14th Ward Democratic Committee, before the forum got underway. Toomey has raised more than $9 million in campaign funding, significantly more than each of the three Democratic candidates.

“It’s going to be a challenge. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Hens-Greco said.

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 412-320-7886 or [email protected].

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