Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Joe Hoeffel: "Pragmatic Progressive"

"Here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, we have a wonderful opportunity with natural gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale," Joe Hoeffel emphasized to a room full environmental activists at Panera Bread in Oakland.

"We should use it. It means jobs."

But that having been said, "Growing Greener is running out of money. A natural gas extraction and recovery tax could generate $100 million -- we could use that to plus-up Growing Greener, create dedicated funding for it."

Hoeffel said he was astonished to find, for example, that the state does not own mineral rights to most of its state parkland. An extraction tax could generate the resources necessary to take care of that oversight among others. These kinds of initiatives would go toward offsetting some of the unavoidable environmental ills of economic growth with enviro-benefits.

"It's a very appropriate tax."

Hoeffel boasted of having earned a 95% voting record while in Congress from the League of Conservation Voters -- and is also proud that he had a 5% remainder, to demonstrate that he's no pushover. Later, as a Montgomery County commissioner, he also fought to launch that county's Open Space program. He said it became so popular that after it expired initially, voters overwhelming reauthorized it via a referendum -- explicitly consenting to incur debt for the sake of preserving the county's open spaces.

He calls himself a "pragmatic progressive", being socially liberal and fiscally responsible -- no foe of business and industry. He is on the liberal side of issues such as reproductive choice, gay marriage, environmental support and "minority views", but fiscally moderate.

"I think most Democrats agree with that -- in fact, I think most moderate Republicans agree with that."

Asked whether the term progressive is really just a synonym for liberal, Hoeffel answered point-blank, "Pretty much. I go back and forth on that. I do object to 'liberal spender', 'tax and spend liberal'," which is why he tacks on pragmatic.

"The way I figure it, if George Bush can be a 'compassionate conservative', I can call myself a 'pragmatic progressive'."

He says he was driven to seek the Governorship when Don Cunningham dropped out of the race, and when Tom Wolf dropped out before that. Looking at the remaining candidates as a whole, he wasn't satisfied with the direction the party would have been headed.

Asked whether there was anything to the notion that a candidate in Pennsylvania needs to be socially conservative to get elected, with particular reference to abortion and Bob Casey Jr., Hoeffel answered, "I disagree with that. We probably could have run a hundred candidates to beat Santorum -- we just didn't know it. Of course, Casey probably gave us the largest percentage."

Evaluating his prospects to win the Democratic nomination, Hoeffel pointed to his strength in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs -- his base -- and the same logic went for the November general election. Provided that he activates enough like-minded Democrats across the state to make up the difference.

"I think neither Jack (Wagner) nor Dan (Onorato) match up as well as I against Tom Corbett -- who's very conservative," Hoeffel warned somewhat ominously.

Asked whether Pittsburghers ought to be leery at the prospect of another Philly-area politician taking control of their fortunes, Hoeffel stressed that that is the same challenge he faced as a suburban pol trying to win over urban voters from the other side of Montgomery County. He says he did win them over, which is what happens -- one becomes a representative for one's whole constituency.

In terms of being an effective governor, Hoeffel points to his success in forming a governing alliance with one of his fellow commissioners, a Republican -- to the exclusion of the third commissioner, also a Republican, which annoys some Republicans back home. He also highlit his own experience as a legislator, and his enthusiasm for working with them. "I love legislators -- I really do. I think that's one thing that was missing to an extent with our current Governor."

Dan Onorato has already made government reform a central issue, so we asked Hoeffel what he brings to the table in that regard. He said that the first bill he passed in the State House was in reaction to the last ethics scandal in Harrisburg in 1978, and it mandated 10-day prior disclosure of contributions before the elections. At the time he says, even that was "unbelievably controversial". He co-sponsored all of the ethics legislation generated during that period.

In Congress, he supported the Shays-Meehan bill providing for campaign finance reform and public financing of elections. Then back in Montgomery County, he helped to write the first Employee Handbook which provided for protection from macing, prohibitions on some employees running for office and certain forms of solicitation. Again he claimed there was intense opposition to that, particularly from County row officers who even took him to court.

The environmentalists valiantly rallied to steer the conversation back to their own turf. Asked whether there is such a thing as Clean Coal, Hoeffel answered "No -- but we ought to see, we ought to research, we ought to put some money into cleaning it up."

It was clarified to him that even if the coal emissions can be cleaned up, what happens to the groundwater is a major difficulty. Hoeffel agreed that "We're very careless in PA" about water forced down through the fracking procedure.

"Technology exists," Hoeffel claimed, to ameliorate that difficulty, "but the right plants aren't built."

When it comes to encouraging cleaner energy, he says that "It's an appropriate role for government to say, 'Utilities, you gotta buy a certain amount of wind, a certain amount of solar."

After the meeting, the assembled environmentalists gathered to evaluate his performance. It sounded to me as though they gave him about a B.

"He can be good on our issues," I was told. In their estimation he misunderstood a few points or glossed over some key difficulties with groundwater (as I'm positive I did in this blog post), and that "he could use someone on the campaign advising him" on the environment. All the same however they seemed to be in agreement that he was the most enviro-friendly candidate of the bunch by a good margin.


  1. I like Joe. I think he would make a great Governor.

  2. I'll get you on his d-list for releases and events.

    Which reminds me: some folks from Philly are thinking about organizing a "blogger exchange" to facilitate learning more about candidates from one anothers' parts of the state. Guest posting and whatnot. Sounds like fun.