In the Pennsylvania governor’s race, Scott Wagner’s campaign and his right-wing, anti-labor, anti-immigrant, anti-choice agenda have the Democratic Party establishment pressing voters harder than ever to show up to the polls and support incumbent governor Tom Wolf. But Wolf has proven himself to be a thoroughly centrist, pro-corporate governor. With no serious challenger to Wolf from the left, working class people are not left with many alternatives.

The pressure to pull the lever for Wolf is high, but we need a critical examination of his platform and accomplishments to fully understand how poor our options are.

Soon after being elected in 2014, Wolf fulfilled his promise to expand Medicaid in the state of Pennsylvania, and our state’s uninsured rate has fallen to a record low of 5.5%. Wolf’s campaign website lists funding for senior citizens, medical marijuana law, and increased education funding as other accomplishments of his time in office. On the question of labor rights, Wolf has said that he would oppose work requirements for Medicaid, and and has spoken out against the recent Janus decision - but he has taken little proactive action on these fronts.

Republican (and Trump supporter) Scott Wagner’s gubernatorial campaign is, frankly, horrifying to working class people. Many points of Wagner’s platform outline attacks on labor unions, on immigrants and people of color, on LGBTQ+ people, and on reproductive justice. But Tom Wolf’s campaign in this election is, if anything, less progressive than in 2014. Wolf, like most mainstream Democrats, has remained on the defensive, focusing largely on what he will not support. Meanwhile, many of the meager reforms he campaigned on or promised years ago have long been dead-ended in his own administration or in Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered state legislature.

Dehumanization in PA Prisons & Detention Centers

Activists have long been calling for the closure of Berks Detention Center, which is essentially a prison housing children and adult immigrants indefinitely. Living conditions in the center have been documented to be unsafe and abusive, as we outlined in our July article. Governor Wolf is well aware of the deep injustices taking place at Berks. Activists have pressed him to close it, but for four years Wolf has insisted that his hands are tied - despite pages of research by activists and lawyers stating that he does indeed have the legal authority, and even obligation, to shut down Berks through the use of an Emergency Removal Order (ERO).

At the very least, in the absence of issuing an ERO, Wolf could give Berks County a financial incentive to shut down the center itself - for example, by turning it into a drug rehabilitation facility. Governor Wolf’s silence on this issue is deafening. It’s especially convenient for him to say there is nothing he can do, as he is likely worried that any change to the prison might affect his chances at re-election.

Governor Wolf has also failed incarcerated people – a population which is disproportionately comprised of people of color, poor people, and people with mental illness. His Department of Corrections (DOC) recently issued new procedures in which all inmate mail is to be opened and photocopied, and under which book donations are not accepted. On November 2, facing pressure from the prisoners’ rights movement, Wolf and the DOC reversed specific parts of this policy: hard-copy books can now be mailed to prisoners, but they will have to go through a screening process.

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Activists protest Gov. Wolf's repressive DOC procedures

Left unchanged by this reversal are prison mail policies, which were implemented under the flimsy guise of preventing drugs from entering prisons hidden in envelopes or packages. The DOC’s $4 million contract with Florida-based company Smart Communications to scan, digitize, and make searchable all inmate mail, however, confirms that the motivations for this policy are far from those stated of improving inmate & employee health. In fact, these policies are meant to further restrict the privacy, access to information, and basic communication rights of incarcerated people. Following the National Prison Strike in August and September, these policies will prevent people in prison from accessing political literature or organizing with fellow inmates against the gross injustices of the prison system.

Weak Record On Climate Change

Another issue on which Tom Wolf has remained silent is that of climate change, overlooking serious threats to Pennsylvania’s environment and even working hand-in-hand with oil and gas corporations who give him money. There are too many instances of Wolf’s environmental neglect to list here, but a glaring example is Wolf’s office pushing through permits for the Mariner East 2 Pipeline - a multi-million dollar project built by Sunoco Logistics - despite clear dangers and deficiencies with the proposed construction.

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The Mariner East 2 Pipeline, currently under construction, will cross the state

Fracking companies have long been attracted to areas of rural Pennsylvania where they can extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation; as a result, a majority of PA’s lawmakers take fracking money – including Tom Wolf. Wolf greatly disappointed climate activists in 2014 when he refused to support a ban on fracking. Instead, he made a campaign promise to initiate an extraction tax on fracking companies to fund education (“The money we need for education,” he told a classroom in this 2014 campaign ad, “is right under your feet!”).

Public education is desperately underfunded in Pennsylvania, especially in urban districts like Philadelphia, but this move would tie PA’s education budget to environmentally destructive practices. It doesn’t matter, however – four years later, Wolf has failed to build support for such a tax among PA legislators, and this time around, his campaign barely touches on climate change at all. He’s also fallen flat on a 2016 statement promising that his office would crack down on methane regulations. His administration now says that they have no timeline or plan for making this happen.

An Alternative To Lesser-Evilism

How did it come to this? As the Republicans moved sharply right, the Democrats have followed in their wake, filling the space ever further from the needs of the working class and repeating that if we do not accept the Wolfs, we will end up with the Wagners. This 'lesser-evilism' has long been the party’s default strategy to dilute demands from the left and keep them within the bounds of what is acceptable to its corporate paymasters. The end result is ever weaker Democratic candidates and ever lower voter turnout.

Growing numbers of Pennsylvanians are no longer satisfied with this false dichotomy and have flocked to socialist and progressive organizations, or have supported those organizations’ campaigns for change. DSA membership has boomed in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and while the victories of Pittsburgh DSA members Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato took place within the Democratic Party, the energy around their campaigns show us that the social forces exist to take socialist campaigns outside the Democratic Party. In Philadelphia, voters have registered as independent or third-party in historic numbers.

2019 will provide opportunities to engage newly radicalizing people in local city elections. Socialist Alternative is ready and willing to do our share of the work to win real material gains for working class Pennsylvanians. We invite our co-thinkers in DSA, Our Revolution, Movement for a People’s Party, Reclaim Philadelphia and others to work with us and take up the challenge of running serious, independent socialist candidates in well chosen races in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on a bold program of improved Medicare for All, a $15/hour minimum wage, rights and dignity for immigrants and incarcerated people, a moratorium on fracking coupled with a green jobs program, and taxing the rich to pay for it. We must make the most of these opportunities to put ourselves in the strongest possible position for the high-stakes 2020 election cycle.

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March for a Sanctuary City in August 2018

Alongside the election campaigns, recent movements on the streets have resulted in small but significant victories like that of Occupy ICE PHL successfully ending the PARS data sharing contract between the city of Philadelphia and ICE. 2019 will provide new and bigger opportunities to build both movements in the streets and in workplaces. Likewise, let’s work together to build the strongest, broadest united front actions to confront the emboldened right and to support demands arising from the growing movements of young, radicalizing people for liberation from all oppressions and for justice on all fronts. As the recent spate of escalating right-wing violence makes clear, there is a pressing need for the left to provide a bold alternative to the demoralizing, milquetoast, shoulder-shrugging, hand-wringing, responses from the Democrats.