Interview: Will Katie McGinty Choose Jobs or the Environment?

The Democratic candidate for governor says history proves she can do both.

1528575_485357494918805_1472139722_nTalking to Katie McGinty, the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania governor, can be an intimidating experience. It’s not that she’s not friendly—she is, very much so — but she’s one of those people who focuses the full power of her attention and eye contact on you when she’s speaking: You are being communicated with. Let there be no doubt.

McGinty is a former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection under Ed Rendell; previously she served as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under Bill Clinton. (Indeed, former Vice President Al Gore endorsed her gubernatorial bid.) Since 2008, she has been in the private sector — working at and serving on the board of directors of several energy-related firms.

In other words: She’s really interested in energy and the environment. McGinty talked this week to Philly Mag about those two issues and how they relate to the Marcellus Shale, whether jobs can be created by environmentally minded businesses, and her plan to distinguish herself from the rest of the Democratic field:

One of the jobs of the primary voter, of course, is to pick a primary candidate that they hope will beat the Republican (Gov. Tom Corbett) in November. You don’t have the personal fortune of Tom Wolf, who has managed to use that to great effect. You don’t have the advantage of being a current office holder like Allyson Schwartz or Rob McCord. Nor John Hanger’s devotion to a particular topic. There’s a couple months until primary; what’s your path to victory?

Look, elections are about choices and differences. The distinction between myself and Tom Corbett could not be more clear and compelling. One, I am a person who has fought for 25 years to protect the environment while creating jobs. Tom Corbett has proved that environment and jobs go together by single-handedly doing a terrible job on the environment and driving us to the bottom of the barrel in job creation.

When I was secretary, I drove forward legislation that enabled Pennsylvania to be the first industrial state in the country to pass a law requiring the use of renewable energy. Now is that good for our economy? You bet. By the time I left office, 3,000 jobs created. Pennsylvania was No. 1 in wind energy jobs and No. 2 in the country in solar energy jobs.

Second, I come to this race with a deep passion for working families, for me it’s not just a talking point, it is where I come from. Other people might have a plan, but I have personal life experience that says absolutely I am gonna fight for pensions. Why? Because I saw my dad who walked the beat for 35 years get very little in salary and he earned retirement security. You bet I am gonna fight for minimum wage, and that restaurant workers are treated equally like every other worker. Why? because I saw my mom go to work at night at a restaurant, why would her eight hours be worth any less than anyone else’s eight hours? For me, these are not just talking points, they are a deeply personally held passion.

You are probably best known for your history on the environment: You have served in head positions with the state as the head of the environmental protection agency as well as in the federal government. In fact, you have the endorsement of former Vice President Al Gore. At the same time, probably the biggest issue in the campaign is jobs and creating jobs and how to get job growth started in the state. The centerpiece of your job plan as I understand is to grow natural gas jobs, but you also want to propose a severance tax and more regulation of the Marcellus Shale. There are a lot of competing priorities there. Which one is the highest priority?

Listen, job growth is my central focus and priority, and has been throughout my 25-year career. I have been privileged to be at both the federal and the state level to protect the environment. I have always achieved that responsibility through innovative policies that drove job creation. When I worked with President Clinton, we did things like start the Brownfield program that created jobs by cleaning up abandoned properties in neighborhoods and towns and the result was thousands of jobs created across the country as abandoned properties came back to life. As secretary, I drove policies in energy efficiency, I drove policies in renewable energy, I drove policies in green buildings that led to the creation of 3,000 good jobs in Pennsylvania and $1 billion of new investment.

There is no greater joy than repeatedly proving that by protecting the environment, we drive good job creation — as compared to the bill of goods we have been sold for generations, that “if we dare protect our land, air and environment, we sacrifice our economy.” My career and my track record is proof that that is false.

You do favor the severance tax (on gas production in the Marcellus Shale) but when Gamesa shut down its wind turbine plant in Cambria County earlier this year, you put out a press release blaming Governor Corbett for that failure, because, in part, “he actively advocated for increased taxes on the wind energy sector.” So why is it bad to tax wind energy production, but good to tax gas energy production?

This governor actively worked against good manufacturing jobs in his own state in two ways. One, becoming one of the only governors to oppose extension of the federal production tax credit for renewable energy, and to stand against bipartisan legislation here in Pennsylvania that would have expanded the market for renewable energy. And in the face of that aggressive and hostile set of actions by the governor, the company had to shut down. And hundreds of good manufacturing jobs were lost. … It was unacceptable to say the least.

Well there is still the question about taxes. Why is it OK for gas but not for wind?

You have to look at the entire financial and capital picture for the energy industry. It is absolutely the case that both the nuclear and fossil fuel industry are supported by a series of tax incentives at the state and federal level. The question was only leveling the playing field to provide some incentives for renewable energy, and looking at the big picture, in terms of where our electricity comes from. The legacy fleet of power plants that we have were not only supported by public dollars, they were absolute 100 percent bought and paid for by rate payers through the monopoly structure of the legacy utilities industry. There was no market risk, there was no competing for business. What we’re offering to the renewable energy generation is a small fraction of what legacy and traditional energy has always enjoyed.

You want to institute a new funding formula for state schools, one takes into account number of students served and the cost of instruction. Here’s another chance for you to distinguish yourself from Tom Corbett — because he’s also criticized the funding formula lately and he’s called for a commission to fix it. How do you think your approach might be different from his?

Tom Corbett only needs to have a little chat with himself and say, “Tom, stop gerrymandering the school formula.” “Okay, Tom! I will!” The fact that the funding of our schools has become a political back-room deal is brought to you, totally, by Tom Corbett. And it just… it strains belief a little bit too much that now he’s aghast about it. When Ed Rendell was in office, we — like just about every other state in the union — had an objective, transparent school funding formula based on common sense things like “What’s the population in this school district?” “What’s the average income in this school district?” “What’s the percentage of students with special needs in this school district?” In a McGinty administration, it will be that transparency, that accountability and that common sense that will come back to the fore and push out what Tom Corbett has done, which is to make our children’s future a matter of political arm-wrestle.

This is looking like this it’s gonna be an excellent year for Democrats. But it appears likely that the governor will still have a Republican-dominated legislature to deal with when he or she gets there. I know you’re not living in Philadelphia anymore, but you do kind of have that city background in a state where rural-urban interests often collide. How do you move an agenda in the face of those kinds of challenges?

Well, listen… track records speak volumes. And my track record is second-to-none in working with our legislature here in Pennsylvania to get extraordinary pieces of legislation and new regulations approved and in place and driving Pennsylvania to a leadership role in the country. Similarly, I have a long and strong record in Washington, even up against the Newt Gingrich Congress, of driving successful initiatives through like historical protections to drinking water, historic new protections to food quality, and landmark pieces of legislation that I helped to get done when I was in President Clinton’s White House. Here in Pennsylvania, against all odds, we became the first coal producing state and the first industrial state to pass a renewable portfolio standard, requiring the use of renewable energy. That was an initiative that I spearheaded on behalf of Governor Rendell. Similarly, we became the first industrial state to put in place regulations requiring a 90 percent reduction in toxic mercury from coal-fired power plants. I did that in working with a largely Republican legislature.

These are things that I’ve gotten done. And it’s not just about co-sponsoring a piece of legislation, and it’s not just about stopping bad things that others might try to get done. It’s about having the track record that time and time again I found the way to bring people together and have the coalitions needed to move our country or our state forward. And that’s what I’ve done for 25 years.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

Philly Mag is profiling and interviewing the major candidates for governor. In January, we profiled Allyson Schwartz. Last month, we interviewed John Hanger. Stay tuned throughout the spring as we chat with other candidates.