Pa.’s Auditor General on Legalizing Pot, Spartan Races, and (Maybe) Running for Governor

We sat down with Eugene DePasquale, the Pennsylvania official you might not know but should.

auditor general eugene depasquale

L: Auditor General Eugene Depasquale, R: DePasquale during a Spartan Race in Killington, Vermont. | Photos via the Auditor General’s Office

It’s possible you’ve never heard of Eugene DePasquale.

DePasquale is the state auditor general, an office that often generates quizzical looks when mentioned to people who don’t follow politics obsessively. But the position is crucial: DePasquale is responsible for tracking government finances (meaning taxpayer money), but on a state-wide scale. You could think of him as Pennsylvania’s most important accountant.

A 46-year-old Democrat from Pittsburgh, DePasquale was elected auditor general in 2012 (and reelected in 2016). Before that, he served in the state House of Representatives from 2007 to 2013, representing the 95th District in York county. (He moved to York in 1997 and served as director of economic development for the city from 2002 to 2003.)

As a politician, DePasquale has established a consistent progressive voice: He’s called for better school security and efforts to curb gun violence, worked to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, supported women’s access to safe abortions, and called for the legalization of marijuana. He’s also pledged transparency: He was both the first state legislator and the first statewide elected official to post his expenses online.

When he’s not politicking, DePasquale trains for and competes almost obsessively in Spartan races (extreme endurance-testing obstacle courses). He loves Star Wars. He can talk a lot about baseball.

We recently sat down with DePasquale, who’s considering running for governor in 2022. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Explain your role to readers in five or fewer words.
Pennsylvania’s chief fiscal watchdog.

You’ve been in this office for more than five years. Do you know how many audits you’ve conducted in that time?
We average about 5,000 a year, so at this point, we’re probably at about 27,500 — just shy.

That’s a lot. Which are the three most important, in your opinion? 
The untested rape kits, the child abuse hotline, and our audit of the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, you called for enhanced reviews of safety at Pennsylvania schools. Based on what you’ve learned, what are your major concerns?
Two things: One, sometimes there is a lack of coordination [between schools and] local law enforcement. And two, there are no active shooter drills [in Pennsylvania schools].

Should schools be arming teachers?
I’m speaking as a citizen here, and as a parent with two kids in public school — I am opposed to that idea. In my work with [Gov. Tom Wolf] in our task force across the state, we find very little evidence that that is an effective strategy. In fact, most law enforcement would argue that it actually can make situations more dangerous.

When it comes to gun violence and other contentious political issues, you’ve been one of the most outspoken state officials in the wake of the 2016 election. What is your role, as auditor general, during such a contentious political time?
There are areas that are, to be blunt, in the wheelhouse of my job. For instance, [President Trump], the horrible way he’s handling DACA and the Dreamers — look, I’d like to think it’s a point of principle that we’ve got to help keep these kids stay in the United States. But there’s also an economic impact. And as the chief fiscal officer, if the president has his way on a mass deportation, not only do I think that’s morally reprehensible, it actually would have a dramatic negative affect on the state’s economy and the state’s tax base.

What does it take to get action politically in the wake of one of your more high-profile audits?
When a school board is doing something stupid and we call them out on it, and then the voters show up at the next school board meeting — that sometime can drive the change. When it is audit-related, for my broader statewide perspective, I’ve got to be committed to being in it for the long haul. It’s got to be about every year going back and fighting to try to get the appropriate resources to fix the issues we found in the audit.

With the untested rape kits, it was first waking the public up to realize that there were thousands of untested rape kits. Then it was working with police departments to let them know about the new law [requiring departments to report “backlogged” rape kits], getting them all to comply with the law, and then finding the way to get the resources in to get the number of untested kits down every single year. And we’re making great progress here. When we did that audit … there were about 4,000 untested kits, when there was only 40 percent [police department] compliance. Now you have 90 percent compliance, and we’re down to under 900.

You’re a Democrat — how do you approach issues with people who disagree with you politically?
I have tried a strategy which hopefully has been successful, which is: Call [the facts] like you see them. If there’s a liberal program, even one that I might agree with, and it’s not working, you’ve got to be honest about that. Same thing goes the other way around. Because if you’re going to be involved in government and politics, it’s about finding ways to get stuff done, and if you attack someone and say they’re a no-good SOB, on the next issue where you agree with them, it’s hard for them to say, “Oh yeah, I’m going to work with them now.”

What can other politicians learn from that?
Look, looking at my record, I’m clearly left of center on a host of political issues. But I do get concerned about the state of our legislative process. It used to be, somebody started out with an idea and you kind of worked toward the middle. Now, people are afraid to even negotiate in good faith.

Last year, you became Pennsylvania’s first statewide elected official to support legalizing recreational marijuana use. What does the state have to gain from doing so?
In 2012, I had taken a view of “Let’s see what happens in the other states.” Now we know. The evidence is in. Huge tax revenue, saving money by less criminal convictions, less breaking apart of families. And when you regulate [marijuana], you make sure that people are getting safer stuff. The added bonus is that in a couple of states, we’ve seen teen usage go down and opioid-use reductions. And by the way, the estimated revenue we put together is about $350 million per year.

What do you think of our state House of Representatives since you’ve been out of it?
I don’t miss it. It can be a frustrating place — that’s sort of the nature of it. It should be hard to get items passed into law, so while that part of it may be frustrating, I get it. But I’ve been very disappointed in the lack of support, for example, in environmental issues and the knee-jerk reaction to marijuana. There’s been such an effort to win soundbite wars among the base that reasonable, rational policy breakthroughs are very challenging today.

What do you think of Democrats’ chances of winning back the U.S. House?
Donald Trump did something being president that he clearly didn’t do enough as a candidate, and that is uniting left and left of center. I think you’re going to see a lot of interesting candidates, specifically from Southeastern Pennsylvania, that are going to shake up the national political spectrum and both the state legislature and Congress.

Any candidates in particular?
Madeleine Dean is a friend. I think she’s going to shake things up in D.C. I think Chrissy Houlahan is another one.

What does the Democratic party need to do to secure support?
I don’t think it is enough just to be against Trump. I think there has to be a good progressive agenda put out for the country — on how we can improve Obamacare to make it even better, a medicare for all … a real plan to address climate change, real gun safety — like, put it out there!

And this is where I sometimes disagree with my more liberal friends: I think if you’re in a more conservative district, you need to recognize that. People need to represent their district.

You mulled a run against Rep. Scott Perry in the newly created 10th Congressional District earlier this year. Why did you decide against it?
I love what I’m doing, and I think I can be more effective doing this for the people of Pennsylvania.

Will you run for governor in 2022?
When January 2021 hits, at that point I will need another job …. The short answer is, of all the offices out there, [governor] is one that certainly I’d be very interested in pursuing.

DePasquale poses with a lightsaber. | Photo via the Auditor General’s Office

You were born in Pittsburgh, but moved to York in 1997 and served as a state representative for the area between 2007 and 2013. Tom Wolf is from York, and his running mate, Braddock mayor John Fetterman, is from York but moved to outside Pittsburgh —
He did the reverse. But I didn’t have tattoos removed and he didn’t have them done. Nothing against that. I like Spartan races and all that stuff, I played college football, but I would be a big baby on the tattoos.

What do you think of Wolf and Fetterman as a duo?
Personally, I like them both. It is clearly two different people, and I think a good team is where you recognize each one has their strengths. So if they can develop a good rapport personally, I think it actually could be a fantastic team.

They’re running against Scott Wagner, who is also from York. What is it about York?
I think it’s just freak circumstances. Here’s the reason, and this is just political analysis: Myself, Tom Wolf, John Fetterman, Scott Wagner — this isn’t about personality, we’re four very different people, and the paths we got to where we are are four completely different paths. There is this one unique characteristic, and that is that we all have this York tie.

What about Philly? What’s your favorite thing to do here?
My favorite thing is when we get to a Phillies game. I liked watching the NBA playoffs, but I’m not really that into the regular season, although The Process obviously is the buzz on Twitter these days. I’ve been to a couple of Eagles games — and congrats to the Eagles. But I love going to major league baseball games. And my mom is from South Philly. So if I didn’t say having a cheesesteak, I’d get in a lot of trouble with my mom.

How long have you been doing Spartan races?
Since 2015. I’ve done about 12 so far. The toughest one course-wise was Vermont. But the toughest one, when you throw in the elements, was Iceland.

Iceland! Where all have you gone?
I’ve been to Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Palmerton for the Blue Mountain ski resort in Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Iceland.

The Iceland was the Ultra World Championship, which I qualified for. The time when I knew this was the craziest thing I did was when we’re coming down the mountain on the second lap, and it’s now just a sheet of ice, and there’s this big burly Icelandic guy with an ambulance, and they’re putting someone in the ambulance. And this guy, he looks like Thor, and he says to me, “You guys are crazy.” And I’m like, if the big burly Icelandic guy thinks we’re crazy, maybe we’re crazy.

Probably. How do you find the time to train for these?
So like today, 6 a.m., I was at Power Train for an hour. Today was torso day. You just get your butt out of bed at 5 [a.m.]. You go train. And I tell [the trainers], “If I’m not dead, keep pushing.” Then the hour’s up and you go home and you go about your day.

Wow. Anything else we missed in this interview?
It would be great if the Pirates and Phillies play in the playoffs. I would admittedly root for the Pirates, but it would be great for the state’s tax base either way. Oh, and I’ve seen it poo-poohed on Twitter, but I do think the Sixers should go after LeBron.