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Does The Pennsylvania Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Race Signal a Paradigm Shift in Politics?

05/23/2014 10:39 am ET | Updated Jul 21, 2014

Career politicians beware. If the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary race for Governor is any indication, the normal rules for politics are a-changing. The original front-runner, Representative Allyson Schwartz, had the deepest government experience in the field of four contenders, 23 years as a legislator, first in the state Senate and then in the U.S. House.

She also has a proven record of accomplishments for Pennsylvania families, like the CHIP program she pushed through, the Hire Our Veterans Act, and helping to write parts of the Affordable Care Act becoming one of the first politicians to boldly tout her role in Obamacare. She was for gay marriage before it became popular, being of only a handful of state Senators who opposed DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) in 1996. How ironic that gay marriage became a reality in Pennsylvania on the same day as the Gubernatorial primary that she did not win.

She lost to Tom Wolf, an outsider, a businessman from a small town who poured 10 million dollars of his own money into the campaign. (I guess that part of politics hasn't changed.)

When I went door to door to campaign for Allyson, the majority of her base still supported her, but many said she was a career politician and they wanted something new in Harrisburg.

I remember one conversation in particular. A woman said she was voting for Wolf because she liked his views better. I said they have the same views. Then she said she didn't like career politicians. I said Schwartz is one of the good ones with a proven record of getting things done. Isn't that like throwing the baby out with the bath water? Then she said she liked that Wolf had his own money to spend because he would need it against Corbett (another constant theme.) I said the Democrats would support financially whoever won the nomination. I also said Allyson is from our area, so will help us while Wolf will help the York area.

Nothing I said really mattered at that point because this woman had made up her mind. But I did enjoy the exchange and felt I had some good comebacks.

The issue of her gender never came up, but I felt it was there like an elephant in the room. Most of the constituents supporting Wolf I spoke to were men, although there were a handful of women. Schwartz is the only woman representing Pennsylvania in congress. So our state is a little behind the curve in that category.

Another issue that constantly came up was voter disappointment that Allyson criticized Wolf in the debates and in ads. I had a harder time addressing this because deep down it bothered me too. I usually said "but she didn't attack him personally, just his business practices." But that felt like a weak defense.

This brings me to another rule in politics that seems to have shifted in this primary: attacking the frontrunner. I really believe Allyson was uncomfortable doing this because it is not her nature. She is a very positive person who is in politics for the right reasons: serving the public. And I don't remember her ever going on the attack before, maybe because she was always the frontrunner.

Well, in this case it seems to have backfired for her and State Treasurer Rob McCord. Katie McGinty, a candidate I liked but felt lacked experience (there was something Kennedy-esque about her), wisely stayed above the fray, refusing to get into the mud. Comparing the standards of negative advertising and debate attacks over the decades and across the boards what was said and done was very mild. However, it seems to me the public has reached a saturation point with nasty, negative politics. Maybe it's because of all of the vitriol in D.C. Maybe it's because politics has become a blood sport.

In my campaign journeys one of the most interesting encounters was with a wealthy Democrat who told me he was angry at Allyson Schwartz for her attacks and accused her of "acting like a Republican" and that I was taking him away from his Jeopardy show. He practically shut the door in my face. The funny thing is, I wasn't upset with him, mostly amused.

He had passion, was honest, and let me know his opinion. I really didn't think fast enough on my feet. I could have asked "have you ever known of a campaign where the frontrunner was not attacked?" I could have said "What about the 2008 Presidential primary where things got pretty nasty between Hillary and Obama?" The notion that Democrats are better than Republicans at being nice is a false premise.

I could have said you are acting like a Republican by being rude to me, a fellow Democrat, giving of her free time to promote her favorite candidate. Overall though, my canvassing experience was very positive with people thanking and supporting me for my efforts.

The fact that the negative attacks became an issue in itself is to me a good thing. I know Allyson Schwartz is a resilient person and she will bounce back and find other ways to serve the public but her reputation did take a hit from this with her base.

When I watched a debate with the four candidates, I remember thinking that Wolf seemed too nice. He didn't become angry or fiercely defend himself when attacked and it made me wonder how he would do in his campaign when the GOP incumbent Tom Corbett came after him.

Now my thinking is shifting. Maybe it's a positive thing the negative ads backfired. Maybe Pennsylvania will become a model for other races. Maybe politicians will see this primary as a bellwether for the mood of the electorate who is fed up with the nastiness. And maybe nice guys can finish first. I hope so and we will see in November.