State Rep. Jesse White says he’s learned from his mistakes after admitting to a cyberbullying scandal last year that has enveloped him in controversy while his Democratic primary challenger, Tom Casciola, thinks the incumbent’s damaged reputation is hurting the district.
White, a four-term incumbent, and Casciola briefly served together on the Cecil Township board of supervisors in 2003 a few years before White’s successful run for state House in 2006. The two Cecil Township residents are now political opponents trying to win the Democratic nomination for the newly configured 46th House District that stretches into Allegheny County.
White’s political career appeared in jeopardy last year when he admitted to bullying constituents, political colleagues and Marcellus Shale industry officials using anonymous user names on various online message board and social media platforms. He has faced relentless criticism from protesters demanding he resign, but White has defied those calls and has pushed forward with his candidacy.
“I think I’ve make amends by rededicating myself to the job,” White said. “I’m using laser focus to not allow my detractors to get the best of me. It’s something I’m very proud of, actually.”
One of those critics has been Casciola, 59, who has spent the past 22 years as a Cecil Township supervisor. He said he’s received general support for his candidacy in addition to complaints about the incumbent.
“I think a portion of it is about him because he’s the incumbent and has to stand on his record,” Casciola said. “But most people I’ve talked to would’ve voted for me even if he hadn’t gotten in hot water. I would’ve had the support anyway. I’m more than just a vote against Jesse White.”
He said White has strained the relationships with his constituents and local municipalities, which has caused damage to the district’s standing in the state.
“I think the general consensus is that Jesse White has soured everything with people in the state and those municipalities,” Casciola said. “There’s no way he can work with anyone any more.”
White, 35, disagreed, saying he has made progress introducing himself to voters and local leaders in the new areas of his district. He acknowledged his relationship with state Sen. Tim Solobay has been strained for several years, but pointed to his strong bonds with senators Matt Smith and Wayne Fontana in Allegheny County.
“At the end of the day, voters care more about their families and their communities and knowing someone is fighting for them,” White said. “That weighs a lot heavier than the errors in judgment I’ve made, not that it doesn’t matter.”
The candidates also have vastly different opinions on a variety of issues facing the 46th District.
On Marcellus Shale drilling, White says he strongly supports a “reasonable and fair” severance tax that would be a dedicated funding stream to the state in addition to the current drilling impact fee that is mainly funneled to affected municipalities. Casciola said he supports the impact fee, but would not be in favor of a severance tax to “fund holes” in the state budget.
The two also disagree on the provisions in Act 13 that initially pulled local zoning control for drilling from local municipalities to the state. That provision ultimately was struck down and deemed unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. White said he worked to have the zoning provision overturned, while Casciola said he would like to revisit the issue to allow for more uniform zoning laws that still address the versatility in each local community.
In regard to wine and spirits sales, Casciola said he is not in favor of privatizing the state store system, but would like to abolish the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
“I think it can still be done by the state, but (the PLCB) is out of touch and out of date,” Casciola said, although he did not elaborate on a specific plan.
White said he prefers a “hybrid proposal” that moves to partial privatization and modernizes the state store system.
“Something that moves us to more convenience, but doesn’t totally divest the state from being involved in the system,” White said.
In regard to the state employee pension situation, White said there are no immediate solutions and pointed to Act 120 that he voted for in 2010 that honors current benefits while increasing employee contributions and vesting years.
“We have to kind of let Act 120 work its magic,” White said. “A knee-jerk reaction would be the worst thing you can do.”
Casciola said the state should be locked in to benefits for current recipients, but should begin to move to a typical business model of defined contributions from employees.
“I can’t pretend to know the arguments for both, but it’s unsustainable to keep pushing it down the road,” Casciola said.
Casciola said, if elected, he’ll be a fresh face in Harrisburg and listen to both sides of an issue before making a decision.
“I have showed in all the years I’ve been in office that I can work with any group that comes along,” Casciola said. “There are always two sides to an issue. I’ve never been considered a fence-sitter and they always feel like they’ve got a fair shake with me.”
White said he’s learned many lessons over the past year and is excited to move forward as a legislator if he’s re-elected.
“I’m at the point in my career where I have the perfect mix of experience and energy,” White said. “I have the drive and determination to work very hard. I truly care what I do and care about the people I represent.”
The winner in the Democratic primary will likely face political newcomer Jason Ortitay of South Fayette, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary.