Capital-Star Q+A: Reentering public life for governor run, Melissa Hart talks regulations, abortion

‘Getting to know people in everyday life, and looking at what unfortunately, oftentimes what government does to them, instead of for them, are the things that drive me to be a candidate’

By: - March 4, 2022 7:02 am

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, of Allegheny County, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2022 (submitted photo).

Melissa Hart, 59 of Allegheny County, is no stranger to public life — but she’s been on recess from it for a decade plus.

A former member of Congress, Hart who has also served in the state Senate, jumped into the crowded GOP gubernatorial race late last year arguing her mix of elected experience and Pennsylvania roots make her the ideal candidate to replace Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

The only woman field, she chatted with the Capital-Star in January — the day after a debate in Lawrence County — about her platform and background.

Capital-Star: Why do you want to be governor?

Melissa Hart: Well, I care about Pennsylvania. It was funny, one of the candidates said last night something about being the person who’s lived here the longest. And I find that pretty hard to believe. Maybe because my dad was transferred when I was a little child to Ohio for a couple years, Charlie Gerow has lived here longer than I have, but I don’t know about that. 

I’m 59. I went to school here [and] graduated from a public high school in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. I went to law school at Pitt. I went to undergrad at Washington & Jefferson in Washington County. [Pennsylvania] is my home, it’s the state I care about.

Because I saw policies that were really irritating and policies that were actually preventing people from doing the things they wanted to do. The property tax issue was one … the American Dream is to have your own home, [property taxes] were preventing people from having [a] home. 

I ended up running and winning in a [state Senate] race that we didn’t have much money, but we had a lot of heart and interest in. And a lot of legwork is what won me the seat against an incumbent when I was 28 years old. 

So serving in the state Senate, getting to know people in everyday life, and looking at what unfortunately, oftentimes what government does to them, instead of for them, are the things that drive me to be a candidate for governor …

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… What I’ve seen especially, and it was really accelerated during the pandemic, is a state that is unresponsive and uncaring. There are aggressive rules and aggressive actions in all of the state agencies that the governor has deployed — Department of Revenue, Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Labor and Industry —  that instead of assisting people if they run afoul of a regulation, assisting them to comply after them. It’s all punitive. And even worse than that, sometimes it’s simply unresponsive.

I’m the president of a homeowners’ association. We’re trying to do a small project, we have open space, and we had a pond that was drained. We’ve been trying to get the [Department of Environmental Protection] to just give us a letter of authorization to proceed with the plan that we submitted in the spring. They basically are telling us that we have to wait, we just have to wait, you just have to wait, you just have to wait …

… Business people, especially when they’re trying to build or even rehab old buildings, the challenges that they have to deal with regarding the slow pace at which the state responds, is really part of what is the damper on the economy. And it’s also part of what causes people to just decide, “Well, I’m gonna go do it in Ohio.”

There’s the policy side, and then there’s basically managing the executive branch and making it be responsive to people. We’ve had divided government under [Democratic Gov.] Tom Wolf, and it’s been —I don’t know. It seems to me more Tom Wolf in his recent response to the congressional redistricting bill, “Well, they know what I want.” Not “let’s have a meeting, let’s sit down …”

… If the governor’s administration ran on issues, then that governor needs to work with the Legislature, like a legislator, to do the things — be a player. We’ve seen that in other governors. But this one really has shown a complete lack of respect for or just a lack of understanding for how the legislative process is supposed to work.

I’ve been the senator negotiating with the governor. I’ve been the congressman negotiating with the president. It is an important part of the process. And you also tease out issues when you have these types of meetings that one or the other side may not be aware of. It’s important to understand those issues and solve the problem, not try to dictate and that is, that’s the kind of governor that I want to be and the reason I’m running.

C-S: I’m a legislative reporter. Gov. Tom Wolf has made clear that he doesn’t want to negotiate with the General Assembly. At times, that relationship there is strained. But there is a candidate in the GOP primary who would say the same issues existed with [Republican] Gov. Tom Corbett. 

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Bad relationships between the governor and the Legislature and a lack of productivity in that relationship seems to have been something that the branches have dealt with for a decade. As someone who has legislative experience, do you think there’s anything on the legislative side that needs to change? People will call for redistricting reform, campaign finance reform, ethics reform. Are there any of those reforms that you would want to champion as governor?

MH: As far as legislative reforms?

C-S: You know, both Gov. Corbett, Gov. Wolf, both of them have made reforming the state overall top priorities. They’ve called for campaign finance reform-

MH: I’m most interested in things that protect the taxpayers. I ran as a reform candidate, I was a reformer working on issues. It wasn’t as much to reform the state government as it was to reform the agency rules and other things that are controlled by the government, you know, like over-regulation and things like that. 

As far as the Legislature, right, I think that there is room. Really, it’s around the edges and it’s not something that would make a major change in the state, but I think that the expense system and some of those things need to be updated.

There was a young legislator who served and is retired actually now, but he had been an intern for me as a friend, [former state Rep.] Jim Christiana [of Beaver County]. And when he was in office, they went for more open records so that everyone can have access to the information and all that kind of thing. And they’ve done a very good job, by the way, of opening up and giving access to the public for what the legislation is and what’s been considered.

The other is expenses, not only having the public being able to access, but I think that there just needs to be an overhaul. The per-diem is still something that exists. For a legislator, it’s just extra money that they can get tax-free.  I don’t think most legislators are dishonest or anything. I just think that it opens the door for accusations when they don’t just submit the receipt. 

I think the technology allows them to submit their actual expenses, and they can be reimbursed for the actual legitimate expense for being a legislator.They’re on the road constantly. But the per diem, I think, is something that the public rejects. And I think that that could be overhauled …

… I think one of the problems may be that they meet too often or too long in the year; that the legislative session has become never-ending, which is an issue for the public. It’s hard for them, obviously, to keep in touch with what’s going on. And then there’s a lot of movement and a lot of bills seem to be produced that really don’t make much difference.

I think if they had a collapsed work schedule, we might find more citizen-legislators. And we also might find that more of the public is able to get their heads around what the legislators are actually working on. 

C-S: What would be the first thing you’d want to do as governor; what would be your first act on your first day?

MH: You know, that’s a goofy question, to be honest with you. Because the governor is supposed to be a person who deliberates with the Legislature. One guy last night, I think decried executive orders, and then the first day of office, he wanted to do orders. 

But I think in his case, I think it’s [Dave] White. He made a very good point about RGGI [The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] because that was an executive order. That’s something the governor can do by executive order is remove it … If executive orders are in order, I think they usually relate to undoing poor executive orders of prior governors.

I want to present an agenda that is a jumpstart for Pennsylvania. So presenting that to the Legislature, these are the things that I’d like to get done, and I’d like to work together with you to accomplish them. That would be a better system of corporate taxation. We have the highest corporate income taxes in the country that are flat, at a 10% rate. That’s inappropriate. Talk about a way to dissuade people from setting up shop in Pennsylvania.

Along with that goes regulatory reform. Because, again, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of the issues with our [state] agencies is that they have the power to affect the economy in their choice to over-regulate and be punitive, versus to guide and assist businesses with compliance.

Also education reform. We’ve had so much pain inflicted on our kids around education, even before the pandemic, I am a supporter of school choice and charter schools, public and private. I believe that that could have been a way to prevent problems that we had during the pandemic. 

I understand schools responding early in the pandemic didn’t have much information. It’s the same as when the government said, “let’s close for a couple of weeks.” And that information — I think it’s important to share that information with the public. And the public is the group that needs to be able to make the decision …

… I’d mentioned before, I think [in] the first debate, that when you look at the statistics, and you drill down, it’s mostly women that aren’t returning to the workforce as quickly as men. And the reason goes back to the instability of the school system. One day, the [school] board may decide to keep the kids at home. And so what’s a parent to do? Their lives are built around stability. Mom, Dad, go work, kids go to school. That is the majority of families and the state can’t keep pulling the rug out from underneath these parents who are trying to make a living. 

I think that we need, now that we know more about this particular COVID-19 [variant] or any other pandemic, we need to plan to be able to respond to that as well. That’ll be a first day thing. Part of the agenda is to make sure that we’re prepared for future challenges such as that. And we do need to have a talk about stockpiles of treatment machines and things that we did not have before. 

And we also need to rebuild the Rainy Day Fund, by the way. It’s been depleted under this administration, and it’s an embarrassment. When they had significant resources coming into the state government, they spent it, and that was inappropriate.

C-S: I have to push back on that because the Rainy Day Fund has gone up. I don’t know the number, but I know it has an administration. Part of that definitely lies with the GOP Legislature as well, but it has gone up.

[Editor’s note: The Rainy Day Fund had $2.9 billion as of September 2021.]

MH: I’m saying that what I would do is put out my agenda, that we need to rebuild the Rainy Day Fund. That’s a team effort. Again, it’s a team effort regarding budgeting and budgeting is among the legislators and the governor.

C-S: Yeah.

MH: I’m not putting blame squarely on Governor Wolf for every woe. 

C-S: Like I said, just wanted to point that out.

MH: But they were exacerbated under this administration. I mean, I do things differently.

C-S: So you’re talking about families. And this is a two-part question. Because you gave an answer about abortion last night, where you said your ultimate goal would be to “eliminate abortion as an option.” But you also said you want to invest in pregnancy care, and make sure women’s lives feel as valued as the child they might be carrying. So just first off, on eliminating abortion, do you mean you’d sign a six week ban? Like, what would that look like policy wise?

MH: So what I said is the overarching what I believe and hope will happen someday. 

C-S: Okay.

MH: So I’m not going to get into a policy plan, because I don’t know what the court will do. And you know, we don’t know exactly what the wording would be, what would be constitutional, all that sort of thing. 

My point is, and I probably should have stated it more clearly, is that right now, there are women who are in distress and pregnant who think that their only option is abortion. And if you ask a woman who’s not pregnant and not in a distressed pregnancy who’s not trying to be political, she would not choose abortion as the number one option for pregnant women.

I don’t think anyone really likes abortion — unless [they’re] making money off of it, and that’s another story. So, ultimately, when I say eliminating abortion as an option is that of the mindset of public — just kill it (the fetus?) — is sad and hopeless. And it’s someplace that I would like us not to be in the future…

… I think [we need] a system that would support both the pregnant woman and changing the laws, if Roe [vs. Wade] was overturned. And even if not, honestly, I would support Pregnancy Care Centers either way. If we want to make the argument that lives are very important, we want to make the argument that we need to be more compassionate, this is a great place for us to go.

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Not only are we going to help the mom through this distress period of her life, but we’re also going to help her if she chooses to raise a child. There’s resources available now. And there may need to be a better network that is more practical. But also to encourage that mom, if she really isn’t able to do it, or doesn’t believe she wants to, to make sure that that adoption happens more efficiently, so that that child is settled.

[Former U.S. Rep.] Tim Murphy, who I served with in Congress, is a child psychologist, and he wrote a book about bonding. It’s important for a child to feel secure and to grow up more healthy, both physically and mentally. That parental bond is hugely important. And the earlier in life that that happens, the better. So that’s my goal. 

C-S: You’re talking about support for parents, support for young families. Can you be more specific? Like, would you support paid family leave? Rick Santorum has come out supporting some sort of system to get a guarantee of paid family leave.

MH: That’s all federal now. It’s all in the law now.

C-S: Not like paid family leave.

MH: Yes it is.

C-S: Where?

MH: Men can take leave now.

[Editor’s note: Federal law only requires that eligible employers provide certain workers with unpaid family leave.]

C-S: Well, if their company offers it. There’s not a federal system that makes sure that every company offers it, there’s not standards to think about how many — 

MH: I mean, you have to be realistic. I have a company that has five employees, I can’t do paid family leave. so it has to be a practical issue. And people can also work flex schedules and all these other things to make sure that both parents can take care of the child.

I had an executive assistant at one point in time where she and her husband made a decision, he had a job where he could do flex time. And she worked a regular day schedule, and they never put their kids in daycare. There are options, especially in a job climate like we have now, where families can certainly have more options than they did before regarding the kind of jobs that they take when they’re raising a family and the opportunity to keep working. 

Now obviously daycare and having that available to people is very important. And we have a problem now with staffing. So I think that’s hugely important. But I’m not gonna — I mean, the child rearing and all those issues are family decisions. That’s not for the government to take over.

C-S: One thing I’ve been asking every candidate about is Act 77. You know, at the debate last night, you said you support banning unsolicited mail-in ballot applications. You know, some counties have done that, outside groups have done that. And you want more, you know, uniformity and count those ballots, making sure that the standards are the same in each county. But do you support a repeal of Act 77? Do you think that the mail-in ballot system approved in Act 77 should be gotten rid of?

MH: I personally don’t like it at all. I have to do more study to determine whether the public really wants to have that or not. Again, I wouldn’t be an autocrat. I don’t like it, I’d like to repeal it. And even if we want to continue having a mail ballot option, I think that it needs to be more clearly defined in law. 

I guess it sounds great to say, “I’ll repeal it.” But I mean, a lot of people who travel and that sort of thing who want to be able to vote by mail. I know a lot of people who are very busy who like voting by mail. They’re informed voters. 

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But if you’re traveling, you always already have an option, right? You already had the opportunity to apply for an absentee ballot. And I think a lot of people weren’t really aware of that …

… So the question that we’re going to need to ask is, Is it really necessary to have wholesale mail-in balloting with the pressure that it puts on all of these election boards? Is it the best way for us to move forward? And I can’t answer that question right now. I personally don’t like it.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.