Evan M. Lopez
The voters who packed a candidates’ forum in November — racially diverse progressive activists and union members from voter-rich Philadelphia — will have a big say in May’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Unsurprisingly, all five candidates up on stage played to the crowd, harshly criticizing Gov. Tom Corbett’s cuts to public education and his refusal to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.
But it was candidate John Hanger who electrified the activists, drawing the afternoon’s loudest and longest applause when he issued a call to reform the state’s marijuana laws.
“It’s time to legalize marijuana,” Hanger, a longtime figure in state government, told an ecstatic crowd at Temple University. “This is a question of justice. … African-Americans have been arrested at the rate of five times whites for marijuana possession. That’s why the schools-to-jails pipeline is full!”
Hanger’s promise, to immediately allow medical marijuana and to legalize, regulate and tax recreational pot “as soon as possible,” is one way for him to stand out in a crowded field of eight Democrats hoping to capitalize on Corbett’s unpopularity.
To win the primary election on May 20, Hanger must overcome a fundraising disadvantage and low name recognition. His candidacy will be a test of whether marijuana activism, after years in the political wilderness of smoke-fests and third parties, is ready for mainstream state politics.
“This issue differentiates me,” says Hanger, who calls himself “clearly the progressive candidate in this race.”
While the virtues of marijuana legalization might be clear to progressives, some political analysts doubt it will be a winning political issue. Franklin & Marshall political scientist Terry Madonna says “it’s hard to believe that young voters will be energized in such numbers to make a difference in the primary,” while West Chester University political scientist John Kennedy says that job creation will be a much “greater factor influencing” the black and youth vote.
“Frankly, the more he focuses on it, the more he appears to look like a fringe candidate. Libertarians and other third-party types like the Green Party have been arguing in favor of legalizing marijuana forever,” Kennedy says. “How far has it gotten them?”
But in politics, things that seem impossible one year can become inevitable the next. In October, a Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans — 58 percent — for the first time favored the legalization of recreational marijuana. Skyrocketing support from political independents along with Democrats tipped the scales. Younger voters overwhelmingly back legalization.
Colorado and Washington have now legalized recreational marijuana, and 20 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes — even though it remains illegal for all purposes under federal law.
But in Pennsylvania, as with most things socially progressive, support for legal pot lags behind the curve. A May 2013 Franklin & Marshall poll found that just 38 percent of this state’s voters support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, with 54 percent opposed. But the tide is turning: as recently as 2006, just 22 percent backed legalization.
And in the same May 2013 survey, 82 percent supported legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell says that legalization gets Hanger media and voter attention that would otherwise be hard to come by.
“The biggest problem with John is what he always knew it would be: It’s raising enough money to get on the radar screen of voters,” says Rendell, who is not endorsing anyone in the primary. “Politically, that makes what John’s talking about with legalizing brilliant.”
Polls have put U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, Katie McGinty (like Hanger, a former Department of Environmental Protection secretary) and state Treasurer Rob McCord in the lead, with Hanger, businessman and former Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski trailing.
Hanger lacks more than money. He also has little support from the elected officials and labor unions that comprise the state’s institutional Democratic Party. But he has picked up the support of outside groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ political action committee. On Feb. 1, progressive activists will gather at Philly’s Arch Street United Methodist Church to endorse him.
But to win over widespread support, he must convince voters that he has the best agenda on public education, job creation and the environment. Rendell believes that Hanger will be persuasive if he can retain the attention generated by his pot legalization message.
“I’m very impressed with what John’s done,” says Rendell. “He’s been the most substantive in responding to Gov. Corbett.”
Hanger, 56, began his career in Philadelphia working for Community Legal Services, where he advocated for gas and utility customers. He went on to serve on the state Public Utility Commission, as president of the environmental group PennFuture and as DEP secretary under Rendell.
Hanger, whose persona is more reminiscent of an old-time Puritan minister than a modern-day pot evangelist, is detail-oriented, with a background in the minutia of public policy. He is an eager debater and has sparred with environmental activists angry over his major expansion of natural-gas drilling during the Rendell administration. Others, though, are attracted to his forceful denunciation of the privatization of public education.
In 2012, police made 20,568 arrests for marijuana possession in Pennsylvania, including 4,272 in Philadelphia. And even though research shows that whites and blacks smoke pot at similar rates, blacks in Pennsylvania are 5.19 times more likely to be arrested for possession, according to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report. It is one piece of a war on crime and drugs that has swelled the state’s prison population to more than 50,000.
Pennsylvania, according to ACLU calculations, spends about $100 million a year arresting and locking people up for pot possession. Today, as city schools spiral deeper into crisis, public-education advocates decry the state spending $400 million on
a new prison.
“Prohibition is such a cruel, irrational, destructive policy [that] its support among the public is collapsing,” says state Sen. Daylin Leach, who has introduced legislation to legalize recreational marijuana. “Like marriage equality, I think it’s an issue where the tide of history has turned, and the tipping point has been reached.”
Leach is running for the congressional seat vacated by Schwartz and, like Hanger, touts himself as the progressive choice.
According to campaign statements, Schwartz does “not support legalization” but believes that “possession of marijuana has been over-criminalized.” Wolf “would support the legalization of medical marijuana” but would not say whether he had a position on those who smoke weed just for fun. McGinty opposes legalization, but supports medical marijuana and “also supports reforming our drug laws by ending mandatory prison sentences that send people to prison for years for minor, nonviolent offenses.”
McCord said he “is open to having a conversation about this issue” but would “like to spend more time looking at the research and the data before taking a position.” He “believes we should be spending more time getting illegal guns off the streets and less time arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana.”
Rendell told City Paper that if he were still governor, he would support decriminalizing recreational marijuana and legalizing medical marijuana. He would consider total legalization after watching how things unfold in Colorado and Washington.
It’s already clear, however, that youth-voter turnout shot up in both states. Many credit the legalization referenda on the ballots.
“Hanger has to do something to give his campaign some life,” says Muhlenberg College political scientist Christopher Borick. “While marijuana legalization might be important to only a limited sector of the Democratic primary electorate, he is hoping that, for that group, the issue is so salient that his campaign might garner some consideration. It’s a long shot, but, given his limitations, it’s not a bad strategic move.”
The crowded field that makes it hard for a candidate like Hanger to get attention also improves his odds of winning. If just one-quarter of Democratic voters show up to the polls as they did in 2010, Hanger believes a candidate can win with just 300,000 votes. He likes the math.
“Who knows?” says Rendell. “Stranger things have happened.”
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