Forum acts as 80th district primary preview

While the three candidates for the 80th District state House seat all lamented government waste and political greed Tuesday at a Blair County Tea Party forum, differences in their policies and style quickly emerged with the May 20 primary fast approaching.

The candidates – nurse and Republican Party officer Judy Ward and Hollidaysburg school board member Aaron Ritchey vying for the Republican spot; and veteran Jason Lynn running as an independent – took questions that leaned at times toward the conservative tilt of the 70-person crowd.

The three are vying to replace outgoing state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, when he

retires after the November election.

“We’re blessed to have three people running for this office,” tea party president and forum moderator Andrew Katz said. “Think of the last time we had three people running for any office of any significance in this county.”

Notified in advance of some of the general themes, the three addressed state labor legislation, Medicaid-expansion alternatives and legalized marijuana, among other topics.

Ritchey reminded the crowd of his tea party bona fides as he hailed coal power, dismissed calls for new Marcellus Shale drilling taxes and argued that “faith-based” health care is preferable to a heavier government hand in insurance.

“It’s all about energy,” he said of the national issues facing the district.

Ward, who directs health programs at her husband’s family-owned Ward Transport and Logistics, named the Affordable Care Act as one of the area’s most pressing political problems. Both Ward and Lynn cited Altoona-based doctor Zane Gates’ community care system as an example for the state.

Ward called for an end to the state’s prevailing-wage rules, which set minimum pay for certain contracted jobs, but took a more cautious stance when asked about bolder moves like a privatized prison system.

Lynn drew applause for his admonitions of both parties and his frank comments on politics.

“When I answer a question, I’m not a politician. You will not be getting a political answer,” he said during his introduction. “You’re hearing straight from a pissed-off veteran who’s had enough.”

Lynn diverged at times from his Republican opponents’ positions – when Ward and Ritchey quickly dismissed the possibility of legalizing marijuana, as Colorado and Washington have done, he said: “Our prison system shouldn’t be tied up with low-level marijuana offenders.”

He argued for eliminating property taxes on primary residences, not replacing them with any new tax and for merging school districts into countywide units.

Ward noted that eliminating property taxes – a major source of funding for public schools – would leave more power in Harrisburg and less with local school boards.

All three criticized the perceived flow of funds from rural Pennsylvania to the “big three” – Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – and blamed the City of Altoona for many of its own financial problems. The district covers most of Blair County outside the city and Logan Township.

While it appears the final race will include a Republican and at least one active independent, the fastest-approaching race is the May 20 primary between Ward and Ritchey. In a comment that could be a reference to Ward’s seat on the Republican State Committee, Ritchey called himself a “true conservative,” as opposed to an establishment Republican.

“If I become your state representative, we may not always agree,” Ward told the tea party crowd shortly after. “But I promise to be open to new ideas and also have an open door.”