Erie mayoral candidates debate education, crime

Category:  News
Wednesday, October 25th, 2017 at 5:28 PM

On Oct. 17, Erie mayoral candidates John Persinger (R) and Joe Schember (D) took the stage at the Jefferson Educational Society in Erie to discuss their platforms, as well as various city issues.

The debate, which was moderated by Jefferson Society Program Director Ben Speggen and Coordinator of Publications Pat Cuneo, lasted approximately 90 minutes and consisted of moderator and audience questions, plus two lightning rounds.

The candidates first discussed why they believe they should be mayor. 

Persinger brought up Erie’s population loss, underfunded school system, loss of jobs and number of drug overdoses due to the opioid epidemic. He mentioned how “our next mayor has to bring new energy and new ideas to city hall,” a point he would reiterate throughout the entirety of the debate. 

His “Persinger Plan” is to invest in education, clean up the blight in the city and fight for the city’s future. 

Schember said he would like to use his work experience from PNC Bank to benefit Erie. Referencing the Erie Refocused Comprehensive Plan, Schember said he will plan to serve three terms in order to oversee the completion of the plan. 

“At this point in my life, I feel called to give back to the city,” he said. 

The two candidates addressed how they would reduce gun violence in Erie; Persinger said he would want to increase the policing of low-level crimes such as public drug dealing and solicitation, in addition to increasing community policing. Schember discussed his support of the UnifiedErie project, which has a three step plan of prevention, enforcement and re-entry. He also agreed with Persinger’s community policing point.

When asked about plans for city employment, Schember responded by saying how “we are in good shape in terms of the current size.” Persinger said the city should modernize its government. He added the city currently has employees dedicated to the infrastructure of the 20th century instead of the 21st, and how “we internally have to modernize the local government.”

Each candidate took a different path when asked what the most pressing challenge in the city is. Persinger said it was the future of the public school system. He explained people move away when they don’t believe in the school systems, and he wants to bring people and businesses back to invest in Erie.

Schember, however, believes the most pressing issue is the “lack of good, family-sustaining jobs.” He argued the school system is a separate entity from the local government, and the local government cannot influence too much change. Schember hopes to be a “champion for business in Erie” and help businesses and entrepreneurs expand.

Persinger responded to Schember’s comments, saying: “That’s the Mayor (Joe) Sinnott mindset — managing decline. We can’t do the same old, same old.” 

On the topic of education, Schember was a proponent of a community college in Erie. He referred to the fact that there are 14 community colleges across the commonwealth, and Erie, as the fourth largest city in Pennsylvania, should have one as well. 

Persinger said his focus “from day one” has been on the K-12 school system. He added he would be willing to entertain the idea of a community college, but he would first have to see the proposed curriculum and funding.

The moderators asked why each candidate was a member of their respective political party. Schember said his parents were Democrats and noted when he votes, he doesn’t just “pull the Democratic lever,” but instead picks the people who he thinks will do the best job. 

Persinger said, “I was an American history major, and I saw the Republican party had initially been founded to abolish the system of slavery, and that’s why I joined Republican party.” 

The moderators then moved onto a lightning round, where each candidate could only answer yes or no to the questions. The candidates shared similar answers for most questions, really only differing on their answers about the demolition of the McBride Viaduct. 

Later, the moderators asked the candidates to describe two significant things about their opponents. Schember said he and Persinger both agree they need to reduce blight and are in favor of removing the stigma from the opioid epidemic. 

Persinger echoed Schember’s statements about the opioid epidemic and said both candidates recognize it as a “public health crisis.” Additionally, he said he and Schember both think the private sector is going to “drive the way” in Erie. 

Schember concluded by discussing how he wants to increase the transparency from the local government. He explained that as it stands now, when one goes to the mayor’s office in the municipal building, they have to be let in by an employee. He wants to let people walk into the mayor’s office without having them buzz in and be generally more accessible to the public.

“Ideally, I want every resident of Erie to feel like they can talk to me and know that I will listen to them,” he said.

Persinger repeated his earlier sentiment of bringing new ideas and energy to the city. He referenced his time working in the White House and Australia, explaining how he would take the knowledge he received from those jobs and apply it to the mayoral position.

“You all know we can’t keep doing the same old, same old,” he said. “Now is the time for change.

The mayoral election will be on Nov. 7. 

Dakota Palmer can be reached at

Tags: erie, election

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