While the race for the Democratic nomination for governor hasn't exactly hit the intensity of March Madness, this contest has also come down to the final four.
Most observers agree that, of the remaining contenders, the two candidates from Pittsburgh — Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato and Auditor General Jack Wagner — are the top seeds.
But both State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-District 8) and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel — two Philadelphia-area politicians with Jewish ties — insist that they've got a shot to pull off a bracket buste as the May 18 primary approaches.
On the Republican side, the party has coalesced around Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, though State Rep. Sam Rohrer (R-District 128) has the backing of the Tea Party movement.
A Quinnipiac University poll released on March 3 showed that almost 60 percent of Democratic voters remain undecided. While Hoeffel and Williams came in at third and fourth place, respectively, supporters argued that the undecided vote — combined with the fact they come from the state's most populous region — means they are within striking distance.
State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153), who is supporting Hoeffel, said that "the campaign will continue to evolve over the next several weeks and it is really up for grabs at this point."
Shapiro served as Hoeffel's chief of staff when Hoeffel served in Congress, from 1998 to 2004. Shapiro said his boss had built a reputation as a pro-Israel lawmaker, one who would use the governor's office to help grow economic ties between the Keystone state and the Jewish state.
In an interview, Hoeffel described himself as the race's lone progressive, and that his socially liberal agenda — which includes support of gay marriage — was most in line with Jewish values. He also touted his work heading the state's international commerce office in 2006, which involved attracting clean-tech investment from Israeli firms.
"It's appropriate and beneficial for us to make sure that Pennsylvania tax dollars are spent in ways that help our allies," he said. "Iran and others should not get investment dollars."
Onorato and Wagner are more socially conservative. Both oppose abortion, but have said that their private views would not affect public policy.
Hoeffel said his 2004 loss to Arlen Specter for the Senate taught him much about how to run a statewide race. But so far, his fundraising lags behind his competitors; he's taken in about $347,000.
Though a much later entrant into the race, Williams (D-District 8) — who represents southwest Philadelphia and parts of Delaware County — has managed to raise $2 million rather quickly.
Mobilizing as many Philadelphia voters as possible will be key for the primary, said Joel Greenberg, a Philadelphia lawyer who backs Williams.
Williams is the son of the late Hardy Williams, a former state senator considered a trailblazer for African-American politicians in the area. He has attracted Jewish supporters in part through his outspoken support of school-choice reform and the idea of using public tax dollars to allow students to attend private schools, said Greenberg, who called access to top-notch education a civil right — one that should be extended to underprivileged youths. Most Jewish groups have traditionally opposed school choice on the grounds that it would deplete resources from public education and threaten the separation between church and state.
The late Murray Friedman, longtime director of the American Jewish Committee's local office, was a major supporter of school choice. He and Williams developed an alliance over the issue; the AJC even sent Williams to Israel on one of its lawmaker missions.
Back in 2001, Williams helped push through the Education Improvement Tax Credit championed by Republican Gov. Tom Ridge. Last year, the program steered $129,000 in corporate state tax breaks for day-school scholarships.
The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition supports the EITC program, though in the past, it has opposed a more radical overhaul of education funding and school choice.
In Gov. Ed Rendell's proposed 2010-11 budget, total EITC funding is slated to be reduced from $75 million to $50 million. The fact that funding can vary so much from budget to budget is one of the main reasons why a more comprehensive overhaul is needed, Williams said in an interview.
All four candidates have come out in support of divestment from firms doing business in Iran and Sudan. Getting the state's largest pension funds to divest is also a priority of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition. Rendell has said that he will sign a bill if it is passed by the legislature.
In the 2007-08 legislative session, a version of the bill came before the State Senate finance committee, where Williams is a minority member. While he initially expressed some reservation about the bill, he ultimately voted for the measure, which passed out of committee but never made it to the Senate floor.
The lawmaker said that in retrospect, his hesitancy was less about substance and more about whose name was attached to the bill; he noted that he had been working on his own version.
Later, however, he said that getting a bill passed was more important than taking credit for it.