It was a Wednesday afternoon in the Toftrees neighborhood in State College. Ezra Nanes was canvassing and ran into a college student outside his house.
“Are you at Penn State?” Nanes asked. The young man told him, yes, and it’s expensive to go to school there.
They talked more about student debt and how the student liked to see more clean energy options. Nanes was excited to talk about funding public education and investing in renewable energy, two top issues that he’s running on as the Democratic candidate for the 34th State Senate District.
Nanes is the director of business development at AccuWeather. Originally from New York, he and his family have been living in the area for eight years. He earned an MBA from Penn State.
Running for political office for the first time, Nanes won the primary election in May with about 11,000 votes, compared to the 15,000 votes for Jake Corman, the sole Republican candidate. Nanes said he sees himself as an outsider who’s not afraid to take on a five-term incumbent.
“It’s time for some change, time for new blood, time for fresh thinking,” Nanes said.
Pennsylvania’s 34th Senate District includes all of Centre, Juniata and Mifflin Counties and part of Huntingdon County.
Nanes said he’s a “proud Democrat,” and said the state should fully fund public schools, ensure healthcare for those with pre-existing conditions and invest in clean energy.
“We've got chronic underfunding of public education in Pennsylvania. So, I believe that we need to invest starting at kindergarten, even pre-K, because in those early years of a child's life, the dollars that we invest in their education, learning life skills, interpersonal skills, responsibility – those skills, early on, pay off many multiples,” Nanes said.
Jake Corman, the Republican incumbent, agrees that reform and investment in education are important. Corman took office in 1999 and, as the Senate Majority Leader, said there are a lot of issues he would take on if re-elected.
“Big ticket items in front of us like tax reform. Property tax is still a very big issue. Healthcare is always a challenge as well. [There’re] still some things we need to do is make sure it’s more affordable. Education reform – we’ll continue to work on education to try to empower parents. So, there’s some of them,” he said.
Corman is a native of Bellefonte and a graduate of the Pennsylvania College of Technology and Penn State. He took office after his father, Doyle Corman, who retired from the State Senate after serving for 21 years.
Now with a significant leadership role, Corman said he’s proud to take credit for passing the state’s historic pension reform bill, getting the budget done on time this year without raising taxes or in-state tuition for many universities, and being able to work efficiently with a Democratic governor.
“I look at every election as a referendum on the incumbent. Are we doing our job right? If we are, we get normally reelected. If we're not, then the challengers have a chance to beat us,” Corman said. “This race is about me, not my challenger. And I’ll trust the voters to make the best decision for this area.”
While Corman points to a laundry list of accomplishments, Nanes takes issue with the state not passing a severance tax on shale gas, failing to allow child sex abuse victims to file retroactive lawsuits and not having established an independent citizens’ commission for redistricting.
“It's weak and ineffective leadership, and that comes from being influenced by special interests and not to work hard to win the votes,” Nanes said.
Corman did vote for a severance tax, but that bill died in the House. Nanes said it would’ve happened if Corman had used his leadership power.
Corman also said he supports a new way to redraw congressional maps and would make redistricting a priority going forward.
“Hopefully we’ll take it up again next year. There’s still an opportunity, if done quickly, we’ll get it into place for the 2022 election,” Corman said.
Nanes acknowledges that establishing himself against Corman is a challenge. But Mifflin County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Teresa Hobbs said she believes Corman is facing a tighter race this November.
“Ezra Nanes has really been getting out and knocking on doors and meeting with people. And not just the Democrats – he’s been knocking on all doors,” Hobbs said. “And he doesn’t just say, ‘Hi, I’m Ezra Nanes. I’m running for blah blah blah.’ He says, ‘What are your concerns?’ And people are responding.”
Corman ran unopposed in 2014 and won with 69 percent of the votes in 2010.
Hobbs said she has noticed more competitiveness, and it’s great to simply have a choice.
“At least [it’s] causing the incumbents to make an effort now to come out and do some sort of campaigning, whereas before, they were okay to just not to have to do anything and they were going to get elected,” Hobbs said.
Reagan McCarthy, the president of Penn State College Republicans, doesn’t think there are going to be any surprises. She said, the 34th district is Corman’s.
“I don’t think Senator Corman has to worry about anything,” McCarthy said. “He was just recently named Penn State Distinguished Alumni. He’s loved by this district. Everyone knows who he is. Yeah, I don’t think he has to worry at all.”