John Hanger, a prolific blogger who’s running for governor of Pennsylvania, recently drew attention to two enterprising farmers he learned about from a local public radio station. The men leased the drilling rights on their land to gas producer Range Resources, then used the proceeds to install solar panels on their property. “The shale gas revolution has turned energy on its head, and solar will do it again,” Hanger says.
Hanger, a lawyer and former state regulator, was the first Democrat to enter the race. At least half a dozen others are either running or considering it, and many—Representative Allyson Schwartz, State Treasurer Rob McCord, and former Representative Joe Sestak—have better name recognition. There’s something that sets Hanger apart, though: He’s running as a green energy evangelist.
An incumbent governor has never lost a reelection bid in Pennsylvania, where there’s a two-term limit, but Hanger and other Democrats sense an unprecedented opportunity to unseat Republican Governor Tom Corbett next year. Unemployment is above the national average despite a gas boom that’s made the state a top energy producer. Corbett has the approval of only 1 in 3 registered voters, according to a March survey by Public Policy Polling, which called him “the most endangered governor in the country up for reelection” in 2014.
Hanger comes off not as a pie-in-the-sky idealist but as someone who’s spent 29 years toiling over the minutiae of energy policy. He rattles off stats in kilowatt-hour units, cites the U.S. Energy Information Administration as his favorite news outlet, and constantly updates his blog, Facts of The Day, where a typical headline reads: “Stunning Fact: Top Ten Wind States All Have Electric Rates Below The National Average.” Says Hanger: “I’ve been charged by some to be a policy wonk, and I plead guilty.”
Hanger argues that Pennsylvania should support more renewable energy investment projects such as building charging stations for electric cars. He also says the state should continue fracking for natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal. Hanger promises stricter oversight and says that as governor he would impose the state’s first fracking tax.
“He is what I would call a principled pragmatist,” says John Quigley, the former head of the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who once worked for Hanger. “He can very dispassionately assess a situation and find a way that seeks the win-win.”
In 1993, Governor Bob Casey tapped Hanger for a five-year term on the Public Utility Commission, where he led the effort to end a monopoly on electrical power generation—a reform that allows consumers and businesses to shop around for the best price. Hanger then founded PennFuture, a group that pressed for stricter environmental regulations as well as a controversial 2004 state law requiring utilities to get 8 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.
Former Governor Ed Rendell appointed Hanger to run the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2008, at the dawn of Pennsylvania’s shale gas revolution. Hanger allowed fracking but raised permit fees and imposed stricter standards for building wells to prevent methane from seeping into water sources. He also recruited private developers and manufacturers to build wind farms, which Hanger says are now a $3 billion industry in the state.
That mixed approach made Hanger a target of liberal critics, including the filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland. When director Josh Fox asked Hanger on camera to drink water that Fox said was polluted by a gas well, Hanger stormed out of his own office. He’s pro-choice and pro-gay marriage and supports legalizing pot, yet 26 percent of voters who consider themselves very liberal have an unfavorable opinion of him, according to the PPP survey. Hanger defends his record, saying, “I’m not in the ‘drill, baby, drill’ crowd, but I also know you can’t make a flash cut to the future.”
To introduce himself to voters, Hanger’s visiting each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in his Prius. At a recent dinner in Cumberland County outside Harrisburg, a woman told him gas drillers should pay for contaminating land. He agreed, then spent several long minutes plowing through the details of his many other policy ideas as the woman’s attention drifted toward another guest.
To succeed, Hanger needs voters to at least hear out his nuanced positions. He’s leading Corbett by seven points in the PPP poll, but other Democrats have slightly wider margins over the governor. The primary is 13 months away. “Certainly from the standpoints of policy and expertise, John has equipped himself very well,” says Quigley. “He just has to go out there and work on the electability.”