Monday's forum sponsored by a statewide developers' trade association dealt largely with bread-and-butter questions for industry members, such as wage laws, permitting rules and health care costs.
But Ellsworth, a first-time candidate and suburban Pittsburgh commercial litigation attorney who played a prominent role in steering the city's civic and business institutions, turned the crowd's attention to the sharp-elbowed TV ads flying between fellow Republicans Scott Wagner and Paul Mango.
In her closing remarks at the 90-minute forum sponsored by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Pennsylvania, she urged Republican primary voters to pick the person best able to beat Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in the November general election.
That person, she said, "has comported themselves with civility and decency and honor and has a track record of decades of performance in the civic sector on your behalf. ... That's the person who will win, that's the person who needs to win the primary."
Ellsworth has not put nearly the amount of her own money into her campaign as have Mango and Wagner, and she has not aired a TV ad yet.
But the fight between Mango and Wagner is providing an opening to distinguish herself, as each works to woo voters in the May 15 primary.
In large part, all three are aligned with the business community, tending to single out tax burdens, permitting delays, bureaucrats or regulations as choice targets.
Still, Mango veered from orthodoxy among Republicans and business groups that are pressing to make Pennsylvania the nation's 29th "right to work" state.
Mango, a former health care systems consultant and first-time candidate, said fights between management and blue-collar unions are counterproductive in the quest to outcompete China and India. Such a law also would hurt police, firefighters and union members who are otherwise sympathetic to the Republican Party, he said.
"You're talking about the forgotten men and women that President Trump handed to the Republican Party," Mango said. "You're talking about people who are pro-life, pro-guns, pro-family, pro-veteran, pro-work. You're talking about folks who are going to train the next generation of skilled labor in their apprenticeship shops, and I'm not prepared to throw law enforcement and our firefighters under the bus."
Mango singled out teachers' unions as an example of organized labor that he would not protect from a right-to-work policy.
Right-to-work laws prohibit requirements that employees join a union or pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment. Supporters say it improves the business climate, while critics contend it bleeds unions of money and bargaining power. The U.S. Supreme Court is meanwhile considering a case that could strip the power of unions in all states, including Pennsylvania, from collecting fees from government employees who choose not to join.
On a question about raising the minimum wage, Wagner said he would support raising it to around $9.50 an hour from the current federal minimum of $7.25.
Hardly anyone pays the federal minimum, Wagner said, and raising it would allow policymakers to move on to more important topics.
Mango and Ellsworth outlined their opposition, including what they viewed as hurting entry-level opportunities for teenagers. That prompted Wagner to add that regulatory schemes make it practically impossible to hire a 16-year-old.
"What would be wrong with a 14-year-old student working in a restaurant washing dishes?" Wagner questioned. "We have made regulations so onerous on business owners we can't hire them."
Given a chance to respond, Mango said, "Then why isn't the senator focused on reducing regulatory burdens rather than raising the minimum wage?"
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