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Manifest Density - Episode 53 - Dennis Owens - The local politics of the pandemic

February 8, 2022

The local politics of the pandemic

Dennis Owens of ABC 27, a local Pennsylvania news network, joins us this week on Manifest Density. Michael and Dennis discuss the many ways COVID has changed everything in Pennsylvania, where Dennis covers the statehouse for a living.

Guest bio:

Since 1993, Dennis has been a part of the ABC27 team and he's played many roles at the station. He began as a weekend sports anchor under legendary Sports Director Gregg Mace. In that position, he reported on Super Bowls, World Series, Bowl Game, NASCAR races and Spring Training baseball, and Penn State football. But he's most proud of co-creating Friday Night Football, a show that still airs and showcases the athletes, cheerleaders and bands that make Friday nights special across Central Pennsylvania.

In 1999, Dennis switched to news and co-anchored Live at Five, which spotlighted his ability to connect with viewers and the community. Whether it was jumping out of airplanes, attending the local fair, or learning to make Easter eggs, Dennis' warmth and personality and his love of the Midstate were always on display.

Dennis also answered the call to the anchor desk. First with Valerie Pritchett at 7 pm and then Alicia Richards at 6 pm.

But Dennis is also a passionate story teller and journalist. He has been nominated for more than 70 Regional Emmy Awards, winning 15, including Best Anchor in the Mid-Atlantic Region. He has also won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for his reporting on the influence of lobbyists in Harrisburg.

He is a familiar face at the State Capitol and one of the most respected television reporters on that beat. His state government reports appear daily on several stations across the commonwealth. He is also the host and co-producer of This Week in Pennsylvania, the only statewide political talk show in PA. His guests include, governors, senators, congressmen and women, and a who's-who of political powerbrokers in Pennsylvania.

Dennis is a Philadelphia native and LaSalle University graduate. The eternal optimist, he is a proud fan of Philly sports, as painful as that can be. He and his family reside in Cumberland County, outside Harrisburg.


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Episode transcript:

The transcription of this episode is auto generated by a third-party source. Microshare takes every precaution to insure that the content is accurate, errors can occur. Microshare, Inc.  is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for the results obtained from the use of this information.

Michael Moran: [00:00:00] This is manifest density. Hello, everyone, and welcome to this latest edition of Manifest Density, your host Michael [00:00:08][7.7]

Michael Moran: [00:00:08] Moran here to explore [00:00:09][0.7]

Michael Moran: [00:00:09] the intersection of COVID 19 global business and society. They just have to say Brown, J-just past and have we all been living Groundhog Day for these last two years? Appropriately enough, my guest today is a journalist from Groundhog Day Spiritual Home, Pennsylvania. Dennis owns Dennis, is the capital reporter in Harrisburg, which is the state capital for ABC. 27. Did I get that right, Dennis? [00:00:40][30.2]

Dennis Owens: [00:00:40] You absolutely did. I have covered Groundhogs Day in Punxsutawney a couple of times in my career. [00:00:45][5.1]

Michael Moran: [00:00:46] Well, that's wonderful. And I think pretty much everybody, thanks to Bill Murray as an idea of what exactly packed ceremony, very authentic. So with no further ado, Dennis, welcome to this podcast! As everyone would know, this is brought to you by the global smart building in ESG data company Microshare. Unleash the data as they say, but I want to jump right in and unleash you, Dennis. We're going to talk really about Covid's impact on local politics, and when I say local for our international audience, I'm talking about state level politics in the United States and specifically the state of Pennsylvania, which you've probably noticed is a pretty important electoral state and one which has a very interesting demographic split between all sorts of industrial and service workers and wealthy suburbs of various cities like Billy, but also real, some real farmland and mountain regions. So it's kind of a little country in and of itself. But before we get to that, Dennis, I want to ask how did you end up in Harrisburg, the state capital? And what was your route into broadcast journalism? [00:01:56][70.2]

Dennis Owens: [00:01:57] Well, I'm a Philadelphia native. I went to LaSalle College and in those days, not to sound like biblical in those days, but it was as far as broadcast journalism is concerned, it was an effort to go. It might as well have been biblical times. You had to go to a smaller market to get your start. I went to Bakersfield, California, which is a small little rural place in the San Joaquin Valley. But as a Philly native and I was a sportscaster, by the way, and as a Philly native, I wanted to get back to the Northeast and the opportunity presented itself in Harrisburg. I took it, came back here thinking I'd be in Harrisburg for one or two years and then maybe get to Baltimore, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, get to one of the bigger markets. But while here I found a couple of things one, I liked the area and two within my station, I began to do different things. So they promoted me five o'clock anchor, where we did a light and lively show. I would jump out of airplanes and race cars, live on television, and then became the Six O'Clock news anchor and capital reporter. So I'm kind of the equivalent if I can use a sports analogy to the utility infielder that can kind of play lots of different positions, which I would do live football games and then also moderate political debates, whatever it is the station needs. And as I looked up on Groundhogs Day, I've been here now in May. It will be 29 years, but I'm I'm kind of a unicorn in the sense of a television. State politics reporter. I also anchor what state politics is a kind of a black hole in the journalism industry. So lots of people cover national politics, of course, big cities, people cover big city politics and in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh. But most people don't even know what state politics really does. And the irony there is it impacts their everyday life. I'm also a host of the only statewide political talk show this week in Pennsylvania, and every week we have to get newsmakers from across from across the state. Two weeks ago, we had a governor. We've had U.S. senators, congressmen. Basically, politicos in that show airs across Pennsylvania, which for those of your viewers. Not only is Pennsylvania home to Three Mile Island, which I know you're international viewers will remember, but it's kind of radioactive politically because the the U.S. Senate may hang in the balance this year. That is who controls the US Senate. And we have a Republican senator by the name of Pat Toomey, who is retiring. It is an open seat and it is a free for all in this state as people try to take that state they have already spent. Now is in May, the general elections in November. But number of candidates in the Senate race alone have already spent $15 million. Add that the seat is up for grabs and lots of people are trying to grab it. [00:04:47][169.7]

Michael Moran: [00:04:48] Well, Dennis, I want to extend the sports analogy just a bit that warmed my heart. Your Bakersfield sojourn. I came out of newspapers in the back in the day. Newspapers looked a lot like the American. Baseball system, there were minor league, there was a level it's exactly right. And I went to the Sarasota Herald Tribune and then I went to the St. Petersburg Times, which was kind of a AAA, and I always wondered what if I'd stayed at one of those places? They're really wonderful newspapers and places to stay, but I ended up getting sucked into the vortex of Washington and then international news. But that's for another day for our listeners who aren't familiar. Another reason state politics in America state capital politics is so important is because these are the people who draw the lines that determine where the districts that people represent are actually located. The Republican Party over the last several decades has been extremely successful in capturing statehouses, even in competitive states like Pennsylvania. And so that's another level of relevance for those of you overseas are going, Why should I care? [00:05:55][67.1]

Dennis Owens: [00:05:56] Well, and and there's great intrigue right now in Pennsylvania. But our conversation is timely because on this very day when we taped this on February 4th, we the Legislative Reapportionment Commission is set to release its maps of where the State House and Senate boundaries are. It is likely headed for the state Supreme Court, which interestingly enough, though the Legislature is controlled and dominated by Republicans, and as you said, the last couple of times they've redrawn boundaries, both congressional and state. It's basically been controlled by Republicans. Republicans had the governor's office, the Legislature and the Supreme Court. While the the worm has turned, as they say, the governor here is Democrat and the state Supreme Court is five to two Democrat. And if the groups can't come to an agreement on how to draw the lines, they end up in the Supreme Court, and that is likely for both the maps, even though there was a lot of talk for a year. It's a small it's like one of my favorite scenes from movie Austin Powers is when there's a guy on a steamroller moving at half a mile an hour, and Austin Powers is about 100 feet in front of him and is acting as if he's about to be run over by a speeding train and never gets out of the way. Well, we know reapportionment happens every 10 years. This time it was quote unquote supposed to be different because of the public input and transparency. And the fact of the matter is they're going to get drawn by the Supreme Court in both levels, and that's going to happen here in the next couple of weeks. [00:07:19][83.0]

Michael Moran: [00:07:20] And so we're seeing we see this playing out across the United States. The idea that some nonpartisan panel could draw these up is is a nonsense. These days, there's no such thing as nonpartisan in this country anymore, anyway, no more political stuff in that regard. I want to get to the COVID aspect here. Now you take this atmosphere of partizanship and competition and high stakes. You stir in a global pandemic. That's what's happened in every country, in the world and in every state in the United States. We talked a little briefly before the podcast about how Pennsylvania has has seen this incredible effect that the pandemic has had on its politics and its citizens. What's the what's the big picture? How does how has COVID affected the job you have to do and the the politics of your state? [00:08:16][55.7]

Dennis Owens: [00:08:16] Well, there is a bitter fight, a bitter divide over COVID. We have, as I mentioned, a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor. I would venture to guess that Pennsylvania was one of the more restrictive states during coronavirus. Governor Wolf ordered a number of shut downs. He ordered businesses shut down and ordered his Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary to decide which businesses were quote unquote essential and which were nonessential. And this just rankled Republicans. They gave them all. They had grace for a couple of weeks in the first couple of weeks of pandemic. We don't know what's going on. Let's let's figure it out. But as restaurants were shut down and told that you have to know, for instance, the minutia and the rules where you cannot serve food at the bar, you must wear masks into a restaurant. But then, of course, people mask off at the table. There's lots of rules that people question the logic of them, and Republicans got increasingly upset with the shutdowns, and I remember doing some stories and you'll agree. So the mom and pop flower shop in May was shut down, not allowed to do business, even though they said, Hey, we can arrange flowers and deliberate steps. You're shut down. You're not deemed essential. But yet, Lowe's and Home Depot are selling flowers at Mother's Day at a record clip. And clearly, this frustrated Republicans and there were mask mandates and school shutdowns. And so they put a constitutional amendment before the voters the Republican Legislature did. And to do that, it's now no easy process. You have to pass the same identical bill in two consecutive sessions. On the ballot for people to vote on, and they did that and the basically it was. Should emergency powers only last for 21 days and after 21 days? Does the governor have to come to the Legislature to get approval to continue the emergency declaration that is allowing him to shut things down? And that passed overwhelmingly. I think people were frustrated at the shutdown. Rightly or wrongly, the governor was the face of of the shutdowns. And I know, you know, the restaurant lobby, which was the restaurant folks were crushed. I mean, they lost business, they lost employees. People were out of work. It was just a very difficult thing and it was a very clear and visible dividing line between Republicans and Democrats. I remember Republicans had a number of rallies on the steps of the Capitol open pay rallies and of course, you know, people not wearing masks. And a local state senator rose to a degree of prominence on a number of fronts. This is one of them. The shutdowns are resisting. The shutdowns and mandates was one of them. Senator Doug Mastriano is running for governor as we speak as a Republican. He also furthered the concept that the election of 2020 was stolen. He is a friend of Donald Trump. He led bus tour bus loads of people down to the rally that ultimately became the riot of January 6th. Well, he has risen to prominence here in Pennsylvania. Many people think he's one of the favorites in the Republican side to. And polls suggest that too, by the way, to win the Republican nomination to run for governor. So there was tension between our governor, the Democratic governor and the Republican Legislature. All along the the pandemic only exacerbated it. He vetoed another bill yesterday. I have jokingly called him Uncle Vito as an Vito is the most. He has done more vetoes than any governor in recent history as Republicans tried to do things. And he shuts down, and that's why they have done an end run around him with a number of constitutional amendments. [00:11:59][222.7]

Michael Moran: [00:12:02] And if there was I mean, Pennsylvania was also a kind of hot spot spot for the vote counting controversy that followed the election in 2020. But let me just take a break a moment and we're going to come right back to you to hear from our sponsor. Let's hold that thought while we take a second to pay the bills. We'll be right back. [00:12:21][19.7]

Ad: [00:12:22] Manifest density is brought to you by Microshare, offering turnkey smart facility solutions for the COVID 19 era. Microshare enables global businesses to get back to work quickly and safely locks in resilience for the long run. Learn more at Microshare Dorado. [00:12:36][13.8]

Michael Moran: [00:12:40] OK, I'm back with Dennis Owens, who is an ABC 27 Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, anchor and host of several different programs, but mostly his expertize is covering state politics from Harrisburg, the state capital. Dennis, I know there have been a lot of very, very passionate debates over various aspects of the reaction from governments to COVID, the state legislature in Pennsylvania, like many. Weighed the idea of giving businesses a blanket liability protection if they basically used the job that people had as leverage and made them come back to work or be fired. Where has that landed in Pennsylvania? Because that's been something that has been very draconian in some states and in others, they've taken a very labor friendly approach. What's Pennsylvania? [00:13:34][54.5]

Dennis Owens: [00:13:35] Well, Republicans in the Legislature certainly supported it. The governor vetoed it, so it passed and the governor vetoed it, and he felt people should be able to exercise their right to sue. He didn't want to take that away from anyone. And of course, Republicans complained that he is beholden to the trial lawyers here in Pennsylvania, and they are one of his largest contributors, and he didn't want to do anything that would upset them. So taking away people's ability to sue is not something that would sit well with either the trial bar or with with the governor. And I guess he envisioned companies making people work, getting sick, dying and then and then not being held accountable. So of course, the Republican side of that or the supporters side of that is we need to get back to work. We need to get people back to work. And it's not our fault. There's a pandemic. And you know, I think what will be interesting, Mike and I know your journalist and I think the story that's out there to be done and I haven't seen it be done yet. And now that we have about a two year data collection of this pandemic, I wonder about the top five restrictive states in America and Pennsylvania may very well be one of them and the least five restrictive states in America. And what's their deaths per 100000? Because I have a feeling two years out, two years into this pandemic? I don't know that there's going to be a great difference. I don't know. I'd like to see the data. I think it's a great story and I think it should be done. It's a story that should be done because it's it will it will help guide future pandemics. And do you shut down or do you just protect the vulnerable populations in nursing homes or the vulnerable populations? [00:15:17][102.3]

Michael Moran: [00:15:18] There has been some data on that. I mean, the the the thing that has confounded the epidemiology community is that the the data isn't consistent. So, you know, California's numbers are not appreciably better than those in Texas or Florida, where they've taken a very libertarian view toward masks and where you have a much higher population of people who are who are unwilling to be vaccinated. But but the interesting numbers are not so much. The infection rates, which are very inconsistent, but the death rates and those have begun to conform to what you would expect because Delta and Omicron deceits my own analysis. I'm not an epidemiologist. I just play went on the on a podcast. But good luck with that. Yeah, but the the two variants that have been most prevalent the last six months have been have been shown to be resisted pretty well in terms of serious illness by vaccines. So now you're starting to see some of what we expected that people who didn't get vaccinated did actually suffer more. And so now you're seeing that like the southeast, where there's very low, low vaccination rates. And you know, there are death tolls are climbing, but you have to also throw into numbers like that something like New Jersey, the densest state in the country, also very restrictive. But they've got seven million people, 7.5 million, maybe even eight packed into a space the size of a Colorado county. Right. So so you can't look at these numbers as well. [00:17:07][109.0]

Dennis Owens: [00:17:08] Zero. And you also have places like Florida and California where the people can be outside more than in the Northeast, for instance, and that might. But that's why I'm saying two years in, you've had a couple of seasons. And and what's the data telling us? Because I suspect. I don't know that there's a bit of difference between the ones that were Uber shut down states and the ones that weren't. And if that's the case. Dot, dot, dot. And I'm not saying it is because I don't have the numbers in front of me, but if that is the case, you know, maybe the next time we're less shut down happy and more protect the people specifically, they need to be protected. [00:17:41][33.7]

Michael Moran: [00:17:42] Well, that's what's happening in Europe. Of course. Now Europe has started to lift restrictions completely, and [00:17:48][5.5]

Dennis Owens: [00:17:48] that's what Denmark did. [00:17:49][0.9]

Michael Moran: [00:17:50] The theory behind that is, OK, we're we've we've tried to defeat this the way the Chinese did and anybody's watching the Olympics. It's like it's like an epidemiological tyranny. But if you look at Europe right now, what they've decided is, OK, remember that term herd immunity? That's where we're going. We have to do it because this thing's not going away until we get there. And that's the new U.K. law that basically removed all restrictions that seems to be happening now across continental Europe. [00:18:19][29.0]

Dennis Owens: [00:18:19] So and I and I have three school age kids, including a daughter in high school and right after the Christmas break, like everybody had it, it was a cold. My one son had it. He became an Xbox champion in the several days he had to stay home. But it was not as bad as previous illnesses and colds he has had to have. Herd immunity means that for a moment I should note my kids are Vaxart and boosted, which is rare for underage people in this country. But because the booster were only about a third of adults and much lower than that on kids. But if for the vaccine and boosted it means a cold herd immunity, we move on. That sounds like a good deal to me. [00:19:00][40.6]

Michael Moran: [00:19:01] Yep, and my little herd is also immune by that definition. Thank you. So I will get to the next question in just a second, but I want to hold that thought and hear from one of our many sponsors. [00:19:13][12.7]

Ad: [00:19:16] Manifest density is brought to you by Microshare, offering turnkey smart facility solutions for the COVID 19 era. Microshare enables global businesses to get back to work quickly and safely locks in resilience for the long run. Learn more at Microshare Dorado. [00:19:31][14.2]

Michael Moran: [00:19:32] OK, I am back with Dennis Owen's broadcast journalist and state politics expert. He focuses at ABC 27 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on the Pennsylvania politics, and we're talking about COVID 19 and how that has roiled politics. Now, Dennis, you as a state politics reporter, I hope you're not one of these people. Like those who go to Washington who never, ever again sees an actual human being, only sees people who are politicians and their aides and flacks and and lobbyists. All these things we've been talking about have been we're viewing through the kind of prism of the debate in a state legislature. But what's the how is all of this kind of filtering out into the populous in Pennsylvania? What what kind of vibe are you getting about how people are feeling about this and how that's affecting the prospects of Democrats and Republicans for the next election? [00:20:28][56.0]

Dennis Owens: [00:20:29] Well, again, I think there is there has been a great divide. You had Republicans and Trump Republicans specifically that were resisting, shall we say, some of the science of the masks and the shutdowns and saying that's government overreach and tyranny. And Democrats, it seemed to be more going along with the idea of masks. The city of Philadelphia, for instance, which is heavily democratic, still has lots of of shutdowns. And I just saw the Inquirer today suggesting that that's going to last for a couple of months more. I think Pennsylvania is like the rest of the country, though I've not been in the rest of the country, is pretty much tired of this whole thing. There's been obviously fits and starts. There's been times when you think it was over. You know, think about it in. In June of last year, the state statewide, there were about hundred and four cases of just infections statewide. By January, that number is seven thousand a day. So, you know, you think it's over, it's not over. Here comes back. I think what I said is the hope for result of hopefully everybody gets a cold, we get herd immunity and this thing is mostly put in the rearview mirror. I think that's what Denmark basically said last week. They said, we're putting it in the same category as the flu. I think that's the hope sooner rather than later. But again, I think in democratic areas, it's it's still mask up and maintain distance. Maybe stay in the house and not go to that Super Bowl party that you might want to otherwise go to. As for the it's interesting because I just reported literally right before I came on this podcast that because some question about it. Last year, Gov. Wolf gave his budget address virtually first time in the history of Pennsylvania. We've been doing these things since the 7500 year. Obviously, they weren't going to do virtual in seventeen hundreds, but for the first time ever, a budget address was not before the General Assembly. This year, he is going to go back to it and it's Tuesday. The budget address is this Tuesday, and he will go back to doing it in person. Another fight that's happening is last year, the legislation put $7 billion aside from federal money to use it for the future. While the future is now and the governor saying he wants to spend it, and the Republicans are saying, Well, we don't really have $7 billion, we don't have that money. It's already been accounted for. If we just do this standard spending we're expected to spend between now and that money runs out in December 31st of 2024. So there is no front on which there isn't a fight going on between the Republican lawmakers and the Democratic governor and Democrats. [00:22:58][148.7]

Michael Moran: [00:22:59] And so much of it revolves around COVID. So that that's a perfect lead in to that last question I have for you. It's kind of a double question because we're running out of time here on manifest density. The future is now here to Dennis. So you you have a job that is traditionally very much a kind of button holing handshaking, Hey, how are you doing, John? What's going on in there type of job? You know, you have to interact with people. And then, of course, you know, you're always the desire, at least, is to stand in front of the statehouse and do a piece to the camera while you're reporting. And how is COVID? And the pandemic itself affected the day to day of being a reporter in a major state capital? [00:23:44][44.7]

Dennis Owens: [00:23:45] Well, on the one hand, I will be completely candid with you. I have flannel pajama bottoms, a shirt, tie and jacket on for this Zoom interview, though you didn't get the camera to work. But Zoom Zoom has opened things up because for this week in Pennsylvania, for instance, I have to interview newsmakers to get them to come into the studio, as I used to have to do for a Friday three o'clock taping was very difficult. They're out of town on Friday, so it limited now with a Zoom. I can get some of the biggest names on Zoom and the Good. The thing about Zoom that everybody has gone to Zoom is that the viewers now accept it and I'm going to zoom before pandemic. People would say it looks like crap that sounds like you can't do that, but now everybody accepts it. [00:24:28][43.0]

Michael Moran: [00:24:29] You remember the Blair Witch Project Project? [00:24:31][2.4]

Dennis Owens: [00:24:32] Oh, yeah, yeah, exactly. [00:24:33][0.8]

Michael Moran: [00:24:34] And I was still in broadcast when that came out, and it suddenly all these kind of really slick, high production value producers were going, We need a shaky camera. I think is because it looked supposedly authentic. [00:24:45][11.8]

Dennis Owens: [00:24:46] So if we can find them, a shaky camera is called Get a photographer from the market. No. One thirty four who hasn't learned the craft yet. It's, you know, it's it's kind of funny. But but on the other hand, the negative the downside to your point, and it is getting a little bit better as the capital return starts to turn for rhythm. People are coming back, but so much of what I get is like I'll walk through the capital and talk to nine people and have seven stories in the process of those conversations that don't really happen when somebody is on a zoom with you. I mean, they'll give you a soundbite and they'll talk to you about a story. But the real the real news is gathered people to people, as you accurately pointed out, and the people just haven't been here for the most part. But as I said, the swallows are returning to the to the to the State House a bit. I do see things getting better as we head toward the spring. [00:25:37][51.0]

Michael Moran: [00:25:39] OK, so we're going to mix that metaphor with Capistrano and Punxsutawney. [00:25:42][3.1]

Dennis Owens: [00:25:44] It's much nicer in Capistrano. I've been to both, but Punxsutawney has a charm one day of the year, but it's usually a pretty chilly on February 2nd. But almost everybody in attendance has some liquid warmth, if you know what I'm saying. [00:25:58][13.5]

Michael Moran: [00:26:00] All right. Well, I'm going to start to wrap it up here. Dennis, this has been a really fascinating conversation. How would people other than obviously those of you in the Harrisburg metropolitan area who can watch Dennis on television and perhaps across Pennsylvania? But beyond that, that area, how would people follow what you do and the work that's going on and Pennsylvania politics? [00:26:21][21.6]

Dennis Owens: [00:26:22] Real simple. Thank you for the opportunity this week in Pennsylvania. Dot com. That's my weekly politics show. ABC 27 dot com is my station that I work for, and my work is on there. And then I am a the only social media avail myself to really heavily is Twitter. It's Owens underscore ABC. Twenty seven. [00:26:42][20.3]

Michael Moran: [00:26:44] OK. Dennis, and I'm going to remind people that they can learn more about our sponsor Microshare and how it has helped to get the world safely back to work, ever smoked solutions, boost efficiency, enable cost savings and bring safety and reassurance to the people inside your buildings. You can learn more about every smart air clean, every smart space in a whole other suite of products on the Microshare website. That's WW w microshare down there, and you can subscribe to Manifest Density or download it onto Google Play. I talk radio Spotify or complain about it. We like comments that go for it, but it's available on a number of audio platforms that I didn't mention, and that will pretty much do it for this week. On behalf of Microshare and all of its global employees, this is Michael Moran thanking Dennis Owens again and saying so long. Be well and thank you for listening. [00:26:44][0.0]




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