(303) Sunday, January 29, 2017 – Four years ago, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, in the middle of his first term, was at the top of a list compiled by Governing Magazine. He was labeled one of the most vulnerable governors up for re-election.
Two years later, Democrat Tom Wolf defeated Corbett’s attempt for a second term. And now, Wolf finds himself on the same list.
Historically, governors had been limited to serving one four-year term.
Following the last Constitutional Convention in 1968, voters approved permitting governors to succeed themselves for a second term.
Democrat Milton Shapp became the first governor eligible to succeed himself, serving 1971-79. Republican Richard Thornburgh followed 1979 to 1987, then Democrat Bob Casey Sr. 1987 to 1995. The next two governors – Republican Tom Ridge (1995) and then Democrat Ed Rendell (2003) – also succeed themselves.
Corbett followed Rendell in 2011. Neither party had been able to string more than two terms by one governor in control of the mansion. Democrats had about a million-voter registration advantage, but inept campaign leadership denied that Party from a dynasty.
Republicans maintained leverage by gerrymandering legislative districts for huge numerical advantage and resulting campaign firepower. Consequently, when Corbett won his first term, his party also controlled both chambers of the legislature.
Despite these overwhelming advantages and strong leadership at the national level, Corbett and his crowd fumbled opportunities. At the same time, similar Republican uprisings in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana delivered results in huge business tax cuts, right-to-work laws and curtailment of the power of public educators.
Wolf entered the statewide political picture in 2014. He had served as Rendell’s secretary of revenue but the York County independent businessman had no campaign experience.
Initially, he was not considered a serious candidate when measured against three other more seasoned Democrats. The picture changed when Wolf decided to dump $10 million of his own funds into the campaign and the other three candidates seemed to stifle each other.
With Corbett not showing decent approval numbers – even in his own party – Wolf became an easy winner in the General Election.
Even then, Wolf’s campaign apparatus showed stress cracks.
Following his primary victory, Wolf’s transition as party leader stumbled. Through Wolf, Rendell blessed his support for Katie McGinty to be the next party chair. McGinty was one of the candidates Wolf defeated in the gubernatorial primary.
Allegheny County lawyer Jim Burn refused to vacate the state chairmanship, with strong support from state committee members in the summer 2014 showdown.
Wolf responded by continuing his own campaign apparatus, with McGinty as chair. The Wolf machine and the state committee did not compete, in peaceful co-existence.
Duplicity and competition for donations made both organizations weaker. Both Democratic State Senate and Democrat House of Representatives campaigns were poorly managed. Republicans increased their margins in each Chamber while Wolf smoked their ticket leader.
Both sides claimed mandates from the election. Wolf said his win proved the case for higher taxes, a new severance tax on drilling and better public education. Republican lawmakers pointed to their victories from voters who wanted no new taxes.
For the first two years of Wolf’s term Republicans denied his request for higher levies on personal income and sales taxes as well as imposition of a new tax on wells.
Both Rendell and Wolf share a lack of respect for legislators. Rendell honed skills to deal with them from his terms as Mayor of Philadelphia. When pushed, Rendell could deliver critical votes that made the difference between bills passing or defeated.
Not so Wolf. He acted as though citing his mandate was all that was needed to get his programs through the legislature.
Wolf’s claims for success so far are limited to matters he has been able to deal with through executive action. These include online voter registration, expansion of Medicaid and greater transparency.
While the Governor touts a gift ban for all political appointees and state workers under his jurisdiction, he did this by executive order. He has yet to ask the legislature for a bill to make this conduct a crime.
In the fall of 2015, Burn relinquished control of state committee. Rendell installed another associate, Montgomery County lawyer Marcel Groen as the new chairman of state committee.
Signs point to Wolf and the Democrats combining resources for 2018.
Despite this, gearing up for re-election in 2018 is no walk on the beach for Wolf. Most of the problems are his own doing.
He has been unable to get balanced budgets through the Republican legislature. The fiscal challenges grow larger.
Recently Wolf announced that he is abandoning his request for increased personal income taxes and sales taxes to eliminate faults in the state’s financing of public education. This had been his top platform issue when he ran in 2014.
If he gets nowhere this year on the severance tax, Wolf could lose considerable environmental support at the ballot box. “Tree huggers” are already cooling lover for Wolf because of other environmental shortcomings.
Bottom Line: Wolf is now in Corbett’s shoes. Many Republicans are lining up to take a shot at his job.
Front runner should be maverick State Sen. Scott Wagner. Like Wolf, Wagner is a successful York County business man intending to finance his own campaign.