Karen Heller: As a public leader, Corbett isn't cutting it

A rare sighting: Gov. Corbett speaking last week in Richmond, Va., at the Chesapeake Executive Council's annual meeting.
A rare sighting: Gov. Corbett speaking last week in Richmond, Va., at the Chesapeake Executive Council's annual meeting. (STEVE HELBER / Associated Press)

Isolation may work for an attorney general, but not for a governor. Even his confidants worry.

Posted: July 17, 2011

Tom Corbett has been governor for six months, and in many ways, if you agree with his agenda - provided you understand what his agenda is - he's been a success.

For the first time in almost a decade, the budget passed on time. Facing a $4 billion gap, he reduced state spending. True to his word, and his signed pledge to Grover Norquist, he didn't raise taxes, although why he feels it necessary to be beholden to a Washington management strategist is beyond me.

But Corbett has been terrible - flat-out awful - in meeting with the general public and in communicating his agenda, not only to voters but also to his party brethren.

After campaigning that "I will fight very hard to fund public education," Corbett failed to explain why he had made such severe cuts to education and services for poor people.

He never informed voters why he hadn't enacted a 10 percent reduction in government administration operations, a campaign promise. Instead, after freezing state employees' salaries for one year, and despite a looming pension crisis, he approved a 10 percent wage increase over four years.

And Corbett hasn't told us what he is going to do and where he intends to lead the commonwealth, a massive failure of policy and politics.

He governs in a protected bubble, meeting with top staff and staging public appearances before supportive audiences while the rest of us remain in the dark. In an era of transparency, Harrisburg has become opaque.

Close friends and advisers agree. Requesting anonymity, a member of the governor's inner circle says he told Corbett: "You've done a terrible disservice to the voters. You need to tell your side of the story in a more professional, forceful manner."

Another insider says: "There has been no coherent message about why those cuts were made. Overall, there is a lack of direction and strategy."

Mind you, these are Republican friends talking.

Republicans own the entire candy store in Harrisburg, yet Corbett bungled solidarity by keeping even leadership at bay. Senate Appropriations Chair Jake Corman, a Republican from Centre County, home to Penn State, learned of the governor's proposal to whack higher-ed funding by 50 percent two days before the budget dropped.

Early on, I dubbed Corbett Gov. Garbo, and the name still fits. He wants to be left alone. His office has been compared to North Korea. Wary of breaking the silence, cabinet members follow his lead. Recently, when I phoned the office of Health Secretary Eli Avila - the Barney Fife of the Corbett administration, with his badges, jackets, and "Do you know who I am?" attitude - his assistant demurred on Avila's addressing any questions on abortion-clinic inspections and legislation, saying the governor would speak on those issues.

But the governor doesn't speak! Corbett's press office is where requests for information go to die. Corbett once compared himself to Chris Christie. That's absurd. Christie offers an opinion with every breath. Voters are never in doubt about his intentions.

Allies attribute Corbett's largely silent first six months to the difficult transition from his former job to governor.

"You have a government being run by prosecutors, who require absolute certainty and see the world in black and white," one adviser says, while being governor is about seeing shades of gray. "As attorney general, you're reactive. As governor, you have to proactive."

Corbett is not a natural politician, close advisers agree, nor is he a comfortable speaker. He's better when scripted, and doesn't wish to repeat the one gaffe of his campaign, when he said jobless Pennsylvanians would rather collect unemployment than go back to work. He said that a year ago. That's an awfully long time not to explain your views.

There is the Ed Effect after eight years of Rendell, who loved being in the limelight. But nobody expected, or wanted, another Rendell. Corbett was supposed to be the correction, though not this drastically.

The first six months of any governor's tenure tend to be rocky, allies suggest, the beginning of a tough job with a steep learning curve during which almost everyone has stumbled. Virtually no job - mayor, attorney general, or legislator - is adequate preparation.

Where is Corbett leading Pennsylvania? When he first ran, he campaigned as a reformer - how's that going? - and centrist candidate compared with his primary opponent, Sam Rohrer, but he has moved increasingly toward the right with his signing of the Norquist no-tax agreement, his refusal to impose taxes on fracking while seeming to be inordinately close to the natural gas industry, his approval of the Castle Doctrine, and his readiness to ink an even more restrictive abortion policy.

In a state with a long history of moderate Republicans, Corbett is quickly becoming the most conservative governor since Dick Thornburgh.

By not talking to reporters - and therefore the people of the state - he's not allowing Pennsylvanians to support or make a case against his actions. Corbett's secrecy makes him autocratic. We deserve a voice in our destiny.

"If he doesn't change his press policy and public appearance schedule," one adviser says, "he's going to be a one-term governor."

Corbett remains the great unknown, while becoming increasingly what we never bargained on getting in a governor: an enigmatic and hidden man.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller

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