Corbett to face GOP's 'tough love'

Posted: May 25, 2012

HARRISBURG - He is being picketed almost daily by demonstrators in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh - a tin man without a heart, they call him.

His Facebook page teems with complaints from angry Pennsylvanians. And his poll numbers have started to sag.

Enough, say top political advisers, supporters, and fund-raisers to Gov. Corbett.

Though they have anxiously watched for months as Corbett has fielded political hits on everything from policy to personality, they are now encouraging the governor to shake things up in hopes of shaking off what they think is turning into a growing image problem.

Next week, according to four sources speaking on condition of anonymity, a small circle of heavyweights in the Republican Party, known as the governor's "kitchen cabinet," will be quietly meeting with Corbett in Harrisburg to push for changes to his top staff in the Capitol.

Their quarrel is not over policy, but with what some senior state Republicans see as political clumsiness: an inability or unwillingness to sell his agenda and his successes to the public, while at the same time allowing a tense or even dysfunctional relationship with the Republican-controlled legislature to fester unchecked.

If nothing changes, said one senior GOP figure, this is the fear: "He'll be a one-term governor."

Corbett's office did not respond to repeated calls for comment over several days.

Next week's meeting is intended to drive a sobering point home, said four people familiar with the gathering. It is being described as a "tough love" session, during which party elders will urge Corbett to rearrange key aides in his front office, some of whom are confidants from his days as attorney general with little political experience. It is also a staff that, over the last 18 months, has split into factions and has been hampered by infighting.

Whether Corbett heeds the political advice remains a question mark. The governor, say those who know him best, is often unmoved by what other people think of him, or want him to do.

It is a difficult spot for the first-term chief executive from Pittsburgh, who rode into the state's top job after receiving largely high marks for his time at the helm of the Attorney General's Office. Corbett was the top prosecutor behind the Bonusgate political-corruption investigations that sent powerful legislators to jail, and he was elected on a promise to change the way Harrisburg operates.

To be sure, once he got to the Capitol, he faced a financial situation no governor would envy: crippling deficits and the unenviable necessity of making difficult spending cuts.

And he had a tough act to follow. As Corbett has said more than once, he is not Ed Rendell, who relished the role of policy salesman and party spokesman. Corbett has said he will speak when he has something to say - and for a career prosecutor, that has often translated into saying the minimum.

He is also bound by the promise he ran on: no new taxes. That has left him with little else but to bring out a sharp budget knife and cut deep; public and higher education have taken big hits, as have programs for the poor, elderly, and disabled.

The result has been almost daily protests in and outside the Capitol, from schoolchildren, the disabled, caregivers, teachers, and activists for the poor. All have picked up on the "tin man" expression coined in a headline earlier this year in the Philadelphia Daily News.

The budget aside, the governor has also had a hard time getting traction on issues near and dear to him, such as school vouchers and privatizing the state's liquor stores. And politically, he suffered what some called a black eye when the candidate he backed for the U.S. Senate in April's Republican primary was crushed at the polls.

Supporters say some of the criticism is inevitable.

"Governing is difficult, and the governor has done what he told people he was going to do," said Michael Barley, the state GOP's executive director. "That doesn't always make you popular."

But other top state Republican advisers and fund-raisers - all of whom asked to remain anonymous because they didn't want to alienate the governor - say they aren't concerned that Corbett is making difficult spending decisions. They point to other Republican governors who are far more controversial, yet thriving politically: Scott Walker of Wisconsin, for instance, who appears to be beating back a recall effort.

The problem, they say, is that Corbett is not out pounding the pavement to sell his point of view. Nor, they say, is anyone else in his office.

No one, they grumble, is even selling his successes: A balanced budget, delivered on time. Holding the line on taxes. Landing a natural-gas "cracker" plant for Monaca, near Pittsburgh. Helping to seal the deal to get a buyer for the Conoco-Phillips refinery in Delaware County, raising hopes of restoring jobs.

His political advisers also fret that the administration has neglected to recruit natural allies, chief among them, Republicans who control both chambers in the legislature - people who could both tout his wins and prop him up when he is faltering politically.

"He treats the legislature like the enemy," said one longtime Republican legislative staffer in the Capitol. "He spent several years persecuting the legislature as he prosecuted some members and staff. Yet throughout that process, neither he nor his staff bothered to learn the legislature. Or the political process."

It has taken its toll: A Quinnipiac University poll in March showed Corbett with his lowest job performance ratings since fighting with legislators last summer over the state budget.

In the poll, voters gave Corbett a 41 percent job approval rating to 41 percent disapproving, down from 47 percent to 34 percent in a December 2011 survey.

Political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna said it is not unusual for elected officials - whether mayors, governors, or presidents - to reassess and make changes in their top staff, particularly in their first term.

Still, Madonna noted that voters generally don't care who those people are or who is replacing them. What they look for is results.

"If a new team helps create a more focused agenda and a strategic plan to sell the governor's agenda, then that can make a difference," he said.

But even a new team, said Madonna, will not be able to change certain cold political realities.

"He's governing during a recession when he's cutting popular programs," said Madonna. "Think about it: If the state had a surplus, and he could spend money, would we really be here talking about how he has an image problem?"


Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

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