At 94, former Gov. George M. Leader forgotten, not gone

Democrat George M. Leader
Democrat George M. Leader
Posted: June 11, 2012

On Nov. 15, 1954, the cover of America's leading newsmagazine carried a photo of a grinning George M. Leader with his hands clasped in victory over his head.

For only the third time since the Civil War, a Democrat had been elected governor of Pennsylvania, part of a Democratic surge nationally. Editors of Time saw it as the biggest story of that year's campaign.

Today, a souvenir copy of the Time cover hangs in the offices of the G. M. Leader Corp., located inside a white house with green shutters along a rural road near Hershey.

Leader, 94, is forgotten but not gone.

Ten other governors have come along since Leader left Harrisburg in 1959 and settled into a quiet but prosperous life as the operator of nursing homes and long-term-care facilities.

For decades, he has been almost invisible politically. He has seldom attended a political dinner, seldom sat on a dais. "When I do give a speech," he jokes, "I say, ‘I am here tonight to prove I am still alive.'?"

Now he is again popping up his head politically.

Six feet tall, with a raspy voice and white-on-white hair, Leader has lent his name to a campaign for prison reform.

The campaign, "Real Corrections Reform, Right Now," has brought together several dozen notables from the political left and right in an effort to reduce the inmate population.

The group supports a bill that, among other things, would provide alcohol and drug treatment as an alternative to prison for many nonviolent offenders.

With Matthew J. Brouillette, president of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, he recently cosigned an op-ed article that ran in a half-dozen newspapers across the state.

"In the past 30 years, Pennsylvania's incarceration rate exploded by more than 500 percent to more than 50,000 inmates, requiring the construction of 18 new prisons at a cost of $200 million, and millions more annually to maintain," they wrote.

"As a result," they said, "spending on the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections grew 1,700 percent. At a cost of $35,000 per inmate per year, taxpayers have been ill served by a system that locks up more people for longer periods but fails to deter future crimes."

Brouillette, 42, said he had enjoyed crossing political boundary lines to work with the liberal Leader, who he notes was governor "before I was born."

Leader said his interest stemmed from work he has done with Second Chance Ministries, a Christian program that counsels inmates and seeks to help them stay free of crime when they get out.

Prisons are so packed, he said, that even when an inmate's time is up, it could take months before he is released because of backlogs in required drug-addiction prevention courses.

"Every idea has a time, and this is one for which the time has come," Leader said last week at his office. "The idea is to reform the prisons in a way that, over the next five years, is going to save the taxpayers a quarter of a billion dollars."

Leader calls himself an entrepreneur. His interest in politics waned after he lost an election for the U.S. Senate in 1958 at the close of the one term allowed for governors then.

He worked behind the scenes for other Democrats until the 1970s, but became more and more absorbed in business and charitable work. (He supports humanitarian relief in Ghana and Kenya.)

He remains a small political donor, giving $1,000 so far this year to the Democratic National Committee and $1,000 to his Democratic congressman, Tim Holden, who lost his April primary.

Leader tried to retire at age 80, turning his Country Meadows retirement communities over to his three sons and a daughter. But after six months, "I was just floundering," he said. He asked the children if it would be OK if he started another long-term-care business, even as they ran the first. They said yes, and he's still at it.

He works "four, five, six" hours a day as chairman of Providence Place Retirement Community, a small group of long-term-care facilities.

One day a week, he said, his driver takes him around in an eight-year-old Lincoln Town Car to inspect his various facilities.

He sold a farm and lives in an expanded apartment at one of his family's retirement centers. His wife, Mary Jane, whom he began dating at age 15, died a year ago.

A University of Pennsylvania graduate whose father, Guy, was a gentleman farmer and state senator from York County, Leader was 36 when he was elected governor in an upset over Pennsylvania's long-dominant GOP establishment. (His foe was then-Lt. Gov. Lloyd Wood.)

Political scientist John D. Kennedy of West Chester University says in his book Pennsylvania Elections that Leader was the second-youngest governor in the state's history after Robert E. Pattison, elected at 32 in 1882.

"I think he's one of the most important and certainly most interesting figures in Pennsylvania political history," Kennedy said in an interview.

"Leader was a real reformer," he said. "It wasn't just lip service. It wasn't just a slogan."

Paul B. Beers, whose book Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday is the bible of state politics before 1980, credited Leader with some of the first stabs at reducing patronage.

Beers wrote that the state had 50,665 jobs available for appointment on a purely political basis when Leader took over. He was able to reduce that by 4,659, making some jobs available based on competitive exams.

"That was the beginning of the end of big-time patronage," Beers wrote.

Leader himself says he went only "so far." Politics has always run on money, he said. In those days, it was cash, and it often came in the form of kickbacks from state employees and contractors. "The architects and engineers all had to give 6 percent of their fees to the state party — to the Democrats when we were in, to the Republicans when they were in."

Leader said he left one patronage haven alone. That was what is now PennDot, which operated maintenance sheds in each of 67 counties.

"I was lily-white, except I gave them [party leaders] the patronage in the Highway Department, which was local," he said. "I didn't try to reform the Highway Department."

In the 1970s, a scandal erupted over PennDot workers being "maced" — required to purchase tickets to county party banquets.

After his term as governor, Leader in 1958 became his party's candidate against Republican Hugh Scott for the Senate seat. The nominee for governor on the same ballot was David L. Lawrence, mayor and Democratic boss of Pittsburgh.

After his reform efforts, the knives were out. "He was backstabbed in his own party," Kennedy said.

Lawrence won handily, but Leader lost. He believes that Lawrence in particular betrayed him.

Lawrence and Pittsburgh banker-industrialist Richard King Mellon, a Republican, had made a deal, Leader alleged: If Lawrence would "cut" Leader, Mellon would financially support Lawrence.

After the election, a discouraged Leader never ran for office again.

Lawrence died in 1966 at 77.

Had Leader won the Senate election, he could have been headed for national office, Kennedy says.

"He is perhaps the biggest what-if in Pennsylvania political history if he hadn't been backstabbed by his own party," Kennedy said. ”There is a reasonable chance he could have been president some day.”

Contact Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @tinfield.

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