Introducing Corbett 2.0: Selling his ideas

Gov. Corbett, shown last year in Philadelphia, has adopted a new style that differs markedly from the one he honed during his career as a prosecutor. DAVID MAIALETTI / FILE PHOTO
Gov. Corbett, shown last year in Philadelphia, has adopted a new style that differs markedly from the one he honed during his career as a prosecutor. DAVID MAIALETTI / FILE PHOTO
Posted: June 28, 2012

I think we're seeing a slow rollout of Tom Corbett 2.0. The Republican guv, uncharacteristically, is suddenly pushing publicly for what he wants — specifically, the Shell petrochemical plant in western Pennsylvania and human-services block grants for counties.

He's done this in both cases with well-organized, high-visibility Capitol news conferences; at each, he was flanked by dozens of supporters, including some Democrats.

This approach is new.

Corbett's been criticized, even by allies, for not forcefully leading, especially on GOP agenda items including school vouchers and liquor privatization.

Couple of weeks back I asked Corbett's new chief of staff, Philly lawyer Steve Aichele, if his appointment signals a new direction for the administration.

Aichele said this: "Anytime any organization changes a major cog within the organization, there's going to be change, there's going to be a different style."

I think that's what we're seeing.

When I asked Corbett this week if this "different style" is because of budget season or a sign of things to come, he said, "I would say it's more seasonal than anything."

So let's say it's partly a sign of things to come.

Corbett and those close to him repeatedly hear that the governor needs to fully transition from his mindset as a career prosecutor.

He was an assistant D.A. in Allegheny County, U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania and acting state attorney general before twice being elected A.G.

That mind-set is you keep things quiet, build a case, talk only to fellow prosecutors, then come out in public once charges are filed. That's what he did.

Those jobs required no message-building and no real long-term planning because there's never any shortage of stuff to prosecute.

Governing is different. It requires extended cooperation, sometimes bipartisanship, and consensus.

A proposal such as $1.7 billion in long-term incentives for Shell that isn't fully and publicly explained, and accompanied by wide support, becomes a corporate giveaway by a pro-business governor.

Changing the way the state delivers human-services funding without the understanding and backing of those on the receiving end — and lawmakers who must approve the change — becomes a sneaky way to cut aid to the needy.

Setting aside the merits of these efforts, both suffered because there was no out-front salesmanship. The rollouts just done should have happened several weeks — even months — ago.

Given how he's acting lately, it seems Corbett and advisers now realize that.

"A group of us hope he starts doing more things the way he's doing things now," said a GOP source close to the administration.

Corbett, aside from the prosecutorial thing, faces a few other bumps on the road to smoother governing.

He has a penchant for stepping in it.

As a candidate in 2010, when state unemployment was 9.1 percent, he said "jobs are there" but too many folks were waiting for their unemployment benefits to expire.

Earlier this year, he said women opposed to mandatory ultrasounds when seeking abortions should just "close your eyes."

Also, he's no wonk. When publicly answering specific policy questions, he often defers to others. By contrast, when questions turn to issues of law and justice, he's assertive, confident and knowledgable.

Then there's dealing with the Legislature. He prosecuted lawmakers and ran against the Harrisburg culture as a candidate. Plus, the three preceding governors — Rendell, Ridge, Casey — all signed legislative pay raises during their first terms.

Don't expect Corbett to do the same.

But this weekend, if he gets his second on-time, no-new-taxes budget with either block grants to counties or a Shell deal or both (and especially if he doesn't), look for his new approach to extend beyond just being "seasonal." n

For recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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