Thomas Fitzgerald: Corbett's road show

Gov. Corbett has taken on a higher-profile approach in recent weeks.
Gov. Corbett has taken on a higher-profile approach in recent weeks. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)

The governor is making appearances to promote his agenda.

Posted: January 28, 2013

Not so long ago, Pennsylvania political people would joke that Gov. Corbett was like Calvin Coolidge, a man so famous for his reticence that a woman at a White House dinner once tried to open him up by saying she had bet a friend she could make the president utter more than two words.

"You lose," Coolidge famously replied.

But all of a sudden, Corbett is everywhere. And he's voluble.

He's been sitting down for get-to-know-me sessions with journalists, visiting newspaper editorial boards to build support for his coming assault on what he calls the budgetary "tapeworm" of public-employee pension costs, and swooping into Philadelphia to announce he will restore $20 million in general assistance for people with intellectual disabilities.

It's Governor, Version 2.0.

Corbett has an ambitious and controversial agenda this year. Besides confronting the cost of the pensions, he hopes to privatize the state liquor stores; find money to repair roads and bridges (that may involve a gas-tax increase); and hire a British firm to manage the state lottery in hopes of scratching up bigger returns.

Plus, in political terms, 2014 is next week.

A survey this month by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling of North Carolina found 38 percent of registered voters approved of Corbett's job performance; he scored at 40 percent positive in November's Quinnipiac University poll.

Those numbers have strategists at the Democratic Governors Association salivating and a half-dozen potential candidates angling to take on Corbett. At least one Republican, Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor, has threatened to challenge him, as well.

Democrats point out that Corbett was quick to slash school aid, health insurance for the poor, and the welfare safety net, and slow to tax the state's booming natural gas industry. "He's done a number of things that have hurt people," state party spokesman Mark Nicastre said. "We're not under any illusion he's going to be easy to beat, but he has not shown an inclination to change anything but his public-relations approach."

Charlie Breslin, president of the Rittenhouse Consulting Group and a Corbett supporter, does not believe the governor is all that vulnerable.

"He's not a self-promoter, but this guy is going to shine through his work," Breslin said. "He's accomplished a tremendous amount in a year and a half."

In Southeastern Pennsylvania alone, he said, that includes funding to help deepen the Philadelphia port, securing land for a port expansion, and helping broker sales to save two refineries that were targeted for closure.

Early in his term, when Corbett faced a $4.2 billion deficit and made deep cuts to keep a no-tax pledge, he often seemed indifferent to explaining difficult decisions.

The funny part is, Corbett may not have been the recluse people think. His office says he did more open-media public events (160) than his spotlight-craving predecessor, Ed Rendell, (134) did in his second year in office. Last year, Corbett did 163 one-on-one interviews.

Perceptions are awfully hard to shake in politics, though.

"He has a natural proclivity to be deliberative, play things close to the vest," said Charles Kopp, a Philadelphia lawyer and trusted member of Corbett's kitchen cabinet. "His nature is nonpolitical."

The good news for Corbett is that no governor since 1968, when the state constitution was changed to allow two terms, has failed to win reelection. And some had wretched approval ratings before their reelection runs. Rendell, a Democrat, was hovering around 35 percent in the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in 2005 after signing on to the pay raise for legislators and judges. Yet he won a second term a year later by 19 percentage points.

Corbett seems to relish his unpolished image. He tells people he's not a politician; he says he defied advisers to bring his recent suit against the NCAA for sanctions imposed on Pennsylvania State University in the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.

Political advisers warned, " 'Walk away. Don't do this,' " Corbett said Wednesday to in an interview with Inquirer reporters and editors.

He said he was told that the suit would amount to "tearing the scab off the wound" at Penn State, and that people would view it as a cynical reelection play for the affections of the vast army of alumni and fans.

But Corbett insists the NCAA has overstepped its authority and violated due process - as well as his own sense of lawyerly propriety.

"You've got to be fair," he said.

That stubbornness rings familiar to his advisers - even those who remember Governor 1.0.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718, tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.

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