Thomas Fitzgerald: PSU scandal could still haunt Corbett

Gov. Corbett has low job-approval ratings and could face criticism in his 2014 reelection campaign over his handling of the Sandusky case.
Gov. Corbett has low job-approval ratings and could face criticism in his 2014 reelection campaign over his handling of the Sandusky case. (AP)
Posted: June 12, 2013

Think of Gov. Corbett as a swimmer and Pennsylvania State University as a dangerous rip current threatening to pull him out to sea.

Fallout from the child sex-abuse case involving former PSU football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky helps keep the Republican governor's job-approval ratings low and could damage him in the 2014 reelection campaign, political analysts say. A new poll last week agreed.

Sure, it's not as visible an issue as the economy, or taxes, or privatization of the state liquor stores. But the Penn State rip current keeps exerting its force.

Many voters think that Corbett, when he was state attorney general, was slow to build the case against Sandusky. The current attorney general, Democrat Kathleen Kane, owes her job in part to her argument that Corbett played politics with the prosecution. She has launched an investigation of the investigation, with the potential for damaging findings any time. (Sandusky was convicted on 43 counts and is in prison.)

And then Corbett, an ex officio member of Penn State's board of trustees, was involved when the board fired iconic coach Joe Paterno. He endorsed the findings of the Freeh report that blamed lack of institutional oversight of the football program, and embraced the NCAA's brutal sanctions.

The governor eventually got religion on the sanctions, filing an antitrust suit against the NCAA; a federal judge dismissed it last week, ruling that there was no plausible evidence of anticompetitive behavior.

"The timing of all this is mind-boggling, and it's the story that won't end," said G. Terry Madonna, pollster and professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. "It's taking its toll on Corbett."

A significant number of voters, 47 percent, said in the latest Quinnipiac University poll on Thursday that the Penn State situation would be a "very" or "somewhat" important factor in their choice for governor next year. By a margin of 58 percent to 23 percent, voters thought that Corbett did not do enough to pursue Sandusky.

Forty-six percent of those polled said the NCAA penalties against Penn State are "too severe," while 32 percent said they are appropriate. Perhaps more important from a political point of view: 75 percent said that the sanctions, including limits on scholarships, a ban on bowl appearances, and a $60 million fine, will hurt the football program.

Penn State isn't the only football-crazed school in the nation. Plenty of Alabama fans wear black-and-white houndstooth hats to games, in honor of the legendary coach Bear Bryant, dead now three decades. And at the airport in Columbus, Ohio, the shelves of souvenir shops are stocked with Woody Hayes bobbleheads.

Students rioted in State College when Paterno was fired. And alumni angry at the university's treatment of the coach now have significant power on the Board of Trustees. Their presence is sure to keep the controversy alive.

Plus, several former university administrators are set to go on trial for allegedly covering up Sandusky's actions. And then there's Kane's investigation hanging over Corbett's head.

None of the Democrats running to replace Corbett have had to make any policy decisions about Penn State, but it's sure to come up on the campaign trail, and the answers probably won't be easy for them either.

Corbett's advisers are hunkering down for the battle, and the outlines of a strategy are taking form in his recent appearances - selling the governor as a fearless nonpolitician taking on the tough issues, doing the right thing, whatever the political consequences.

"There are a lot of tough decisions that need to be made, and it would be easier not to deal with them, but I made a promise to voters that I would," the governor said at a Chamber of Commerce event in Ephrata. "I'm looking down the road 10 and 12 years from now."

If he wants to keep his job, he'll have to look out for rip currents, too.


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

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