Does Tom Wolf have the right stuff?

ASSOCIATED PRESS Tom Wolf (center) - seen here in 2008, during his term as the state's revenue secretary - is ready to make his bid for Gov. Corbett's job. He says he's the only Democratic candidate who can both "beat Tom Corbett and turn Pennsylvania around."
ASSOCIATED PRESS Tom Wolf (center) - seen here in 2008, during his term as the state's revenue secretary - is ready to make his bid for Gov. Corbett's job. He says he's the only Democratic candidate who can both "beat Tom Corbett and turn Pennsylvania around."
Posted: August 27, 2013

MOUNT WOLF, Pa. - He lives in a place named for his family, in an 1850s house built by his family, and runs a company started by his family in 1843. He has an Ivy League (Dartmouth) undergrad degree, a master's from the University of London and a doctorate from MIT.

His doctoral dissertation (the bound version is the size of a Manhattan phone book) is titled Congressional Sea Change: Conflict and Organizational Accommodation in the House of Representatives 1878-1921.

I have not read it.

But I have spent time with Tom Wolf, chairman/CEO of the Wolf Organization, largest supplier of kitchen and bath cabinetry in the U.S., at his home in this tiny York County borough just west of the Susquehanna River.

I can report that he's maybe the most interesting person to seek the governorship in modern Pennsylvania history.

The question is whether Pennsylvania gets interested in him.

Right now, he's unknown: a biz guy from a Republican county running as a Democrat with no political base.

Did I mention that he'll spend $10 million of his own dough in a likely crowded 2014 primary?

"My hope and expectation is I'll be judged not on how much money I spend, but on the story I have to tell," he says.

His resume is rare for a statewide candidate: He has never held elective office, but has government experience as Ed Rendell's secretary of revenue.

His community involvement is extensive, including chairing his county's United Way and chamber of commerce. And his story is pretty good.

He served in the Peace Corps, two years in India.

His family didn't believe in inherited business, so Wolf (and other forerunners) had to buy it at market price.

He began a gubernatorial bid in late '08, but dropped it after his business - which he sold in '06 - hit the brink of bankruptcy.

His wife of 38 years, Frances, says he got a call about the company crashing as they were leaving a D.C. hotel room for President Obama's inauguration.

Wolf spent the next hours on two phones while his wife watched the swearing-in on a muted TV. He then told her that his race was off.

He bought the company back, changed its business model and expanded its reach. Today, it has 253 nonunion, profit-sharing employees and an additional 140 workers in servicing companies across 28 states.

The key to its new success was doing things differently. It's a message that Wolf's converting to politics.

"Pennsylvania is a state that could use some change," he says, in education, infrastructure, social services and tax reform.

His bottom line is that all policy is based on "fairness."

He talks of altering school-funding formulas to end "huge discrepancies" among districts; refocusing economic development on statewide infrastructure such as high-speed rail instead of individual projects; securing the social safety net so children don't pay for "the sins or inadequacies of their parents," and cutting the Corporate Net Income Tax by 60 percent with "everyone paying."

(The 9.99 percent CNI is the highest flat rate and second-highest marginal rate in America, but 73 percent of companies - more than 74,000 - don't pay it.)

"Imagine a Wall Street Journal headline saying Pennsylvania drops CNI by 60 percent," says Wolf, and what that could mean to economic development.

When I note that others seek change, only to see it blocked by a status-quo-loving Legislature, Wolf says, "I built businesses dealing with forklift operators and truck drivers . . . I haven't gotten where I am by not being strong making hard decisions."

Wolf's views on social issues reflect basic Democratic positions. He supports abortion rights, gay rights and some gun control.

But he says "my background makes me different . . . I have the best experience." He markets himself as "a different kind of leader" and "the Democrat who can beat Tom Corbett and turn Pennsylvania around."

This implies that other top candidates - Allyson Schwartz, Rob McCord, Katie McGinty, maybe Jack Wagner - are conventional Dems offering little or nothing new.

I know that it's a long way to May. I know that Pennsylvania resists change. I know that running statewide is more than a notion.

But I sense that this Wolf - who's hired a national pollster and media group - isn't howling at the moon. Leaving the obvious question:

Does Tom Wolf have the right stuff?


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

 

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