Corbett burnishing a kinder, gentler image

Gov. Corbettat the Salvation Army last month in Nicetown, where he showed a softer side. In his budget speech last week, he proclaimed: "Education is the largest single item in my budget."
Gov. Corbettat the Salvation Army last month in Nicetown, where he showed a softer side. In his budget speech last week, he proclaimed: "Education is the largest single item in my budget." (MATT ROURKE / AP)
Posted: February 10, 2014

Alfred Williams admired Gov. Corbett's blue suit, gave him a high-five, and huddled close for a picture.

"Cheeseburger!" Williams, 53, shouted, grinning wide for the cameras and smartphones.

"You like cheeseburgers?" Corbett said. "So do I." Instantly, that became his new friend's nickname.

The recent exchange with Williams, an intellectually disabled man who works for the Salvation Army at its community center in Philadelphia's Nicetown section, showed a softer side of the governor than the usual persona of a tough-talking former lawman he projects.

That was no accident. Corbett, who oversaw massive cuts in education and social programs in his first year in office, has, since January, been proposing to pour money into pre-K and day care, domestic-violence and rape-crisis programs, and schools.

Call it the kinder-and-gentler tour.

He is hardly the first governor to use the budget season to attempt an image makeover, said Chris Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenberg College.

"He's been seen as someone who was hard on schools, too close to drilling interests in the state, sometimes a little insensitive in his comments," Borick said. "He has to show that he gets it. . . . People expect a connection with their lives."

The stakes are high for Corbett, who has historically low approval numbers for an incumbent Pennsylvania governor in a reelection year.

Opinion surveys also have shown he has had a hard time connecting with voters. A January Franklin & Marshall Poll, for instance, found that only 32 percent of respondents said Corbett cared about ordinary people, the lowest score among seven characteristics measured. He fared slightly better on the question in a Quinnipiac Poll in December, at 35 percent.

Poll after poll in the last year has also shown a gender gap, with Corbett getting more support among men than women, in hypothetical election matchups with an unnamed Democratic opponent.

Corbett revisited the compassion theme in last week's budget speech to a joint session of the legislature, the traditional occasion for governors to lay out their agendas.

"We're committed to helping those who need it most," he said. "My budget is a reflection of this commitment. It will help secure a brighter future for our seniors, our neighbors with disabilities, our victims of violent crime, and our veterans."

This year, Corbett outlined programs his administration had put in place over the last three years to increase accountability in public schools - and then went on to announce a new initiative to boost funding for public schools by $400 million.

"Education is the largest single item in my budget," he proclaimed.

The tone of Corbett's first budget speech, in 2011, was far more austere. He spoke of "a reality-based budget," and warned of the "dangers of a culture of spending."

"Our job isn't to spend," he told a joint session of the legislature that day. "It's to conserve."

With the state facing a $4 billion deficit at the time, he called for every sector to make sacrifices - and singled out education.

"I am here to say that education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession," he told legislators in 2011, proceeding to call on school administrators, teachers, and support staff to agree to a one-year salary freeze.

Democrats in 2014, of course, are not buying any transformation. Jim Burn, chairman of the state party, labeled Corbett's shift of tone nothing more than "election gimmickry."

"His image is not a problem as much as his policies," Burn argued. ". . . He has damaged education and refused to expand Medicaid; women remember his insensitive remarks. . . . Voters see through this. This is nothing more than a mirage."

Republican consultant Charlie Gerow said he believed it wasn't Corbett who had changed, but the state's fortunes - and that is because the governor made tough decisions in his first year in office to rein in spending and get the state back on financial track.

"The shift that you see is simply the governor now having the flexibility to do the things he wants to do to move Pennsylvania forward," the veteran GOP strategist said. "And he has that flexibility because he was willing to do what had to be done. That is why we now have a feel-good, positive budget."

He added: "To the extent that folks say Tom Corbett is appearing more warm and fuzzy than he did three years ago - well, I believe they are just seeing more of the real Tom Corbett now. Because the real Tom Corbett is a caring and compassionate man."

Philadelphia Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler said he still heard in Corbett's speeches the familiar themes of fiscal responsibility and accountability.

The difference these days, said Ceisler, is that Corbett is in a position to argue that the reason the state has more money to spread around now is because of the belt-tightening he championed in his first year in office.

And if that helps him politically, said Ceisler, "there is nothing wrong with that - part of his job is to get reelected.

"He reads the newspapers," said Ceisler. "He reads the polls. It's not like the man is sitting in a bubble, unaware of the precarious political situations he finds himself in."

Whether the new tone continues and translates into wider public support remains to be seen. But, Ceisler noted, Corbett's narrative these days may at the very least help blunt some of the more vicious critiques of his administration's policies.

"He may not win people over," Ceisler said, "but perhaps he gets to soften some of the opposition."

215-854-2718 @tomfitzgerald

Inquirer staff writers Angela Couloumbis and Amy Worden contributed to this article.

comments powered by Disqus