Money has been deciding factor in Democratic primary so far

Five of the seven Democrats hoping to unseat Gov. Corbett gathered at a forum at the WHYY studios in Philadelphia. From left, John Hanger, Jo Ellen Litz, Kathleen McGinty, Allyson Schwartz, and Tom Wolf.
Five of the seven Democrats hoping to unseat Gov. Corbett gathered at a forum at the WHYY studios in Philadelphia. From left, John Hanger, Jo Ellen Litz, Kathleen McGinty, Allyson Schwartz, and Tom Wolf. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 03, 2014

Pennsylvanians, we are going to have a primary May 20 whether we are ready or, more likely, not.

As of this moment, there are seven Democratic gubernatorial candidates, who happen to agree on almost every subject. A few days ago, there were eight. Soon there may be six, possibly five. The number fluctuates, like The Bachelor but without, you know, the romance.

Currently, Tom Wolf is the guy with the rose.

Who? Exactly.

The soft-spoken York County Democrat, not to be confused with the zeitgeisty, italicizing writer in the ice-cream suit, is the undisputed leader with 36 percent approval in the latest Franklin & Marshall poll, the favorite with virtually every demographic.

Second is U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, the presumptive front-runner and someone voters presumably know, with 9 percent.

That is not a typo.

Right now, it's pretty much Wolf and those other folks. The lesson: Being the presumptive front-runner is not all it's cracked up to be. Then again, no one votes in March and half of all voters remain undecided.

But money, to quote the noted philosopher Cyndi Lauper, changes everything. Wolf is a former member of the Peace Corps and state secretary of revenue. He has a doctorate from MIT in political science. Alone among the candidates, he has a residence in Philadelphia. He is also, it should be noted, a millionaire.

Wolf has invested $10 million of his money in the campaign. He has also raised $3.3 million in donations, which rivals or bests his competitors. State Treasurer Rob McCord, one of those other candidates, said that he found "a self funder" running for governor "troubling," and that the race risked being turned into an "auction."

Perhaps that's because McCord has plowed only $1.7 million of his money into the campaign.

Wolf's millions means he landed on television first, hence the handsome lead in the polls while giving lie to the notions that people don't watch television in real time anymore and skip commercials. Wolf popped up so frequently during the Olympics, I thought he might be an errant member of the U.S. bobsled team.

Recently, Wolf visited our offices in a suit and hiking boots. While we spoke, he mentioned theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, and not in the context of Breaking Bad. He's running as a job creator, who shares 20 to 30 percent of his cabinet company's profits with employees. He said: "I am different from the other candidates. I am rich. But I always wanted to be governor."

If elected, Wolf would be the first Pennsylvania governor with a beard in more than a century, since Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker. We have had mustached chief executives since then - Gifford Pinchot, creator of the beloved state Liquor Control Board, and Edwin Sydney Stuart, so miserable as governor he actually said, "I was never happier than when I was mayor of Philadelphia" - but no beards, so there's that.

It is worrisome that commercials are, so far, the best way to get voters' attention. That's often true in politics but particularly pronounced in this case when the leading Democratic candidate's principal distinctions are being a former secretary of revenue and a longtime holder of a healthy bank account.

Tom Corbett, with record-low approval ratings, has been a disaster, especially for the underserved and our region. Pennsylvanians deserve better. But if we vote based simply on collective airtime, that unflappable Toyota woman would be our next governor.

It probably doesn't help that we have so many candidates to confuse the few voters paying attention. Former Auditor General Jack Wagner entered the race weeks before the March 11 registration deadline. He has $30,000 in his campaign bank account, which won't buy squat. He doesn't even appear to have a website.

But Wagner is the only candidate from the state's western half, unless you count Corbett, setting up a potential regional contest among Democrats. Other candidates include Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz and not one but two former Rendell secretaries of environmental protection - Kathleen McGinty and John Hanger - so best of luck making your choice.

Also, as mentioned before, the seven candidates agree on all issues, including that they disagree with Corbett on almost everything. All we can hope is that the field gets smaller, the distinctions become clearer, including who can best beat Corbett in November, and money isn't the main issue that determines the primary.

But I wouldn't bet on it.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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