Nice guy, but is that enough to be governor?

At a forum last week in Lancaster (from left): State Treasurer Rob McCord, former state Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, and former state Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf.
At a forum last week in Lancaster (from left): State Treasurer Rob McCord, former state Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, and former state Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf. (CHRIS KNIGHT / Intelligencer Journal)
Posted: May 05, 2014

Nobody loves you when you're ahead. Nobody, that is, except the voters. Just ask Tom Wolf.

With little more than two weeks until the Democratic gubernatorial primary, the soft-spoken York County cabinet king is crushing in the latest poll, leading the three other candidates by at least 25 points.

So it's open Wolf-hunting season for Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord, even Republican Gov. Corbett. Katie McGinty, the former state environmental secretary, has stayed largely out of the cross fire. Then again, she's polling at 2 percent, a shame because McGinty is smart, affable, and experienced.

But desperate times call for nasty politics. At debates last week in Philadelphia and Lancaster, McCord ripped Wolf for serving as 2001 campaign chairman for recovering racist and former York Mayor Charlie Robertson, who was charged and later acquitted in the murder three decades earlier of a black woman. Schwartz thwacked Wolf for his steadfast support of former State Rep. Stephen Stetler, convicted of six counts of corruption during Bonusgate. Who knew tiny York was such a political minefield?

Wolf may be loyal to a fault. But my larger issue with the candidate is that a few months ago, no one knew who he was, and now Wolf stands an excellent chance of becoming our next governor.

Voters are wary of career politicians, and running against Harrisburg is a winning strategy. People also love the new. That was President Obama's strategy to success. But self-funded politicians should also make us wary. Michael Bloomberg is the exception, not the rule.

It shouldn't have been this easy, 25 points easy, for Wolf to surge so far ahead. This is a good field with four smart candidates. McCord, desperate and going for blood, is among the smartest politicians I've met, well-versed on the top issues, including pensions. He's also a successful businessman. But Wolf's money, winning narrative, and comparatively clean slate in Harrisburg have controlled the race.

What we know about Wolf comes largely from an arsenal of well-crafted ads. He projects the winning aura of the folksy country businessman with Jeep and beard. All that's missing is the sweater vest. McCord even alluded to Wolf's being "Mr. Rogers" during the Lancaster debate. McCord and Schwartz seem in perpetual shock, as if to say, "I can't believe I'm polling so far behind this guy."

Wolf's ads are fueled by a $10 million personal war chest, almost half borrowed through a personal bank loan, that dwarfs those of his challengers. He has run an excellent campaign, hired great people (media consultant Saul Shorr is already a winner in this campaign), and made smart choices. Wolf got out front and stayed alone, which cannot be said of Schwartz. She took her presumed front-runner status for granted, as if the job was there for the plucking, while proving to be a flat debater.

But a good candidate does not necessarily make a good governor. After two meetings with Wolf and watching him in candidate forums, I'm not convinced that running a cabinet company with 250 employees and serving a couple of years as revenue secretary (largely a collection and enforcement agency) are qualifications enough for the job.

It's a fallacy that being an owner and boss, answerable to a few people and concerned with profit and loss, is adequate training for the state's top policy job. You need to be an effective negotiator and politician, hire a terrific staff, and manage well.

Wolf seems a nice and thoughtful man, but, as a former boss often remarked, "Nice is not enough." Corbett seems nice. His policies are nothing of the kind.

Though the candidates agree on many issues, their differences come from experience and style, how they will successfully effect policy and change at odds with the current environment in Harrisburg. Asked what distinguishes him from the other candidates, Wolf said: "My story." Please note that Jon Corzine had a good story, too.

If Corbett can't get along with the recalcitrant Republicans in the legislature, how would a progressive Democrat pass an agenda? Wolf repeatedly mentioned his experience as a 19-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in India, teaching farmers to grow high-yielding rice. Admirable, but perhaps not adequate preparation for dealing with the Republican leadership.

Being governor is a tough job in a capital that's stalled. With a towering 25-point lead before the May 20 primary, Wolf still needs to show us that he's more than a nice, rich, Jeep-driving guy with a good story.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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