Tom Wolf seeks to bring small-town ethos to gubernatorial race

"I think there is a difference between leadership and pounding your chest," says Tom Wolf. "I'm not somebody who wants to score cheap points."
"I think there is a difference between leadership and pounding your chest," says Tom Wolf. "I'm not somebody who wants to score cheap points." (MATT SLOCUM / AP)
Posted: May 12, 2014

Last of four candidate profiles

MOUNT WOLF, Pa. - You can't begin to know Tom Wolf apart from this speck of a borough named for his great-great-grandfather, who owned the store and post office beside the railroad tracks at the high point of a valley that locomotives labor to crest.

The Democratic candidate for governor has roamed the world, but he is rooted at North 40 degrees 3'46" latitude and West 76 degrees, 42'20" longitude.

"It was a place I never really had to leave because you could get on your bicycle and just be entertained from morning to night," Wolf said of his boyhood. And the neighbor ladies watched over it all, ready to call mothers at the first sign of trouble.

Wolf has sold that sense of place as a key part of his story in the millions of dollars worth of television ads that have propelled him to a commanding lead in the May 20 primary: the man who grew his family building-supplies business, sold it, bought it again, and resuscitated it in the depths of the recession; a former Peace Corps volunteer in India; a go-to leader of York-area charities for decades; an academic with a Ph.D. from MIT; state revenue secretary.

Those ads show a homespun Wolf driving a five-speed Jeep, wearing comfortable sweaters, and living, as the narrator says in one, in the same house his parents brought him home to from the hospital.

He sounds like a modern-day Cincinnatus, who left his plow to save Rome and then returned home when he was done.

"That's what growing up in a small town like this does to you," Wolf said. "If you see something that ought to be changed, or if you see a problem that something ought to be done about, you do it. You see litter in the street, you pick it up. You want to have a baseball game, you organize one. . . . That's the way you live your life."

But who is Tom Wolf?

Because Wolf hasn't been tested in the political arena, some Democrats fret about unseen liabilities in his background that might cause trouble in the autumn against Gov. Corbett.

Two of his rivals for the nomination, scrambling to catch up, have raised questions about his story.

Wolf did not inherit his control of the family's Wolf Organization; he bought into it along with two cousins after apprenticing as a fork-lift operator and running one of the firm's Tru-Value hardware stores. The partners built it from $7 million in annual sales to nearly $400 million.

Then, in 2006, Wolf and his cousins sold control to a private equity firm (while keeping a minority stake) in a buyout that was leveraged with $60 million in debt the new owners took on. The equity firm shed the company's lumberyards in 2007 as the economy softened, laying off several hundred workers. When the recession hit in 2008, housing construction cratered, and the Wolf Organization was soon on its back.

In 2009, Wolf and his cousins raised $34 million and bought back control of the company; he has presented it as a rescue that saved more than 200 Pennsylvania jobs.

"He has left out part of the story, and he says, 'Trust me,' " said U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, one of his rivals in the race.

Wolf says nobody anticipated such a deep crash, and notes that he had no obligation to "go back into the burning building," as he puts it. "I saved those jobs," he said.

Schwartz also raised questions about a $4.45 million loan Wolf got from M & T Bank to help finance his campaign.

State Treasurer Rob McCord accused Wolf of moral cowardice for not confronting racism in his 2001 role as campaign chairman for the former mayor of York, who was arrested the day after the primary in the killing of a black woman during the city's 1969 race riots.

Wolf, who initially said he would stay with the mayor, declined to clarify his role. Finally, after more than a week of pounding in McCord's attack ads, Wolf said Thursday at a debate he had helped persuade the mayor, Charlie Robertson, to withdraw from the race.

"These guys have wanted me to say that for a long time," Wolf later said in an interview, nodding in the direction of two aides. "I think there is a difference between leadership and pounding your chest. I'm not somebody who wants to score cheap points." He added he was proud of how far York has come - though "we still have a way to go."

The insinuation that he had tolerated racism hurt Wolf deeply, says the Rev. Aaron Willford Jr., pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in York.

"I ran into him driving down the street and he was kind of down from the personal attacks," Willford, a friend of 20 years, said. "I told him, 'Keep your head above water. You know who you are.' "

Willford served with Wolf on the board of the Crispus Attucks Center, a York social service organization, and has seen him give time and money to countless charities. "If you knew his lifestyle, you'd just never know Tom has the money," Willford said.

Before he moved back home, Wolf was on his way to an academic career, earning a doctorate in political science from MIT. He loves to discuss his dissertation, about the evolution of the committee system in the U.S. House from the 1880s to the 1920s, a 523-page doorstop that won a national prize.

"Human agency matters," Wolf said of his findings. "Things can change. Democracy is not about stasis."

After Wolf sold the business, Ed Rendell needed a revenue secretary.

"He took the ball and ran with it," the former governor said, crediting Wolf with increases in the collection rate and in revenue from the state lottery.

Rendell also knew Wolf as a Democratic donor - he'd given $260,000 to Rendell's runs for governor.

"The most amazing to me is that Tom Wolf is just as you see him in the ads," said Rendell, who is neutral in the race. "There's no spin about him, no guile. He is as honest a guy as I have met in politics."

The political playbook says that when you're attacked, you respond in kind - an eye for an eye, at least. Wolf has held his fire. In part, that may reflect polling evidence that he has not lost much ground, but he also said he had found the last couple of weeks distasteful.

"This stuff is uncalled for," he said. "It's not true. I have to apologize for going back and saving the business?" Whatever happens, he said, "it's all right, I know what I've done in my life."

Late Thursday afternoon, Wolf toured the Wynnefield commercial corridor on North 54th Street in Philadelphia, drawing a cluster of the curious as he went into Schwartz's Hardware, B Auto Repair, Judy Wigs, and a pizzeria. He was introduced by City Councilman Curtis Jones, an early supporter.

Nobody asked him about Charlie Robertson; instead, they talked about the neighborhood's needs.

Wanda Staples led Wolf to Triangle Park, showing him how the neighborhood had scraped together money to build a spot of green on a blighted vacant lot. "The trashmen hated coming here," Staples said.

"He's not slick. Right now, that's what people need," Jones said. "Everybody's a talking head these days, but voters are tired of it. They have lost faith in politics and politicians."

Consider Charles Goodwin, who was wary when Wolf approached his chair at Butts Barbershop. "Who are you?" Goodwin asked.

He didn't mean to be rude, he said, but the neighborhood has lost its library, has an abandoned school, and an epidemic of shootings, so he didn't have time for more promises.

"I'm going to make neighborhoods like this better as governor," Wolf said.

Goodwin, 43, replied: "Politicians are always saying what they are going to do, whatever they need to say to get votes."

"Well, I haven't been in politics, so I don't know that," Wolf said. He looked at the man. "You're skeptical, and you should be," he said. He pressed a business card into the barber's hand and said, "If you don't see improvement, you call."

Goodwin raised an eyebrow and stashed the card at his work station. "OK," he said. "You'll be held accountable."


Thomas W. Wolf

Age: 65.

Residence: York County.

Family: Wife, Frances. They have two grown daughters, Sarah and Katie.

Education: B.A., Dartmouth (1972); M.Phil., University of London (1978), Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1981).

Occupation: Businessman.

Campaign website:http://www.wolfforpa.com/

Background: Peace Corps volunteer in India (1968-70), headed the Wolf Organization Inc., a building-products company in York (1985-2006, 2009-present), secretary of state Revenue Department (2007-08).


Schedule of Profiles

April 20

Rob McCord, Pennsylvania state treasurer

April 27

Katie McGinty, Former secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

May 4

Allyson Schwartz, United States representative

To read the profiles, go to Inquirer.com


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718

@tomfitzgerald

www.inquirer.com/bigtent

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