Ducking party fight, Wolf sets own course

While questions are raised about Democratic unity, "Tom is not going to be bullied," a county chairman says.

Posted: June 23, 2014

In one of his first acts as the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania governor, Tom Wolf asserted his traditional right to take control of the state party apparatus.

Then, after encountering unexpected and stiff resistance to his choice for a new Democratic State Committee chairwoman, Wolf retreated.

Instead of fighting last week, he formed a separate statewide organization to take over fund-raising, communications, research, and voter mobilization for himself and Democrats running for state legislature.

It was at once an unheard-of rebuke to the party's de facto leader in the state and a declaration of independence from the establishment by a businessman-candidate who sold himself in the primary as a "different" kind of politician.

Either way, the awkward turf war raised questions about potential cracks in Democratic unity early in the general-election campaign against Gov. Corbett.

"It's probably not the most preferable thing, but it's a double-edged sword," said Montgomery County Democratic Chairman Marcel Groen, who also is on State Committee.

"I don't know how people will feel about it when they realize State Committee has become irrelevant in this campaign," Groen said. "On the other hand, it shows that Tom is not going to be bullied."

Wolf, owner of his family building-supplies business, won the nomination in a landslide over three other Democrats in the May 20 primary after spending $10 million of his own money on TV.

A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month showed Wolf leading Corbett by 20 percentage points, 53 percent to 33 percent.

Wolf got himself in a bind by exercising his time-honored prerogative as gubernatorial nominee: to pick the next leader of the state party. He named Katie McGinty, a former rival for the nomination, who in defeat won praise for her energetic and positive-themed campaign.

Those pushing McGinty said she was a new voice that would match Wolf's campaign theme of a fresh start. Wolf, who served in Gov. Ed Rendell's cabinet with McGinty, agreed.

But they did not reckon on the incumbent chairman, Jim Burn of Allegheny County. He refused to step aside and insisted on a floor fight at Saturday's State Committee meeting in Camp Hill.

So Wolf juked and, essentially, divorced his campaign from the state party organization.

He established the Committee for a Fresh Start, gave it assignments often handled by State Committee staff, and appointed McGinty chairwoman of the coordinated effort.

Independent pollster Terry Madonna said it was a "wise move" on Wolf's part to get himself out of a jam. "Why create infighting in a party that's united?"

At any rate, going outside the state party is unlikely to hurt Wolf in the long run and only reinforces the diminished role of parties, Madonna said.

'Supplemental role'

"All major campaigns today are run by professional consultants, by pollsters, and by volunteers anyway," said Madonna, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College. "The party plays a supplemental role, not a lead role like it was 40 years ago."

Burn declined an interview request, but said in a statement Friday that candidates have independent PACs all the time, comparing Wolf's move to President Obama's establishment of Organizing for America outside of the Democratic National Committee structure.

"We the members of the State Democratic Committee," Burn said, "are united and ready to elect Tom Wolf this November."

Democratic officials said the new committee would raise funds separately from Wolf's campaign and the state party, and would be the vehicle for contributions from the Democratic Governors Association.

The party's state House and state Senate campaign committees, which raise money for and work to elect legislative candidates statewide, put their support behind the new organization. The Fresh Start PAC will coordinate their efforts, officials said.

'A foil'

Ultimately, Wolf's team concluded that winning the vote for state chair would not gain them much and that losing it would not hurt them that much.

"He can use [State Committee] as a foil," said one adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to describe internal campaign deliberations. "It tells a story about who Tom is and how he leads."

Pittsburgh-based Democratic strategist Marty Marks agreed that most voters, if they think about the episode at all, would see it as a sign of Wolf's strength.

"This is completely inside baseball - I bet not 2 percent of the people, if that, know who the state Democratic chairman is," Marks said. "And all those in the party who may be upset are still going to vote for Tom Wolf anyway."

Groen said that Wolf would gain from the move and absorb some "minor losses" of support, but cautioned that the situation was "still volatile."



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