Wolf and Corbett stump across Pennsylvania

Democratic nominee Tom Wolf and wife Frances look at a product used in manufacturing signs at the Mountain Productions plant in Wilkes-Barre.
Democratic nominee Tom Wolf and wife Frances look at a product used in manufacturing signs at the Mountain Productions plant in Wilkes-Barre. (AIMEE DILGER / Wilkes-Barre Times Leader)
Posted: July 28, 2014

WILKES-BARRE - The Democrats' candidate for governor spent an hour here Thursday afternoon touring Mountain Productions, builder of stages for rock concerts, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, outdoor papal Masses, and other events.

Tom Wolf asked about the company's yellow-pine plywood; admired a massive replica of the Statue of Liberty's arm hanging from the ceiling, a prop from a 1985 Hall & Oates concert; and delved into innovations the company has made in "chain bags" and rigging trunks.

"I'm showcasing manufacturing - it's a source of great innovation and vitality in our economy," Wolf said afterward.

That's what front-runners say.

With a massive poll lead over Gov. Corbett, Wolf has been running a cautious and controlled campaign since he won the Democratic nomination in May, with 12 "Fresh Start" stops, most at manufacturing plants, as its public centerpiece.

By contrast, Corbett has turned scrappier. He has stumped the state for two weeks trying to rally voters to the urgency of cutting public-employee pension costs while his campaign pounds Wolf with negative TV ads at an October pace.

At the same time, an independent-expenditure PAC backed by public-employee union cash and the NextGen super-PAC of environmentalist Tom Steyer have been attacking Corbett for cuts to state education spending and the governor's opposition to a natural gas extraction tax.

On Saturday, Wolf was scheduled to launch his first TV ad of the fall race - a response to the latest attack from Corbett's camp. That broadside accuses Wolf's York-based building-supply company of ducking Pennsylvania corporate taxes by registering in Delaware.

While not disputing that the company is registered there, Wolf says it does not take advantage of the so-called Delaware tax loophole.

"Tom Wolf's company is headquartered and files taxes right here in Pennsylvania," the Democrat's response ad says. It calls Corbett's attack "more of the same" and cites media fact-checkers who rated earlier anti-Wolf spots "outright false" and "deceptions."

So much for the traditional summer lull in state politics.

The main reason, strategists say, is that Corbett faces pressure from Republican donors to show some movement in the race. Wolf leads the governor by an average of 21.7 percentage points in the four independent statewide polls conducted since the May primary.

The Republican Governors Association (RGA), which has given Corbett at least $1.8 million so far, says it is "all in" for him - but it has tighter races in Michigan, Maine, and Wisconsin to worry about.

Jennifer E. Duffy, senior editor of the independent Cook Political Report, said it's conceivable that the RGA could bail out if Corbett is not "moving numbers" by early to mid-September.

"They're not going to walk away without evidence that there is no path to victory," Duffy said.

Though Corbett is vulnerable, he is not out of the race, she said. Cook still lists the race as a toss-up, even as some handicappers say it is leaning Democratic.

"Incumbents have a way of coming back," Duffy said. "Wolf got out of the primary relatively unscathed, and we're seeing the opening shots now."

On the same day Wolf was learning about the staging business, Corbett settled into a corner booth at Campbell's Boathouse, a nautical-themed seafood restaurant in Media, to talk taxes and pensions with a few preselected local residents and school officials.

In Delaware County, pension costs for school employees have increased by more than $50 million over the last decade.

Ralph Shicatano of Aston said he felt his district did as good a job as possible controlling spending - but that pensions were driving up costs. Still, he said, he and his wife felt the cost of higher education for their daughters "looming" over their heads.

Corbett agreed. "We've got to fix it going forward, and that's what we'll do," he said.

He proposes moving future state and school employees into a hybrid system with a defined-benefit pension and a 401(k)-style fund, though he admits it would not provide savings immediately.

His rival's name came up just once, when Corbett offhandedly scoffed at Wolf's having previously said there is no immediate pension crisis.

The governor used the occasion to remind people of Wolf's wealth. "When you're a millionaire, maybe you don't see it," Corbett said. "We do see it."

Meanwhile, after his Wilkes-Barre plant tour, Wolf dismissed the goading from the Corbett campaign - which says the Democrat has yet to offer a detailed plan for addressing pension costs.

Wolf said the employee pension concessions legislated in 2010 helped control costs. But he said the state, for years, has not paid its full employer share into the systems for teachers and state employees.

"I have said, very explicitly . . . that I would want to work with the legislature to figure out how to plug that gap," Wolf said. "I think that's reasonable. I'm not going to dictate a plan. That's not the way democracy works. . . . The only thing is, I'm not going to kick the can down the road."

J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University, said the cost of pensions, and their relationship to property taxes, is probably "too complex an issue" to jolt the race.

"One problem is that Corbett's polling numbers have been low for his entire 31/2 years," Leckrone said. "You can't say it's a temporary deficit, a dip. This has been coming a long time."

After his roundtable discussion, Corbett defended his campaign's ads that blast Wolf for having backed proposed tax increases when he was revenue secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell.

Wolf has pointed out that as revenue secretary, he didn't make policy and that the proposed tax increases were never enacted.

"He wanted to raise taxes," Corbett said.

But, he added, more than anything, voters need to hear the details from Wolf himself.

"He needs to get out there," the governor said, "and start talking about all this."


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718 @tomfitzgerald

www.inquirer.com/bigtent

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