'A thousand cuts' and one big one: How Corbett's fate was sealed

Posted: November 06, 2014

In January 2011, with the effects of the recession lingering, the new Pennsylvania governor needed to find billions of dollars in his first budget.

He had promised not to raise taxes, though. So he cut.

State funding for public education took a $1 billion whack, amid the expiration of federal stimulus money.

That may have sealed Gov. Corbett's fate, according to political analysts sifting the wreckage of the Republican's historic loss.

"Signing the Grover Norquist pledge ruined Corbett, just killed him," said Democratic media strategist Neil Oxman, referring to the Washington antitax activist who is influential in the GOP.

Corbett could have levied a severance tax on natural gas, or moved money from other programs to soften the blow. He did not, while he reduced business taxes an estimated $400 million and placed more than $600 million in reserve.

Elected in the Republican wave of 2010, amid the rise of the tea party, Corbett was the right man in the right place at the right time - with the right hair, a political consultant might say. As attorney general, he had thrown dozens of lawmakers and top aides in jail on corruption charges.

He would eventually defend himself by saying he was keeping faith with his principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility. He increased school aid in every successive budget.

Yet those first cuts, which rippled across the state in the form of teacher layoffs, program cancellations, and local property tax increases, were seared in the public mind and haunted the reelection campaign. Corbett was branded the anti-education governor.

"It was death by a thousand cuts and a few big things," said Alan Novak, a Republican strategist and former state party chairman. "One of the big ones was getting defined on education instead of fighting to neutralize that perception."

In interviews Tuesday across the region, many voters pointed to school funding. Barbara Kidder, 68, pulled the lever for Democrat Tom Wolf at the Tredyffrin Township municipal building in Chester County.

"It was more anti-Corbett than pro-Wolf," she said. Kidder also said she was concerned about the "chasm" between rich and poor, and was not upset about the possibility of increased taxes; Republicans have said Wolf would jack up taxes.

"If it goes to schools, I'm happy to pay taxes," Kidder said.

By the time 2014 rolled around, Corbett was no longer in the right place at the right time.

Heading into Election Day, the independent Cook Political Report ranked 14 gubernatorial contests as toss-ups, including 10 involving incumbents, the most in the publication's 30-year history. The cause? Voter frustration over issues from tax increases to how much states are spending on schools, to sheer anxiety over the economy and the future.

"People are pretty down about everything - the direction of the country and the state, about government itself, about politicians," Novak said. "That's bad news for incumbent governors."

The missteps piled up for Corbett. He wasted precious political capital on ill-starred initiatives, such as a voter ID law that was ruled unconstitutional and became a rallying cry for Democrats, especially in cities.

Though his fellow Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature, Corbett could not get sufficient cooperation on two of his major agenda items: privatizing the state liquor system and reducing the costs of public-employee pensions.

One major accomplishment - a transportation bill to fix crumbling roads, bridges, and public transit systems - ended up frosting GOP conservatives because it included a wholesale gasoline tax.

And Corbett was, by his own admission, a poor pitchman who sometimes blurted out insulting things about the unemployed, women, and gays.

"I think he viewed politics itself as very clinical - 'These are the principles that we stand for, and they don't need to be explained,' " said Wes Leckrone, a political scientist at Widener University. "It comes out as, 'There are principles that we stand for, and they don't need to be explained.' It comes from his prosecutorial background."

Wrapping up Corbett's first year in office, the administration dropped tens of thousands of people, the majority children, from Medicaid rolls. And as he headed into his second budget, the governor advocated rollbacks in programs for the poor and disabled, including eliminating a Depression-era General Assistance cash benefit for poor single adults. His administration also imposed a controversial asset test for food stamps.

These and other moves shocked some of the GOP's more moderate members, and were not popular. Perhaps the electorate was not as conservative as it seemed in 2010, and the governor had misread it. For instance, against a rising national tide of acceptance for same-sex marriage, he continued to defend the state's ban - comparing it to incest in a TV interview - until the courts struck down the ban.

Deep into the campaign, Corbett found his voice. He talked of having kept his promises in a turbulent time, and having changed Harrisburg's spendthrift ways. He warned that Wolf's promises would inevitably lead to big tax increases on working people. He tried to tie Wolf to the unpopular President Obama.

But he could not undo negative perceptions of those early cuts.

Corbett and his allies had to hope that the turnout advantage Republicans usually show over Democratic voters in midterm elections would hold.

At one of his last campaign stops Monday, at the Lancaster Airport in Lititz, Corbett was emotional as he pointed to his adopted grandson, Liam. He never mentioned abortion, simply saying he was glad that Liam's mother "chose life."

Then the governor put his arm around his wife, Susan, and walked across the airport tarmac, into the wind.


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718 @tomfitzgerald

www.inquirer.com/bigtent

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