When former state treasurer Rob McCord admits to criminal corruption, I’m left wondering if there’s an honest public official in the state of Pennsylvania.
When I went to McCord’s gubernatorial announcement in September, 2013, I remember thinking, this guy could be the next governor.He spoke with passion and energy without notes, mixing his personal story with a vision for change. And he struck me as someone with the tools not just for campaigning, but for governance.He was both policy smart and politically skilled, good at building connections and personal relationships. He’d been successful in venture capital, and while I don’t think business experience translates exactly into governing skills, he’d clearly shown some gumption, and ability to build a successful organization.He was ambitious, a rising star in the party, and somebody good at nurturing relationships.He did some good things with the state treasurer’s office and showed some backbone, suing the Gaming Control Board for real access to its deliberations, and taking on Gov. Corbett over his lottery privatization plan.Sure, some of those moves served his political ambition, but he wasn’t somebody who was there just to sign papers and occupy the office.I moderated two gubernatorial debates and watched all the others, and it struck me that that McCord thought on his feet and relied less on stock answers than most other candidates. If I were scoring, I would have given him the win most of the time.
What about his character?I’ve spent some time around McCord, and I knew his wife, Leigh Jackson, when we were both reporters at the Philadelphia Daily News. Leigh and I weren’t close friends, but I thought she was a great person, and her marriage to McCord was a mark in his favor.McCord was obviously ambitious, and a smooth glad-hander. See him at an event, and he’d shake your hand, look you in the eye with an appealing smile and treat you as a friend. And even if you knew he was working you while glancing over your shoulder for somebody more important, it did feel like in some way he meant it.He was good at personal relationships, and that’s a critical skill for any governor.You might even call him slick. But sleazy? I never thought so.I didn’t like his racial attack on Tom Wolf in the campaign, but it struck me as the kind of demagoguery that seizes candidates in the heat of battle.
And now thisMcCord’s video admitting to criminal offenses in raising campaign funds is an extraordinary artifact of Pennsylvania politics. Even in disgrace, he’s quite a communicator.But to see this man who bore such promise admitting to the most garden variety pay-to-play corruption – using the lure of government contracts to extract campaign contributions – is profoundly dispiriting.You can imagine a scenario that’s sympathetic to McCord, one in which he always played the game straight before, but lost his moral bearings when he found himself in governor’s race where he was desperate for campaign funds to keep up with a millionaire rival.”I stepped over the line,” McCord said. Maybe.The problem is that we have no way of knowing whether this was the first time McCord stepped over the line, or the fourth, or the 20th. Maybe this is just the first time he got caught.It leaves you wondering if this isn’t what almost everybody in Harrisburg does all the time.And that’s what’s so distressing, especially in a state where in recent memory we’ve seen two former state house speakers and a state supreme court justice convicted of criminal charges, just to note the tip of the corruption iceberg.
As the McCord drama unfolded this week, I remembered moderating a gubernatorial debate last year and asking candidates if they had any personal rules about accepting campaign contributions, whether there was anybody’s money they wouldn’t take.McCord’s answer (in part): “I’ll take a check and cash it if it’s legal.”Those, I guess, and a few more.