So how is it that Tom Corbett, a man who’s political outlook isn’t outside the mainstream for Pennsylvania, could make dubious history next week and become the first governor in decades not to win re-election to a second term?
Part of it no doubt is the bad economy and fiscal pressures he’s faced, and the policy choices he made in response. But part of it I think has been his leadership style. He somehow came to office without the skills or temperament to be the kind of political leader he needed to be, at least not right away.
I recently spent some time talking to Harrisburg insiders and some longtime friends of Corbett’s about this. Some spoke on the record. Some didn’t. But the general consensus was that for at least the first two years of his term in office, Corbett just didn’t do what he had to do to sell his program or move the legislature. By the time he got better, he was in trouble.
“When you evaluate Gov. Corbett on many of the metrics that we apply to leadership — the ability to reach out to the public and communicate your message, to work with with legislators both in and our of your party to accomplish legislative agenda items, I think it’s very fair to say that he’s struggled,” said Muhlenberg College political scientist Christopher Borick.
Laura Ellsworth, a Pittsburgh attorney who’s active in civic and educational organizations has known Corbett for decades. “The first word I always use when I describe Tom to people is integrity,” Ellsworth said.
While Corbett critics may disagree with that, many who know and work with him describe him as a straight shooter, a hardworking, decent man who has strong core values and doesn’t compromise his principles — as evidenced by his prosecution of high-profile Republicans and Democrats when he was Pennsylvania Attorney General. And most say that one-on-one, Corbett is smart, down-to-earth and likable.
Ellsworth said a voters don’t see that side of him much.
“One thing that Tom is really bad at is self-promotion,” Ellsworth said. “And I think that that has ironically done him a disservice in politics, but it’s part of him being a person of integrity. He is not a self-promoter.”
Indeed, early in his term, Corbett was known for few public appearances, limited exchanges with reporters, and a press office that routinely failed to return reporters calls.
Some describe Corbett as even a little shy. But David Patti, President of the Pennsylvania Business Council said Corbett’s’ approach is rooted in his experience as a U. S. Attorney and state attorney general.
“He comes to decision-making as a governor somewhat like a prosecutor,” Patti said, “in that he plays his cards very close to his vest, he lays out his case, gets all of his facts together, marshals his arguments, does so in private, and shares that information with very, very few people,” Patti said.
That mentality, Patti and others said, led Corbett to neglect the daily business of promoting his message. A prosecutor doesn’t go on the stump and talk about his case, after all. He waits for his day in court and counts on a jury — in a governor’s case, the voters — to affirm his judgment.
Patti said besides limiting a governor’s popularity, that approach creates problems with the legislature, where leaders are used to governors keeping them in the loop, floating ideas and getting their input. Corbett, Patti says, likes to keep the discussion in-house and present the legislature a finished product.
“By not floating the trial balloons, by not being out there slapping the backs and saying what do you think about this, or thinking aloud during a speech, less people feel included in that process, or less people feel like they have ownership in some of the policies,” Patti said.
Patti said Corbett has accomplished far more than many realize. Another longtime Corbett supporter, Delaware County attorney and Repuiblan party chair Andrew Reilly agreed Corbett brought a prosecutor’s mentality to the job and learned too late that “he has to get out and spike the football.”
“It’s often the guy who does the chicken dance in the end zone who gets the attention and credit,” Reilly said.
Corbett’s defenders say he had a tough time with the legislature because he’d put so many ranking lawmakers in jail as attorney general, and because as governor he mostly shut down the program of discretionary grants known as “walking around money.”
While Republican leaders won’t say it publicly in an election season, there’s widespread talk in the legislature that Corbett’s problems aren’t about prosecutions or grants. It’s that he hasn’t put much effort into working with them, and it’s part of why he’s failed to get some key bills through a GOP-controlled legislature.
In an interview earlier this month with WHYY, Corbett said he has gotten things done, including a major transportation bill. He says two big initiatives are stalled, mostly because of the influence of public employee unions: pension reform, and privatizing liquor sales.
“On the side of liquor [privatization], there’s two other governors who’ve tried to get it done. Governor Thornburgh and Governor Ridge,” Corbett said. “But we’ve come close. Under my administration. Last year, 2013, we got a bill out of the house – never had happened before. It’s over in the Senate, got it out of committee. It’s on the floor. We’re still going at it. We’re just a couple of votes shy.”
Halfway through his first term Corbett made some staff changes and began communicating more effectively, but he’s had a lot of ground to make up. He has risen to the challenge of defending his record in the campaign. In his three debates this fall, he was effective and seemed like someone who very much likes his job and is determined to keep it.
Next Tuesday we’ll see if he does.