In an unusual piece in Monday’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, veteran reporter Brad Bumsted wrote about some potentially troublesome relationships front-running Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf has — one with a politician convicted of corruption and another with a former mayor acquitted of murder in a race riot.
Bumsted’s piece was interesting in that no one was quoted criticizing Wolf’s associations. The story led with Wolf himself saying he expects other candidates may try and use them against him. More on that in a moment. First, the substance of the matter.
The York race riot
In 2001, prosecutors in York, Pennsylvania, charged 10 men with the murder of a 27-year-old black woman who was shot and killed during days of rioting in 1969, 32 years before. National Guard tanks rolled in the streets of York, and a rookie white policeman was shot and killed by a sniper in the violence.
The murder of Lillie Belle Allen was a horrific crime. The mother of two was visiting from South Carolina and was cut down by gunfire after the vehicle she was riding in took a wrong turn into a neighborhood filled with white gang members. The car was stuck on railroad tracks, and Allen had gotten out of the car to take the wheel from her sister, who’d been shot.
Among those charged in 2001 was York Mayor Charles Robertson, whose re-election campaign was chaired by Wolf, a York businessman and civic leader. At the time of the riots, Robertson was a 35-year-old police officer, and he was accused of giving gang members ammunition and encouraging them to shoot blacks.
A jury acquitted Robertson of the crime, but he admitted attending a rally the day before the murder and shouting a “white power” slogan. He told reporters before the trial he’d changed his thinking since then.
Robertson was charged the day after he narrowly won the Democratic primary in his re-election bid, and Wolfe said he would continue as his campaign chairman if Robertson wanted him too. Robertson eventually withdrew from the general election. Wolf and other business owners signed a letter to York newspapers complaining of “inflammatory” coverage of the case.
Wolf wasn’t available for an interview yesterday, but York Mayor Kim Bracey, the city’s first African-American mayor, told me she’s known Wolf for 20 years and worked with him on many community projects. She said she’s proud to support Wolf and has no doubts about his character or judgment.
“I know Tom. I know his heart. I’ve been to his house for dinner,” Bracey told me. “Any time I needed him, he’s been available to me personally and to other folks like me. I know him not to be a racist.”
(You can see a video statement by Bracey from Wolf’s campaign website above.)
“Tom had a professional relationship with Robertson from working with him and his administration to revitalize the city of York when Tom was chair of a civic group, Better York,” according to a statement from the Wolf campaign.
The corrupt friend
The second issue raised in Bumsted’s piece is Wolf’s vocal support for former York state Rep. Stephen Stetler, who was convicted of six felony counts of public corruption in the “bonusgate” investigation. Stetler has appealed his conviction on charges of directing public employees to work on political campaigns.
Wolf helped raise money for Stetler’s defense, and expressed his belief in Stetler’s innocence even after the jury found him guilty.
“I think the justice system made a mistake in this case. I think the prosecutors prosecuted a case they shouldn’t have prosecuted,” Wolf told the York Daily Record’s Ed Mahon. “And I think, with all due respect, the decision of the court was the wrong one.”
In its statement, the Wolf campaign said Stetler was a childhood friend of Wolf’s and that Wolf would enforce the highest standards of integrity as governor. “As secretary of revenue, Tom turned down the perks, drove his own Jeep, and donated his salary to charity,” the statement read.
Why is Wolf bringing this up?
When Wolf surged into a big lead with a heavy TV ad campaign, it was inevitable that he would come under greater scrutiny. “There’s obviously going to be a bull’s eye on my back,” Wolf told the Tribune-Review.
The stuff about Wolf’s relationships may well have originated from rival candidates who’d done opposition research. Candidates often feed dirt to reporters rather than make public accusations themselves, both because a damning media story will be regarded as more credible and because there are risks in flinging charges.
Voters can be turned off by candidates “going negative” generally, and these charges in particular can seem like guilt by association. Further, in a multi-candidate field, the candidate throwing the stink bombs may just be driving votes from one rival to another.
So this is a media story for now, and Wolf appears to have decided to get out in front of it by talking about it publicly. So when it comes up closer the the primary, his campaign can say it’s old news.
Will these relationships hurt Wolf? Maybe, if somebody were to make some grainy black-and-white TV ads or mailers and spend the money to get them to lots of voters.
While Wolf’s rivals might be reluctant to do that, they might have surrogates and allies willing to get their hands dirty. I could imagine ads on black radio in Philadelphia in the weeks before the primary pumping the York riot story. We’ll see.