Wolf wins — and now his real struggle begins [photos]

    The networks called the Pennsylvania governor’s race minutes after polls closed, but this was an election that was over before it began.

    That’s what you’ll hear from independent analysts as well as Republican and Democratic political operatives. Incumbent Republican Tom Corbett lost this election more than two years ago, when he pursued policies that would prove unpopular and didn’t see the need to actively defend them.

    “This story was written a long time ago,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican media strategist in Harrisburg. Gerow said Corbett had a story to tell about inheriting a fiscal mess and holding the line on taxes, and that his education spending policies were defensible.

    But Corbett, lacking the temperament and political skill to sell himself, let the narrative get away from him.

    It wasn’t just spin that did Corbett in, though. The hard numbers show tens of thousands of public education jobs were eliminated under his watch, and local school boards felt pressure to increase property taxes. And Corbett’s role in the Penn State scandal and the demise of Joe Paterno made him enemies in core Republican areas in the middle of the state.

    Corbett was down by as much as 30 points in independent polls earlier this fall. His attacks on Wolf as a guy determined to raise taxes (Factcheck.org called Corbett’s ads “deceitful”) did have an impact and made the race closer.

    But it wasn’t enough, and now Corbett bears the stain of a historic defeat. Since Pennsylvania began permitting governors to serve two terms in the 1960’s, none has ever lost a re-election battle.

    “All have won, on average by over 20 points,” said Muhlenberg College political scientist Christopher Borick.

    Ouch.

    Wolf — a man for our time?

    So what can we expect of Tom Wolf, who used beautifully produced ads to establish an easy dominance over the Democratic field this spring, then held on to win in the fall with a rope-a-dope general election campaign.

    Talk to Wolf one-on-one, and you can’t help but be impressed with him. He seems smart, well-motivated and willing to innovate. His resume is impressive, if not exactly tailored to the demands of being governor.

    But Wolf’s cautious general election campaign left many disappointed. His lack of specificity about his plans for taxes and addressing the state pension problem earned criticism. In a remarkable editorial Sunday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette declined to endorse either candidate, saying Corbett had failed, but Wolf hadn’t showed enough to earn the paper’s support.

    I asked several Harrisburg sages what they thought Wolf might accomplish in Harrisburg,  as he brings a progressive agenda to a legislature still in Republican hands.

    Everyone said it will be tough, and that he’ll have to work at building relationships with legislative leaders. One thing he has going for him is that the current leaders in the General Assembly are frustrated with Corbett and anxious for a governor who will put time and effort into dealing with them.

    But that won’t take Wolf very far.

    “I would advise him to move pretty quickly to the center,” said Republican consultant Gerow. “He’s going to have to focus on the art off the possible and try and get some victories early.”

    Borick agreed: “If Tom Wolf can be nimble, and find a way to support some Republican-leaning agenda items, like education reform, privatization of liquor sales, perhaps he’ll get Republican buy-in on items he wants, like a gas extraction tax.”

    One problem with that notion is that if Wolf compromises on issues Republicans care about, he’ll likely get blowback from constituences that supported him: public employee unions with strong views on pensions and liquor privatization, environmentalists who want a freeze on new gas drilling, and education activists determined to oppose policy changes many Republicans favor.

    A guy who’s been there

    For some hands-on experience, I asked Ed Rendell, who spent eight years as governor and was known for finding ways deal with a tough legislature. He admits he went through a learning curve.

    “I didn’t expect the level of partisanship, especially on core issues,” Rendell said. But he found a way to adapt and part of it came down to making deals.

    He recalled his months-long battle in his first year in office to get a tax hike to support early childhood education. In negotiating for Republican votes with then-House Speaker John Perzel,  he did something that earned him criticism from many in his own party.

    “It’s tough to vote for a tax increase,” Rendell said, “and I promised the Republicans who gave us the votes in the House that I wouldn’t campaign against them in the next election. I actually gave them a signed letter to that effect.”

    “It’s not often pretty. It’s not often nice,” Rendell said, “but if the goal is important enough, it’s the right thing to do.”

    Does Rendell think Wolf is prepared for the job?

    Nobody can be fully prepared, he said, but he said Wolf’s experience running his own business will help.

    “You have to do deals,” Rendell said. “You have to negotiate deals with your customers, with your vendors. You have to know who to trust, who not to trust, and those are some of the same attributes he’s going to need in dealing with the legislature.”

    “And as Kenny Rogers said,” Rendell added, “you have to know when to hold `em and when to fold ’em. You have to know when to make a deal, and when you can’t.”

    Tom Wolf starts testing his poker face in January.

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