Wolf’s leadership style a mystery even as big win seems near

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The polls say Pennsylvania voters are likely next week to pick Democrat Tom Wolf as their next governor. Wolf has never held elected office before, though, so it’s hard to guess how he’d govern.

Interviews with Wolf’s colleagues, friends and critics offer these brushstrokes to fill out a still-incomplete picture: The man is analytical and interested in other’s input, but can be stubborn. 

He’s shown leadership in past crises, but has never faced challenges like those that may await him, such as coping with huge deficits and a resistant legislative branch. 

Early in the Democratic primary race this year, few Pennsylvanians even knew who Tom Wolf was. A private business owner from suburban York County, he had one government job on his resume: a short stint in the unglamorous role of revenue secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell.

Do ads make the man?

So Wolf introduced himself to residents through TV advertisements, like the one where his daughters offered facts from his biography: “Dad joined the Peace Corps and served for two years in India and then he went to MIT, where he earned a PhD.”

As it turns out, Wolf’s ads helped him go from dead-last in the polls to winning the Democratic nomination easily with 58 percent of the vote.

Since then, he’s been involved in debates, forums and many more ads as he challenges Republican incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett. But political strategist Neil Oxman says voters still don’t know much about Wolf.

“All he is to 99 percent of Pennsylvanians are a series of TV spots,” Oxman said. “That’s all he is. You know, 25 commercials.”

Wolf has promised big changes if he’s elected: higher taxes on the natural gas drilling industry, a progressive income tax and more education funding, to name a few.  Before getting to any of those goals, he’d have to grapple with a budget deficit that analysts say could be reach $2 billion.

And Wolf would have to work with a state Senate and House that will likely be controlled by Republicans. As if that wouldn’t be hard enough, Oxman says the state legislature has traditionally been an “intransigent” body with one thing on its mind:

“‘We’re going to be here forever and we’re going to sit out whatever governor is there and they’re going to have to work to our agenda, not vice-versa.'”

Some time in Harrisburg

Ask Wolf how he plans to deal with these obstacles, and he says he had a good track record of working with the state legislature during his time as Pennsylvania’s revenue secretary. While there, he says he convinced a Republican-controlled Senate to fund a $135 million technology upgrade for his department in the midst of budget woes.

“If you want to do something,” he said, “you present a compelling reason to do it. You present a compelling vision of what you ought to do, and you show you’re willing to sit down and talk about how we might accomplish that. My experience is that people are very open to that.”

Wolf says one of his earliest experiences of being a leader came while serving in the Peace Corps. A foreigner from small-town Pennsylvania, he was able to convince poor farmers in India to start growing high-yield rice.

Years later, he earned a doctorate in political science at MIT. His former classmate Richard Samuels says it was clear Wolf was a natural-born leader in the aftermath of a tragedy. Political scientist Jeffrey Pressman committed suicide when Wolf was his teaching assistant.

“Tom helped pick up the pieces academically for the students in the class,” Samuels said. “He was asked to take on responsibility for running the course, for teaching it. He took it over, finished the semester. The students were the better for it. It was a real tragedy for the department and for our community, and Tom was the guy who the faculty all looked to pick up the pieces and go forward.”

Most of Wolf’s experience as an executive comes from his time as head of the Wolf Organization, currently the biggest distributor of kitchen cabinets in the United States.

Bill Zimmerman is Wolf’s cousin and one of his business partners. He says Wolf has an open-door policy and takes everyone’s points of view seriously. He thinks that will come in handy in Harrisburg.

“It always seemed that whenever the three partners had discussions, Tom was the one who was most capable of forcing us to look at all sides of the question before we made a decision,” Zimmerman said. “Because sometimes your emotions get the best of you and I think that’s probably true in politics as well.”

Growing up, Zimmerman lived next door to Wolf. He says he still considers Wolf his best friend. Asked to cite a Wolf weakness, he offered this:

“It might that there are times when he might hold on a little longer than he needs to some position that just needs to change, but, heck, we’re all like that.”

The business of government

Oxman, the political strategist, also questions whether Wolf’s business experience would translate when dealing with lawmakers the General Assembly.

“They’re not working for Tom Wolf,” he said. “They’re working for themselves and their caucuses and their constituents and it’s not like they’re employees of Wolf like a cabinet member is.”

Wolf, for his part, is confident his business experience will serve him well.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand how business really works,” he said. “You don’t press a button. You don’t pull a lever and things automatically get done. You have to sell things, sell ideas. You have to bring people together. You have to persuade … and that’s what leadership is and that’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”

If the polls are to be trusted, Pennsylvanians will find out in a few short months if Wolf is the type of leader he claims to be.

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