Pa. voters select Wolf over Corbett for governor |
Politics Election

Pa. voters select Wolf over Corbett for governor

Democrat Tom Wolf celebrates his gubernatorial win in York on Nov. 4, 2014.
Democrat Tom Wolf celebrates his gubernatorial win in York on Nov. 4, 2014.

A political rookie beat a seasoned incumbent Tuesday in a gubernatorial election that defied everything but expectations.

Democrat Tom Wolf led Republican Gov. Tom Corbett 55 percent to 45 percent with 90 percent of precincts reporting, vindicating polls that show the public never warmed to the man they elected four years ago. Corbett is the first governor to lose re-election in Pennsylvania since the constitution allowed second terms beginning with the 1974 election.

“This is a place that deserves to have a great future. We need to expect a lot of ourselves,” said Wolf, 65, of York. “If we do, we can do great things here. So here’s my message: Let’s make this the time. Let’s make this the place, Pennsylvania. Let’s be the people to create this bright future we deserve.”

Wolf led in Allegheny County by more than 57,000 votes, marking one of the biggest swings from four years ago when Corbett took the majority-Democrat county by 460 votes. Wolf led in 26 counties, compared to the four won by 2010 Democratic nominee Dan Onorato.

“He has prevailed, and I wish him the best,” said Corbett, 65, of Shaler at his election night party in the Omni William Penn hotel in Downtown. Corbett cited cutting state spending for the first time in 40 years, tort reform and passing four balanced budgets among his accomplishments, saying he made decisions regardless of their popularity.

“I said I may be a one-term governor, and I am,” Corbett said, standing on stage in a black suit, white shirt and ruby tie with his wife, Susan, by his side. “But I am proud of what we did.”

Wolf, whose Harrisburg experience consists of 19 months as Gov. Ed Rendell’s Revenue secretary in 2007 and 2008, will inherit a state with a looming billion-dollar budget shortfall, a Republican-dominated Legislature and a public that hasn’t been happy about the state’s direction since 2006.

Wolf will be the mid-state’s first candidate elected governor since fellow York County native George Leader left office in 1959. He was virtually unknown to voters when the Democratic primary began. Wolf changed that with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign — which the businessman largely self-funded — that began Jan. 30. Some political hands called his initial biographical commercial the best introductory ad they’d ever seen a candidate run.

Subsequent ads tried to build Wolf’s everyman appeal, featuring his Jeep, his daughters and his profit-sharing with employees at Wolf Organization, a cabinet manufacturer and supplier.

“The factor I look for is likeability,” said former Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, R-Altoona. “Tom Wolf has it, and Tom Corbett has struggled to find it.

“I’m not sure he (Corbett) morphed into being governor. He’s still Attorney General Tom Corbett. As attorney general, he could pretty well make decisions as he wanted. Part of his board of directors was the Pennsylvania General Assembly with 253 members. That was very difficult for him.”

Corbett won election in 2010 by 9 points over Onorato, Allegheny County’s former executive. Voters soured on Rendell by the end of his second term, fretted over the economy’s slow recovery from the Great Recession and swung toward the GOP challengers in races around the country.

In an election fueled by anti-incumbent anger, Corbett’s credentials as an attorney general who locked up powerful politicians and his self-portrayal as a fiscal manager in a time of exploding state and federal deficits won the day.

Those anti-incumbent voters turned against their newly minted incumbent almost immediately, according to Franklin & Marshall College polls. By March 2011, two months into Corbett’s term, 52 percent of people said he was doing only a fair or a poor job.

That turned out to be Corbett’s high point.

Corbett promised he wouldn’t raise taxes, and his first budget closed a projected $4 billion deficit in part by cutting overall education spending by $1 billion. He tried to blame the cuts on expiring federal stimulus funding but never overcame the political fallout caused by local property tax increases, classroom cutbacks and persistent, vocal opposition from teachers unions.

“Those cuts hurt,” said Doug Huckestein, 63, of McCandless. Huckestein’s wife, Deborah, retired recently as a teacher and said she watched colleagues get laid off as a result of that budget.

“That’s the future of our country,” Doug Huckestein said.

Despite GOP control of the Legislature, Corbett proved unable to realize long-time Republican goals such as liquor store privatization. Corbett’s decision not to attack collective bargaining rights of public sector unions spared Pennsylvania the battles that paralyzed Wisconsin’s government during Gov. Scott Walker’s first years in office, but Corbett failed to win their support.

Wolf spent the primary and general election races campaigning against those education cuts, while promising to enact a popular 5 percent severance tax on natural gas extractions, which Corbett opposed.

Corbett attacked Wolf’s plan to hike taxes on higher incomes, but Wolf’s refusal to divulge details about the size of the tax increase blunted Corbett’s effort.

That vagueness will have to change if Wolf hopes to turn promises into policy. An untested operator of Harrisburg’s levers of power, Wolf will need to wrangle votes from a Legislature dominated by political opponents.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said he hoped Wolf would bring a “common-sense perspective” from his business background. The House GOP caucus’ main concern is to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, he said.

“They’re expecting us to be fiscally responsible,” he said. “We’re going to need to hear details from Tom Wolf as to exactly what he’s planning to put before us.”

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and [email protected]. Melissa Daniels and Mike Wereschagin are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Daniels can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected]. Wereschagin can be reached at 412-320-7900 or [email protected].

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