With Fresh Start to do dirty work, Wolf stays above fray in governor’s race
HARRISBURG — Started in June by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf, the Campaign for a Fresh Start leads the attack against Republican Gov. Tom Corbett but allows Wolf to keep his hands clean and put forth a positive message, political analysts said.
“It provides him cover,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester.
Fresh Start is chaired by Katie McGinty of Philadelphia, a former cabinet member with Wolf under ex-Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. McGinty, a former environmental regulator, finished last in a four-way primary against Wolf, the former secretary of Revenue.
It’s not uncommon for a campaign to use a separate entity “to do the dirty work,” said Jack Treadway, former chairman of the political science department at Kutztown University. “Then the candidate doesn’t have to, and they can distance themselves.”
Fresh Start, Treadway said, has played a role in keeping “Corbett on the defensive since day one.”
The committee formed because Jim Burn of Millvale refused Wolf’s request to step aside as state chairman of the Democratic Party and allow McGinty to take over.
“It’s been great, and very positive” working with Wolf and Fresh Start, Burn said Thursday. He said the party’s successful fundraising enabled a sit-down with the Wolf team and state House and Senate campaigns to talk about ways to help those campaigns, such as with mailers and voter registration lists.
Wolf, a York businessman, set up the committee to “circumvent the party apparatus and avoid party infighting,” Leckrone said. With a candidate-created committee, “you can control the message completely.”
Fresh Start spokesman Mike Mikus, a veteran campaign operative and South Fayette native, calls reporters daily with tips and cranks out news releases to fuel coverage.
His work orchestrated publicity over “ghost employee” Ron Tomalis, the former Education secretary who stayed on for 15 months as a special adviser to Corbett without regular office hours. More recently, Fresh Start weighed in on the exchange of pornographic images among top-level employees in the Attorney General’s Office under Corbett, based on documents released by Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
“He’s one of the best and brightest political operatives in this state,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who used Mikus to manage his 2011 campaign. “I compare him to James Carville,” who made his mark in Pennsylvania with the late Democratic Gov. Bob Casey’s campaigns before garnering national fame.
Mikus sends out “credible stuff,” Fitzgerald said. “He has credibility.”
Republicans complain that Fresh Start violates election law because its connection with Wolf is not clearly spelled out in registration documents.
“They’re breaking campaign finance law,” said Mike Barley, Corbett’s campaign manager.
There’s no question Wolf founded the group, announcing it in a June 19 news release.
“They’re the offensive part of the campaign, and it keeps Wolf above the fray,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. “It is legally separate … but there’s no doubt they’re making the case for Wolf.”
Mikus told the Tribune-Review: “The fact that the Corbett campaign and so many Republicans complain about what we are doing is proof that it’s working. They can complain about us spreading the truth about Tom Corbett’s failed leadership, but they cannot change reality.”
Mikus — who managed campaigns for McGinty, and former U.S. Reps. Mark Critz of Johnstown and Jason Altmire, now of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. — operates with a staff of 10, mostly in Philadelphia. Fresh Start raised about $243,000 for the campaign through mid-September.
“I don’t see that they’ve been effective at all,” said state Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason. “I don’t know what they are doing.”
Burn said the Democratic Party’s media efforts since Corbett took office helped focus voter awareness on his administration and those former party workers are part of the Wolf campaign.
Barley doesn’t agree that Fresh Start alone has led the attack for Wolf.
“Wolf’s been attacking the governor for 15 to 16 months,” Barley said. “I’d argue he’s using them to hide behind. (Wolf) hides behind them as Wolf fails to talk about how much he’ll raise taxes.”
In terms of effectiveness, it’s hard to argue with any aspect of how Wolf is running his campaign, said Michael Federici, chairman of the political science department at Mercyhurst University in Erie. He leads Corbett in polls by an average of 15.5 percent, according to the independent political website RealClearPolitics.com.
Jim Roddey, the Allegheny County Republican Committee chairman, said he doesn’t think Wolf has shown that he’s ready to lead — or that he has explained what he would do as governor. Roddey doesn’t agree with Wolf’s positions but recognizes that Fresh Start has “done a very effective job.”
“They’re not always ethical,” Roddey said, citing as “disingenuous” claims that Corbett cut $1 billion from public education in 2011. Corbett aides belatedly explained that he did not replace federal stimulus money that Rendell and the Legislature put toward education.
“The facts show Tom Corbett cut $1 billion from education,” Mikus said. “They may not like it because it doesn’t poll well. But the facts are the facts.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.