The Almanac of American Politics Profiles Gov. Tom Wolf
Pennsylvanians elected Democrat Tom Wolf, a wealthy latecomer to politics, as their governor in 2014, shattering Pennsylvania’s rigid, post-World War II pattern of the two parties trading off the governorship every eight years. Despite tortured budget battles in his first three years, Wolf won by an even larger margin in 2018.
Born in York and raised in Mount Wolf — named for his great-great-grandfather — Wolf earned degrees from Dartmouth College, the University of London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During that time, he interrupted his studies to join the Peace Corps, serving two years in a village in India. After graduation, Wolf went to work for the family business, initially employed as a forklift operator at the Wolf Organization, a cabinet and building-materials company. In 1985, Wolf and two cousins bought the company and more than doubled its size. After selling the company to a private-equity firm in 2006, Wolf was tapped by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell to be state revenue secretary in 2007 and 2008. Wolf intended to mount a campaign for governor to succeed Rendell, who was term-limited, but when the family business was on the brink of bankruptcy and collapse, Wolf abandoned the campaign, repurchased the company and restored it to solvency. He stepped down as CEO in 2013 to focus on his 2014 bid for governor, targeting first-term Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who was saddled with low approval ratings.
Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz was anointed the early frontrunner in the primary, and state Treasurer Rob McCord and former state Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty ran as well. But Wolf poured $10 million of his own money into the race, allowing him to blanket the airwaves from January 2014 until the May primary, which Wolf won easily with 58 percent of the vote. (Wolf later tapped McGinty as his chief of staff.) In the general, Wolf had the air and campaign strategy of an incumbent, bolstered by double-digit leads in the polls. Corbett touted his tax cuts and his efforts to reduce the size of government, rein in spending and bring businesses back to Pennsylvania. But Wolf hammered away at weak job growth under Corbett and accused him of slashing school funding. Wolf said that, unlike Corbett, he would raise taxes on the fast-growing natural gas industry. Scrutiny of Corbett’s role as attorney general in the investigation of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on accusations of child molestation became another albatross for the incumbent. Wolf won the high-spending race with 55 percent of the vote.
Wolf came into office stressing transparency. He introduced a website to track expenses by cabinet secretaries and signed a gift ban, and he refused the gubernatorial salary and residence and paid out of pocket for office space for the state police officers assigned to protect him. Meanwhile, he moved to broaden the state’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, and he ordered a moratorium on the death penalty. But budget issues proved the most intractable. Wolf came into office facing a $2 billion budget gap – and two Republican-controlled legislative chambers. In June 2015, Wolf vetoed the first GOP budget. That instigated a battle that lasted until March 2016 and that included skirmishes not only over revenues and spending but also vetoes of GOP-backed changes to the state pension system and to tightly regulated liquor sales. The standoff also led to a credit downgrade for the state and fears of layoffs and closed public schools. Ultimately, Wolf allowed a budget to become law without signing it.
The relationship between Wolf and lawmakers grew lower-key and generally more productive. In 2016, he signed a medical-marijuana law, and issued an executive order protecting persons from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Wolf signed bipartisan legislation to overhaul the state liquor system, including permission for grocery stores to sell wine and for wine to be shipped directly to customers, as well as an extension of hours at state liquor stores. He signed new regulations governing horizontal oil and gas drilling. And he signed several measures aimed at curbing opioid addiction, including restrictions on prescriptions for minors and requirements that medical professionals check a database before issuing prescriptions. The 2016 election was a downer for Pennsylvania Democrats, as presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost the state and Republicans expanded their majorities by three seats in the state Senate and two seats in the state House. That gave Senate Republicans their widest edge in the Senate in seven decades. It was enough to override vetoes if Republicans stuck together.
In 2017, Wolf and the legislature faced the biggest budgetary shortfall since the recession; the independent legislative fiscal office projected a deficit of about $3 billion for the two-year fiscal period ending in June 2018. Wolf once again allowed the budget to be enacted without his signature, and it took another three months before the two sides could come up with enough funding to close the budget gap. “This is not the way government is supposed to work,” he told reporters. It took until June 2018 for the two sides to finally notch a harmonious budget session, as Wolf signed a $32.7 billion spending package, bolstered by projections of strong revenue gains. Wolf signed an executive order to raise state employees’ and contractors’ minimum wages to $12 initially and to $15 an hour in 2024. Wolf signed a bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill that sealed nonviolent criminal records after an individual had been free of convictions for 10 years. Wolf also wielded his veto pen: He vetoed one bill that would have banned abortions at 20 weeks, and a business-backed, union-opposed measure that would have limited the prescriptions permitted for injured workers. For the fourth consecutive year, Republicans blocked Wolf’s proposal to institute a severance tax on natural gas drilling. Wolf also played a key role in the state’s redistricting battle: After the state Supreme Court struck down the congressional district map as a Republican gerrymander, Wolf rejected the alternative proposed by legislative Republicans, which effectively left the courts to draw the new maps, which proved to be significantly more favorable to the Democrats.
Wolf faced no opposition in the Democratic primary, although primary voters did knock out the lieutenant governor, Mike Stack, in favor of John Fetterman, with Wolf’s tacit support. Stack had a controversial term in office that included scrutiny of his family’s treatment of state employees. Fetterman, the burly, 6-foot-8 mayor of Braddock in Allegheny County, had attracted attention for his black T-shirt and jeans, as well as his grassroots brand of progressivism. He had performed respectably in a longshot 2016 Senate bid. (He also grew up near Wolf’s ancestral hometown.)
The GOP, meanwhile, held a raucous primary between state Sen. Scott Wagner, businessman and former McKinsey consultant Paul Mango, and attorney Laura Ellsworth. As Lancasteronline.com put it, Wagner sold himself “as a farm-raised businessman who owns a trash-hauling company and isn’t afraid to get on the back of a garbage truck or clean the company toilets,” while Mango played up his status “as a West Point graduate handed his degree from Grand Old Party icon Ronald Reagan, going on to Harvard, then learning how to reinvigorate businesses.” Wagner and Mango railed against each other in TV ads, many self-funded; Mango hit his opponent as “slumlord Wagner,” “sleazy bail bondsman Wagner,” and “deadbeat dad Wagner,” while Wagner responded by calling Mango a “phony” and a “real liberal.” Wagner adopted an outspoken, Trumpian style, while Mango attacked him for being insufficiently conservative on social issues. Ellsworth, who had chaired the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, adopted a more pragmatic image, but she failed to catch fire with the GOP base. Wagner won with 44 percent, followed by Mango with 37 percent and Ellsworth with 19 percent.
In the general election, Wolf outspent the Republican and was aided by the Democratic lean of the 2018 cycle. Wagner attracted national criticism for remarks he made in a video posted on his campaign’s Facebook page in which he told Wolf, “Between now and Nov. 6, you better put a catcher’s mask on your face, because I’m going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes.” The only debate between Wolf and Wagner garnered attention mostly for being moderated by Alex Trebek, the longtime host of “Jeopardy!” By October, Wagner announced that he was “tapped out” of personal resources to fund his campaign.
Wolf won, 58%-41%; he collected nearly 1 million more votes than in his 2014 victory. Wolf lost ground in more rural areas, failing to repeat his 2014 victories in Lawrence, Greene, Fayette, Cambria, Clinton, Northumberland, Cumberland, Schuylkill and Carbon counties, and losing ground in Lackawanna (Scranton) and Luzerne (Wilkes-Barre). But those shortcomings were more than evened out by gains in the Philadelphia area; he improved his winning margins by 13 points in Delaware County, by 15 points in Bucks and Montgomery counties, by 20 points in Chester County, and by 150,000 votes in Philadelphia. He also fared well in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), increasing his winning margin by 20 points. And even in southwestern counties Wolf lost, such as Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland, Wolf improved upon Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance.
Democrats made gains in both legislative chambers but not enough to flip partisan control. Early in his second term, Wolf proposed a $34.1 billion budget with increases for public schools. He pursued a pared-back tax agenda, including a retooled severance tax that would be devoted to infrastructure rather than the general fund. He called for the minimum wage to be raised in stages to $15. He signed an executive order setting a target for carbon emissions that was 26 percent below 2005 levels in 2025, and 80 percent below in 2050. He floated the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana. A Franklin & Marshall College poll in late March 2019 found a majority – 51% — saying Wolf’s job performance was “excellent” or “good.”
Copyright @ 2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition, released August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy, visit www.almanacofamericanpolitics.com.