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Politically Uncorrected: How Liberal is Tom Wolf?

Governor-WolfRecently the Huffington Post published a list of the most liberal governors in the nation compiled by the website Inside Government. Surprising some, Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf topped the list as the most liberal governor in the country.

Well-known liberals like California’s Jerry Brown, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, and Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe were mere wannabees on the list.

Some might quibble with Inside Government’s methodology for creating the list – they used among other things public statements, press releases and platforms for the ranking. But there is no doubt that Tom Wolf is pretty liberal, if by liberal one means holding a political philosophy that looks to government to solve problems and create a better society.

Perhaps a more interesting and useful question, however, is this: how liberal is Wolf compared to past Pennsylvania governors – back to New Deal times?

We limit our analysis to Democrats on the premise that most if not all liberal governors have been Democrats. Admittedly this is arguable since several Republican governors in modern times have pursued liberal policies, notably on a willingness to spend state dollars on economic development and raise taxes.

Altogether there have been seven Democratic governors elected since 1934. Here are the seven Democrats with their respective election dates:

  • George Earle (1934)
  • George Leader (1954)
  • David Lawrence (1958)
  • Milton Shapp (1970) (1974)
  • Robert Casey (1986) (1990)
  • Ed Rendell (2002) (2006)
  • Tom Wolf (2014)

Perusing the public record of each of these suggests several generalizations.

All were economic liberals energetically using the tools of government to promote the economy and increase spending on health care, education, and economic development. They all were fiscal activists, with no hesitation to use new and old taxes to fund programs. They also were enthusiastic for infrastructure development as they faced enormous challenges dealing with the decline of Pennsylvania’s aging industries.

But not all were social liberals. Earl was and so too were Shapp and Rendell. But Casey had a mixed record as a social liberal, while Leader focused on modernizing state government.

Finally, all of these Democratic governors were liberal; as the term was understood while they were in office – some more liberal than others.

So, could these seven be rated on their liberalism? As the Huffington Post called Wolf the most liberal governor in the nation, can we identify the most liberal Pennsylvania governor in modern times?

Perhaps! But rankings are subjective and political ideologies are difficult to quantify. What can be done, however, is a provisional ranking together with some historical evidence to support it.

Below we offer such a provisional ranking, from most to least liberal.

Surprises? A few.

Pennsylvania’s most liberal governor was in office more than 80 years ago while Tom Wolf, called the most liberal in America today, ranks no better than the fifth most liberal historically in Pennsylvania.

Ed Rendell, seen by some as the epitome of a tax and spend liberal, is only third on the list behind both George Earle and Milton Shapp.

Finally, how liberal a governor one is may not tell us everything about the trajectory of a political career. David Lawrence finished last on our list making him Pennsylvania’s least liberal Democratic governor in at least 80 years. Yet he was highly influential in getting the civil rights plank into the 1948 national Democrat Convention – a turn in national politics some believe the most important since the Civil War. He did it, however, ten years before being elected governor.

6 Responses

  1. I don’t see any attempt to use a quantitative methodology for this, so its a table with opinion statements. I would bet that using the criteria listed many historical Republican of many states would rank more “liberal” than Tom Wolf. This doesn’t seem to be a useful response to a comparison of current governors.

  2. So you never heard of the liberal Republican Gifford Pinchot? Drove his fellow GOPers crazy by cooperating with FDR.

  3. He won on an anti incumbent vote, not a positive vote for change. Scary he is more liberal than Gov Moonbeam in CA. Good thing legislature is R or illegals would have even more benefits here.

  4. You have a strange definition of liberal: Raise taxes and you are liberal.

    Try ranking them on what they actually accomplished. Or how well they administered the govt. Or how ethical they were. You might get a different ranking.

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