Tom Wolf: Ready to Take Over
What the governor-elect's victory means for Erie and the Keystone State
Tom Wolf was one of ten Democratic gubernatorial candidates elected in the Republican sweep of the 2014 midterm election cycle.
Wolf's candidacy, juxtaposed against one of the most unpopular governorships in the country, led many pundits and prognosticators to give him the likely win. Then every major media outlet in the country confirmed the victory at 8:01 on election night. It was the first race called nationwide. With zero percent reporting.
And they were all right: Wolf defeated incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett 54.9 percent to 45.1, with nearly 350,000 more votes cast in favor of Wolf.
Corbett and Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell were the only Republican governors to lose this election cycle. Parnell was defeated by independent challenger Bill Walker.
The electoral mandate gives Governor-elect Wolf bargaining power heading into his first term in Harrisburg, and there's a good chance he's going to need it.
That's because the Republican led Pa. General Assembly picked up additional seats on Nov. 4, giving the party a 35-seat majority in the House of Representatives and a 10-seat advantage in the Senate.
Whether the political advantage will be polarizing or positive remains to be seen.
Remember that the Republican legislature under Corbett blocked privatization of state liquor stores, reminding Corbett that he had no free reign.
Wolf is likely to face a few legislative challenges just to remind him that the electoral mandate he received is no more potent than was Corbett's party affiliation.
Nevertheless, the tenor of legislative debate in Harrisburg is not likely to be as divisive as it's expected to be in Washington, D.C. But Gov.-elect Wolf laid out major legislative reforms during the campaign that are not likely to sit well with all members of the Assembly.
"Governor-elect Wolf doesn't have long political coat tails in this election," says Democratic party stalwart Bill Sesler. "He's got to decide how he's going to answer the question of balancing the budget for 2015-2016. That budget will need to be formulated and presented by March, at the latest, to the General Assembly, and they're facing a deficit that could easily be $300 million."
Education funding in Pa. waned under the Corbett Administration and will be a major point of contention in upcoming budget talks. Amplified by the loss of federal stimulus dollars to public education, state contributions to public K-12 education dropped to historic lows and placed the Commonwealth 45th nationwide in public education funding, according to factcheck.org, which analyzed education spending as Corbett and Wolf sparred on the campaign trail.
School districts most affected by reduced education spending were those in low-income communities with shrinking tax bases. Most school districts in Pa. made up the losses through tax increases on homeowners, who contributed the majority of revenue to the local districts, factcheck.org concluded.
In Erie, reduced state funding for public schools also meant the loss of reimbursement for $8 million in charter school payments, which the Erie Public Schools are required by law to disburse. Those reimbursements went unfunded by the Corbett Administration.
"The restoration of reimbursement for charter schools is the top recommendation of the auditor general, Eugene DePasquale. We're hopeful that it gains some traction because it's part of the law, but it went unfunded," says Matthew Cummings, director of communications for Erie Public Schools. "Instead of looking for things to cut, we'd be in the process of restoring programs based on that funding alone."
The $8 million charter school reimbursement was nearly equal to federal stimulus funds received by the district in 2010 and 2011.
Stimulus money disappeared in 2012 and that loss was compounded by an increase in contributions to the state retirement fund, which was legislated in the General Assembly. Between 2009 and 2013, Erie Public Schools experienced a net loss of $2,188,465 in state and federal funding, says Cummings.
Gov.-elect Wolf proposed a restoration of public education funding during the campaign, but that's dependent upon the passage of a 5 percent extraction tax on oil and gas industries operating in the Commonwealth. That wasn't a popular position with the outgoing Governor and it's unlikely to have much traction in the General Assembly.
"There's going to have to be a lot of give and take" says State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro (D-Erie) "The Democrats have to understand they're not going to get everything they want just because there's a Democratic governor and the Republicans surely understand that just because they have the numbers they're not going to get everything they want because there is a Democratic governor. There's got to be compromise."
Opponents of the extraction tax argue that such as tax would inhibit job growth associated with the oil and gas industry and therefore impact overall job growth in the state. Shale-related employment, however, currently accounts for only 0.40 percent of Pennsylvania employment, according to the Multi-State Shale Collaborative.
Compromise on this point may be the third rail of the next session in the General Assembly because it's also tied to economic development initiatives, which Gov.-elect Wolf made top priority during the campaign. Although Wolf said throughout the campaign that economic development should not be "about the next deal or reacting to the latest crisis," it's clear that the electorally conscious Republican-led legislature doesn't necessarily share his opinion.
Observers remain hopeful that Wolf's manufacturing background may well position him to lead Pa. into a sustainable economic recovery.
Bruce Katz, vice president of The Brookings Institution, told the crowd at the Jefferson Educational Society Global Summit VI in early November that Wolf's election was one of the bright spots of the 2014 midterm elections because of his business acumen. He is "the kind of governor Pennsylvania needs," said Katz, who's also the founding director of The Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
Tom Wolf, a native of York, Pa., is a graduate of Dartmouth College, the London School of Economics, and he holds a Ph.D. in political science from MIT. As the sixth generation owner of his family business, he returned to the company and by all accounts saved the organization from financial ruin. Reporters and citizens across the Commonwealth laud Wolf's everyman qualities – from his wholesale support of his wife and two daughters to a seemingly genuine interest in the lives of people with whom he interacts in business and on the campaign trail.
Wolf is the first entrepreneur to take the Governor's office since Democrat Milton Shapp (1971-1979), who amassed a multi-million dollar fortune as a pioneer of the cable television industry.
Wolf, like Shapp, enters the governor's office at a time of great political discord. And like Shapp, Wolf stands at the precipice of major reforms for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Courting new business will take overhauls of both tax and regulatory policy, both of which Wolf experienced first hand as the CEO of the Wolf Organization, Inc., America's largest supplier of kitchen cabinets and specialty building products, which employs more than 250 people, according to its website.
Moreover, Wolf supports raising the minimum wage in Pa. to $10.10 per hour over a two-year period and tying the minimum wage to the inflation index after that. It's a major point of contention at the state level across the country, as different locales try to reconcile high costs of living with a federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
As a punctuation to the wage debate, Wolf will follow an emergent trend among wealthy businessmen turned executive politicians. Like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Tom Wolf will also forgo his salary of $187,256 by either donating it to charity or returning it to the state, according to a statement made to the Associated Press.
Regardless of the cards Wolf gets to play as the architect of Pennsylvania's new deal, his tenure in office will likely be defined by his first two years in office.
If Republicans in Harrisburg follow the lead of their federal counterparts and stonewall the Wolf Administration as a prelude to 2016 and beyond, it's going to be a long four years for the citizens of Pa. and its first-term governor.
If, however, Wolf's pro-business policies are insurance enough for Republican leadership in the General Assembly to allow Wolf and Democrats in the House and Senate to initiate the debate points that made Wolf popular in the primary and general elections, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will likely return to its otherwise standard practice of reelecting incumbent governors.
Jim Wertz can be contacted at jWertz@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Jim_Wertz.