HARRISBURG, PA – Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (R) has a lot to be proud of as his first term winds down. He inherited a budget deficit of $4.2 billion, but has since balanced the budget without raising taxes. Under his leadership, unemployment has dropped to a five-year low, and at 5.6 percent is below the national average. The natural gas industry is going through the roof, with Pennsylvania now the second-largest producer in the country. Yet despite those accomplishments, Corbett has been trailing his Democratic opponent, Tom Wolf, in the polls by double digits through much of 2014, prompting publications such as the Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report to dub him “America’s most vulnerable governor.”
To get to the bottom of arguably the most baffling political question of the year – how an incumbent with such a successful track record has struggled in the polls – TNH visited Governor Corbett at the Governor’s Mansion – in the state’s capital city of Harrisburg.
“Would you like anything to drink?” the governor asked, and conveying more the image of a benevolent host than a powerful politician, suggested: “take your coat (jacket) off.”
This interview, for some time in the making, was going to focus on “Republicanism that works”: at a time when the nation is more or less skeptical about leaders in both major parties, Corbett is a bona fide Republican success story. Yet the governor’s baffling poll numbers despite his accomplishments render that the more compelling topic, and so it became the focus of the interview.
MONEY BEGETS MISINFORMATION
So why is Corbett trailing Wolf, rather than the other way around? “I can clear that up for you in a minute,” the governor said. “Four million. Primarily, two public sector unions, the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, have spent a combined four million dollars promoting the fiction that I cut education spending.”
Governor Corbett emphasized that “anybody who takes two minutes” to look at the facts will realize that he did not cut education spending. The previous administration had been given federal dollars (as part of the “shovel-ready” stimulus package), that was a one-time sum, and when Corbett got into office, the money was not replenished because of that simple fact: it was meant to be a one-time stimulus. “The previous administration took state money out of the budget,” because it was replaced at the time by the federal stimulus money,” and so “if it’s a cut, it was a cut in the prior administration.”
“They spent four million against me,” he reiterated. “No one has spent four million for me.” Big money is the catalyst behind the misinformation, Corbett says, but the more that Pennsylvanians look into the story, the more they see the truth. “Now the people are starting to realize that this was fiction,” and it is reflected in his big bounce in the polls. The gap is down to single digits, having cut Wolf’s lead by two-thirds of what it was early in the summer.
Pennsylvania has enjoyed a steady reduction in unemployment over the past five years, but there is great potential, very real potential, to do even better, Corbett says. “We are creating an environment attractive to the private sector to bring more jobs to Pennsylvania.” Beyond that, “there are over 200,000 open jobs on our website jobgateway.pa.gov all across the state. Can you imagine what our unemployment rate would be if we can get people to go on the website and fill those positions?”
Not only has Pennsylvania become the second-largest natural gas producer in the United States during Corbett’s term – another reason he cites for jobs growth – but percentage-wise, no other state is even close in terms of growth. Shouldn’t that issue, by itself, be enough to guarantee Corbett a second term? “Politics doesn’t always make sense,” Corbett began, and reiterated how damaging money can be in a campaign. He cited the group Next Generation, financed by billionaire Thomas Steyer, who “is spending millions of dollars around the country against candidates like me, who support clean-burning natural gas.”
Corbett added that Pennsylvania “is a net exporter of natural gas for the first time in our history,” and that recent statistics indicate that the state is producing about 15 billion metric cubic feet of gas per day, and to illustrate the magnitude of that success, Corbett added this comparison: “one billion cubic feet of gas will serve 26,000 people for a year. The industry continues to grow, and continues to attract new business to Pennsylvania.” And new industries, like the plastics industry, and ethylene cracker facilities. “From a logical standpoint – and politics is not logical – you would think everyone would be on board for that,” he said.
At a time when the nation as a whole is largely disappointed with governmental ethics, reflective in that Pennsylvania’s C-minus grade in 2012 by the Center of Public Integrity was one of the higher grades received by any state, what can Governor Corbett tell the people of Pennsylvania about why he has zero tolerance regarding government corruption and deception?
“Everyone should look at my record as Attorney General [of Pennsylvania] and U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania,” he said. “I am a law enforcement person first.”
Notably, he led the investigation into the State Legislature, both houses, both caucuses, both parties. The problems in the Democratic State House was referred to as “Bonusgate,” and among the House Republicans was “Computergate.” That there were so many indictments and prosecutions, Corbett said, could very well be the reason the Pennsylvania didn’t get a higher rating, because “when people see how many convictions we get, that might lead them to believe we are corrupt,” as opposed to if they had not pursued fighting corruption aggressively to begin with.
“We hold ourselves to the highest standard,” he added. “We are transparent, and we desire to be transparent.”
TOM V. TOM
In a nutshell, what are the main differences between Tom Corbett and his principal opponent, Tom Wolf? “He was co-responsible for revenue projections as the Secretary of Revenue in the previous administration,” Corbett began. While he acknowledged that spending is ultimately determined by the governor and the legislature, “[Wolf] did not hold them back. In fact, he said we need to tax more. He talked about a need to increase personal income tax, the sales tax, and create a tax on electricity and one on trash removal.” Corbett drew a distinction: “my message has always been fiscal discipline, limited government, and free enterprise.”
In discussing another difference, their respective stances on abortion, Corbett shared a personal family story. “He’s pro-choice, and I am, as I like to say, pro-baby. My daughter adopted a little boy when he was two days old. He’ll be three at the end of September. He is the love of our life. His birth mother chose not to abort, when her family said ‘we can’t keep another child at home’ because they already had four. She put that baby up for adoption. The birth father has never acknowledged the child’s existence. I’m blessed to have a grandson who loves me as much as I love him.”
AUSTERITY, PENNSYLVANIA STYLE
Using the crisis in Greece as a point of comparison, where strict austerity has turned a deficit into a surplus, but at the price of astronomical unemployment, how has Governor Corbett managed to eliminate the deficit and substantially reduce unemployment at the same time, all without raising taxes one cent? “By having fiscal discipline and sticking to it,” he responded immediately and assuredly. “By bringing taxes down, we bring many more companies to Pennsylvania, and keep companies in Pennsylvania. In fact, Pennsylvania was the top state in 2013 for the expansion of corporate headquarters – the other eight Northeastern states combined did not equal us.”
He told people he was going to exercise fiscal discipline, and he did. “And it’s not easy telling people we’re going to tighten the belt. No one likes to go on a diet, and I had to put Pennsylvania on a diet.”
THE GOVERNOR’S GREEKS
“The Greeks in this country have made it because of their work ethic,” the governor began, relaying a story about Mytilene native Frank Aftosmes. “Hot Dog Frank,” they called him, Corbett said, remembering the proprietor of the Annville, PA establishment while Corbett was an undergraduate student at Lebanon Valley College (LVC). “Frank was a surrogate parent for all the guys,” Corbett said. “If any of us ran out of money, he would always extend us credit.” Corbett described a statue of Aftosmes that currently remains on display in LVC’s Peace Garden in his honor.
He is very close to the Rangos Family of Pittsburgh, “John Senior, John Junior, Alex,” and “last but not least, John Catsimatidis. He’s been a big supporter of mine. He started with nothing. He pushed a broom in a grocery store. Now, he’s a multibillionaire. That’s the Greek work ethic. I love seeing John, Margo, and the kids. I was at his daughter’s wedding. It was fantastic to experience that ceremony, in the Greek Orthodox Church.”
There are stories in the media that Corbett does not connect with voters effectively. Yet he appears eminently warm and likable – so where are they getting their information? “We talk to the media, but what they report has been filtered, either intentionally or unintentionally. I am very comfortable and I enjoy meeting people. If I could meet everyone in Pennsylvania, this race is over.”