By James O'Toole
Tom Corbett's ascent to the Republican nomination followed the
hierarchical culture of his party. In Pennsylvania, the GOP is traditionally
a more disciplined force than the unruly Democrats with whom they've traded
control of the governors' mansion every eight years for decades.
It is a trend Corbett will continue in January, when he is sworn in as successor to two-term Democrat Ed Rendell.Corbett's father was a senior official in the administration of Gov. Raymond Shafer in the late 1960's Now, Corbett will join Shafer, along the Dick Thornburgh and TomRidge in the line of former prosecutors from Western Pennsylvania who went on to be elected as Republican governors.
Those chief executives also shared the moderate Republican strain that
once dominated the Pennsylvania GOP. Its heritage is part of Mr.
Corbett's political DNA, but he became the party's standard bearer at
a time when a more conservative tide made the phrase 'Rockefeller
Republican' a quaint echo of history.
In this campaign, particularly in a primary where he faced a
challenge from the right, Corbett has worked to display his comfort
with the new GOP in the age of the Tea Party. So where does the
candidate favored to win this race fit in the changing political spectrum?
Just months away from when he have to submit his first
budget what clues do we have as to how Tom Corbett would govern?
That's a challenging question to answer, in part because of his
careful, front-running campaign's reticence on policy and in part
because of the nature of the offices he's held so far.
Mr. Corbett has moved up methodically -- party foot soldier, local then
federal prosecutor. He was tapped for his first stint as attorney
general by Gov. Ridge, another candidate championed by the party
establishment. Their common party allies include GOP grandees such as
Pittsburgh's Elsie Hillman, and Montgomery County's Bob Asher. In
1988, like Ridge, he was recruited by Hillman to work on the
Pennsylvania campaign for the elder George Bush.
Corbett later worked in the Allegheny County prosecutors' office and served as U.S.
attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. His Ridge ties
were rewarded when he was appointed the state's attorney general after
the criminal conviction of AG Ernie Preate. He ran and won the office himself in
2004 in a contest so close that the Associated Press initially called
it for his opponent. The election, against Philadelphia's Jim
Eisenhower, was long on suspense but short on ideological conflict.
Corbett managed to cruise above the increasingly polarized political
environment in 2008 when he bucked the Democratic tide to win a second
term with the largest vote total of any Republican candidate in state
A prosecutor's profile is a frustrating one for opposition
researchers. Unlike legislators, they don't leave a paper trail of
votes to criticize. Unlike municipal executives, they haven't had to
solve the difficult calculus implicit in the tradeoffs between taxes
and services. It's an ideal political perch because, for the most
part, prosecutors make the news they want to make, pursuing the issues
and abuses they choose to pursue.
The Bonusgate investigation that has dominated Corbett's tenure came
at a perfect time to capitalize on the public estrangement with
Harrisburg. While his rival Dan Onorato and other critics have tried
to raise question about political motivations in the prosecutions, the
evidence and convictions in the trials so far has made it tough to make that case to
The prosecutions fit the mood of public support for change in the
capital's culture. Corbett has portrayed himself as a catalyst for
that change. Still, it's easier to see what he wants to change from
than what he wants to change to.
In a primary, he faced an energetic challenge from a Tea Party ally,
state Rep. Sam Rohrer. Despite a woefully underfunded campaign, Rohrer
managed to collect nearly a third of the Republican votes. In the
course of the race, Corbett resisted Rohrer's attempts to take the
mantle of the more conservative candidate. He signed Grover
Norquist's no-tax-hike pledge. The biggest unforced error of his
campaign came as he endorsed conservative reservations about
unemployment compensation with the observation that some
Pennsylvanians were spurning work because they preferred to collect
jobless benefits -- a gaffe he quickly retreated from with the
explanation that he had merely been relaying anecdotes that he'd heard
along the campaign trail.
His campaign has appeared loathe to derail his front-runner status
with any bold ideological pronouncements, or detailed blueprints on
how her would extricate the state from its multiple and deep fiscal
challenges. But his governing agenda did come into some relief at the
campaign's first general election debate a few weeks ago in Hershey.
Mr. Corbett reiterated his no taxes stand and forecast big but
unspecified cuts in state spending.
With that, Corbett seemed to be taking a lesson not so much from the
GOP prosecutors who had preceded him as a Pennsylvania gubernatorial
nominee but the one now governing across the Delaware -- New Jersey's
Chris Christie. Corbett doesn't share Christie's dominate-the-room
political persona, but he does seem intent on following his lead in
confronting entrenched state spending -- a fact that both men promised
as they campaigned together last week in Williamsport.
Corbett told the Allentown Call that together they would "change the
culture of both Trenton and Harrisburg.''
Now the trick will be to impose that agenda on lawmakers who have been
looking over their shoulders at Corbett's investigations. Exactly
what they would be asked to cut is less than clear, but that doesn't
seem to bother the plurality of voters who have given Corbett their
support in the consensus of polling this year. The hard-wired
tendency of political operative is to scramble for votes. But
sometimes the votes come to you. In a year filled with predictions of
a big Republican wave, that suits the low-keyed Corbett just fine.
Back in the 80s, Corbett would occasionally play pickup basketball at
Pittsburgh's downtown YMCA. It was a time when Dean Smith had
perfected the four corners offense, calculated to protect a lead. The
shot clock pretty much ended that tactic in college ball, but you
still see variations of it in politics.
James O'Toole is political editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Here is the Tom Corbett commercial seen most often statewide.