Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, Politics Editor James O'Toole will write about the campaign preparations of the eight Democrats who plan to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's re-election bid in 2014.
Bright, fast-talking, exuding confidence, Rob McCord will tell anyone who asks that his record as state treasurer melded with his high-tech business makes him the Democrat "best built" to oust Gov. Tom Corbett.
"People see us as a front-runner, and they are accurate in that perception," he assured reporters earlier this month before charging into a meeting of state business leaders gathered at the Pennsylvania Society in New York City.
Mr. McCord points to his public clashes on issues including lottery privatization and investment strategies as evidence of his willingness to take on the governor. He also offers a personal story of hardship and achievement as a badge of empathy with ordinary voters.
"I'm certain that out there there's a kid being raised by a single mom, and that kid has big dreams and, guess what, that kid has every right to have as good a shot at pursuing those dreams and making that dream come true as I did," he said at a Pittsburgh stop this fall on the announcement tour for his long-anticipated campaign for governor.
Mr. McCord's parents divorced when he was 4, and his mother moved from California to Montgomery County, in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he attended public schools before going on to Harvard University, then receiving a Master of Business Administration degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Our campaign is going remarkably well," he said earlier this month. "Even in a crowded field, we seem to be breaking through in a satisfying way. People are hearing our emphasis on education, education, education at every level."
"Having an investment type who's not a career politician talk so much about education has really resonated," he insisted.
Mr. McCord, 54, has years of inside-the-Beltway experience as a congressional staffer and has won two statewide elections, yet it's his business background that he emphasizes over and over as he argues that he'll appeal to voters because he's not "a professional politician."
After college, Mr. McCord moved to Washington, D.C., joining the staff of former Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif., who would go on to be U.S. transportation secretary. Later, Mr. McCord became the head of the Congressional Institute for the Future, a think tank formed by former Vice President Al Gore and the late Sen. John Heinz. From there, he moved on to roles in high-tech investment and business development.
He played senior roles in several venture capital firms focusing on technology businesses and investments. Those years brought him the personal wealth and fundraising connections that sustain his political career. And in a crowded race in which fundraising will inevitably winnow the field, he predicts that he'll post robust numbers when the candidates are due to disclose their 2013 contributions next month.
Mr. McCord has clashed repeatedly with the man he wants to replace.
He has resisted the administration's proposal to privatize the state lottery, contending that Mr. Corbett guaranteed a bad deal for the state by not aggressively seeking multiple bidders for the long-term arrangement that the administration maintains will produce a significant increase in revenue. More bidders would have emerged, he contends, if the state had publicized the fact that the lottery operators could expand into games such as keno.
"Instead, they have a sole source bidder which is a great way to drive down the price," he said. "So they may be robbing Peter to pay Paul ... because of keno, some of that new revenue may come from gaming."
Mr. McCord derided one of the administration's chief legislative accomplishments, the enactment of a transportation funding package, arguing that the fact that its long-delayed gestation will translate to increased costs because of the deferred projects and maintenance.
Despite the publicity he has received operating his own office and criticizing the incumbent, Mr. McCord, like all of his rivals in the Democratic field, remains relatively unknown to voters at large. He has appeared on Pennsylvania ballots through two election cycles and was re-elected by a double-digit margin over Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey-Vaughn in 2012.
But in a Public Policy Polling survey last month, 69 percent of the voters said they didn't know enough about the two-term officeholder to express an opinion on him. His Montgomery County neighbor, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, was the best-known among the declared Democrats, but even her results showed that 58 percent of those polled were not sure enough to express either a favorable or and unfavorable overall opinion.
Ms. Schwartz and Mr. McCord do seem to be at the lead of the eight-person pack of declared candidates in the early competition for union and other insider endorsements. Mr. McCord has received early support from groups including AFSCME Council 13, the largest state workers union, and the Pennsylvania Council of Teamsters. The Montgomery County resident has also showcased personal endorsements from a list of officeholders dotted with Western Pennsylvania figures.
"We're going to have a ton of support and resources, primarily because of my relationships with entrepreneurs, and we're going to have by far the most support in the labor world," he said.
"I'm out here a lot," he said during a Western Pennsylvania appearance. "I'm very well-built to come at least second in almost every county."
In an allusion to the possibility that former Auditor General Jack Wagner might make a late entry into the already crowded Democratic fray, he said, "People say, 'If somebody drops in from Western Pennsylvania, maybe Rob is not going to do quite as well as the original model suggested.' But they're not going to have Rob's resources."
Mr. McCord contends that his early insider support buttresses his arguments, not only that he can win the nomination, but that he is his party's best bet to oust the poll-challenged incumbent.
"You need someone who has elected CEO experience, who's already got experience not only running for office, in contested primaries and general elections, but knows how to communicate, knows how to recruit, knows how to negotiate," he said. "Those are skills missing in Tom Corbett's portfolio, and I don't think we want to nominate a Democrat who lacks that."
James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.