York's Wolf spending own fortune in his bid for governor

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His political base is away from the state's Democratic strongholds. He has never run for office. But in a race where most voters still don't know most candidates, Tom Wolf thinks his already singular and successful life story will find a new chapter.

This one would describe his triumph over more veteran politicians to capture his party's nomination for governor. And he has the money to tell his story.

Since the time of Andrew Jackson, lots of politicians have talked about having a kitchen cabinet. Mr. Wolf makes them. That's one part of the narrative he thinks will appeal to voters estranged from more traditional office seekers.

He heads a family-founded kitchen supply firm that he helped revitalize in a rescue that temporarily suspended his political ambitions four years ago. Mr. Wolf, a former state secretary of revenue in the Rendell Cabinet, had been laying the foundation for a bid for governor in 2009 when he got the news that the firm he had headed for a quarter century was foundering in the wake of the financial crisis. He had sold the firm to his employees but repurchased it, changed its business model and salvaged its prospects.

So now he has turned again to salvaging his political ambitions. He sought to give his campaign an instant jolt of credibility with the news that he would spend $10 million of his own money on the effort. That's real money in a primary in which some better known rivals have discussed primary budgets in the ballpark of $5 million.

"I don't like the idea that money plays such a big role, but those are the rules of the game," he said when asked about the dynamics of a self-funded campaign. "I didn't make those rules."

A few weeks ago, as the state's political class was preparing to head to New York City for the annual revels of the Pennsylvania Society, Mr. Wolf jumped the gun on contribution reports with the news that, in addition to his own $10 million commitment, his campaign already had raised $2.85 million. The campaign finance totals for the 2013 fundraising year are not due to be filed until the end of this month, but the early disclosure of third-party donations amounted to one more unmistakable assertion by the Wolf campaign that they belong in the first rank of the big field of would-be challengers to Gov. Tom Corbett.

The phenomenon of a businessman capping a successful career and self-funding a bid for office is a familiar one in contemporary politics. But for Mr. Wolf, the transition isn't to a new sphere of interest so much as a return to the focus of an earlier one.

Mr. Wolf received an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College. He received a master's from the University of London and went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dissertation focused on the dynamics of change in Congress from 1878 to 1920.

When asked to describe the lessons of his thesis for current politics, he appeared reluctant to offer any sweeping analysis, but said, "We have a tradition in this country to take institutions back, to reassert control. ... I learned in my dissertation that change actually happens."

Mr. Wolf had some teaching assignments at MIT as he finished up his doctorate. But the sequel to that was not an academic career but a return to York and the family business.

"I had prepared myself; I had a promising career in front of me," he said. "But I wanted to come back to get involved in the community and get involved in business."

After his years in academe, he called the move "a hard decision" but added that, "I never walked away from my interest in politics.

"I did support candidates; my wife and I did get involved in the life of the community," he said. "To me, there is no real distinction [between] that kind of community engagement and politics. Citizenship involves all of those things."

In the years after he took over the family business, he served on a long list of community groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the United Way, and York College board of trustees. Along the way he supported and contributed to candidates, coming to the attention of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey, who named him to an economic development panel, and former Gov. Ed Rendell, who nominated him to head his department of revenue. The York Daily Record reported that Mr. Wolf and his wife gave a total of $263,500 to Mr. Rendell's campaign committee between 2002 and 2006.

When Mr. Wolf resigned the revenue post, Mr. Rendell issued a statement praising him for bringing business principles to government and crediting him for helping to expand the state's tax and rent rebate program and pursuing innovations such as expanding the ability of individuals and businesses to file their taxes electronically.

Mr. Wolf cited his revenue post's supervision of the state lottery as he regularly criticized Mr. Corbett's abandoned plan to privatize the operations of the lottery.

Like almost all of his rivals for the nomination, Mr. Wolf contends that the current administration has fallen short on education funding. He supports a new severance tax on natural gas, and argues that his own business experience makes him particularly qualified to nurture manufacturing jobs in the state.

Through it all, he is adding a very practical chapter to the academic study of politics he pursued decades ago.

"I'm getting to be a better campaigner," he said. "[I'm] learning the craft."

Editor's note: This is the last in a series of profiles by politics editor James O'Toole of the eight Democrats who plan to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's re-election bid this year.

James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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