Key Western Pa. Democrats endorse Tom Wolf for governor

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto turned away from the microphone to shake hands with "my friend Jim Ferlo.''

"It's good to be with you in a campaign,'' he told the state senator, who had outspokenly backed his chief opponent, former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, in last year's mayoral primary.

Figures who had been on different sides in a variety of recent political battles in the region came together Saturday afternoon to add to the meteoric momentum of the new front-runner in the Democratic race for governor.

Tom Wolf, the free-spending Democrat from York County, got a broad and early show of Western Pennsylvania support Saturday as an array of the region's elected and party officials gathered to endorse him.

At a news conference in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown, members of the local Democratic hierarchy lauded Mr. Wolf's business record and described him as the party's best bet to oust Gov. Tom Corbett. While there may be debate on how much such endorsements do to influence rank-and-file voters, the event was an undeniable coup for the former state revenue secretary, giving him a show of institutional backing alongside the soaring poll numbers produced by his early advertising campaign.

The news conference was orchestrated by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who introduced the Wolf allies including Mr. Peduto; U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle of Forest Hills; state Sens. Jim Ferlo of Highland Park, Wayne Fontana of Brookline, Matt Smith of Mt. Lebanon and Jim Brewster of McKeesport; state Reps. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District, Ed Gainey of Lincoln-Lemington and Bill Kortz of Dravosburg; Nancy Mills, the county Democratic chair; and more than a score of local party officers. Also in the crowd were City Council members Daniel Lavelle and Corey O'Connor.

"What you see behind me is the leadership of Western Pennsylvania ... [joined] to back a man who shares Western Pennsylvania values,'' Mr. Doyle said. Pointing to Mr. Wolf's background as a businessman, he said, "His life experiences are tailor-made for Western Pennsylvania.''

Continuing the regional theme, Mr. Peduto joked that the officials had assembled "to officially put together the Western Pennsylvania kitchen Cabinet.''

Later he said that he had decided to enlist with Mr. Wolf over other members of what is generally regarded as a strong Democratic field because, "He gets where this state needs to go.''

Mr. Peduto said that in earlier conversations with Mr. Wolf he had been impressed by his "deeply knowledgeable'' views in urban issues.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he found common bonds with a figure who had built a business before focusing on the public sector. "He has a great story,'' Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Alluding to his nearly unchallenged command of the airwaves at this early stage of the race, Ms. Mills said, "It's not just the commercials; it's the message.''

Mr. Wheatley, who noted that he had endorsed Mr. Wolf last year before his poll numbers began to climb, said he had been impressed with Mr. Wolf's performance in Harrisburg during his stint as revenue secretary.

"I got to know him as a man whose actions reflect his words,'' said the former mayoral candidate.

The emergence of the pro-Wolf coalition was a rebuff to the barely visible campaign of Mr. Wagner, whose last-minute bid for the Democratic nomination appears to rest on the hope that as the only Western Pennsylvania candidate in the seven-person field, he could capitalize on his geographic base.

Among the more prominent Democratic contenders, perhaps no one has courted regional support here more than state Treasurer Rob McCord, of Montgomery County, who's picked up support from a variety of unions and elected officials here and across the state.

Reacting to the news conference, Mr. McCord's spokesman Mark Nevins issued a statement that said in part, "No candidate in the primary has spent more time working for Western Pennsylvania than Rob McCord. If we want to harness Western Pennsylvania's limitless potential to be an innovative economic engine for our state, then Rob McCord is the obvious choice."

The only state senator representing Allegheny County who did not emerge in the Wolf camp was Sen. Jay Costa, the chamber's Democratic leader from Forest Hills. Mr. Costa said last week that he continued to believe that U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, of Montgomery County, represented his party's best potential nominee.

Mr. Wolf entered 2014 as an asterisk in the polls, far behind more established figures such as Mr. McCord and Ms. Schwartz. But his hefty early advertising campaign had allowed him to, at least temporarily, build a significant lead on his rivals.

In a trio of recent public polls, his support nearly tripled that of his closest competitor. All that was the fruit of the $10 million he has invested in his campaign, giving him more than twice the cash on hand of any competitor as he entered the year. That lead will be tested as the other contenders take to the airwaves in the weeks between now and the May 20 primary.

So far, only Katie McGinty, a former state secretary of environmental protection, is the only other candidate who has aired commercials in the race, but the amount of her advertising is dwarfed by that of Mr. Wolf.

The other Democrats vying to take on Mr. Corbett are John Hanger, another former DEP chief, and Jo Ellen Litz, a Lebanon County commissioner.

Politics editor James O’Toole: or 412-263-1562. First Published March 8, 2014 4:23 PM

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