Senior Pennsylvania Democrats, including former Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, denounced state Treasurer Rob McCord on Saturday for running a commercial accusing his gubernatorial rival Tom Wolf of racial insensitivity, but Mr. McCord, in an emotional news conference, vowed to press the attack regardless of its consequences.
The exchanges came as Mr. Wolf has gained a wide polling lead over his rivals for the Democratic nomination.
In an ad that began airing Friday, the McCord campaign raised pointed questions about Mr. Wolf's decision in 2001 not to disassociate himself from a former York mayor, Charles Robertson.
Mr. Wolf was the chairman of Mr. Robertson's campaign for mayor that year. After he won the primary, Mr. Robertson was charged as an accomplice to the murder of a woman who died in a 1969 race riot. Mr. Robertson was a police officer at the time of the riot and acknowledged that he was racially bigoted at the time but said that he recanted those views. He denied any involvement with the woman's death and was subsequently acquitted of the murder charge after he stepped down as a mayoral candidate.
The McCord ad throws a harsh focus on the episode, asking, "Why would he chair the campaign of a man arrested for his role in a race riot, one that left a black woman dead? ... For York, it was an ugly episode; for Tom Wolf, there's just no good answer."
The Wolf campaign shot back with an ad featuring the current York mayor, Kim Bracey, who is African-American, rejecting the attack and asserting that Mr. McCord "should be ashamed of himself."
Mr. Rendell, the former governor, called a news conference Saturday morning to echo and amplify the criticisms of the McCord attack.
"This is the wrong type of politics. It's bad politics," Mr. Rendell said. "Again, it's politics that makes me ashamed to have been part of this profession for almost all of my adult life."
Mr. Rendell, who emphasized that he had not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic race, noted that in 2008, Mr. McCord had accepted a $20,000 contribution from Mr. Wolf for his campaign for treasurer and said that he should have been familiar then with the background of Mr. Wolf, who served as secretary of revenue in his administration.
"So, I wonder whether Mr. McCord is going to return that check today because of the strong feelings expressed in his ad, which I think is one of the worst I have seen in politics," he said.
Noting the standings in the race with less than three weeks to go before the May 20 primary, Mr. Rendell said, "I know the feeling of desperation when you're losing because you believe in yourself. You think you can do good things. And I believe that Rob McCord believes in himself and believes that as governor he could do good things for the people of Pennsylvania. But that desire, that knowledge, should not overcome basic decency."
Mr. Casey also rebuked the McCord ad.
"I have refrained from endorsing a candidate in the gubernatorial primary and I am not endorsing today," he said in a statement. "However, I wanted to speak out about one of the recent ads run against Tom Wolf. I have known Tom for a long time and he is a person of uncommon integrity ... and has an abiding commitment to justice and fairness. This ad is offensive. I hope it will be taken down and that all of the candidates will focus on the importance of moving the commonwealth in a new direction."
Mr. McCord stood by his ad and his overall criticism of the front-runner in a hastily called mid-afternoon news conference in Philadelphia. He stood with his wife, Leigh, who is African-American, and said he would not back down from issues that were deeply personal to him.
"We think this conversation is important and we are going to drive this conversation forward," he said, contending that Mr. Wolf had failed a test of leadership in not immediately repudiating Mr. Robertson in 2001. The York businessman described his role in the Robertson campaign as largely an honorary one, but he said after the mayor was arrested that he would be willing to stay on as his chairman.
The Robertson story is not new. It was revisited earlier in the campaign and Mr. Wolf defended his actions then and Mr. McCord did not raise the issue, instead regularly referring to Mr. Wolf as a personal friend.
He said at the news conference that he had not delved into the details of the story until recently. Of Mr. Rendell's harsh criticism, he said, "I respect Gov. Rendell and I respectfully and strongly disagree."
He added that nothing in the ad had been shown to be factually incorrect and said that "sometimes leadership demands making people uncomfortable."
"I'm offering something different to the people of Pennsylvania - leadership that says what needs to be said, even if it's uncomfortable," Mr. McCord added. "Leadership that does what needs to be done, even if it's hard. Leadership doesn't allow racism or flawed judgments by powerful men to go unaddressed. I plan to be a governor who speaks for every person in Pennsylvania, no matter where she or he comes from."
Mr. Wolf has moved to the front of the Democratic field with a robust and early advertising campaign. The competition for the right to challenge Gov. Tom Corbett has been relatively civil until recent weeks when Mr. McCord and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County had challenged his business history. At a recent debate, Ms. Schwartz also criticized his decision to stand by and raise defense funds for former state Rep. Stephen Stetler, who was convicted in the state Bonusgate prosecutions.
Katie McGinty, a former DEP secretary under Mr. Rendell, is also seeking the nomination, but she has not joined the increasing criticism of the front-runner, a fact for which Mr. Rendell praised her during his news conference.
Politics Editor James O'Toole: email@example.com.