Gov. Corbett, own party display years of mutual frustration
July 11, 2014 12:17 AM
Bradley C. Bower/Associated Press
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett holds a copy of state budget documents during a news conference Thursday in Harrisburg, Pa.
By James P. O’Toole / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In a campaign commercial earlier this week, Gov. Tom Corbett proclaimed, "I didn't come to Harrisburg to makes friends.''
The accuracy of that statement was inarguable Thursday as the Republican governor denounced a Legislature controlled by his own party while its leaders lashed back at the embattled incumbent and his inability to turn legislative majorities into policy results. Years of mutual frustration were on display as the governor vetoed funds for the Legislature while state Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, the House majority leader, accused the governor of playing politics and the Senate's united leadership issued a joint statement assailing Mr. Corbett's inability to work with his colleagues.
The public airing of long-simmering tensions comes as the governor faces a re-election campaign in which he has regularly trailed his Democratic challenger, Tom Wolf, by landslide polling margins. Mr. Corbett's confrontation with the GOP figures suggested that he had made a tactical calculation to return to the rhetoric that first got him elected, when, after a string of prosecutions of legislative figures, he promised to upend the deal-making and gamesmanship of Capitol politics.
"I think we've always been running against the culture of Harrisburg,'' said Chris Pack, the communications director of the governor's reelection campaign. "Our message is going to be a better Pennsylvania for all Pennsylvanians, not just for the Harrisburg insiders.''
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman was far behind in early polls in his race for a full White House term against Thomas Dewey, the Republican nominee, and two other challengers. Confounding the widespread predictions, he battled back to victory in November after a campaign in which he continually denounced "the do-nothing Congress.''
If Mr. Corbett hopes to take a page from the "Give-'em-hell-Harry'' campaign book, however, he faces the stubborn fact that this Legislature is controlled by fellow Republicans. They are Republicans, as Thursday's squabbling demonstrated, whose agendas vary from the governor's. But that's a complicated distinction to convey to the average voter.
"I understand his frustration, but it also [raises] the question of where's the leadership,'' said Bill Green, a veteran Republican consultant and commentator. "For him to lament his own party underscores what an opponent would say is a lack of leadership on the part of the governor.''
Mr. Corbett's challenge in rallying the public against legislative inertia is also compounded by the fact that he chosen to fight on the dry ground of pension reform, an issue that, while widely acknowledged as significant, is difficult to package in politically sexy terms.
Mr. Pack said that the campaign would continue to frame the pension issue as a threat to school budgets across the state after years in which Mr. Corbett has fended off constant criticism of his school funding decisions.
"What you're going to here from our campaign is that pension reform equals property tax relief,'' said Mr. Pack, who noted that 163 of the 164 state school districts granted tax increase exemptions cited pension burdens to justify those increases.
The Wolf campaign issued a statement once again blaming Mr. Corbett for the schools' fiscal strains.
"Gov. Corbett's latest budget -- true to form -- is not a blueprint for the future but another missed opportunity that will keep our state stuck in neutral,'' Mr. Wolf said. "As a result of these failed policies, our children are not receiving the resources they deserve and school districts across Pennsylvania have been forced to raise property taxes.''
Mr. Wolf had resisted taking a position on whether Mr. Corbett should sign the budget passed by the Legislature. He has criticized the governor's overall fiscal polices, arguing that the state should seek revenue from a new tax on natural gas and by accepting the federal dollars that would come with an expansion of Medicaid.
Bruce Castor, a Montgomery County commissioner and a longstanding GOP critic of Mr. Corbett, was skeptical of whether the governor's assertiveness against his fellow Republicans would revive his political fortunes.
"His relationship with the Legislature has been years in the making and he has not taken the steps since assuming office to rebuild those bridges,'' he said. "I don't think running against he Legislature is going to win. It's the environment of Harrisburg that the public is tired of and Gov. Corbett is the most visible figure of the state government.''
Jim Roddey, the Allegheny County Republican chairman, had a sympathetic, if tepid, response to Mr. Corbett's decision.
"Time will tell whether that was the right move or not,'' he said. "I'm not able to figure out what he should have done because he's in a difficult position. He has shown he's got the courage ... and that he feels strongly about the budget and the necessity of addressing the pension plan. Further down the road, it's going to be twice as bad.''
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