Corbett replaces 2 top aides after legislative disappointments

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Spurred by a frustrating legislative session and chronically anemic poll numbers, Gov. Tom Corbett has replaced his chief of staff as well as his top legislative liaison.

The administration announced Wednesday that its new chief of staff -- its third -- is Republican veteran Leslie Gromis Baker, who rose to prominence as a strategist for then-Gov. Tom Ridge. She replaces Stephen Aichele, who stepped in for Mr. Corbett's first chief of staff, Pittsburgh lawyer Bill Ward, in 2012 when he resigned to take a seat on Allegheny County's Common Pleas Court.

The Republican governor also announced that legislative secretary Christopher Carusone will be leaving the administration to take a job with a Philadelphia law firm. Mr. Carusone had served as a chief deputy attorney general under Mr. Corbett when Mr. Corbett was attorney general.

The moves come after a legislative session in which lawmakers of his own party rebuffed Mr. Corbett's efforts to advance major policy initiatives on the state's pensions, transportation funding and liquor sales. His administration's stalled progress was spotlighted on the eve of the personnel shuffle as the rating agency Fitch downgraded the state's general obligation debt, citing Harrisburg's failure to address its severely underfunded pension burden.

Mr. Corbett has had rocky relations with some GOP legislative leaders, but initial reaction to the personnel moves was positive.

"Leslie Gromis Baker is fantastic," said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. "We very much look forward to working with her. I don't think you will find anyone who doesn't respect Leslie. She is a true professional."

"I know she comes from the political side of Gov. Ridge and more recently Gov. Corbett, so perhaps it's a turn to that side," said Jay Costa, the leader of the Senate Democratic caucus. "I don't know her that well, but I understand that she has an outstanding reputation."

Mr. Costa called Ms. Gromis Baker's predecessor "a good man," adding that, "The problem with this administration is not Steve Aichele, believe me; the problem is the lack of leadership from the governor to bring closure to some of these issues."

Ms. Gromis Baker was a co-director of Mr. Corbett's transition team and has been working under contract as the state liaison with the federal government.

She worked as a senior advisor to former Gov. Ridge, first as political director, than as a campaign manager for his landslide 1998 re-election. Before that she was an aide of President George H.W. Bush. In 2000, she was the Pennsylvania campaign manager for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, and four years later was mid-Atlantic chairwoman of the Bush-Cheney re-election effort. She has worked with Mr. Corbett's media strategist, John Brabender, and also heads her own consulting firm, LG Strategies.

Ms. Gromis Baker is married to K. Scott Baker, vice president of government affairs for UPMC and another alumnus of the Ridge administration, for which he served as secretary of legislative affairs.

The GOP figure brings her extensive resume to an administration whose political high point was Mr. Corbett's relatively easy victory over former Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. Since that ride on the 2010 Republican tide, Mr. Corbett has faced the challenges of presiding over a difficult economy and dealing with the independent-minded legislative leaders of his own party.

Public surveys have consistently depicted him as among the most vulnerable incumbents in the nation. Trial heats of his 2014 re-election prospects have shown him trailing his leading prospective Democratic challengers by double-digit margins.

Mr. Brabender, Mr. Corbett's media strategist, exulted over the move.

"Certainly it comes at a great time," he said. "She has a good relationship with the Legislature, and [it's been] a goal to improve that relationship. Certainly Leslie elevates the possibilities of what ... can get done."

From a political standpoint, "I'm ecstatic because I know things are in good hands," he said. "This is absolutely what Tom Corbett needed."

In addition to their political work, Ms. Gromis Baker and Mr. Brabender collaborated on a Web-based television series, "Moving Numbers," a satirical look at a fictitious Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race. Its title referred to the challenge of moving polling numbers. The polling consensus is that she and Mr. Corbett have a daunting challenge in moving the real-life numbers in the balance of his first term.

Mr. Carusone, the departing secretary of legislative affairs, is signing on as a partner in the Harrisburg office of a Philadelphia law firm.

The Corbett administration statement announcing Mr. Aichele's departure, released the day after the news was first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, praised his record but did not mention his immediate plans beyond helping Ms. Gromis Baker with their transition. Prior to joining the administration, Mr. Aichele, who is married to Carol Aichele, the secretary of the commonwealth, was a senior partner of another major Philadelphia law firm, Saul Ewing LLP. He was Mr. Corbett's general counsel before succeeding Mr. Ward as chief of staff.

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James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.


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