Is Rob McCord the Tom Corbett Slayer?

Democrats are licking their chops for Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord to run against Governor Corbett, but the state may not be ready for a thoroughly modern politician.

Four hours into my morning with Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord—after he’s analyzed the state of race relations in Boston, filled me in on his fitness regimen and his love of squash, demonstrated how best to ask rich people for money, outlined the strengths and weaknesses of Philadelphia’s nascent tech sector, and name-dropped the likes of George Stephanopoulos and Newt Gingrich—he stops talking, for just a moment, to quickly down a protein bar and a zero-calorie Powerade.

“I’m an aging jock,” the 53-year-old McCord says (for the third time that morning). “Got to stay lean.” And then he’s off again, this time on a five-minute soliloquy on the great buying opportunities presented by sub-investment-grade debt in Europe.

Brilliant babbling—if there is such a thing—is a McCord hallmark. The words tumble out of his mouth so relentlessly that talking to him feels less like a conversation than an unedited simulcast of his inner monologue. “So I fell in love with my wife, and also with microeconomics,” he says at one point, as segue to a riff on the wrongheadedness of GOP opposition to tax incentives.

At times you want to roll your eyes. And yet the overall effect is undeniably impressive. Ebullient, inquisitive and, yes, a bit undisciplined, McCord is unlike any prominent politician to cross the Pennsylvania stage in years. And he’s obviously having an awfully good time.

As well he should. Life has been very good to McCord, an ambitious Main Liner and venture capitalist turned political aspirant. He is a rich man gifted both with the right connections and the talent to maximize those advantages. Born into an academic family, he was schooled at Harvard and Wharton. He was mentored in politics by two-time U.S. Cabinet Secretary Norman Mineta, and in business by legendary former Safeguard Scientifics CEO Pete Musser. He made millions investing in tech start-ups, then waltzed into statewide elected office four years ago as a first-time candidate. And in early November, he was easily reelected to a second term as state treasurer.

And so, in a state Democratic Party short on high-profile talent, McCord’s profile is surging, and the calls for him to challenge Governor Corbett in 2014 are growing louder. State Democratic chairman Jim Burn says McCord is a “top-tier” name “held in the highest esteem” by party bosses. Congressman Chaka Fattah pronounces himself a “big fan.” Philadelphia Democratic Party boss Bob Brady considers him “formidable” and “probably our strongest candidate.”

What makes this establishment enthusiasm for McCord so interesting is the fact that he in no way resembles gubernatorial candidates of the past. Pennsylvanians tend to be traditionalists when it comes to their elected leaders. Governors Corbett and Rendell are both redolent of the 20th century, with old-fashioned political résumés and brands (Rendell the charismatic operator, Corbett the sober uncle). So were Dan Onorato (a longtime lawyer and pol) and Lynn Swann (the ex-athlete trope).

McCord, though, is a thoroughly modern politician. He’s run a think tank and a series of investment funds. He’s considered a critical early leader in the development of the region’s tech industry. He has an African-American wife. And he entered politics late in life, mea­ning he has ascended without the benefit—or b­aggage—of a machine to call his own.

All of which makes him one of the most intriguing figures to appear on Pennsylvania’s political stage in some time. Can a candidate as novel and contemporary as McCord win in a state this conventional? He seems sure to test that question. But when?

By the peculiar logic of Pennsylvania politics, McCord’s very strength would usually stipulate that he stay as far away from the 2014 gubernatorial race as possible. Running against an incumbent here has proven to be a job fit only for delusional egomaniacs and sacrificial lambs, and McCord is neither. Pennsylvania voters haven’t ousted an incumbent governor since multiple terms were allowed by the state constitution in 1971. And not once in nearly 60 years have Pennsylvanians deviated from their practice of switching—at regular eight-year intervals—from a Republican executive to a Democratic one. (This isn’t just coincidence. Experts have calculated the odds of that red-blue-red-blue pattern occurring randomly at less than 0.000141 percent.)

But this time, there’s a wrinkle in the formula, and his name is Tom Corbett. Just two years ago, Corbett was seen as the blue-eyed slayer of Harrisburg corruption. Now, he’s a leading contender for the title of least popular governor in the nation. This summer, as his approval ratings dipped to about 30 percent in some polls, national Republicans put him into quarantine, lest he contaminate Mitt Romney.

The sources of Corbett’s collapse are manifold. He has proven to be a virtual recluse, either uninterested in making his case to the public or unable to do so convincingly. And though Corbett appealed to moderates as a candidate, he has governed as an unapologetic partisan, supporting divisive legislation such as voter ID and mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. (He famously offered this advice to those who would rather not see the fetus: “You just have to close your eyes.”)

What’s really killed Corbett’s approval ratings, however, are his slashing of education budgets and his role in the investigation of child predator Jerry Sandusky. Indeed, the Penn State scandal is whacking Corbett from two directions. Some suspect that as attorney general, he slow-walked the state’s investigation of Sandusky to avoid hurting his own electoral prospects. And then there are the Penn State loyalists outraged at Corbett’s support for the firing of Joe Paterno.

All of it has hurt Corbett. But is it enough to undo almost six decades of precedent? More to the point, is it enough to convince a candidate with McCord’s credentials—and promising long-term prospects—to risk everything and run in 2014?

It’s 6:20 a.m. on the train platform at Ardmore Station. A steady rain is falling, and the sun has yet to rise. A handful of commuters stare gloomily at their takeout coffees. But not Rob McCord. He’s effervescent, calling out “Good morning!” to anyone he recognizes with a grin so wide, it turns his eyes into little beads.

Of course, this sort of enthusiasm is standard issue among politicians. The difference is that McCord’s bounciness doesn’t seem to be an act. Elected officials are trained to turn on that 1,000-watt smile for cameras and voters, but almost all wipe it away the second it’s no longer needed. Somehow, McCord leaves you with the sense that he grins while he’s asleep.

That baked-in good cheer begins to make sense when you consider his early life. As a boy, he was largely raised by a single
m­oth­er. She was a teacher, then later a professor. His father, another professor, was “a high-
functioning alcoholic” who moved out ­following a bitter divorce when McCord was four years old. In time, McCord’s mother would remarry and become a nationally prominent criminologist, her death noted in a full-length obituary in the New York Times. But for many years before that, McCord says, his mother scrimped to get by, living on a paltry salary in Lower Merion.

The experience of emerging wealthy and successful from a sometimes-trying childhood seems to have convinced McCord that problems—even ones as seemingly intractable as race relations—can be resolved, if only people work hard and apply themselves. Certainly, McCord’s brief turn in elected office has borne that belief out.

So has the trajectory of his life, for that matter. After graduating from Harvard in 1982, he joined the staff of then-Congressman Norm Mineta. Under Mineta, McCord began to develop the political ideology he still has today, which he describes as “very comfortable with what people call social liberalism” and yet “f­iscally conservative” in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower (whom McCord cites frequently).

At the age of 26, McCord was recruited to lead a new think tank called the Congressional Institute for the Future, jointly founded by former Senators Al Gore and John Heinz. There, he wrestled with ponderous public policy problems like entitlements and literacy. More intriguing, though, was the center’s work on the implications of emerging technologies. McCord saw the potential—both for society and for his bank account—and wanted in. “I really did believe what we were saying in Washington,” he says on the Amtrak train to Harrisburg. “Entrepreneurs and innovation drive a lot of social good, and there’s a public-service element to being a thoughtful business leader who isn’t just there to maximize personal profits.”

So McCord and his wife, Leigh Jackson—a former reporter at both the Washington Post and Philly’s Daily News—moved back to the Main Line. There, over the next decade and a half, McCord piled up a sizeable personal fortune and emerged as perhaps the region’s leading tech cheerleader.

He worked under Pete Musser at Safeguard Scientifics, then went on to help run five venture capital operations, picking pro­mising
tech companies—such as Tr­, which was acquired in 2007 by NAVTEQ for $177 million—and giving them their first infusions of serious cash. The way McCord describes it, he was much more than a moneyman; he helped select managerial talent and shape the business plans. And he did it for company after company, all while investing big bucks—his own, and those of his firm’s investment clients—in the companies he helped to steer.

Along the way, McCord built a network of rich and powerful friends that he has used to tremendous effect as a fund-raiser. He accrued almost $5 million in his first campaign for treasurer, which insiders say is one of the biggest totals ever for a Pennsylvania row office, and he did it largely by cashing big checks from wealthy friends and former colleagues, many of whom had never or rarely contributed to political ca­mpaigns before.

McCord’s fund-raising pace was slower in this year’s reelection bid, but he’s still seen as one of the state Democratic Party’s top money generators—a crucial measure of a candidate’s viability. Anyone hoping to unseat a sitting governor needs to raise enormous amounts of cash, a requirement that would prove challenging for many of the other potential Democratic contenders, who include everyone from Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro and Allentown mayor Ed Pawlowski to bigger names like Dan Onorato and Joe Sestak (as well as the self-funded Tom Knox).

Raising money comes naturally to McCord. “You get connected through business or personal networks, and then you’re blunt with people,” he says with a shrug. For him, talk is easy: “In some cases, I was able to remind people that we made a lot of money together. So you say, ‘Do you mind giving me a little bit back?’”

Five years ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Rob McCord wrote an op-ed for the Inquirer full of friendly and well-meaning advice on how best to promote racial integration. He’d felt moved to write after a couple of neighbors assumed that his Harvard-
educated wife was the nanny or a housekeeper, presumably because she’s black.

The day the op-ed was published, the couple was invited to appear on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, where they discussed McCord’s almost stunningly credulous prescription for improving race relations. “Think consciously about what you could do better to integrate your own parties or clubs,” McCord had written, and “encourage minority friends to bid for homes in your neighborhood that are for sale, or invite them to join you in your vacation areas.”

As politely as he could, the NPR host, Neal Conan, asked: “Do you leave yourself vulnerable to being charged with naïveté?”

“I do leave myself vulnerable to that,” McCord happily answered. “And I think most good is done by unrealistic people who think they are going to make changes, darn it, even though the odds are against them.”

I listened to a podcast of the interview after spending half a day with McCord, and it only solidified my one lingering doubt about his strength as a gubernatorial candidate: Is he simply too much of a Pollyanna to survive and thrive in a higher-profile political arena? Isn’t someone who thinks more diverse dinner parties are the ticket to racial equality just prime to be rolled by his political opponents?

Maybe. But McCord’s behavior in office doesn’t always comport with his overly sunny disposition. Halfway into his term as treasurer, he sued the gaming control board for barring him from its executive sessions. (McCord’s office makes him an ex-officio board member.) The move wasn’t well received by Harrisburg insiders, who viewed it as a political gambit. But McCord ultimately prevailed in court. Six months later, he rejected as too expensive Governor Rendell’s plan to issue a $1 billion state bond for construction. (He later signed off on a smaller $650 million bond issue.) Both incidents put him on Rendell’s shit list, where political insiders say he remains to this day. (Rendell didn’t return a call seeking comment.)

Equally telling are a few of McCord’s hiring decisions. His chief of staff at Treasury is John Lisko, who cooperated with federal investigators in the takedown of his old boss, disgraced former Philadelphia City Councilman Rick Mariano. And Treasury’s new general counsel is Christopher B. Craig, the longtime aide to imprisoned Vince Fumo. These aren’t hires a political innocent would make.

And, as I found out, McCord can lash out—effectively—when he chooses to. As befits a wonky finance guy, it was the subject of pensions that stoked his outrage. They’re underfunded across the state, a slowly unfolding fiasco that he disgustedly attributes to “an immoral failure of leadership.”

When pressed for his solutions, McCord uncorks another technocratic stem-winder, looping in California pension reform, Republican Eric Cantor, and the psychological shortcomings of average investors saving for retirement. “This one needs some optimistic innovation,” he says. “And that’s me, that’s what I do.”

McCord predictably demurs when I ask if he’ll run for governor, but he doesn’t deny that he’s seriously considering the possibility. If he thinks he can win, he’ll run. But his political prospects are far too promising to throw away on a long-shot bid. “I’m very aware that two years is an eternity,” he says, “so I’m not one of these people who say, ‘Put a fork in Governor Corbett, he’s done.’”

Pennsylvania gubernatorial history is rife with executives who stumbled early in their first terms but nonetheless cruised to easy reelection. “One-Term Tom” isn’t Corbett’s nickname, after all; it’s a moniker Democrats pinned, wrongly, on Tom Ridge.

Say the economy improves and tax collections increase, giving Corbett the chance to actually spread some goodies around come budget time. Imagine that Corbett builds on his already improving relations with the GOP-controlled General Assembly, and that he deploys his not-inconsiderable charm with voters. All of that, plus the huge advantages of incumbency, may well be enough to propel him past any Democratic challenger.

But what if the state’s new attorney general, Kathleen Kane, finds something unsavory about how Corbett handled the Sandusky case? Or what if Corbett remains unable to shake his introvert tendencies?

Then imagine that McCord gets into the race and clears the primary. Suddenly it becomes a matchup between a reclusive lifelong prosecutor facing inconvenient questions about the biggest investigation of his career, and a gregarious, job-creating moderate who can credibly claim that he helped build the state’s tech industry.

For Corbett, the message is simple:
Stay the course; give me the chance to finish the housecleaning I’ve begun. McCord’s job is harder. First, he must convince one of the nation’s most stubborn electorates that it’s made a mistake. Second, he must persuade voters that the time has come for dowdy old Pennsylvania to finally embrace a modern man.

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