The Amazingly Boring Rise of Tom Corbett

How did a not-very-ambitious lawyer from a small town in Western Pennsylvania become the most powerful man in the state (not to mention a thorn in Philadelphia’s side)?

THERE NEVER APPEARED to be anything—no unchecked ambition, no ideological stridency—to suggest that Tom Corbett would grow up to be other than a good-natured but entirely average man. He was born in Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia, though he lived in the city less than a year. His father was a real estate attorney employed by the state. His mother was a homemaker. When Corbett was six years old, they moved to a pre-Civil War farmhouse in Shaler Township, about eight miles north of Pittsburgh.

Shaler (population: 28,000) is a collection of aging hillside subdivisions with residents who are whiter and older than the rest of the state. High-school football is big, and a typical night out includes catching the game, then grabbing dinner at the Eat’n Park down the street from the Kmart and the Napa auto parts store. Growing up, Corbett was a Boy Scout, a lifeguard, the school mascot (a Husky), and the leading man in his high school’s production of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. He was a fine student, but not a scholar. He was handsome and popular, but not a jock.

When Corbett was a senior in high school, he woke up one day and found his mother’s dead body. She had been sickly for years—a cancer survivor who drank to ease the pain—but it was a stroke that killed her. His father, who worked in Harrisburg, didn’t spend most nights at the Shaler house, so Corbett’s older sister and her husband moved in to keep an eye on him.

In 1967, the year Detroit burned and the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, Corbett enrolled at Lebanon Valley College. It was as far from the collegiate ferment of the late 1960s as one could get. He joined a fraternity, took up lacrosse, met his wife, Susan, and fell in with a traditionalist crowd who looked down on the few hippies who had infiltrated the school. Like a lot of college-age kids during the Vietnam War, Corbett joined the National Guard. Unlike most, he stayed in the Guard for 13 years. “We were all pretty straight arrows in a crazy time. Tom, he was straighter than the other straight guys,” says Jim Biery, a fraternity brother and CEO of the Pennsylvania Bankers Association.

Straight, not vertical. The people who knew Corbett best when he was younger never looked at him and thought, This guy is a comer. “You don’t get the ‘whoa’ feeling when you meet him,” says David Shutter, a longtime friend who ran with Corbett for a seat on the Shaler Township Board of Commissioners in 1987. “I think Tom could have been just as happy sitting on the back porch of his home and going to commissioner meetings for 25 years.”

It’s easy to imagine. So much about Corbett violates what we’ve come to think of as normal in our politicians. “Power is not attractive to him. Tom has no ego,” says Susan Corbett. It sounds like something a politician’s wife is supposed to say, but in Corbett’s case it might actually be true. “It’s not unusual that we’re at a party and Tom will be off in the corner with a dog while everybody else is chatting,” she adds.

Corbett’s interest in elected office developed relatively late in life. After graduating from college, he worked for a year as a civics teacher, then enrolled at an obscure law school—St. Mary’s University—in Texas. His first job as a lawyer was in the Pittsburgh district attorney’s office. That was followed by a three-year stint as an assistant U.S. attorney, and then a turn in private practice, where he largely represented insurance companies. He was 38 when he first ran for office (for Shaler township commissioner), and it was a year later, in 1988, that he was recruited to serve as chair of George H.W. Bush’s Western Pennsylvania presidential campaign. It proved a pivotal moment for Corbett. After Bush was elected, he appointed Corbett to the post of U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania. The normal kid from Shaler, who’d gone to a third-tier law school and lacked what his daughter calls the usual “pedigree,” had made it to the big time.

“DO YOU WANT US to go lights, sir?” the state trooper asks.

Corbett, press secretary Kevin Harley and a security detail are in the Governor’s 2011 Chevy Suburban. The Governor hates the question. No, he doesn’t want to go lights. Going lights, sounding the siren, means imposing on commuters trying to get home on a Friday afternoon. “We don’t do it. If we do it here, this would maybe be the second, third time,” Corbett says. But he’s running late for the unveiling of a 9/11 memorial.

Earlier in the drive, Corbett had helpfully given the trooper detailed instructions for the trip to Hershey. “You gonna go straight out, John? No? Think about this for a moment. If you go straight up, we can pop all the way out and catch the other 83. … If you don’t mind, I’ll navigate.” Directions are one of Corbett’s passions. Family dinners at the Corbett household usually centered on dogs, the weather, sports, school activities and little-known shortcuts. “He really likes to talk about the best way to get somewhere,” says his daughter, Katherine Corbett.

Corbett reluctantly gives the okay to flash, and the Suburban lurches forward. “I like to be on time,” he says. “That’s another difference between Ed and myself.” Habitually late for everything, Rendell was notorious for directing his security detail to hit the gas on the Turnpike between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, with lights blazing. That kind of behavior, that level of self-importance, is anathema to Corbett.

It’s the least of the differences between the two men. Rendell is a born politician who exhausted Harrisburg over eight years. Stylistically, Corbett has put the town to sleep. “You couldn’t get away from Rendell. He was everywhere,” says Representative Kate Harper, a Montgomery County Republican. “You’re not going to run into the new governor in the cafeteria.”

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  • Notyour

    I’m not really sure what the author’s point is in this piece other than to brag that they got access to the Governor. I’m from Western PA so the fake folksy comments are lost on me. You obviously have no idea about what life is like for the rest of PA.

    After all those words, I still don’t understand Corbett anymore than by looking at his budget. This is totally a PR controlled fluff piece.

    You didn’t think to ask him for five seconds about the massive protests against fracking? I thought you were a journalist? Then again, what would you expect from a magazine geared toward philly suburbanites?

  • Tom

    Interesting to read this in light of the PSU events. Sometimes boring and decent is a pretty good thing to be.