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)?

It wasn’t until four years later, though, when he ran for a second full term as attorney general, that Corbett emerged as the GOP’s best hope to win the governor’s mansion. It was 2008, a presidential election year, and Pennsylvania Democrats had flocked to the polls to vote for Barack Obama. John McCain lost the state by 621,000 votes, a blowout. But somehow, Corbett beat his Democratic challenger by 400,000 votes. State GOP leaders did a double take. Corbett had to be their guy. Support evaporated overnight for Pat Meehan, the Delaware County Republican who had been seen as the likely nominee. After that, taking down Onorato was easy. “‘I threw politicians in jail, I won’t raise taxes, and I look like a governor,’” says Philadelphia political analyst Larry Ceisler. “That was their campaign, and it worked perfectly.”

FOR PHILADELPHIA AND its suburbs, Corbett’s first 10 months in office have come as something of a shock. Suddenly, this guy we’d barely heard of was proposing knee-buckling cuts to higher education, a cornerstone of the region’s economy, even as he fought tooth and nail to protect the rights of natural gas companies to drill without paying a severance tax. Here was a governor standing by as the School District of Philadelphia laid off teachers and pondered killing all-day kindergarten to close a monstrous $629 million budget gap (a scene that played out on a smaller scale in school districts across the Commonwealth). And then he lends his support to a scheme to split the state’s electoral college vote, largely because he’s sick of Philadelphia and its suburbs swinging the rest of the state into the Democratic column.

But with the exception of the electoral college plan—which really did come out of nowhere—Corbett is governing just as he said he would. He pledged fealty to anti-tax champion Grover Norquist during his campaign, and repeatedly said he would balance the budget solely through cuts. Candidate Corbett could not have been clearer that he thought nurturing the Marcellus Shale industry was vital to job creation in sections of the state far from Philadelphia.

Actually, though, Corbett is beginning to bend on the natural-gas issue, last month giving his support to county-imposed “impact fees,” most of which would go to communities closest to the drill sites. And this, I think, signals that at his core, Corbett is something of a moderate. Unlike many modern conservative heroes, he isn’t allergic to public investment. He’s said that transportation funding—bridges and roads, not transit—is one of his top priorities for the year, along with school vouchers and the possible privatization of the Liquor Control Board. In his view, Pennsylvania is itself moderately conservative (a six or seven on a scale of one to 10). “I probably fit right in there,” Corbett says. He’s in the mainstream of modern conservative thought. The issue, as far as liberal Philadelphia is concerned, is that modern conservative thought has moved considerably to the right.

But then, Philadelphians are a little sensitive about everything Harrisburg these days. As recently as 2007, our city was enjoying a rare moment of primacy in the state capital; today, with Vince Fumo in prison, former Speaker John Perzel awaiting sentencing and Rendell busy with MSNBC appearances, the city’s clout in Harrisburg is at low ebb. “The rural and western guys are pretty much running the show,” says Harper, the Montgomery County Republican. “And these guys know the value of a buck. That $900,000 that Arlene Ackerman got, you can buy whole towns for that where they come from.”

There’s no getting around the fact that the gulf between Southeastern Pennsylvania and the rest of the state is vast. Factor out Philadelphia and its suburbs, and Pennsylvania’s racial demographics resemble those of Minnesota or Kansas. “I was raised in western Pennsylvania, and it was drilled into us that Philadelphia was a bad place. Sodom and Gomorrah,” Ceisler says.

It would be easy to lump Corbett with the rest of the state and figure that he, too, has a score to settle with Philadelphia. And there was no mistaking the “You-Philly-people-just-don’t-get-it” subtext when he was explaining the finer points of cow insemination to me. But the Governor seems to realize that the city is way too big and too economically crucial to ignore, and he has more ties here than are widely known. “A lot of people say, ‘You don’t care about Philly, you’re from Pittsburgh.’ The people who say that don’t know anything about me,” Corbett says, telling a story about how he crashed for a summer after college at a friend’s house in Cherry Hill and worked the night shift at a warehouse on Lancaster Avenue in West Philly.

Corbett’s critical link to the city is his 32-year-old daughter, Katherine, who moved here immediately after graduating from law school and took a job in the district attorney’s office. She cried every day of her first month in the big city, wondering why people were giving her dirty looks on the El. Katherine Corbett is married to a black undercover narcotics officer with heavily tattooed arms who was born and raised in North Philadelphia. “That’s another thing my dad doesn’t like—tattoos. The first time Gerald, that’s my husband, came to our house in the summertime, he had on short sleeves,” she says. “I saw my dad sort of looking at him and shaking a little.” Gerald won her parents over pretty quickly, Katherine says, after he fixed a sink in the Shaler house.

THROUGHOUT TOM CORBETT’S CAREER, people have looked at him and wondered just how he got that job. “Every time, they underestimate me,” he says. “I’m not sure why.”

But it’s no mystery. People underestimate Corbett because he seems so completely average. Corbett’s supporters contend he’ll grow into the job. They see him becoming a worthy successor to the long Pennsylvania tradition of sober, steady gubernatorial leadership. Kopp, the Philadelphia fund-raiser, goes so far as to say, “He’s a little bit like Ronald Reagan,” a man consistently underrated by the left. The difference is that Reagan inspired millions with his vision for America. If Corbett has a vision for Pennsylvania, one that extends beyond a smaller state budget, he has yet to share it.

Maybe it’s okay that there’s no supercharged intellect behind Corbett’s blue eyes. Maybe in Pennsylvania it’s an asset, not a liability, for a politician to leave people feeling lukewarm, instead of inspiring love and hatred in equal measure the way Rendell does. What’s clear is that while Corbett will probably become more comfortable with the job over time, he won’t ever be a dynamic leader. He doesn’t really want to be one. “I’m not Ed, I’m not Chris Christie, I’m not Scott Walker, I’m not Rick Perry,” Corbett says. What he is is a decent, normal guy who will work hard and try to do what he feels is the right thing. But that’s what we ask of fathers, of beat cops, of teachers. Is it so much to ask something more of a governor?

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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.