Tom Wolf’s Record on Racial Politics Is Clear

What his time as president of Better York tells us about Rob McCord’s attack ads.

York businessman Tom Wolf during a Democratic gubernatorial candidates forum Tuesday Feb. 4, 2014  in Philadelphia.  AP Photo | Jacqueline Larma

York businessman Tom Wolf during a Democratic gubernatorial candidates forum Tuesday Feb. 4, 2014 in Philadelphia. AP Photo | Jacqueline Larma

Let’s get real. If Treasurer Rob McCord were actually interested in initiating a serious discussion about racism in Pennsylvania, he probably would have chosen a more appropriate format and timing than a 30-second scare ad two weeks before election day.

Still, the random last-ditch attempt to impugn the character of Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Tom Wolf has succeeded in getting people talking about race, and it’s an important discussion for Pennsylvania to have with itself. It is, after all, the most prejudiced state outside the South.

But so far the conversation has fixated on the narrow and not especially productive issue of a racist guy, and the appropriate distance for a political candidate to have from him, when the real conversation Pennsylvania needs is about policy.

The biggest problem with white racism isn’t white people mistreating people of color on a personal level — it’s how those prejudices ultimately manifest themselves in state and local laws and policies that directly or indirectly favor white supremacy, and unfairly ration opportunities and public resources to people of color.

And as it happens, Mr. Wolf actually does have a very clear policy record on racial politics, and broadening the discussion to include that record reveals a very different picture of his time in York than the one portrayed in Mr. McCord’s scare ad.

Mr. Wolf cut his political teeth as president of Better York back in the 90’s — an organization of civic-minded local business leaders who were concerned about the continuous economic and social disintegration they were seeing in the city of York alongside growing housing markets and purchasing power in the nearby suburban and exurban areas of York County.


The group brought in former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk, a prominent advocate of regionalism, to write what came to be known as the Rusk Report, which showed that these trends were interrelated, and not unique to York.

Rather, this inequitable outcome could be observed systematically in all central cities throughout the commonwealth, resulting directly from state policies favoring fragmented local governments and school systems, hyper-local funding of the most expensive services like schools and public safety, hyper-local land use planning, and various direct and indirect state subsidies for exurban sprawl.

And as Rusk wrote in a 1996 op-ed introducing the report in the York Daily Record, the combined impact of these policies was to metastasize racial inequality in the region:

“In the 1990 Census metro York had the USA’s 4th lowest regional poverty rates, but York City was burdened with the USA’s 8th worst relative concentration of poverty.

Metro York has four times as many poor whites as poor blacks and Latinos combined, but more than 80 percent of poor whites live scattered throughout mainstream, middle class society while almost 80 percent of poor minorities are isolated in York City’s poverty-impacted neighborhoods.

York County residents have a strong commitment to small-scale government, but having 72 independent municipal and township governments and 16 school systems fosters uncontrolled sprawl, fiscal disparities and greater racial and economic segregation.”

Philadelphians aren’t used to thinking about these issues, because our city is the only combined city-county in the state.

Clearly this arrangement has not resulted in particularly impressive levels of racial economic equality. But imagine how much worse off we’d be if wealthier neighborhoods like Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy decided to secede from the Philadelphia School District and stopped paying into the pot.

Then imagine how much worse off than that we’d be — particularly the poorest of us — if the income and property taxes of the richest areas of the city were not thrown into the same general fund for city services along with the relatively meager revenues collected from the poorest areas, but were instead cloistered within 72 different municipal governments and 16 different school districts. Would the poorest areas of Philadelphia be able to tax themselves enough to afford the same quality of police services that they have today?

Obviously not. But that is the situation that every Pennsylvania city outside Philadelphia finds itself in. The implications for racial equality are horrifying, and they did horrify Tom Wolf.

As president of Better York, Wolf and his associates cobbled together an alliance of mid-sized cities throughout Pennsylvania in the mid-’90s to lobby the state legislature for laws that would turn back the tide of new development onto older central cities and towns, and rescind subsidies for new suburban sprawl, like highway widenings and the expansion of sewer lines and other municipal infrastructure into undeveloped areas. York, Lancaster, and Chester even proposed implementing growth boundaries that would contain new development within compact areas near existing infrastructure.

The efforts resulted in the fairly weak Growing Greener laws passed during the Tom Ridge administration, but the push for stronger regionalism policies continues today from groups like 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, PennFuture, and local groups like the Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project and Renew Lehigh Valley.

Wolf was one of the most visible advocates of the Rusk report’s recommendations, supporting more shared services between the poorer non-white population in the city and its wealthier whiter suburbs, regionalizing the tax base and land use planning, and improving public transit connections.

“We will never assure our region of long-term prosperity if we continue to condemn our older communities to make do with declining tax bases, increasing poverty, and long-term economic stagnation,” he wrote in a 1996 op-ed urging the region’s political leadership to get behind the Rusk Report’s recommendations.

His advocacy for these positions continued through the 2000’s when he authored the “Reduce Suburban Sprawl” section of the left-leaning Keystone Research Center’s 2000 report “Steal This Agenda: A Blueprint for a Better Pennsylvania,” which supported regional land use planning and tax bases, changing local zoning to allow higher density mixed-use, mixed-income communities, urban growth boundaries, and using state infrastructure investment to strategically direct private investment back toward central cities.

His support for policies that advantage central cities continues to this day. Mr. Wolf name-dropped David Rusk in his response to the Keystone Politics issue questionnaire, and his Fresh Start policy plan reiterated his earlier support for prioritizing state investment for older already-developed areas:

Today, more than 13 percent of Pennsylvania residents are living in poverty. Those living in concentrated poverty — where 30 percent of all families are living below the poverty line — are often in communities with high violence, poor schools, and limited access to health care.

One way to deconcentrate poverty in our communities is to focus our existing development resources on mixed-income, mixed-use communities that are located near or utilize existing investments such as transit, walkable communities, small businesses and struggling town centers. In this vein, Tom Wolf will use a creative mix of public and private dollars to spur mixed-income, mixed-use development projects in which 10 percent of the homes are for low-income residents.

Combined with his proposal to take state funding for schools up to a 50-50 state-local match, Mr. Wolf’s regionalism agenda arguably offers the most racially and economically inclusive platform of all the Democratic candidates for Governor.

Mr. McCord, Ms. Schwartz, and Ms. McGinty have all hinted at their support for policies that would regionalize tax responsibility (Ms. McGinty has a strong proposal that would have state government actively encourage consolidation of local police forces) but none of the other candidates have gone nearly as far as Mr. Wolf, and more importantly, none can boast his level of direct experience fighting segregationist policies at the state and local level.

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  • Luisa

    Finally someone acknowledges the fine work Tom did and continues to do in York. I will vote for him for Governor. Think of what he can do for the state.

  • matthew brandley

    People have choices to make in life. If they decide to become lazy, live on welfare for the rest of there pathetic life then they must live with that choice. If they want to live in a crime ridden neighborhood so be it. They have decided by not becomming a productive member of socity , by not working and lifting themselves up without a goverment handout they want to live in that enviorment. Let them rot

    • Jonathan Geeting

      More white people are on welfare in PA than non-white people. Anyway, this isn’t about individual choices. This is about state policy choices that vastly favor white suburban areas over more mixed urban areas.

      • matthew brandley

        Explains this to me. Why is it the short time I was on welafre yeas ago that when I went into the assisatnce office I was one of only a few white people in the waiting room? And as a former EMT working for a large transport co in the phila area I could blow your lying ass out of the water on your theory sir!

        • PAPlan

          Sounds like you’re an angry, near-poor, white person who is looking for someone to blame. The caricature of lazy black person is an easy scapegoat.


          • matthew brandley

            poor? not at all. My best friends are well educated black people who actualy WORK for a living you racist p o s!

          • PAPlan

            Oh, the old “I’m not racist, my best friend is black!” trick. Yea, right. And I guess I’m racist? Because I called you out for misinformation? And provided a link proving it? That makes a ton of sense.

          • matthew brandley

            we should not pay for peoples lazy stupid ass mistakes! as for calling me stupid? blacks out number people on welfare in the phila area 8 to 1 and yes I did see people white on welfare dumb ass that i did transport so stop putting words into my mouth that I never did say. I worked in parts of Phila you would never EVER have the balls to walk into sinc e your such a coward

        • sacredprofanity

          You do realize that your personal experience is statistically meaningless, right? Even ignoring confirmation bias and your fairly blatant prejudice, just because you personally didn’t see white people on welfare does NOT mean that they are not the majority receiving public assistance in Pennsylvania.

        • Joia Mitchell

          You live in Philly? The vast majority of the state is super white, and plenty of those people are on welfare. Idiot.

          • matthew brandley

            live abd work . Even had to go apply for Med assistance once at the The local office for a bit For the people that live in the northeast and let me tell you I was the only white person in the building stupid!

          • PAPlan

            So now we learn that you’ve been on medical assistance and that you’ve been on welfare. Sounds like you’re a “lazy, welfare sucking leech of society,” as you so succinctly put it. Maybe we should have let you “rot” and then we wouldn’t have to put up with your ignorance.

          • Joia Mitchell

            So, you’ve been on welfare but judge others for doing the same? And for the record WORK for a welfare office, in philly. I’ve seem plenty of white people in here, but philly is blacker then the rest of the state, and blacks are statistically more likely to be on welfare, so yeah, in philly there are more blacks on welfare then whites (tho it’s NOWHERE close to 8-1) but the rest of the state it’s overwhelmingly white people on welfare, even in nearby counties like bucks

    • PAPlan

      So we don’t need to subsidize exurban areas. But we are. What is your response to that? Shouldn’t people pay for the full cost of their decision if they want to isolate themselves from the rest of society?

      • matthew brandley

        Let them rot. Not our problem if they decide to become lazy, welfare sucking leeches of society. Everyone is given the same opportunity in life. Is it our fault they decide to drop out of school, sell drugs, get laid, pop out 5, 8 kids, live off the system all because they are irresponsable and cant keep the damn legs shut? Enough is enough!

        • PAPlan

          I don’t think you know the definition of exurban.

        • David

          It seems like your Mom should have kept her legs shut to spare the world of your ignorance.

        • Jonathan Geeting

          How do you suck welfare?

        • beachgirl

          Mathhew, what are you doing to give the kids born into poverty and welfare an opportunity? It is absolutely ridiculous to to say everyone is the given the same opportunity in life-you are essentially saying a white child born into a family on the main line in their million dollar home and the child born into a single parent household in north philly have the same opportunity? You know that is ridiculous. How is that child in an underfunded crime riddled school have the same opportunity as the child getting their education at Lower Merion, Havertown, etc.. schoold districts? Unless that child
          Is taken under the wing of a parent, teacher or adult who inspires and encourages them consistently throughout their whole academic career, they do not have the same opportunities. They grow up knowing what they go home to everyday, what they see on the streets of their neighborhood. I worked as a nurse in Temple, Hahnemann, and Jeff and also was a school nurse. You and I see things differently. You want to look at these people and call them lazy slugs and leaches because of their color and circumstance. I looked and think, wow what potential if someone would give them a chance. If that mom didn’t have to work 3 different jobs for $6/hr just to put some food on the table and could actually have one decent paying job so she could be home and help her child study at night, could help in school, what a difference that would make for so many. The kids I worked with didn’t have clothes or shoes that fit right, no TV, no computer, hoping they got 2 meals a day, neighborhood library closed down, imagine trying to fight your way through that as a student and tell me again how that child has the same opportunity. The majority of people I have dealt with don’t want to be in that situation, but it is a tough one when you are born into it. You obviously were not born into it, but yet hit a tough patch and were able to get the help you need. Unless someone has someone else that shows them compassion, care, a way out, gives them a break, how do they get that opportunity. Ask anyone who has made it and they will always tell you it was because someone pushed them, encouraged them, and stuck by them. They didn’t write them off and tell them they were trash or a leech. So put your actions where your words are and instead of condemning and critizing, get in there, mentor a child, stick with them, help their parent find a job. This is how the cycle is broken.

  • PAPlan

    Philadelphia is not immune to the effects of fragmentation. Phila County is a very small area by most standards. If we established regional tax policies, land use regulations, and revenue sharing that applied to the whole metropolitan area we’d all be better off.

    • Jonathan Geeting

      Completely agree. The unequal funding per student from the state, and the overreliance on local sources of funding for schools, is another huge problem that many more people are now familiar with in the Corbett era. The larger the tax base the services are paid out of, the more progressive the tax distribution generally is.

  • tjt

    there’s nothing in this piece that is about racial politics. Regionalization has racial impacts, but point me toward Wolf actually demonstrating that racial inequality was part of why he did what he did or why he thinks what he thinks or acts how he acts. That’d be racial politics.

    There are plenty of times where self-interest (York advocate) aligns with good racial policy (regionalism). It’s when that isn’t true that you actually learn about a person’s interest in racial equality and their views of where inequality originates.

    Also, Philadelphia does deal with this. It’s called Lower Merion school district and the many others. cmon.

    • Jonathan Geeting

      There’s no actually policy lever at the state or city level clearly labeled “racial equality” that a politician can pull. It’s the sum total of the things they support that adds up to good or bad outcomes for racial equality. The measure of a politician is where they stand on all of these issues, not what they emphasize in their speeches. Look at what they do, not what they say.

      • tjt

        No disrespect, but bullshit. There are many opportunities to express openly racial politics. Amongst them are being in front of the decriminalization movement (not a johnny-come-lately), how strongly they fight against voter ID acts that are blatantly racial, stances on racial policies (like affirmative action), who you’ve promoted in other leadership roles, and calling out racism when the other side is doing it. I could go on, but those are the top of the list (also, taking a stance on environmental racism).

        It’s naive to think that the means to racial equality is not through talking specifically about racial equality. It’s the progressive equivalent of Robert’s line about not discriminating about race. It sounds good, but it’s never actually going to make a dent in racial inequality

        I don’t know whether or not Wolf has done that. I don’t know if the other candidates have done it. I do know that if the extent of Wolf’s “racial politics” is supporting regional/smart growth, that’s not much racial progressivism. not much at all.

        the measure of a political leader is not just what they do, but how they express why they do it. How they create and define the moral good and the role of government.

        regionalism that’s gone bad for race? Easy. SEPTA. Highway construction. Anything regional that helps create segregation not integration. the point was not that he was on the wrong side, but you don’t get credit for being on the right side if you aren’t there for the right reasons.

        • PAPlan

          I think when you start a response with “no disrespect, but bullshit” we all know you’re about to be disrespectful and you actually lose all respect you had.

          The author makes good points about regionalism and how fragmentation is bad for poor people and minorities in particular. Sure there are other issues that speak to how a politician views race, and if you had politely pointed them out it would’ve been a useful addition to the conversation. Instead, you’ve routinely insulted the author who was good enough to actually respond to comments and try to create a real dialogue.

          And how has SEPTA been bad for racial equality? Also, highway construction is not regionalism in the same sense that the author is referring to. We’re talking revenue sharing and smart growth regional planning here. Also, interstate highway construction was a federal initiative.

    • Jonathan Geeting

      Also, what is an example of where the regionalism/smart growth positions are misaligned with good racial equality policies?

  • eka

    Thank you for this – as a former Yorker, it never occurred to me to think of Tom Wolf as racist. He exercised more caution in the whole Charlie debacle than the rest of us did – I don’t blame him for that. As far as his family’s company – he gave up control because he felt it was the right thing to do and took it over again to avoid layoffs in the recession. I’ve never met anyone in York who thought he was in it for personal gain. While Danskin closed its York factory and Harley laid off half its workers, Wolf tried to keep as many jobs as possible. That kind of makes him a hero in York – not to mention that he has the approval of unions even though the company is not unionized, just because the workers are treated so well.

    I live now in the Philadelphia area and am sometimes amazed at how easy it is to ignore issues that in places like York are very … concentrated. When you live in a small city surrounded by rich(ish) suburbs, you feel the effects much more than you do here. I live now in the rich suburbs – I feel myself like an intruder – I get dirty looks for not wearing the proper spandex when I go to Starbucks. I would love to move to the city. (Please, someone hire me) But the thing is – if you live in the city, you experience one thing. If you live in the suburbs, another. If you live in york – as long as you are awake and aware, you see it all. I attended school in both the city and the suburban school districts. I preferred the city but know that if I’d gone to high school there, my opportunities would have been more limited. They have no money. Tom Wolf’s dedication to the city is great and Mayor Bracey has made it clear that she supports him. I think he understands the issues facing most of Pennsylvania in a way that most Philadelphians can’t. Philadelphia has its own issues and complexities … but it’s so very different from the rest of the state. Generally I like this, because it pushes PA to the left in national elections. But in my view, Wolf is as liberal as Schwartz, but is more able to understand the non-Philadelphia parts of the state. And will be more focused on reforms that benefit the entire state.