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)?

Governor Tom Corbett is basking in the bounty and goodness of the great state of Pennsylvania on a pleasantly warm late-summer evening at the Grange Fair in Centre County. Like any country fair, the Grange has dairy-cow competitions and tractor pulls and deep-fried Snickers bars. But it also doubles as a huge encampment, perhaps the last of its kind in the country—a place where each summer a rural prairie is converted into a densely packed city of 15,000 Pennsylvania farmers and their kin. They lug in couches and television sets and kitchen tables, and for one week they make their homes in Army-green tents. A voice over the loudspeaker announces that the junior goat show judging will begin shortly. In the distance, the carnival rides fire up their lights as the sun begins to set.

Corbett finds the panorama delightful. “This is Pennsylvania,” he says. “This right here.” He takes in a Clydesdale show. He chats up schoolkids with goldfish swimming in plastic cups. He shakes the hand of every state trooper and military man he sees. Out here, 80 miles northwest of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s new governor has the look of a man on parole, breathing free air for the first time in months.

A few hours into his tour, Corbett stops into a fair eatery, orders a cheeseburger and fries, leans across the dinner table, and asks, out of nowhere, if I’ve ever seen a cow being artificially inseminated. The process, he says, involves a plastic glove that goes up to your bicep and a two-foot-long insemination gun. His point, I think, is to gently teach a lesson about the myopia of Philadelphians and the cultural richness of Pennsylvania, because he sprinkles in references to the beauty of the Upper Susquehanna and the thrill of a good tractor pull. Corbett is a Pittsburgh lawyer, so it’s not like he grew up milking cows. But he suggests that folks out west have an affinity and affection for rural life that Philadelphians just don’t share. He’s surely right. At the moment, though, all I can do is listen, and wonder silently how it is that this guy, this kindly uncle, this utterly average man, became the successor to Ed Rendell and the most powerful person in Pennsylvania.

A YEAR AGO, amid the greatest Republican electoral wave in at least 16 years, Corbett trounced Democrat Dan Onorato. Philadelphia yawned. The gubernatorial election seemed far away and somehow not all that relevant. It almost came as a surprise when Corbett, who had served two different stints as the state’s attorney general, was sworn in as Pennsylvania’s 46th governor.

Not that he bothered much with introducing himself. After the inauguration, with the undignified business of electoral politics behind him, Corbett retreated to the grandiose governor’s office and dug in. From that bunker, he rammed through the biggest budget cuts in Pennsylvania history. It was the first to-do item on what is unquestionably the most conservative gubernatorial agenda in the state’s modern history—one that has seemed, to some, anti-Philadelphian.

Corbett wants school vouchers and lower business taxes. He has laid out the welcome mat to natural-gas extraction companies. He favors splitting the state’s electoral college votes between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, an obviously partisan move intended to improve the GOP’s chances of winning the White House. But mostly, he wants to cut spending, vigorously, including taking away $300 million from the Philadelphia school district. “The day of reckoning has come,” he warned in his budget address.

It is a testament to Corbett’s everyman appeal that he doesn’t remotely feel like an arch-conservative. He is, in temperament if not in policy, an Eisenhower Republican. And unlike buoyant right-wing gladiators such as Chris Christie and Rick Perry, Corbett didn’t appear to enjoy the budget bloodletting. Friends say they could see the strain on his face, and indeed, on May 16th, he was wheeled into a surgery room at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital, where doctors opened up his back and carved away some bone between his fourth and fifth vertebrae. Corbett’s spine had had him in agony ever since he took office.

Once he’d recovered, advisers prevailed on Corbett to show his face more. So he hit three country fairs in a week. He kayaked down a couple of rivers, as if to prove those worries over water supplies tainted by Marcellus Shale fracking were needless hand-wringing. And he introduced Harry and Penny, his newly adopted Airedale terrier puppies. All of it seemed designed to answer a question that somehow didn’t get cleared up during the election: Just who is Tom Corbett?

To start with the superficial, Corbett, who is 62, looks the way people think a governor should look. He has thin dove-white hair, which he sets with gel to achieve a crisp 1950s-style part. His eyes are a startling pale blue, but they come across as friendly instead of cold. His cheeks are ruddy and his jowls are full, but not too ruddy, not too full. “I don’t know if it’s the grandfather thing, the Middle America charm or what, but people see him and think, ‘That’s a decent guy,’” says Charlie Kopp, a Philadelphia attorney and Corbett fund-raiser.

Decency is Corbett’s calling card, his hallmark characteristic. It may not count for all that much in Philadelphia, where “decency” isn’t the first quality we associate with politicians, but it matters plenty in the rest of the state. These days, in Pennsylvania, being a decent man is political gold; being Tom Corbett—a decent man who has indicted indecent public servants—is just about unbeatable.

But there’s more to governing than decency, and it isn’t at all clear yet that Corbett has the smarts, vision or common touch that the job requires. His executive experience is limited. He disdains the political black arts. And he seems not to have spent all that much time actually thinking about policy. Outside of Philadelphia, however, none of that much bothered Pennsylvania voters. They looked at Corbett and saw a suburban everyman, a walking, talking antidote to Fast Eddie Rendell.