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’s a common complaint among GOP legislators, and what they really mean is that Corbett isn’t leading. When he introduced his budget, he called for cutting higher education funding for state schools in half. The proposition seemed so outrageous that people flipped out, including a lot of Republicans. But there are plenty of strong conservative arguments to make for cutting college funding, beginning with data that suggests public subsidies have only helped fuel tuition increases. The trouble was that Corbett never made his case, not publicly. Instead he dropped a neutron bomb and walked away, leaving it to the Republican caucus to clean up the mess. (They scaled back his college cuts dramatically.) Rendell budget negotiations were annual nightmares, but nobody accused him of failing to lead, of failing to make his case to lawmakers and the public.

Corbett knows the Rendell comparisons are inevitable, but he finds them annoying. “I’m not Ed. Let’s get over that and get to know who I am,” he says. The problem, as he acknowledges, is that “I’m probably a little harder to get to know, because I don’t go out in front of the television cameras.” At the moment, the Governor is in a back booth of the Hershey Grill. A half-hour earlier, Corbett eulogized 9/11 pilot Michael Horrocks. “He lived with honor, grace, generosity, and a plain decency in which the people of Pennsylvania pride themselves,” Corbett said.

Clearly, these are the same qualities that Corbett prizes in himself. But they aren’t the qualities most often associated with successful politicians. I ask Corbett how someone like him was able to trounce a candidate as well-prepared and savvy as Onorato. He replies, “Because it is a good time not to be typical. Because I demonstrated that I do what I say I’m going to do.”

After the ceremony, Corbett and his wife were approached by a few mourners, for snapshots. Corbett acquiesced with a smile, but it still felt weird to him. “As attorney general, nobody asks you to take a picture. Ed was the consummate politician. Am I a politician?” He answers his own question: “I’m an elected official.”

WHEN CORBETT’S FRIENDS and allies try to explain his distaste for politics, they invariably say he’s a prosecutor at heart. By that, they mean he has strong ideas about right and wrong, works methodically and keeps his mouth shut.

When Corbett was attorney general, his signature case, the one that would eventually win him the governor’s office, was “Bonusgate,” the media’s catchall term for the massive investigation that’s led to the indictment of more than 20 legislative staffers and former lawmakers, mostly for offenses tied to using taxpayer funds for campaign work. In some Harrisburg quarters, the charges were seen as ticky-tacky bullshit, prosecutions of long-accepted practices by an attorney general with his eye on the governor’s office. “I wasn’t looking for it. It came to my door, literally, in the form of a newspaper story,” Corbett says, referring to a Patriot-News report on misuse of taxpayer-funded bonuses. “I had no idea it was going to turn into Bonusgate, but when it did, I didn’t back away from it.”

When I ask Corbett what he thinks people mean when they say he governs like a prosecutor, he replies, “When I tell you something, I’m gonna do my darndest to stick to it. When I make a decision, it’s based on weighing all the facts.” He scoffs at showboat prosecutors. It is “immoral,” he says, to charge a suspect unless you’re confident you can prove the crime: “I don’t just say things. I have to have a comfort level in what I am saying.” The shame of it, Corbett plainly feels, is that too few others in Harrisburg operate the same way.

“Let me give you a prime example,” he says, and asks an aide to fetch his copy of that morning’s Patriot-News. Spreading it open on his desk in the Capitol, Corbett smacks the opinion page. “This guy writes an op-ed. He says I struggled to find people over 35 for my administration. That’s the furthest thing from the truth, but he didn’t let the truth get in the way.” It’s one line in one op-ed in one newspaper, and here Corbett has been pissed off about it all day. He sees these cheap falsehoods everywhere.

Perhaps this is why Corbett has managed to work in elite circles for decades without developing much affection for the culture. Perhaps these “word games,” as he calls them, are why he has lived in Shaler, in the same farmhouse he grew up in, for most of his life. He and his wife raised their two kids there. There was church once a week, followed by doughnuts. Even now, whenever he’s back in Shaler and has some downtime, Corbett’s favorite thing in life is to go out on the back porch with his dogs and listen to Pittsburgh Pirates games on the radio and the crickets in the field behind his home.

Luckily for Corbett, he has allies who are a little less decent and a lot better at politics, starting with Robert Asher, the Montgomery County Republican kingmaker.

It was Asher—who once spent a year in prison for corruption—who elevated Corbett from a regional player to a statewide force. Asher needed a candidate to run against his local nemesis, Bruce Castor, for the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2004. Corbett was the obvious choice. He’d already held the post, briefly, when Governor Ridge appointed him in 1995 to finish the term of Attorney General Ernie Preate, who’d resigned after pleading guilty to mail fraud. (Corbett had agreed not to run as an incumbent in the next election.) Though he’d taken a job with landfill giant Waste Management Inc.—a less than ideal position for anyone aspiring to elected office—Corbett was able to beat Castor handily, once Asher convinced the state party to endorse the Shaler resident. From there, Corbett went on to narrowly defeat the Democratic nominee, Jim Eisenhower, in 2004.