Is Rob McCord the Tom Corbett Slayer?

Democrats are licking their chops for Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord to run against Governor Corbett, but the state may not be ready for a thoroughly modern politician.

By the peculiar logic of Pennsylvania politics, McCord’s very strength would usually stipulate that he stay as far away from the 2014 gubernatorial race as possible. Running against an incumbent here has proven to be a job fit only for delusional egomaniacs and sacrificial lambs, and McCord is neither. Pennsylvania voters haven’t ousted an incumbent governor since multiple terms were allowed by the state constitution in 1971. And not once in nearly 60 years have Pennsylvanians deviated from their practice of switching—at regular eight-year intervals—from a Republican executive to a Democratic one. (This isn’t just coincidence. Experts have calculated the odds of that red-blue-red-blue pattern occurring randomly at less than 0.000141 percent.)

But this time, there’s a wrinkle in the formula, and his name is Tom Corbett. Just two years ago, Corbett was seen as the blue-eyed slayer of Harrisburg corruption. Now, he’s a leading contender for the title of least popular governor in the nation. This summer, as his approval ratings dipped to about 30 percent in some polls, national Republicans put him into quarantine, lest he contaminate Mitt Romney.

The sources of Corbett’s collapse are manifold. He has proven to be a virtual recluse, either uninterested in making his case to the public or unable to do so convincingly. And though Corbett appealed to moderates as a candidate, he has governed as an unapologetic partisan, supporting divisive legislation such as voter ID and mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. (He famously offered this advice to those who would rather not see the fetus: “You just have to close your eyes.”)

What’s really killed Corbett’s approval ratings, however, are his slashing of education budgets and his role in the investigation of child predator Jerry Sandusky. Indeed, the Penn State scandal is whacking Corbett from two directions. Some suspect that as attorney general, he slow-walked the state’s investigation of Sandusky to avoid hurting his own electoral prospects. And then there are the Penn State loyalists outraged at Corbett’s support for the firing of Joe Paterno.

All of it has hurt Corbett. But is it enough to undo almost six decades of precedent? More to the point, is it enough to convince a candidate with McCord’s credentials—and promising long-term prospects—to risk everything and run in 2014?

It’s 6:20 a.m. on the train platform at Ardmore Station. A steady rain is falling, and the sun has yet to rise. A handful of commuters stare gloomily at their takeout coffees. But not Rob McCord. He’s effervescent, calling out “Good morning!” to anyone he recognizes with a grin so wide, it turns his eyes into little beads.

Of course, this sort of enthusiasm is standard issue among politicians. The difference is that McCord’s bounciness doesn’t seem to be an act. Elected officials are trained to turn on that 1,000-watt smile for cameras and voters, but almost all wipe it away the second it’s no longer needed. Somehow, McCord leaves you with the sense that he grins while he’s asleep.

That baked-in good cheer begins to make sense when you consider his early life. As a boy, he was largely raised by a single
m­oth­er. She was a teacher, then later a professor. His father, another professor, was “a high-
functioning alcoholic” who moved out ­following a bitter divorce when McCord was four years old. In time, McCord’s mother would remarry and become a nationally prominent criminologist, her death noted in a full-length obituary in the New York Times. But for many years before that, McCord says, his mother scrimped to get by, living on a paltry salary in Lower Merion.

The experience of emerging wealthy and successful from a sometimes-trying childhood seems to have convinced McCord that problems—even ones as seemingly intractable as race relations—can be resolved, if only people work hard and apply themselves. Certainly, McCord’s brief turn in elected office has borne that belief out.

So has the trajectory of his life, for that matter. After graduating from Harvard in 1982, he joined the staff of then-Congressman Norm Mineta. Under Mineta, McCord began to develop the political ideology he still has today, which he describes as “very comfortable with what people call social liberalism” and yet “f­iscally conservative” in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower (whom McCord cites frequently).

At the age of 26, McCord was recruited to lead a new think tank called the Congressional Institute for the Future, jointly founded by former Senators Al Gore and John Heinz. There, he wrestled with ponderous public policy problems like entitlements and literacy. More intriguing, though, was the center’s work on the implications of emerging technologies. McCord saw the potential—both for society and for his bank account—and wanted in. “I really did believe what we were saying in Washington,” he says on the Amtrak train to Harrisburg. “Entrepreneurs and innovation drive a lot of social good, and there’s a public-service element to being a thoughtful business leader who isn’t just there to maximize personal profits.”

So McCord and his wife, Leigh Jackson—a former reporter at both the Washington Post and Philly’s Daily News—moved back to the Main Line. There, over the next decade and a half, McCord piled up a sizeable personal fortune and emerged as perhaps the region’s leading tech cheerleader.

He worked under Pete Musser at Safeguard Scientifics, then went on to help run five venture capital operations, picking pro­mising
tech companies—such as Tr­, which was acquired in 2007 by NAVTEQ for $177 million—and giving them their first infusions of serious cash. The way McCord describes it, he was much more than a moneyman; he helped select managerial talent and shape the business plans. And he did it for company after company, all while investing big bucks—his own, and those of his firm’s investment clients—in the companies he helped to steer.

Along the way, McCord built a network of rich and powerful friends that he has used to tremendous effect as a fund-raiser. He accrued almost $5 million in his first campaign for treasurer, which insiders say is one of the biggest totals ever for a Pennsylvania row office, and he did it largely by cashing big checks from wealthy friends and former colleagues, many of whom had never or rarely contributed to political ca­mpaigns before.

McCord’s fund-raising pace was slower in this year’s reelection bid, but he’s still seen as one of the state Democratic Party’s top money generators—a crucial measure of a candidate’s viability. Anyone hoping to unseat a sitting governor needs to raise enormous amounts of cash, a requirement that would prove challenging for many of the other potential Democratic contenders, who include everyone from Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro and Allentown mayor Ed Pawlowski to bigger names like Dan Onorato and Joe Sestak (as well as the self-funded Tom Knox).

Raising money comes naturally to McCord. “You get connected through business or personal networks, and then you’re blunt with people,” he says with a shrug. For him, talk is easy: “In some cases, I was able to remind people that we made a lot of money together. So you say, ‘Do you mind giving me a little bit back?’”