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.

Five years ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Rob McCord wrote an op-ed for the Inquirer full of friendly and well-meaning advice on how best to promote racial integration. He’d felt moved to write after a couple of neighbors assumed that his Harvard-
educated wife was the nanny or a housekeeper, presumably because she’s black.

The day the op-ed was published, the couple was invited to appear on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, where they discussed McCord’s almost stunningly credulous prescription for improving race relations. “Think consciously about what you could do better to integrate your own parties or clubs,” McCord had written, and “encourage minority friends to bid for homes in your neighborhood that are for sale, or invite them to join you in your vacation areas.”

As politely as he could, the NPR host, Neal Conan, asked: “Do you leave yourself vulnerable to being charged with naïveté?”

“I do leave myself vulnerable to that,” McCord happily answered. “And I think most good is done by unrealistic people who think they are going to make changes, darn it, even though the odds are against them.”

I listened to a podcast of the interview after spending half a day with McCord, and it only solidified my one lingering doubt about his strength as a gubernatorial candidate: Is he simply too much of a Pollyanna to survive and thrive in a higher-profile political arena? Isn’t someone who thinks more diverse dinner parties are the ticket to racial equality just prime to be rolled by his political opponents?

Maybe. But McCord’s behavior in office doesn’t always comport with his overly sunny disposition. Halfway into his term as treasurer, he sued the gaming control board for barring him from its executive sessions. (McCord’s office makes him an ex-officio board member.) The move wasn’t well received by Harrisburg insiders, who viewed it as a political gambit. But McCord ultimately prevailed in court. Six months later, he rejected as too expensive Governor Rendell’s plan to issue a $1 billion state bond for construction. (He later signed off on a smaller $650 million bond issue.) Both incidents put him on Rendell’s shit list, where political insiders say he remains to this day. (Rendell didn’t return a call seeking comment.)

Equally telling are a few of McCord’s hiring decisions. His chief of staff at Treasury is John Lisko, who cooperated with federal investigators in the takedown of his old boss, disgraced former Philadelphia City Councilman Rick Mariano. And Treasury’s new general counsel is Christopher B. Craig, the longtime aide to imprisoned Vince Fumo. These aren’t hires a political innocent would make.

And, as I found out, McCord can lash out—effectively—when he chooses to. As befits a wonky finance guy, it was the subject of pensions that stoked his outrage. They’re underfunded across the state, a slowly unfolding fiasco that he disgustedly attributes to “an immoral failure of leadership.”

When pressed for his solutions, McCord uncorks another technocratic stem-winder, looping in California pension reform, Republican Eric Cantor, and the psychological shortcomings of average investors saving for retirement. “This one needs some optimistic innovation,” he says. “And that’s me, that’s what I do.”

McCord predictably demurs when I ask if he’ll run for governor, but he doesn’t deny that he’s seriously considering the possibility. If he thinks he can win, he’ll run. But his political prospects are far too promising to throw away on a long-shot bid. “I’m very aware that two years is an eternity,” he says, “so I’m not one of these people who say, ‘Put a fork in Governor Corbett, he’s done.’”

Pennsylvania gubernatorial history is rife with executives who stumbled early in their first terms but nonetheless cruised to easy reelection. “One-Term Tom” isn’t Corbett’s nickname, after all; it’s a moniker Democrats pinned, wrongly, on Tom Ridge.

Say the economy improves and tax collections increase, giving Corbett the chance to actually spread some goodies around come budget time. Imagine that Corbett builds on his already improving relations with the GOP-controlled General Assembly, and that he deploys his not-inconsiderable charm with voters. All of that, plus the huge advantages of incumbency, may well be enough to propel him past any Democratic challenger.

But what if the state’s new attorney general, Kathleen Kane, finds something unsavory about how Corbett handled the Sandusky case? Or what if Corbett remains unable to shake his introvert tendencies?

Then imagine that McCord gets into the race and clears the primary. Suddenly it becomes a matchup between a reclusive lifelong prosecutor facing inconvenient questions about the biggest investigation of his career, and a gregarious, job-creating moderate who can credibly claim that he helped build the state’s tech industry.

For Corbett, the message is simple:
Stay the course; give me the chance to finish the housecleaning I’ve begun. McCord’s job is harder. First, he must convince one of the nation’s most stubborn electorates that it’s made a mistake. Second, he must persuade voters that the time has come for dowdy old Pennsylvania to finally embrace a modern man.