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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