Can Tom Wolf Govern Pennsylvania?

He's probably going to face a GOP-led legislature. Can he move an agenda?

Polls suggest that Tom Wolf will almost certainly be the next governor of Pennsylvania. But will a Governor Wolf actually be able to govern?

It’s not a silly question. If he takes office, Wolf will likely contend with a Republican-led legislature in both houses. (There’s some hope among Democrats that they can flip the Senate, but that still seems a long shot.) One need look no further than Washington D.C. to know that the combination of a Democratic executive and a GOP legislature can produce an excess of gridlock. Voters will presumably want Wolf to enact an agenda, but how far can he get with it?

“Wolf,” said Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, “is going to have his hands full.”

Wolf and his team, however, play down such concerns.

“When Tom was revenue secretary, he worked with members of both parties and found that there are many people in Harrisburg who want to find solutions to the big problems facing Pennsylvania,” said a spokeswoman for his campaign, Beth Melena.

It’s an issue that worries some Democratic partisans, who wish there’d been a stronger push to capture the Senate.

“Does Wolf think [Senate Majority Leader Dominic] Pileggi is suddenly going to abandon the GOP special interests, and support funding public education, transportation, minimum wage increases, abortion rights, clean air/water, etc?” David Diano wrote last month at the Keystone Politics blog. 

I called several Republican leadership offices in Harrisburg for this piece, but received either no comment or did not have my call returned. Talking to other experienced hands in and around state government, however, there are appear to be two big reasons Tom Wolf could govern in the face of legislative opposition.


HE’S NOT TOM CORBETT: “Anybody four years ago, if you’d said that you had a Republican Legislature and a Republican Governor, you’d think they’d be able to breeze on through,” said Eric Montarti, a senior policy analyst with the right-leaning Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. “Obviously, that has not happened, at least on the issues you would think.”

Indeed, Corbett’s ineffectiveness with the legislature — and inability to get things done on signature issues like liquor privatization and pension reform — became an issue during the second gubernatorial debate.

“You weren’t able to work with your own party’s members in the Legislature,” Wolf sniffed. “I certainly will do no worse than that.”

Corbett pointed out that he’s had successes — the passage of a transportation bill, most notably — but the perception is he could’ve accomplished more. Why didn’t he?

One Democratic lobbyist pointed out that Corbett ran for governor in 2010 by running against the Legislature. That followed a stint as Attorney General where (to his credit) he gained fame prosecuting the Bonusgate scandal that ended with 13 Democrats and 9 Republicans convicted on corruption charges. When he became governor, then, Corbett didn’t have any friends to do business with in the Legislature. The problem, some observers say, was personal, not ideological.

Wolf, at least, doesn’t have quite that history of antagonism trailing him.


THERE’S SOME COMMON GROUND: There has been growing chatter in recent months that even many Republicans would welcome a severance tax on gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale as a means of raising revenue for a shaky state budget. Such a tax is one of Wolf’s highest priorities — resisting such a tax has been one of Corbett’s highest priorities.

So it looked a bit like Pileggi was sending a signal — or perhaps merely throwing his party’s governor under the bus — when he gave a speech suggesting that Corbett’s intransigence on the issue was a mistake. It’s a comment that has delighted Wolf’s campaign, and surely hinted at an area ripe for agreement if Wolf is indeed elected.

“People on both sides of the aisle are willing to work together to get things done, but for the past four years, they have been stuck with a failed leader who has the inability to achieve results,” Melena said.

Still, if Republicans and Wolf come to a meeting of the minds on a fracking tax, are there other issues that provide similar common ground? That leads to the big challenge:


THERE ARE MORE THAN TWO PARTIES AT PLAY: Philadelphia’s recent experience getting approval to impose a cigarette tax is instructive here. For the longest time, the Republican-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate could not agree on a bill to get the job done. Even as Philly officials were sounding alarm bells, the Senate passed a bill. And the House went on vacation.

Some of the difference between House and Senate Republicans appears to be tactical; House members particularly wanted to extract more concessions in order to get the cigarette tax approved. But sometimes there’s a disagreement about the ends: The Senate, which has passed a medical marijuana bill, is seen as somewhat more moderate. The House is seen as more reflexively conservative.

“He’s going to face a polarized, ideologically divided and partisan legislature,” said Madonna, the Franklin and Marshall prof. “The Republicans aren’t even on the same page for many things.”

Which raises the question: If Republicans can’t agree with each other on an agenda, will they agree with Wolf, their common rival? Or will he be able to play them against each other to get stuff done?

Madonna, at least, believes the days of deal-making are over.

“In the good old days of Vince Fumo and John Perzel, there was more flexibility and pragmatism,” he said. “Tom Wolf, should he win, is going to face an enormously tough challenge.”

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.