Tom Wolf’s Crash Course in State Government

He seemed to be everything Pennsylvania voters wanted — a smart outsider whose only ambition was to make the state better. So why, nearly two years into his term as governor, has Tom Wolf accomplished so little?

Signs: Jeff Fusco; Wolf: James Robinson/ Press.

Signs: Jeff Fusco; Wolf: James Robinson/ Press.

In late July — on the day Donald Trump was nominated for president — Governor Tom Wolf drove from Harrisburg to a strip mall in Johnstown to talk about addiction.

Fighting addiction to prescription drugs and heroin has become one of Wolf’s signature issues, and his administration has designated 45 Centers of Excellence that will receive funding to attack the problem “holistically,” which is a word the governor uses often. In this case, it means giving help to addicts to overcome whatever is wrong with their lives, to solve the problems that led to abusing drugs in the first place. It’s a far-reaching plan.

At Alliance Medical Services, Wolf first chats with a group that surrounds him in a semicircle near the entrance — a county commissioner and addiction therapists and the local state senator and others. I join the circle.

When Wolf turns to me, the governor, tall and pale and bald, wearing outdated wire-rimmed glasses, nods and smiles (he’s been told I’m writing about him) and says, “Where are you from?”

“I live in Philly. In Mount Airy.”

But that’s not what he means — he means my background, my ancestors. “There are a lot of Hubers in York,” the governor tells me — Wolf lives just outside that city. He wants to know if I’m related to any of them. I tell him no, that my father’s parents emigrated from Zürich more than a hundred years ago.

“The Hubers in York might have come from Switzerland, too,” the governor suggests.

He smiles. He wants me to tell him more.

It’s a strange moment, in Johnstown. In the following weeks, I will share my experience with many people who know Wolf well, and they all have the same reaction: Yes, they say, laughing, that’s Tom exactly. You’ve nailed him. Every politician wants to engage, certainly, but I’ve never met one who seems so genuinely curious. Who, as eight or 10 others wait patiently to meet him, is eager to discover that my father had seven sisters and no brothers and so forth, as if he has made the trek from the capital to learn about exactly that.

Being a different sort of politician — an outsider who ran the family kitchen-cabinet-making business, with a doctorate from MIT in political science — is part of the Wolf story, of course, one that helped get him the governorship almost two years ago. Indeed, he seemed to be what voters hungered for — a Jeep-driving non-career politician (his only experience was two years as Ed Rendell’s revenue secretary) whose sole ambition appeared to be to do what was best for Pennsylvania.

It’s been a rocky two years. Wolf deemed his first budget so pristine and beautifully wrought that it shouldn’t be tampered with, and he seemed certain the General Assembly would see the light of his wisdom. Instead, there was an unprecedented nine-month budget standoff with the House and Senate, and many of Wolf’s transformative hopes — especially a huge increase in education spending — were dashed by the end of his first year. Twenty months into his administration, he has only a few small victories to show for all his bold ambition.

Perhaps none of that should be surprising in this strange political era. The Republican-dominated General Assembly in Harrisburg has an idea — one it isn’t shy about expressing — of what government should not be. Tom Wolf has a very different belief about what he was elected to do. The current infighting at the capital, however, doesn’t seem like political debate; it feels more like it’s part and parcel of the deepening divide in values that is separating so many of us from each other.

In Johnstown, after the governor’s addiction-center tour, I walk with him to his car, and he mentions his mentor in graduate school at MIT who killed himself, and how suicide was once stigmatized the way cholera was in the Middle Ages, as a “mark of God.” The governor’s point is that we’re on the cusp of understanding addiction in a new way, as a medical condition; that it’s really about brain wiring, and that in locking addicts up as criminals we’re spending seven times more than if we really tried to understand why they start abusing drugs. “We’re not just pushing it under the carpet,” Wolf says. “We’re talking about it. It’s a problem. People are dying!”

His passion is immediate. And his bearing makes things seem quite simple: A holistic approach to addiction has nothing to do with an ideological agenda, or politics. It’s the path we must go down because it makes so much sense.

Tom Wolf seems to be offering something larger than an agenda, something beyond Democrat vs. Republican. We can argue forever about whether his progressive initiatives make sense, whether government should really try to do all the things Wolf has proposed. But this much seems clear: He arrived in Harrisburg as an honest broker. He wanted to be governor in order to solve some of the state’s biggest problems.

There was a basic flaw in that plan, however: No matter how nice or smart or well-meaning Wolf might be, politics doesn’t change — except that it’s gotten even nastier in the hardball world of Harrisburg. This doesn’t feel like much of a news flash. But it certainly seemed to be a surprise to Tom Wolf.

Yet Wolf’s problem, almost two years into his tenure, hasn’t solely been caused by an aversion to making tough deals with our rough-and-tumble state legislature. In fact, what’s at stake is much more fundamental than that, and more threatening. For it isn’t just about Tom Wolf not being able to pass his agenda, but whether our government can function at all.

ONCE UPON A time — when Vince Fumo ruled Harrisburg and Tom Wolf was just a business owner in York — state government worked. Things got done. Before he was ruined by greed, Fumo, as a senator, had certain tools at his disposal, such as WAM — “walking-around money” he could dispense to fellow legislators for their pet projects, to influence their votes. What’s more, Fumo and other caucus leaders had significant say over the location and size of member offices, the size of staffs, even party campaign funds to a greater extent than is allowed now. Fumo didn’t always play nice; he exercised a rough form of maintaining order. But at least there was order.

During Ed Rendell’s time as governor, there remained an across-the-aisle dialogue with GOP members in the General Assembly. John Perzel, Chip Brightbill, Bob Jubelirer — they were Republicans with oomph who wanted to take something home to their districts, and Rendell could, despite budget problems of his own, cut deals with them. The business of government moved forward.

Things began to change, though, in Barack Obama’s first term. As the Tea Party bubbled up from the far right and politics were getting ever testier in Washington, Republicans came up with a national plan to increase their Congressional clout. Dubbed REDMAP, the idea was to target scores of 2010 state legislative elections ahead of the Congressional redistricting after every census; the contours of those new Congressional districts are voted on by state legislatures, and if they became GOP-controlled, maps could be redrawn to give Republican Congressional candidates a huge advantage.

In Pennsylvania, Operation REDMAP, which put bull’s-eyes on the backs of several Democratic legislators, proved spectacularly successful: Following the 2010 election, Pennsylvania’s House went from 104-99 in favor of Democrats to 112-91 in favor of Republicans, a phenomenal turnaround.

And it wasn’t just the Congressional districts that got reconfigured to benefit Republicans. State legislative districts were reshaped, too, with many Republican-controlled districts becoming both safer and much more conservative. The result has been not just a state House of Representatives with a Republican majority, but legislators who lean much harder right. And for a simple reason: In districts where Republican victory is certain, the real contest is the primary, meaning the only risk is an opponent who can trot out stronger conservative bona fides. Especially no new taxes.

Consequently, the days of Republicans working across the aisle — or working with a Democratic governor — are largely gone. Ed Rendell now makes the point directly about the Republican will in the General Assembly: “Current leaders want government to do nothing.”

There’s one more step in the recent evolution of Harrisburg’s march to dysfunction. Nationally, we’ve seen the rise of anti-establishment outsiders among elected officials — Ted Cruz was the star Washington bomb-thrower, though Bernie Sanders fills that role as well. As the Atlantic recently opined: “The political parties no longer have either intelligible boundaries or enforceable norms, and, as a result, renegade political behavior pays.”

In Pennsylvania, the role of renegade has been played by a first-term Republican senator named Scott Wagner. In March of 2014, just as Tom Wolf was about to win the Democratic primary for governor, Wagner, the wealthy owner of a trash-collecting company in York, won a special election for a seat in the state Senate.

Within six months of taking office, Wagner wrote an audacious letter calling for Dominic Pileggi to step down as Republican floor leader. Wagner says now that his problem with Pileggi was over procedures and policy; the real issue, Democrats believe, was that Pileggi was too moderate for Wagner’s taste, meaning too willing to work with them. Pileggi quickly lost his position, then resigned to run for judge in Delaware County.

Scott Wagner has been among those leading the charge against Wolf’s agenda. | Photograph by James Robinson/ Press

Scott Wagner has been among those leading the charge against Wolf’s agenda. | Photograph by James Robinson/ Press

Wagner wasn’t new to state politics — for some time he’d been swooping into districts in a helicopter to attend events and bestow money on worthy far-right candidates. The fear Wagner has engendered by targeting moderates in his own party has given him a surprising amount of clout in his first term.

Indeed, many view Scott Wagner as the most powerful senator in the state, which is an amazingly quick rise. He speaks to our time — his passion is money. Wagner believes Pennsylvania’s finances are a mess, and he isn’t ready to spend more, and certainly isn’t willing to raise taxes, until things get cleaned up, and probably not then, either. Wagner wants to become the next governor.

Welcome to Harrisburg, Tom Wolf.

THOUGH THEY’RE BOTH from York, Wagner and Wolf don’t know each other well, and Wagner pulls no punches once he gets talking about the governor.

“Wolf’s largest shortcoming is, he doesn’t have a relationship with people in the legislature,” Wagner, an unsmiling, doughy man of 61, tells me. “He’s Mr. PhD, an intellectual. I’m a guy with garbage trucks. We don’t relate. … He vetoed our budget that we sent him June 30th [of 2015] — basically, that was a declaration of war. He inflicted pain on everybody in Pennsylvania for a nine-month period. My way or the highway — that’s exactly what he said.”

I share those thoughts with Tom Wolf in his office at the Bellevue in Philadelphia a few days after I chat with Wagner, throwing in for good measure what Jake Corman, the majority leader of the Senate, told me: Wolf “didn’t respect the legislature. He thinks his budget is the right way, that everyone should agree.”

It’s harsh stuff, but Tom Wolf doesn’t take the bait.

“I think that’s conflating two things,” he says, as calm as he was in Johnstown talking about addiction. “I have the utmost respect for the legislature.” Wolf then points out that when he came into office, he organized get-to-know-you breakfasts with the General Assembly. “But I did come to Harrisburg because we couldn’t keep doing things the way we did them in the past” — and therein lies, as the governor sees it, what Wagner and Corman and other conservatives in the General Assembly are calling disrespect: that Wolf wanted a much more proactive government, one that would raise taxes and spend big money on education, especially. Upsetting their apple cart, Wolf says, “could have been insulting. It could have been taken the wrong way.”

Yet Wolf’s sins clearly run deeper than that. During his first term as president, Barack Obama sometimes got derided for seeming to think that being the smartest guy in the room should mean he’d win, that the brilliance of his ideas would get him what he wanted. Tom Wolf has an unhealthy dose of the same presumption.

Wolf is deeply educated, with that doctorate from MIT, and in discussing the nature of leadership, as he was before Scott Wagner became the topic of conversation, he’s in his sweet spot.

“We judge leaders by how they behave — you cannot separate private and public life,” he says. “Machiavelli said you have to appear to have good attributes. I think you have to have them.” With that, he references the biography he’s now reading of Mark Twain, and how George Washington was consistent and fair-minded, how Lincoln distilled the essence of thought so succinctly.

It’s a sad day if we don’t want our elected officials to be learned, yet Wolf’s erudition has made him blind to a crucial aspect of high-stakes politics. Mary Isenhour, who helped Wolf run his campaign and is now his chief of staff, remembers what really surprised Wolf about the conservative opposition when he was first elected: It wasn’t the fact of it, but the way in which the best ideas and arguments wouldn’t necessarily get the governor anywhere in Harrisburg.

“I think that was more surprising for him than [his staffers],” Isenhour says at a coffee shop a few blocks away from the Capitol. “It was new to him, and he’s of this mind-set, he truly believes you can make a better Pennsylvania if you do things right and correctly. I think he believes everybody thinks like that. Up on that Hill, not everybody believes that. He was a little surprised that they weren’t just saying, ‘That’s a really good idea, Governor, and you’re a really good guy, and I know you’re here for the right reasons, so we should do it that way.’”

It’s all well and good to attempt to bring a new day into the sausage-making business of state government, but a crucial aspect of politics will never change: You have to understand exactly what your opponent wants and find a way to give him a piece of it. Deal-making is at the heart of the game. But Tom Wolf simply didn’t seem to get that.

WOLF HAD SAID little about what he would do as governor, given that an early TV blitz, fueled by $10 million of his own money, vanquished the Democratic field early in the primary, so he could keep a low profile. After handily beating unpopular incumbent Tom Corbett, Wolf gave a speech at an event in New York — the Pennsylvania Society, which draws the state’s big-time political and business leaders to the Waldorf for three days of schmoozing. But his speech was impenetrable — “a 20-minute lecture on microeconomics,” Philly politico Sam Katz remembers. “The speech said, ‘I live in another world. I’m going to see the world the way I see it. And since I have a mandate, you will see the world as I do.’” Wolf bombed.

“Guilty!” Wolf says now, smiling, when I suggest the speech was too wonky. “I can’t be giving a graduate lecture — I need to have a better handle on how to get my thoughts across. It gets back to Lincoln. Or Jesus. They told stories.”

At any rate, the answer to what he would really try to do as governor came soon enough, when Wolf presented his first budget. He proclaimed it holistic, and before negotiations with Republicans heated up on the particulars, the governor deemed its initiatives so well-crafted and interrelated that it shouldn’t be tampered with.

John Hanger, Wolf’s policy expert that first year, describes the budget this way: “It would have transformed Pennsylvania through tax reform and education investment — the tax reform was essentially designed to make sure Pennsylvania had competitive tax rates [compared to other states] across the board. Corporate net income tax would have been cut — it was the second highest in the country, and we would have made it the fourth lowest. We proposed cutting property taxes where they were highest. We’d pay for education investments with manageable increases in income tax, from 3.1 to 3.7 percent. We proposed a broadening of the sales tax. Many items not taxed would be brought in.”

This dizzying array of tax proposals makes Wolf’s point — that messing with any of it would be like pulling a string that collapses the tent. Also, what would be transformed along with all those taxes was education — a $400 million increase in K-12 financing from the state.

It may have been a wonderfully progressive budget; certainly, it never had any chance of passing.

“I always realized that I would get what I wanted to get incrementally,” Wolf claims now. “My two budget addresses were pie-in-the-sky, not incremental — that’s what budget addresses are. Then you negotiate.”

But neither Wolf nor his team presented his budget that way, and his two top aides — Katie McGinty and Hanger — were so dug-in and self-righteous and unbendable in negotiations with legislative staffers that the budget process was doomed from the start.

Hanger, in particular, who left the administration early this year to spend more time with his family (“and in his case,” says Wolf, acknowledging how unbelievable the reason for Hanger’s leaving sounds, “it’s true”), was viewed as responsible for the firing of many Corbett administrative appointees early on, a role that Scott Wagner eagerly weighs in on: “John Hanger was Tom Wolf’s henchman. Tom Wolf’s hit man. The cleanup man. Put plastic down in a room — the cleanup guy.”

Which didn’t get Hanger — or Wolf — off to a friendly start with Republicans, no matter how much Wolf made a point to visit General Assembly offices to work his affable we-all-want-the-same-thing mantra. In fact, Hanger and McGinty didn’t play nice at all.

McGinty intended to be nice. She went to Wagner to remind him that they’d served on the board of a Lancaster company together, as if that connection was supposed to make Wolf’s budget more appealing, which Wagner found absurd. Moreover, McGinty came across as a loose cannon with her own agenda, as if she wasn’t really working for the governor but was plotting her next move — a suspicion borne out by her decision last year to quit the Wolf administration for a U.S. Senate run.

It got so bad that after she publicly claimed a Senate pension-reform plan offered “lavish payouts to legislators” and would invest public funds in countries that support terrorism, Senate Republicans refused to meet with her at all. Wolf had to intervene.

John Hanger played rough, too. “The mentality of Hanger,” says Drew Crompton, the chief of staff for Senator Joe Scarnati, “was that we will do something for those bastards” — meaning, of course, Republicans — “when they do something for us. They shut off every valve of funding they could find” for ongoing Republican projects. Which Crompton thinks is a very strange way of gathering support for a budget.

Wolf has been roundly criticized for making Hanger and McGinty his top advisers. “I wanted strong characters who were passionate,” Wolf explains now. “Who knew what they wanted and weren’t afraid to tell me if they wanted those things.”

Which, in fact, smacks of the problem: Hanger and McGinty were virtually the only voices working the General Assembly. It was as though Wolf was so sure of the power of the message that he lost sight of — or never understood — how pounding Republicans with one view ultimately pushed many of them to dig in harder against him.

Not that Republican budget-cutters were in any mood to play nice, either.

“Their basic problem,” John Hanger says, “was that in both the House and the Senate, there was a group — and not a small group — opposed to any new funding and new taxes. Those cohorts were enough to threaten leadership — it goes back to what happened to Dominic Pileggi.” With Scott Wagner front and center. “It was not an idle threat.”

As endless rounds of budget meetings yielded little, Governor Wolf started to make compromises — on pensions, state-store reform, the tax package — trying to negotiate half a loaf from where he started. Toward the end of last year, pressure was building. School districts, including Philadelphia’s, were borrowing to make payroll and keep schools open. Nonprofit groups axed staff; social services cut back.

Finally, in late fall 2015, the Senate passed the expenditure side of the governor’s budget. A deal was on the cusp. But something strange happened. The House adjourned for the year without even voting on the bill.

That budget — the half a loaf Wolf had negotiated, with new revenues and new education spending, which was more honestly balanced — was gone. Politics had stopped the vote, and now politics intruded in the new year: Primaries were coming up in the spring. Wolf’s budget couldn’t be recovered.

The governor had to start all over.

I TAKE A last ride down the Turnpike to get a feel for how the other side thinks — to spend a couple of hours with Scott Wagner, in other words. The Peck’s bad boy of the state Senate, the one trying to blow up everything Tom Wolf wants to do, is really harder to understand than Wolf. And he might be more important, when you consider this political season.

Heading west out of Philadelphia quickly yields another sort of state — the open land and small towns that appear to belong to another time and place. “On one side, you have Pittsburgh. On the other side, Philadelphia. In the middle, you have Alabama,” pundit James Carville once infamously declared of Pennsylvania. The problem with that, says Drew Crompton, isn’t the divide so much as the foolish assumptions many Philadelphians make: “They think Bradford County people would live in the southeast if they got their wish. Bradford County would gladly chop off their right arm not to live in Bucks or Montgomery. You don’t understand that many parts of PA see the world differently.” That tunneled worldview goes for Wolf, too, Crompton says, even if he’s from York. Because the prep-school-and-MIT-educated governor really doesn’t understand who the legislators in the conservative camp are charged to represent.

It seems an odd hole in the governor’s understanding — after all, Tom Wolf and Scott Wagner grew up near each other. I ask Frances Wolf, Tom’s wife, a soft-spoken painter, what Wagner’s harshness toward her husband has been like for her. She was surprised by it, she says; one of their daughters had taken horseback-riding lessons from Wagner’s mother and had worked on their farm. Though maybe, she suggests, Wagner feels he has to say those things because he’s competing for Tom’s job. “But Scott Wagner’s way,” Frances Wolf says, “is not our way.”

I wonder: What does Scott Wagner really want?

He wants to know where the money is. Every last dollar. There is money galore, hidden by every state agency, including the governor’s office — he’s sure of this. And there’s waste, gargantuan waste. He thinks we should stop passing legislation for two years and look at how every agency is run. “In my world,” Wagner says in the conference room of his garbage-company offices, “the numbers tell the story.”

And not knowing the numbers makes Scott Wagner angry.

He grew up a farm boy. His father could afford only second-hand equipment. It broke down a lot. So Wagner learned, early, how to fix it. How to rely on himself, and to waste nothing.

Wagner started his own trash business at 29, going out in the morning to pick up dumpsters, then spending the afternoon drumming up more work. The business grew; soon he had 165 trucks. A few years later, he sold it. Wagner assumed bigger was better, that the company that bought him out knew what it was doing. He took stock, and they gave him a position. But they never asked his advice. The stock plummeted. That cost him $15 million. After three years — when his non-compete clause was up — Wagner was back in the trash business, taking business away from the big boys who had bought him out. Now he has 400 employees. And two other companies.

Politics and helping other candidates take up 75 percent of his time now. Wagner is currently involved in four state Senate races. “I probably have about 20 House members that I’ve given money to,” he says. It came to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last two-year cycle.

“I didn’t serve in the military,” Wagner continues. “I graduated high school, did one year of tech school, and had an opportunity to start a business. That was when entrepreneurs were alive and well. It’s getting tougher and tougher. This is my tour of duty” — serving in government — “and we can do a lot better.” He is determined to get rid of regulations that are choking business, for one. And to follow the money. As senator, he says, “I don’t know where every dollar is going, and that’s a problem.”

If he becomes governor, could he find out?

“I don’t know,” Wagner says. But he makes it clear that he would certainly like to try.

WAGNER’S FUNDAMENTAL aggression is startling, especially considered against Tom Wolf’s much more measured approach. Wagner’s method mirrors the rise of hyper-conservatives nationally, through redistricting, the antics of the Tea Party, and other attacks on the system from within. Yet even outlier-in-chief Donald Trump has flourished for a fundamental reason — he’s touched a nerve of a deeply frustrated populace. That’s the strength of Scott Wagner, coming in and jettisoning his own party’s Senate floor leader, creating fear in support of candidates more in line with him. Wagner’s after power, yes, but he can accrue it and maintain it and run for governor on it only if enough people — those who live in the towns and countryside I drove through to see him — are on board with what he’s saying. It’s the bottom line.

For Tom Wolf to ride in to the governorship of Pennsylvania touting a mandate of change while ignoring the strength of the other side, to simply present his deep-thinking approach as if it would carry the day — for an awfully smart guy, that was flat-out dumb.

So now Wolf, who started bold, is playing the drip-drip-drip game of trying to get whatever he can for his state.

Which doesn’t seem to bother him at all. “People thought maybe I should be frustrated, but I have thoroughly enjoyed this job,” he insists.

You weren’t frustrated during the budget impasse?

“Okay. Then.” Wolf smiles and explains that he had sleepless nights before he ran for governor when he had to dive back in to save his family business after selling his share of it, but he sleeps just fine running the state. “I got into this not because I wanted to be governor. I didn’t want to be on my deathbed and say I should have tried it. Politics is important. I studied it, and it was wrong for someone like me to stand by and have someone else do it.”

Besides, he notes, despite all the budget trouble, in the past two years he’s gotten significant increases in education spending.

Though not anywhere near the transformative level he originally wanted. I pose a question for Ed Rendell in an email: Did Governor Wolf go into office expecting too much?

The ex-governor writes back: Tom Wolf is a wonderful man who wanted to do terrific things for PA. He did not anticipate the rigid, conservative philosophy he would be faced with.

I think Rendell is saying that Scott Wagner is making Tom Wolf impossible. But there’s always a next question. Which is: What is Tom Wolf going to do about that?

Published as “The Education of Tom Wolf” in the October 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.